Groping The Map: Pauper’s Drop, Part 1.

“And now you come swanning into my neighbourhood looking for me? Wrong turn, tin daddy.”

Pauper's Drop 01
The Fishbowl Diner is the iconic heart of The Drop.

This first instalment of Groping The Map will be presented in multiple parts, running over the  next several weeks:

  1. Introduction.
  2. Annotated Walkthrough, 1: Diner and Downtown.
  3. Annotated Walkthrough, 2: Market.
  4. Annotated Walkthrough, 3: Sinclair Deluxe.
  5. Combat in The Drop: Encounter Design.
  6. Life Below The Tracks: Aesthetics and Environmental Design.
  7. Conclusion and References.

Introduction:

As Subject Delta you enter Pauper’s Drop a monster, by the time you leave your actions have either confirmed or confounded that expectation. As a player you enter the fourth level of BioShock 2 with a vague sense of what this game is about and leave having experienced your first taste of the themes and subtext at work in the bowels of Rapture. Along the way you gain a greater understanding of how this game differs from the original BioShock.

Thematically Pauper’s Drop is a monument to the human spirit, it is rife with signs of the struggle of it’s populace to retain dignity and humanity in the face of poverty, oppression and mutation. It’s unsurprising that the character the player is there to find is called Grace Holloway. The concept of grace under adversity sums up the attitude of the denizens of what is, possibly with warped affection, referred to as The Drop.

Pauper's Drop 8
The destination is always clear in BioShock 2, even if the route there is not always the expected one.

Pauper’s Drop is not an intended stop on your journey to Fontaine Futuristics, however the visit itself serves to provide a greater context for your actions and begins to flesh out the events that led to the creation of your unique bond with Eleanor Lamb. You have already been introduced to her ‘biological’ mother and in subsequent levels will meet two of the men who could be considered her father. For now you must face the woman to whom Eleanor was a beloved daughter. A foster mother who failed in her role as guardian and mentor and who sees your destruction as her atonement; an act that may finally allow her to assuage her own guilt.

Mechanically Pauper’s Drop could be consider the first ‘full’ level of BioShock 2. By the time you reach here, you will have been introduced to nearly all the core mechanics and can be guaranteed to have access to the three primary plasmids: Electro Bolt, Incinerate and Telekenisis. In terms of weaponry you will have found the Drill, Rivet Gun, and Machine Gun (Along with the Hack Tool) and will be provided with a Shotgun in the early stages of the level.

This is the last level in which the player’s starting tool-set can be guaranteed and as such the majority of the encounters within this level have been designed to make good use of these tools. The early areas of the The Drop are focused on mid-range combat to allow the player to make use of the Rivet Gun and Machine Gun, along with a variety of clutter that can be wielded with Telekenisis. Later having finally gained access to the Sinclair Deluxe the environment changes to become more focused on close quarters combat encouraging the use of the recently acquired Shotgun and highlighting it’s potency at point blank range.

Structurally there is a gradual increase in complexity as more areas become accessible. What at first appears to be a fairly standard hub and spoke layout opens up upon entering the Clinic to include a network of back rooms, rooftops and connecting walkways. A similar expansion can be seen inside the Sinclair Deluxe where a location that feels instantly familiar, and recalls other locations in Rapture, becomes an interconnected maze of abandoned rooms, crumbling internal walls and collapsed ceilings.

There are a number of repeated layout tropes used throughout Pauper’s Drop, some of which can also be seen in the subsequent level Siren Alley. A similarity which might be due to the original layout of these spaces that had both areas existing inside a single level. The most common connecting feature of these two levels is the use of vertical space. The third dimension is put to good use to  grant access to otherwise blocked locations, or to provide a height advantage during combat.

Aesthetically there is a distinct ‘Film Noir’ vibe to The Drop, diners, jazz clubs and private detectives, this is the seedy underbelly of Rapture and everything from the makeshift nature of the environments to the vaulting utilitarian architecture reinforces that. Bathed in sea green it feels like the entire ocean above is weighting down on The Drop, the only elements of humanity picked out with sharp contrast by neon reds, and fiery oranges.

Pauper’s Drop is something new for Rapture, it is the home of the dispossessed and the discarded, the unwashed and the unwanted. There have always been cracks in the glittering facade of Rapture but nowhere have they been more apparent that below the lines of the Atlantic Express.

Groping The Map: Introduction.

Next week witnesses the beginning of a new phase for this site. Starting Monday evening (GMT) Groping The Map is a series of in depth examinations of a single level. Each new instalment will see me take a detailed look at a game level from the past several years that has been personally memorable or influential. For each level I will look at structure, encounter placement, aesthetics, layout and related design issues. Accompanying screenshots will be used to highlight particularly notable aspects of the design. The individuals posts that make up a single Groping The Map instalment will be longer that is traditional for this site, however I will strive to make each one worth reading.

The time needed to produce a single instalment is variable but significant, and so I cannot commit to a fixed schedule, however I will endeavour to provide at least one instalment approximately every six to eight weeks. Traditional posts will continue, time permitting, in the intervals between instalments. I am open to suggests for levels for subsequent instalments of Groping The Map, as the current list is specifically focused on those levels that resonate with me personally, therefore it is biased towards a particular style of game. Once I have worked through these first few instalments I will begin to move beyond the first person shooter genre for my analysis. I’m also soliciting suggestions for a better name for the series.

UPDATE: Future plans for Groping The Map are detailed here.

I have now complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, feel free to share:

Narrative through level design variation.

In the interests of pacing it’s not uncommon for action games, and first person shooters in particular, to vary the style of gameplay over the course of the game as a whole, and over the course of individual levels. This variation of gameplay style leads to a variation in the aesthetic experience of play, and because of which it can be used as a narrative tool.

While playing Resistance: Fall of Man, I found I was able to break each level down into a combination of seven distinct styles of gameplay. With one notable exception all of these different gameplay styles used the same control scheme. In order to provide this degree of variety without changes to the core mechanics, changes were made to the layout of the levels, the placement of enemies and other objects (Nouns), and the range of tools (Verbs) available to the player. This form of level design is common throughout action games.

The seven distinct gameplay styles in Resistance, should be  familiar to anybody who’s played an action game in the last decade:

  • [A] Combat in a corridor or along another form of restricted path.
  • [B] Combat in an open area.
  • [C] Boss Battles.
  • [D] Mini-Boss Battles.
  • [E] Navigation past mines, and other traps.
  • [F] Combat against Turrets or other fixed emplacements.
  • [G] Vehicle Combat. (The sole exception where a new control scheme is used).

While each level in Resistanceis united by an overriding narrative goal and aesthetic (Visual, aural) theme, the gameplay is made up of a combination of these seven different gameplay styles. It’s possible to examine each level and break it down into a string of characters describing the gameplay, for example BEFAB, or ABDAG.

Each of these gameplay styles changes the experience of play, eliciting a different psychological reaction from the player. Therefore it’s possible to ascribe certain emotional responses to each gameplay style. Often in areas that are focused on gameplay style B (Combat in open areas) the player is provided with support from allied non-player characters, the aesthetic experience is one of cooperation and teamwork. Areas that are focused on gameplay style E (Navigation past mines, and other traps) keep the player alone and lead to slow and careful progress, the aesthetic experience being one of tension and deliberate action.

A level built from the structure BE evokes an aesthetic experience of teamwork followed by tension and isolation, an implied narrative of having to “go it alone”. This is a different emotional reaction to a level structured as EB, which contains an implied narrative escaping isolation and “pushing through to your teammates”. In the former case the narrative arc of the level moves from a position of  camaraderie and power to one of tension and isolation, a downward arc. In the latter the arc is reversed and the player ends the level with a with a sensation of power and comfort that they did not possess at the start, an upward arc.

In this way it’s possible for a level designer to indirectly influence the emotional experience of a player, altering  their personal narrative, through changes in the gameplay style of a level.

Exploring the Territory.

Games are about the exploration of space, both in the physical sense of exploring a virtual environment, and the abstract sense of exploring the possibility space provided by the game; the mechanics available and the dynamics that develop from them.

In both cases there are two distinct types of explorable territory: functional and logical. The first type are locations that provide some form of functionality and this is the more common type of territory, in fact without any functional territory there would be no game. The second type of territory is found less frequently, and in some games doesn’t exist at all, these are locations that don’t provide a specific function but that exists simply because of logical or contextual consistency; such space should exist so it does.

Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is made up almost exclusively of functional territory. No matter where you go there is always something happening, some purpose to the location, a function to perform. You are funneled through functional territory with little scope for exploration beyond a limited number of rooms outside the critical path.

Thief: The Dark Project 01
“I once caught a Burrick this small!”

Thief: The Dark Project on the other hand is a title made up of large areas of logical territory. There are some locations that must be visited to complete the objectives required for each level, but these are the minority. Levels in The Dark Project are build to represent real – or at least plausible locations – they are castles with kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms. Some of these locations may contain loot to steal or non-player characters to interact with but few of which are critical to completing the game. Certain locations may even be entirely devoid of anything beyond the physical world geometry itself.

Logical territory in the physical game world is there to encourage exploration, it does not serve a purpose in terms of completing the game but can be used to provide narrative context. Consider the many mise-en-scène moments in BioShock they generally don’t occur in areas you are required to visit, but in areas off the beaten track, areas whose existence nevertheless makes sense in the context of the world.

Functional and logical locations also exists in the abstract, in the territory that defines the possibility space of a game. Function territory in this sense are the mechanics that are required to actually play the game on a basic level. Logical territory is those mechanics that serve as support to the core systems; they exist for verisimilitude, or player self expression, or they are derived from logical interactions of functional mechanics; they are not vital to the completion of the game.

Quake III Arena is a game whose mechanics are full of functional territory. Movement controls are limited to those that have a direct impact on the game and each weapon has only one function. The exception to this being the ability to rocket or grenade jump (using the concussive force from an explosion to increase your natural jumping height). This is a logical mechanic, not in the sense that it actually makes any rational sense in terms of actual explosions, but in that it is a mechanic developed from the logical dynamic relationships of “rockets cause explosions”, and “explosions impart movement forces upon player characters”.

Again, The Dark Project is an example of a game that makes heavy use of logical territory in its possibility space. The mechanics of movement, and basic interaction with objects in the world all exist in the functional territory of the game. Without such basic skills it would be impossible to progress. Beyond this functional territory there are a range of possibilities that exist because they make sense in terms of the world fiction (the bow and the various elemental arrows) or because they are based off logical interactions between other mechanics in the world (water arrows used to clean blood stains off the floor). Exploration of this logical territory is not required for progression but doing so provides a variety of options that can be used to supplement the central mechanics.

The extent to which games make use of logical territory is an indication of the extent to which the games allow for explorative play. Play that exists not because it fulfills a purpose, rather because it is a logical extension of the existing mechanics.

Each game has a different distribution of functional and logical territory, sometimes this distribution can change over time. Locations that initially only existed to serve the narrative can later take on specific purposes in the game. This can be seen in Far Cry 2 where the numerous towns and buildings throughout the world can switch between logical and functional territory depending on the current mission. A fortified settlement can be a momentary distraction one moment and a vital mission location the next.

A focus on functional territory, in both the physical and abstract sense, leads to experiences that are often described as ‘linear’; there is little room for exploration. What these games do offer is a much more focused experience. When each location, each mechanic, is included for a clear reason that territory can be tuned to provide the desired emotional and psychological response; the intense action of Modern Warfare or the skill focused purity of Quake III Arena.

A focus on logical territory leads to ‘free-form’, experimental, experiences where there is a greater scope for exploration and player expression. The more logical territory that exists the more redundancy is present, and thus the more likely two different players are to have a different exploratory experience. The downside is that such games can’t reliably provide the form of emotional of psychological impact that experiences based on more prescribed functional territory can. The very fact players can ‘take them or leave them’ means designers have little control of the exact circumstances by which you encounter and explore logical territory.

Functional territory defines the landmarks on the explorable terrain, while logical territory is everything in between. Without the former there would be no game, without the latter what game there is would lack variety and context.

Tension.

Aristotle understood the power of suspense, of tension. The unknown is vital for both good drama and good games. Without some degree of uncertainty regarding events there is little tension, little drama. Though often the overall outcome is not where this uncertainty lies. In a single-player games we know that if we keep playing for long enough we will succeed; in drama either the protagonist is successful (Comedy) or not (Tragedy). The tension is in how these events come to pass. It comes from the unknown, the anticipated, tension is not about the the “what is” it is about the “what might be”.

In film everything exists within the confines of the frame, it is “truth 24 frames per second”. This is at once both liberating and restrictive. Extraneous information can be edited out, but vital information can also be obscured. Tension is inherent in this ability to reveal and obscure vital information over time, this fine line between freedom and restriction.

If film is a sequence of images over time, then games are a sequence of spaces over time. The boundaries of games are not defined by the viewpoint of the camera so much as by the physical or logical boundaries of the space in which all action occurs.

When it comes to evoking drama and tension in both a narrative and ludic sense, the ability to not reveal everything at once is vital. When we are able to achieve that we gain the support of the most impressive of human faculties, imagination. It fills in the blanks, the events beyond the frames of the film, or the world beyond and between the defined game spaces.

Nowhere is this application of tension more important than the humble doorway. A close door is pregnant with possibilities. Beyond may be something beneficial or something harmful, something disturbing or something wondrous. We can imagine what is beyond but we never know until we actually pass through the doorway. Standing there we feel a sense of anticipation. The space beyond the door is unknown, and therefore liable to provoke fear. However soon that space will be known all we have to do is cross the threshold. There is a battle waging within us between fear and excitement. There is tension.

At the heart of tension there is this dichotomy between fear and excitement. We naturally fear the unknown, but the potential of conquering that unknown, of gaining new knowledge and new experiences is exciting.

The levels, the physical environments, of a game are a manifestation of interactivity. We take an action and elicit a response within that environment, even if it is as simple as taking a step forward. Faced with a closed doorway that ability to interact with the world in a direct manner is of profound importance. With one simple action we can dispel the unknown and conquer our fear.

Closed doorways provided tension because they often require that you open them in order to proceed. There is no choice, if you do no open the doorway you cannot proceed. So is choice in opposition to tension?

Consider an open space, a hub like layout. Open spaces provoke apprehension as they provide choices. The greater the number of possible directions we can take the more we fear choosing a specific one, we may miss something. Our ability to make choices is exciting, reinforces our agency and thus our understanding of what is possible within the world. It is also frightening as it forces a decision upon us, it is rife with the potential to make the “wrong” selection, either in terms of missing some narrative element or of choosing a sub-optimal strategy.

Good level design requires an understanding of the balance between the known and the unknown, the actual and the possible. An ability to provide the player with just enough information to be both excited and fearful; to know what do do if not always how; to promote tension and uncertainty. The levels of a game are where the core gameplay occurs, where player choices take form, where player intent becomes character action. Good play, like good drama, requires uncertainty, tension. Good level design is as much about the space the player does not inhabit as the space they do. Tension exists in these void spaces, these undefined areas.