Boundary Conditions.

In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.

Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.

Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.

In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.

The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour  If I perform an unsupported action once, such as  jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.

Dishonored 01
Apparently jumping on the head of the High Overseer is a Capital Offense in Dunwall. The game over screen is an inelegant but certainly unambiguous means of dealing with unsupported behavior.

When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour  is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.

In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions.  Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.

Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.

Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.

For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.

A Human Reaction.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the later stages of Far Cry 2.

It could be argued that the power of any work lies in its ability to make us question ourselves and our own beliefs.  This is something games are already capable of, though maybe those responsible don’t even realise it.

In a comment to a recent post by 2K Marin’s Steve Gaynor, Clint Hocking, Creative Director on Far Cry 2, stated his opinion that games need to move beyond “storymaking” to the creation of compelling experiences connected by meaningful human motivations. As can be seen from my subsequent comment this is an area I am very interested in and I find it noteworthy that Clint feels this was an area where Far Cry 2 failed. For me it contained some of the clearest examples of exactly what he is describing.

I’ve talked on several occasions about my reaction to Far Cry 2 and some of the feelings it evoked, though I have been avoiding some of the more specific instances due to a concern over what they might say about me personally. On reflection the name of this blog reflects my intent when starting it, which was to explore games and game design, my reaction to games is a major part of the power of games so to avoid discussing it would be irresponsible.

I first met Nasreen Davar in the Doctor’s Surgery in Mosato Selao after helping Frank Bilders bring a shipment of weapons into the city, and consequently restarting the conflict there. She was the first women I’d met and I’ll be honest she was fairly attractive. After warning me to leave through the back of the surgery I met up with her again in the Marina, where she became a buddy and subsequently saved my life on more than one occasion. Upon the death of Frank Bilders she became my de facto best buddy and throughout the next few hours I remember fighting alongside her on several occasions.

During the closing stages of Act 2 I had just completed a mission when I received a call from Nasreen who was in trouble at the Airfield and needed my assistance. Having experienced the structure of the game I had expected her to call, however in my mind was the thought that I was probably nearing the end of an act and therefore events would likely take a turn for the dramatic. I recalled the fate of Frank Bilders and very quickly concluded that I would not allow that to happen to Nasreen. I stole a jeep and raced to the Airfield, though it only took a few minutes I can clearly remember my feelings as I sped to rescue her. I would not let her die, she was going to be alright, I would get there and anybody who got in the way wouldn’t last long enough to stop me. The sensation I had when I rounded the corner into the Airfield is one that will stay with me possibly forever, I saw Nasreen standing by a vehicle on the middle of the airstrip fighting for her life. I floored the jeep bounced along the track behind the hangers and crashed to a stop barely feet from her. Leaping out I ran to her and managed to finish off the last of her attackers at point blank range. She had not died, I had saved her.

An hour or so later I found myself captured and imprisoned, with Nasreen in the cell next to me.  Waking up I heard her being dragged off, as she passed my cell I heard her shout out that: “You know what they’ll do to me!”

To me the implication was very clear. I wasn’t sure how far the game would be willing to go in it’s portrayal of the brutality of war and suspected it would hold back from going to the places I was considering. However I was not certain and I absolutely did not want to witness it if the game was willing to go that far. Escaping I felt a sense of righteous fury and abandoned all thoughts of leaving on my own. I could not leave her in their hands because I was sure I did know what they’d do to her. The two individuals guarding her cell didn’t stand a chance, and if I’m honest I used far more ammunition putting them down that was in any way necessary. As it turned out the game did not go to the dark places I had feared it might and Nasreen was to my eyes, only superficially harmed.

The emotions Far Cry 2 evoked in me were certainly not what I expected going in and were easily on par with anything I have experienced in film or literature, more so in some sense because they directly influenced my actions. However, and now we come to the part that originally prevented me from discussing these events, I have cause to wonder if the reactions would have been significantly different if my buddy had not been an attractive woman.

I’ve never consider the notion that women are inherently in need of protecting to hold any weight whatsoever, yet I’ve still taken some criticism from my sister because of what could be considered my ingrained sense of benevolent sexism; I’d consider chivalry to be a positive aspect of my character and though I generally hold doors open for anybody I am consciously more aware of doing so for women.

When I first met Nasreen I’ll admit I was surprised at seeing a female mercenary in the game, not because I saw anything wrong with the idea, instead I felt it was, rightly or wrongly, a big deal for a game to feature a women in such a role. Yes I found her attractive, but I never felt in any way she was inherently less capable than any of my previous mercenary buddies because she was a women.

Still I can’t help but wonder, would my reaction have been different if the circumstances that presented themselves had involved a male character? The implications of Nasreen’s line in the prison had such an affect on me because of the associated context of a woman delivering that line in that situation. I don’t know if the same line would be spoken by a male character in that situation or if it would resonate as strongly. I would be interested to know if Clint and the rest of the team at Ubisoft Montreal intentionally considered this aspect and how it would affect the presumed predominately male audience of their game when they made the decision to include female characters?

Let me tell you a story.

Any discussion of storytelling in games is going to run up against a barrier at some point due simply to the nature of games as (in very loose terms) “interactive systems governed by rules” seems to run counter to what defines a story. I personally prefer the term narrative as it doesn’t have the same connotations of a strictly linear progression, though there is still a dichotomy between narrative and games.

This appears to be something that is clear to Ken Levine, as the third major point he touched upon in his GDC Presentation was how BioShock was designed in a way to encourage the player to discover the narrative for themselves. He described the difference between the traditional linear narratives of films (and cut-scenes) as being designed to “… push information at the player” where as in games the ideal is for the player themselves to actively engage with the story and pull it towards them.

In her seminal book on the narrative potential of computers, Hamlet On The Holodeck, Janet Murray described the four essential properties of digital environments, [Chapter 3, page 71] that they are: “procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.” The former two properties she grouped together as what makes such environments interactive. The latter pair she considered to be the defining aspects of immersion (A topic Clint Hocking dealt with specifically in his GDC Presentation “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”, and something I plan to return to at a later date).

The primary two properties are of interest because not only do they encompass what is usually meant by the term interactive, they also cover a lot of what is inferred by the term gameplay. The remaining two attributes, that of being spatial and encyclopedic, are therefore what is present in addition to the core gameplay. It is within these two properties and how they interact with each other, and gameplay, that the narrative is found.

Of these narrative properties the spatial, or the ability to provide a navigable space, is prehaps the most significant difference between a narrative told within a game and one within any other medium. A film can represent a location but only a game (Using the broadest definition of the word), can let you explore that location; no longer are you bound by the viewpoint of the camera. Because it is not possible to be absolutely certain of where the you are or what you are looking at, attempts at providing narrative should be moved away from the critical path and out into the environment itself. There are ways to encourage the player to stand in the right place and look in the right direction, techniques that Valve Software are rapidly becoming the masters of with Half Life 2 and it’s episodic sequels. Even so these techniques cannot be universally relied upon, and furthermore if they are too prevalent or obvious they can feel artificially restrictive.

There will always be limits to your exploration in such games, but done right those limits can serve the narrative itself; handled correctly a blocked path serves both gameplay, by keeping players heading in a particular direction, and provides a narrative beat, by highlighting destruction that has occurred before you arrived.

Environmental narrative provides context. Throughout BioShock and Half-Life 2 there are areas where you are given freedom to explore within boundaries, and discover the background to Rapture, and City 17 (Alien Controlled Dystopian backdrop to Half-Life 2) at your own pace.

Players will be more willing to engage with a narrative if they feel they have some involvement in it, and what better way to encourage involvement than to allow players to discover the narrative for themselves.

Together with the final property of digital environments, that of being encyclopedic, this freedom to explore at your own pace is what allows games to including the level of depth required to satisfy all three audience levels, without overloading any one group with information. It’s what allows games to include both scope and depth, as Janet Murray herself describes it [Chapter 3, Page 84] “The capacity to represent enormous quantities of information in digital form translates into an artist’s potential to offer a wealth of detail, to represent the world in both scope and particularity.”

Games are not best served by the strictly linear storytelling techniques of other mediums, and it’s only by making the most of the strengths that games do possess that new and interesting ways of providing narratives, and presenting stories, can be achieved.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because you are telling it badly.