Territorial Control.

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.

5 thoughts on “Territorial Control.

  1. On a more shallow note, Metroidvanias classify territory as explored/unexplored, being the main goal of the game to explore every single part of the map (apart from beating the final boss that is). Thinking about these games in such a way, it’s no wonder they rely so much in abilities that grant the player access to new areas.

  2. Looking at locations in this sense and how it can be manipulated seems to be quite useful in working out what the game is trying to get a player to do. The perpetual Hostility of any Left 4 Dead location is one example of how the game encourages progress and forward movement rather than making the area Safe, they need to make the immediate environment safe enough to move through. Any kind of game which has respawning enemies always seems to encourage continual movement over exploration but as Bioshock illustrates having lower respawn rates can open up options.

  3. One of the things I did when I played Bioshock was to go through and do everything possible within a level. I would eliminate all the enemies, hack everything hackable, take all the items, open all the doors, disable all the traps, etc.. This gave me a real feeling of *ownership* of the level; I truly felt as though I was making it MY territory.

  4. @Diego: It’s interesting to note how the “rewards” in Metroidvania titles, for defeating bosses and other encounters, are tools for further exploration. The concept of territory as explored verses unexplored is something else I’m interested in looking at, going to have to play some more Metroid Prime I feel.

    @Gerard: Respawning was something I did considered touching upon, the way games handles returning through previous Safe areas says a lot. In Halo is rare to return through the same location without it being reset to Hostile, essentially forcing the player to perform the same actions over again. Where as in Thief it’s common to be required to escape after a theft and any changes you have made to the breakdown of Safe and Hostile space in the level remains.

    @John: Some areas of BioShock encourage that more than others. I found that in Fort Frolic in particular it was very difficult to obtain “ownership” over the space; the respawning seemed to occur at a much faster rate than in other locations.

    Oh and it would appear the requirement to Log In, makes it next to impossible to comment on your blog, John

  5. @Gerard While Left 4 Dead never has completely Safe areas* there are degrees of safety, and that’s important for the emotional pacing of the game. In most sequences before triggering a horde event, it is possible to eliminate all of the immediate threats before passing to the next location. An early example is the first location with a turret gun during No Mercy. There are only a handful of entrances to this area, and there is even a more secure room within the larger location that includes health supplies. While special infected can still spawn, they’re not a big threat on their own. As soon as the characters begin the door-opening sequence, though, infected pour in from a number of locations, and a relatively Safe territory becomes Hostile almost immediately. L4D excels at pacing these moments throughout levels and campaigns, giving the players mid-level opportunities to catch their collective breath before pushing them forward.

    One of the reasons I love L4D2 so much is because the designers considered this structure and designed against it. I’ll never forget something that happened during one of my first L4D2 games. We arrived at a small room with ammo, better weapons, and health, with only two entrances: the door we had just walked through and an opening to a small ledge. There were no infected behind us and we had shut the door so we began to resupply. A Spitter ran up to the door and filled the room with goo, nearly killing all of us. The security of the restricted environment quickly became a deathtrap. I learned that I could never let my guard down, and the tension in L4D2 is more omnipresent in the first, yet my emotional engagement is even more dynamic due to its ever-changing threat level.

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