A measure of morality.

Apparently I’m a nice guy. At least that’s what my trusty Pip-Boy 3000 (Model A) tells me. I’m glad it does this because I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise, what with people commenting on how nice a person I am or how much of a “goody two shoes” I’ve been. Fallout 3 is giving me a curious sense of déjà vu, I’ve had this experience before.

I was a bit more of an asshole in Mass Effect, but really the galaxy wasn’t going to save itself and the council seemed content to sit around all day talking and never take any action. I think a degree of bluntness was warranted. I was a Renegade, the game reliably informed me of that regardless of my own opinions on my actions. The game was making a judgement call on the kind of person it thought I was.

Dozens of titles have featured similar metrics for portraying good or evil, usually based on a Judeo-Christian view of morality. I appreciate the desire to allow for a range of player behaviours, and using the cultural mores of the western world makes a degree of sense given the perceived audience for such games. I become concerned when the game feels a need to tell me explicitly how good or evil it believes I have been; the issues I have with such systems are two fold.

My first problem is that the interface of the game is usually designed to represent my own knowledge of myself and my status. It describes my mental and physical state, the items I am carrying and any information I have gleamed during the course of the game. In that case shouldn’t the interface be as impartial as possible? In my life I have done things that others have not been happy with. I’ve often been caused to questioned my actions but ultimately the only guide for my morality are the reactions of others and my own conscience . I don’t have an internal meter telling me I’ve shifted 2 points towards the good side of the morality spectrum.

In their own mind I suspect most people consider themselves to be fairly decent, flawed yes, but neither paragons of virtue nor amoral villains. Even people who society as a whole would consider “evil” are likely to have their own motivations for their actions and not consider themselves in the same way others do. Everybody is the hero of their own story, we take the actions we do based on our own sense of morality influenced by our culture, upbringing and belief system.

For a game to offer choices of varying morality and then judge those choices seems counter productive. The relative morality of our choices is ultimately judged by the reactions of society, of the world around us and the people we meet; it is rarely known immediately and exactly.

My second issue is that by making player morality or karma, an interface element encourages an attitude of “playing the gauges” whereby players will make their decisions based not on a sense of role playing or what they view as right or wrong in a given situation but on which option will push them one way or the other on the great morality meter.

Games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect already do a good job presenting a world and a cast of characters who react to your actions based on their own individual personalities do we really need dedicated interface elements telling us how the game itself (and by abstraction the developer) views our actions?

Games are about exploration and what is more powerful than exploring our own personality? This can’t be done on anything more than a surface level if the interface of the game itself is constantly making judgements about what kind of person it thinks we are.

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.

It all went horribly wrong…

Having just completed a mission for Nasreen I was heading to a distant safe house when my dune buggy was rammed. Jumping out I threw a Molotov at the pursuing vehicle. The Molotov hit the driver setting him on fire and killing him almost instantly. Ducking behind my dune buggy I drew my silenced MP-5 and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby trees I was able to to finish off the second mercenary with a burst to the chest. While I’d been otherwise occupied the fire from my Molotov had ignited their vehicle and as I watched it started to spread toward mine. I sprinted back in an attempt to reach it and drive away before it too could catch fire. I was forced to turn away at the last moment as, already damaged from the initial crash, it exploded, taking a significant portion of my health with it and leaving me standing in the middle of nowhere.

Automatically my finger reached out towards the F9 key, time for a Quickload…

Wait that’s not what happened…

… I pulled out my map, orientated myself with the nearest safe house and started walking. Everything that happened over the next ten minutes, a checkpoint skirmish, a run in with a Zebra, and locating one of The Jackal’s tapes, occurred because I’d managed to blow up my own buggy.

Grand Theft Africa..?

In one sense I’d failed, and in a myriad other games I would simply have reloaded and tried again. In other games there often develops a compulsion to do things ‘correctly’. A need to isolate the optimum route through an encounter so as to maximise efficiency and minimize use of resources: ammunition, medical kits, time. Though I’ve fallen prey to that mentality myself I do wonder why it’s so easy to fall into that mind set. A byproduct of the arcade era when failure meant death and the inevitable need to feed the cabinet more loose change?

Thinking back over games I’ve enjoyed I’ve found the strongest memories are not of moments where my carefully laid plans succeeded, but moments where everything went horribly wrong. Mistiming a blackjack attempt on a Mechanist in Thief II: The Metal Age and having to leap off a balcony to get away; the flight from the police in Grand Theft Auto IV that lead to a head on collision and Niko Bellic’s body flying through the windscreen into the water.

There is a pleasure in succeeding, in forming a plan and executing it flawlessly, but there’s also pleasure, of a different kind, in failure. Consider the moments in games you remember clearest, I’ll go out on a limb and say that likely three quarters of those moments are not when things went according to plan, they are instead those times when everything went horribly, anarchically and brilliantly wrong.

There’s something distinctly personal about failure. If you succeed you are following the the path of dozens of people before you, but each failure, and your reaction to it, is uniquely and specifically yours. Nobody else has failed in quite the same way or under quite the same circumstances as you.

It’s time to embrace failure, accept it and keep playing, adapt and improvise. Some of the most interesting experiences you’ll have with a game will stem from those times when you are required to think on your feet, to react to the unexpected and the calamitous.

Sea of Dreams.

The (dead) cat is out of the underwater city it seems, the first teaser trailer for BioShock 2 (Possible full title BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams), available as bonus content on the Playstation 3 release of BioShock, has found its way online; as such things always do. I’ve mentioned BioShock numerous times on this site, often in a critical or overly analytical manner, so I feel something needs to be cleared up, I really like BioShock, I own both the Limited Edition Xbox 360 release and the Steam release and have completed both.

Suffice to say I was interested in watching the trailer, and after watching it I can say that already I am impressed by the direction 2K Marin appear to be taking. I say appear because it is difficult to gauge much from the trailer itself, regardless those barely ninety five seconds were enough to cause my brain to explode with ideas of a potential direction for BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams (A rare example of a subtitle I actually like), so for your amusement I have provided them here. It will be interesting to revisit this post in a few years time when I have finally played BioShock 2 and see exactly how wrong I was.

Some were expecting a prequel and given the apparent age of the Little Sister that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s a lot of clever and subtle imagery in the trailer. I particularly liked the touch of the butterfly on the logo; new life returning to a long abandoned Rapture.

I’m not sure how likely it is  that you actually play a Little Sister but the idea has a lot of potential. The full extent of the indoctrination program for the Little Sisters was only touched on in BioShock, there remains the possibility that some degree of genetic manipulation took place and now Tenenbaum or some other force is calling the Little Sisters back. If the first game was about choice then could the sequel be about perception, the Little Sisters returning to Rapture still seeing it as the place they grew up?

Imagine what the world looks like to a Little Sister? Imagine Rapture appearing to as a much more inviting place than it really is. A place where they were important and were accompanied  by a devoted protector. There could be a lot of manipulation of how the environment looks, maybe something like Haze attempted, mental filters that make Rapture look far more safe and secure than the reality.  Maybe something would happen as you progress that serves to strip away that façade and you start to see it for what it really is and not the childhood fantasy version.

Presented that way you would go to the places that appeared to be accessible and ignore those that your senses told you were blocked. That could work really well if there was a moment akin to the death of Andrew Ryan, maybe the death of Tenenbaum, where the scales fall from your eyes and you see the world as it really is. Areas that appeared pristine are really broken and decaying. Passages that appeared sealed off are actually open and the entire world of Rapture changes, opens up, before your eyes as you realise the extent of your delusion.

In the first game you generally visited only the scientific and artistic heart of Rapture, with maybe a few hints to what it was actually like to live there. With a focus on Little Sisters it would make sense to return to more recreational and residential areas, the parks and playgrounds of Rapture. A return to your childhood home, but where you still see everything through those childish eyes, at least for the first few hours.

You could witness Rapture at its zenith and its nadir in the space of a single game and 2K Marin could avoid the potential problems of trying to explicitly represent the city’s fall.

Sequels: Originality and Entitlement.

The news that StarCraft II is to to be released as the first in a trilogy has caused some controversy. The variety and tone of comments on the matter has swayed from the conciliatory to the openly hostile, to the abusive. I have quoted an example of two such comments, culled from popular game industry news sites:

“Tip to Blizzard: Sell this to Korea only, America does not want your stupid, expensive, and uninventive sequel. Also – get some balls and come up with a new concept. Diablo + Warcraft + Starcraft are getting stale.”

“This is Blizzard fucking over people to make more money. I played SC for the multiplayer, but Single Player was still great. Now because some guy in some fucking suit over at Activison-Blizzard thought “how can we fucking milk this shit more?” we have to pay for 3 incomplete games. You thought EA is fucked up? this sets a new standard.”

With such comments as this often standard and not the exception is it any wonder gaming and gamers are considered juvnile?

StarCraft II is being released as three separate products with three different single-player campaigns included in each product; the release dates and pricing details have yet to be announced. The original StarCraft featured a single-player mode with three campaigns, one for each race, “out of the box”. Are potential consumers somehow entitled to a sequel that follows that trend and again includes three playable campaigns on initial release?

Haven't I seen this somewhere before?

This is not the first time StarCraft II and Blizzard have provoked controversy. Ashley Cheng posted on his blog that he was disappointed that Blizzard were taking a conservative approach to the design of their sequels. I have no problem with this comment, and I agree with Steve Gaynor who described it as a “sad-ass day” when Ahsley felt compelled to apologise for holding an opinion. He was stating an opinion and in fact one I agree with, however I do question if whether the conservative nature of Blizzard’s design philosophy is inherently a bad thing.

The underlying issue seems to be how important innovation and originality are to a sequel or franchise title. Is there something inherently wrong with providing games that fans of the original will enjoy? It is all but impossible to create a sequel that is aesthetically or mechanically identical to the original, incremental changes occur all the time and together with new technology this means any sequel is automatically going to feel at least a little different to the original. Genre conventions (Whether you believe they should be kept to or not) change over time, is there anything wrong with a new game including those changes while keeping the core mechanics relatively unchanged?

Another question is who should the developers be making their sequel for? If hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people purchased your previous title how do you decide how far to change or innovate for the sequel? The answer to this question is made even more complicated when you start to look at the general reception of some titles that have sought to innovate. Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War II is taking a different approach to its mechanics compared to the original Dawn Of War. There is a greater focus on individual squads and tactics over base building and resource management. This has caused consternation in some quarters as it no longer feels like the original title. So how much innovation is too much?

Is this a case of Goldilocks and the three sequels? This one is too different, this one is not different enough but this one is just right?

Too little change gives up Diablo III, too much gives us Deus Ex: Invisible War.  But even in the case of the former the art style has provoked comment and controversy, because it has changed “too much” from that of Diablo II.

Oh look. Rainbows!

I can’t help but feel that sometimes “lack of originality” is the battle cry of those who feel their own pet projects are not getting the attention they deserve. Are games there to provide entertainment for consumers, or to gratify the artistic desire of their creators? Is it possible for them to be both?

Who are developers ultimately answerable too? Themselves, their publishers (And their shareholders) or their fans? Are their fans entitled to a sequel with the same art direction as the original, or the same style of single-player campaign? Or should they seek to innovate, and if so how much and in which areas?

There are far more questions than answers, yet reading comments to news posts regarding upcoming sequels it seems like everybody knows exactly what the right way to create a sequel is, and unsurprisingly only a few of them agree with each other.

Are consumers entitled to anything beyond products that function correctly? If you don’t like something you are not required to purchase it, no one is forcing that upon you. Is there a fear that with the release of a particular style of sequel what you might have enjoyed about the original will be ignore? It can often be difficult to get two people to agree on the strengths of an individual game let alone what they feel should be included in any sequel.

Is there a value in change for the sake of change? If it’s not broken why fix it? If you are providing entertainment for millions of people is there a reason to change what you are doing? Is the games industry a consumer driven industry or a product driven one? Which should it be?

Personally I know from experience that both StarCraft II and Diablo III will likely be high quality releases that will be consistently supported by Blizzard in the months and years following release. Beyond that I am happy to let them provide what they want to provide, if it’s a similar experience to what I’ve had before I see no problem with that if I still want that experience I will enjoy it, if I don’t I won’t purchase it. There are enough other titles released each year that I know I will find something to entertain and engage me somewhere.

Sequels: Expectations.

What is the purpose of a sequel? From a corporate perspective it’s a means of establishing a brand, a franchise, and increasing revenue through recognition. As a  fictional work it’s to expand the universe, grow the narrative and revisit familiar characters. What is the purpose from a game perspective? Chess might have evolved over centuries but it was a gradual process, and it’s unlikely to change to any substantial degree in the near future. We are not expecting Chess 2.0 any time soon. The rules of most competitive games change subtly over time but the core vocabulary of the game changes little, even if the offside rules change slightly Soccer is still recognisably the same game it was twenty years ago, at least in terms of its fundamental rules.

That’s going to leave a mark.

StarCraft as a competitive multi-player title has seen unprecedented success, especially in South Korea, players have developed and honed tactics over years of play. What will happen when the sequel is released? Is StarCraft II designed to replace StarCraft or to compliment it? Blizzard seem keen for StarCraft II to appeal to the those involved in competitive play. This is obviously a good audience to target as they have a built in enthusiasm for the game, but after spending years playing with the original game can they really be expected to invest more time into learning the changes in the sequel? Will their skills transfer? How much can StarCraft II change from its predecessor before the investment required to learn its intricacies becomes too much?

Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II though superficially similar games appear to be taking very different approaches to their game mechanics. The former is focused on base building, territorial control and combat between a number of combined arms units. The sequel looks to be focusing on smaller scale combat, taking a more tactical role playing approach, a squad combat title more than a real time strategy game. Relic have the opportunity to appeal to two different audiences with these titles, providing two complimentary experiences. These different audiences will only develop if Relic and THQ choose to support both titles in the years after the release of the sequel. How likely is this?

It is said that art is never finished it is merely abandoned, game development is rife with stories of cut features and unbalanced mechanics. These are obvious targets to focus on first when working on a sequel, but with the game now in the hands of players the fact that those specific features are missing, or that those mechanics are unbalanced has become part of what makes the game what it is. Changes to these features might move the game closer to the developers original intent but possibly away from what made it resonate with consumers.

So what is the purpose of a sequel to a successful game from a ludic perspective? To improve on and refine the mechanics, or to attempt to provide a similar aesthetic experience through different mechanics? Is the purpose of a sequel to replace the original? To compliment it? Or is it to provide a counter to the original, an antithesis with a third title potentially providing a synthesis of ideas from the first two titles?

The answers to these questions seems as manifold as the titles which inspire them.

Game Vocabulary.

As I posited previously games are a form of communication. The ways in which the player is able to express their intent to the game is only half the equation. Players perform actions in the world, using sentences formed from nouns, verbs and adverb-verb pairs, and the game responds by modifying the nouns (objects) and their adjectives (properties).

The common ground in the communication between player and game is the possibility space of the game itself, the game world and all valid objects and actions contained within. When the game communicates with the player it does so by modifying this common ground, the objects within the world and their properties. In a game of Thief: Deadly Shadows the game responds to the player sentance “Shoot Water Arrow at Torch” by changing the adjective describing the “Torch” from “Lit” to “Unlit”. This action changes the possibility space of the game, and the context of future player actions. Because the “Torch” is now “Unlit” the context of the verb “Walk” when used in the area around the “Torch” has been changed; the area is now dark and the player is less likely to been spotted.

Best not to keep him hanging.

In a reply to my previous post Mrop mentioned The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, in terms of the communication between game and player, there are very few instances in that game where the player is truly stripped of their verbs. The “Shoot” verb (A better definition might be “Fire”, or “Attack”) always exists, and is mapped to a specific button. Even without a weapon it can be used in the sentence “Shoot Fists”, which might not be grammatically correct in English but makes sense in the game context. What does occur in the game is that the player’s nouns are removed or modified; that is the objects that the player wields as opposed to the objects that exist within the world in general.

By changing, modifying the nouns in the world and those available to the player a game can change the style from combat, to puzzle solving, to navigation, to stealth. One of the best examples of this can be found in Half-Life 2. As the player moves through each chapter the objects in the world and the tools (Player nouns) available are changed. In ‘We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’ all previous verbs and adverb-verb pairs are still valid, the keys for “Shoot”, and “Walk” still perform the same actions, but the reduction in available “Ammunition” means more weapons are “Unloaded” and thus unusable. Combined with the increase in “Zombie” and “Trap” objects this chapter feel significantly different from subsequent chapters, such as ‘Sandtraps’. In this chapter there is an increase in the number of “Ammunition” objects, more weapons are “Loaded”, and there is an increase in “Antlions”. Even though the verbs themselves have not directly changed the nouns and their adjectives have; the context for the player’s actions has changed.

"Fire, I'll take you to burn!"

There are times when the game changes the actual verbs available to the player and the rules governing their interaction with nouns, this happens when there is multi-modal gameplay and can be confusing as players have to learn an entirely new grammar.

James Bond 007: Agent Under Fire features three distinct modes of gameplay. The most common gameplay mode is that of first person combat, the available verbs are ones common to similar titles, “Shoot”, “Walk” and “Reload”. The second mode is that of driving sections where the verbs change to “Accelerate”, “Brake” and “Handbrake”, the third mode is the  “On Rails” sections where the verbs available consist of “Shoot”, “Turn 180 Degrees” and “Reload”. Although there is some crossover in terms of the verbs available often the key responsible for a particular verb is different in each section and requires players to learn a new vocabulary for specific sections of the game. As these sections don’t last for very long this can be distracting, by the time players have started to learn the new verbs, the new grammar, they have to revert to the old rules.

Keeping the verbs and grammar intact and changing the nouns results in changes in the style of play but doesn’t require players to relearn the how the game plays.

Changes to the verbs themselves and the rules defining their interaction with nouns, leads to multi-modal play that requires players to learn an entirely new way of playing.


Some games are simply frustrating. They are not necessarily difficult games, they just feature some section or encounter that is out of balance with everything surrounding it. I’ve been playing through God Of War and reached such a section. It’s an environmental puzzle which requires me to maintain my balance while walking along a series of beams avoiding rotating blades. It took me four attempts to work out that I could jump the blades, but even then I need to ensure I’ve lined myself up correctly with the beam I’m balancing on or I’ll fall to my death. Throughout most of this section the camera is looking vertically down on my character, Kratos, and so only provides limited information regarding where I am supposed to be heading, or how close the blades are.

Being unable to get through this particular section after several dozen attempts I actually started to wonder why I was actually bothering to keep playing. I had stopped being engaged, I was trying to complete the section out of spite, a desire to show the game that I wasn’t a failure. It’s at that point that I decided to quit the game.

Looking back on those few minutes I spent trying to get through that particular section it felt like there was some variant of the Kübler-Ross model at work.

After the first few deaths I felt stupid for making a mistake and was annoyed at myself (Anger). This was followed closely by a feeling that it couldn’t be entirely my fault and that the game was obviously broken (Denial). Several failed attempts later I started to reason with myself. I must have nearly reached the end that last time, and anyway there would be a checkpoint after this section so I’d never have to do it again (Bargaining). This soon gave way to stubborn frustration, a sense that I was now only doing it to try and prove to the game that it hadn’t beaten me (Depression). Finally I realised that I wasn’t going to get through that section, at least for the moment, and asked myself why I was even bothering. It was at that point that I calmly quit the game and turned off the PlayStation 2 (Acceptance).

I don’t think that all games need to be fun in the frivolous sense. What they should at a minimum strive to be engaging. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is a very powerful film and maybe one of the best films I’ve ever seen but it is not a particularly pleasant experience. I can’t say I was having fun at any point while I was watching but I was constantly engaged and enthralled. It was utterly compelling I simply couldn’t stop watching, and I never once felt like I was watching just to get to the end. With God Of War, and too many other games, I’ve kept playing at times just so I could get to the end; there’s something wrong with that.

Shouldn’t playing a game be an end in itself and not merely a means to an end?

Player Vocabulary.

Playing a game is a form of communication. Players express their intent and the game provides feedback on the state of the simulated world, quantifying and contextualising player actions.

All forms of communication require the establishment of a common ground, this is done in games by providing both the game and player with a selection of nouns (objects in the world) and verbs (atomic actions). In order to describe their intent and take meaningful actions players modify these verbs with adverbs and combine these adverb-verb pairs with nouns to form sentences. The grammatical rules of these sentences are defined by the rules of the game and the boundaries of the simulation. The actual meaning of these sentences is dependant on the context in which they are used.

The player’s vocabulary is defined by the number of verbs, adverbs and nouns the game makes available to them. The player’s grammar is the manner in which the vocabulary can be used; the adverb “Quietly” can be used with the verb “Walk” to form the composite adverb-verb pair “Quietly-Walk”, but the adverb “Quietly” might not be valid if combined with the verb “Shoot”, “Quietly-Shoot” might not be a valid adverb-verb pair, a valid action.

Players express their intent by constructing a sequence of actions (adverb-verb pairs) acting on objects (nouns) as defined by the rules of the system (the grammar) in a specific context (a sentence).

Let’s consider an example of player vocabulary and grammar in action. If while playing Thief: Deadly Shadows my intent is to creep across a room I need to form a sentence that communicates that goal to the game. I press the buttons corresponding to the adverb “Slowly”, also known as “Creep” (for me Ctrl) and the verb for “Forward” (for me ‘W’, modified by the mouse to define the forward direction) and thereby express my intent to “Slowly-Walk” across the surface in front of me. I tell the game that I want to “Creep across the floor.” I am expressing my intent through an adverb-verb pair and a noun. Sometimes I don’t need to modify the verb and can express my intent simply through a verb and a noun: “Open Door” or “Jump on Crate”, or a noun, a verb and another noun: “Shoot Water Arrow at Torch.”

The vocabulary in Thief: Deadly Shadows, is defined by the tools available to the player, the objects in the world and the actions the player can take in that world.

If the communication between game and player is to remain intact then it follows that the rules of grammar need to remain constant, that is to say that “Open” and “Door” are always valid combinations. However that does not mean that “Open Door” is always valid in the current context. It makes no sense to “Open Door” if there is no “Door” available. The rules defining the interaction between “Open” and “Door” are still valid but the noun “Door” does not exist in that current context and so the sentence makes no sense.

Though care should be taken to ensure that the grammar does not change, without informing the player, games can alter the vocabulary, the dynamics, to change the aesthetic experience of playing the game.

The Shalebridge Cradle, is possibly one of the most unpleasant and tense levels of any game. There are many ways in which this level plays with the expectations of the player, provoking fear and apprehension. The architecture, lighting and other aesthetic elements of the level play a large role, but in strictly mechanic and dynamic terms “Robbing The Cradle” is worth examining for the way it manipulates the player’s vocabulary.

Occurring near the end of the game players visit the Shalebridge Cradle having built up an understanding of the vocabulary and grammar of the world of Thief: Deadly Shadows and already have a range of stock phrases which they can use to interact with, and express their intent to, the world: “Shoot Water Arrow at Torch”, “Use Lockpick on Locked Door.”

Upon entering the Cradle players find that although the rules of grammar have not changed, they are still playing the same game after all, their vocabulary has been dramatically reduced. The Cradle is a world devoid of the usual range of nouns that exist in other portions of the game. There are very few (I hesitant to say no) “Torches”, a very small number of “Doors” and, at least in the first portion of the level, no “Enemies”. This reduction in the available vocabulary is a direct reduction in the options available to the player, a limit on their power. Since this happens at the peak of their understand and ability, it is a discomforting and unpleasant experience; exactly what the Cradle is meant to feel like.

By subtly adjusting the player’s vocabulary and ability to communicate their intent, games can dramatically change the aesthetic experience they provide.