Having previously examined the possibly meanings that can be drawn from logical exploration, in the form of resource cycles in BioShock and Beyond Good & Evil, I’ve decided to take a step back and look more closely at the concept of exploration in a territorial sense. What meaning can this form of exploration impart? I have already looked at one way in which games define territory, this second method should serve as a complement, not a replacement to that. The original breakdown of territory into Logical and Functional is one that is defined statically, spaces that are Logical rarely change to Functional and vice verse. This time I’m interested in how the nature of territory changes dynamically.
To that end I’ve chosen to look at two games which handle the concept of territory in different but, I believe, equally meaningful ways.
The makeup of the physical territory in Halo: Combat Evolved (And other games in the series) is essentially binary. For a given location, the player is either not in combat or in combat, the space they inhabit is either Safe or Hostile. Within this Hostile space it’s possible to further subdivide the space into locations in which the player is under fire and those in which they are in cover. In the former space the immediate priorities are those of direct combat and with tactics and planning taking a backseat. In the latter space the player’s shields (Or stamina in the case of Halo 3: ODST) are able to recharge and the immediate priorities switch to tactics and planning. When all enemies in a location area have been neutralised the entire location switches from Hostile to Safe.
The overall aim of any location is to convert all Hostile locations into Safe ones. The tools provided to the player, are all geared toward the accomplishment of this goal. Weapons allow the player to directly engage enemies and neutralise them; items and vehicles serve as second order modifiers and power-ups, providing either additional weaponry or modifying the nature of the current Hostile space to improve the ability of the player to convert that location from Hostile to Safe; shields that create temporary cover locations or cloaking devices allow Safe movement through otherwise Hostile territory.
Every tool available to the player is one that is used to either directly or indirectly change the state of the space form Hostile to Safe. The underlying meaning of Halo seems to be that of safety through superior firepower.
The second game I want to look at is, unsurprisingly for me, Thief: The Dark Project. On the surface the makeup of territory in Thief also comes down to Safe and Hostile space, however one of the major differences between Thief and Halo is that the definition of safety in Thief is far more granular. Instead of a strictly binary divide between Safe and Hostile locations there exists a scale of safety in Thief. At one end of which are locations which are unlit, with soft surfaces for floors, and empty of non-player characters. Such locations are the Safest a Thief level gets. At the other end of the scale are locations which are well-lit, have hard floors, and are patrolled by non-player characters, these are the truly Hostile locations in Thief.
Any location within a Thief level can be placed somewhere on this scale, with most locations falling between the mid-point and the upper limit of Hostility. Few locations in Thief are Safe, at least to begin with.
Any area that is well-lit is one that is Hostile to the player, it might not contain any non-player characters at the moment but that can easily change. One of the most important tools for the player are water arrows which can be used to douse torches, extinguishing light sources and significantly altering that location’s relative safety. Intelligent use of water arrows can very quickly change a Hostile location into a Safe one.
However despite the variety of tools available to mitigate the Hostility of the current location, it’s difficult to make any areas completely Safe and impossible to make the entire level Safe. The majority of every Thief level is composed of Hostile territory. Regardless of how much time and effort the player may put into changing the exact breakdown of Hostile and Safe locations within the level there will always remain some Hostile locations; the player cannot ever be entire Safe within any location.
Playing Thief the underlying meaning becomes apparent: you are a rogue element within an overwhelmingly Hostile location and no matter how hard you try you can never hope to be entirely Safe. You do not belong.
Any such analysis of Thief: The Dark Project and it’s sequels comes up against a problem, which is that much like Halo spaces are mechanically only Hostile to the player when some non-player character is present to provide a direct threat. It is possible for a Thief player to incapacitate or otherwise neutralise every non-player character in the level, thus greatly affecting the Hostility of the level. What is important then is not the actual Hostility of a level but its percieved Hostility. Finally spend some time inside Thief: Deadly Shadow’s Shalebridge Cradle and you’ll understand exactly how Hostile a location can be even when apparently devoid of non-player characters.