Preying On My Mind.

Playing the PlayStation 4 demo of Prey resulted in me quitting in anger, hurling my controller at the floor, and deleting the demo.

Getting around to playing it on the PC, I have reached a point seventeen hours in where I encountered a bug that, though it didn’t prevent my progress, would result in a bunch of things being messed up were I to keep going.

Both of those things are true, as is this: Prey is one of best immersive simulation games I have played; I even prefer it to System Shock 2. There are only two games I could make a case for being better at this style of game: Deus Ex and Dishonored.

I was already hooked, even before I found this retro-future GoPro.

It’s been a difficult time for me recently for a plethora of reasons I don’t want to dwell on. Prey was a game I had largely discounted, what Arkane Studios were saying sounded too ambitious, and in terms of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I’d already been burnt by BioShock. A game I generally like but one whose connection to the earlier “Shock” games seemed superficial at best. I had struggled with Dishonored 2, a superbly made game that I should have adored, but one I just never felt I could connect with. So when I played the demo for Prey and my immediately reaction was aggressively negative I resigned myself to just never being able to enjoy these types of games again.

I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try the PlayStation 4 demo again. I took it slowly and, instead of trying to rush in and smash the scuttling Mimics as quickly as I could, I treated them with respect. I made sure my attacks were deliberate. It was a revelation. Once I stopped trying to approach the game with the assumption that these were cannon fodder enemies that I could easily dispatch I realised what this game was. It’s slightly too clunky. It’s slightly too difficult. It’s also incredibly smart, both in terms of systems design and writing, and confidently erudite without being patronising. It builds on everything I found compelling about System Shock 2 in well thought out ways, and makes small but significant changes to certain core tenants of the immersive simulation style that are so obvious in hindsight it’s shocking nobody has attempted them before.

It’s also subtle, I joked that it was probably going to be too subtle for some (reviews appear to have borne this out). There are no caricatured characters spouting philosophy at you for ten hours. It’s a game about scientists and corporations and technology, but it’s handled with a deft touch. The TranStar corporation is engaged in some incredibly unethical experiments on board Talos 1 and the people involved know that. They argue about it, they attempt to justify it to themselves and others. Their responses are entirely, tragically, human. There are people who totally buy the corporate line about the benefits of the work they are doing. Others who are willfully ignorant regarding the extent of their complicity. Even some who are attempting to lift the lid on what’s going on and reveal it to the world at large. Each of these people have their own motivations, none of them are cackling super villains. Even your brother Alex has clear reasons for his actions, reasons that might even convince you.

When it comes to systems design, Prey is maybe a little too late 90s, though it updates the interface and presentation of those systems in ways that make them more comfortable to engage with. Combat can get awkward if you are overwhelmed but at all times you have a myriad of options with which to approach each situation; though your character build choices will push you towards a sub-set of those. I’ve already seen dozens of people citing very different  – and often mutually exclusive – ability combinations and weapons as being “over-powered”.

Prey is also rough, Patch 1.2 has just been released fixing a bug that was corrupting save games and preventing further progress. My own bug is less severe but still frustrating. I’ve been assured a fix is coming soon, and yet I think I’m going to restart the game. Seventeen hours in, I’m going to restart a game I’ve not finished yet. A game that is reportedly 20-30 hours long, and I’m really excited about it. To me that tells me all I need to know.

I really like Prey. It might be my favourite Looking Glass Studios game.

Design By Example: Vertical Movement with Dishonored’s Blink.

In Dishonored, the first power granted you by the Outsider – the only one which you have no choice over – is the short distance teleport, Blink.

What Blink offers is more than simply the ability to instantaneously move forward. If that was the extent of its power it would still be useful but it wouldn’t be as disruptive as it is. Rather than being restricted to directly ahead, the destination of your Blink can be anywhere within a sphere around your current location: the roof of a building, the floor behind an NPC, or the middle of the air. Provided there is a straight line between your current position and the destination, you can Blink there.

The elegance of Blink comes from the few restrictions placed upon its use. It is not context dependant; there are no specific “Blink-able” locations. It can be used to move through any space that you would normally be able to occupy; so you cannot move through solid surfaces or active Walls of Light. Finally, it uses the same amount of Mana as is automatically replenished, making it readily available. With so few restrictions, the decision of when, where, and even if, to use Blink is left up to the player.

If the destination of your Blink is on the edge of a scalable surface, Corvo will automatically climb up allowing you to reach the top of objects, even if you can only target part of them.

If the destination of your Blink is on the edge of a scalable surface, Corvo will automatically climb up allowing you to reach the top of objects, even if you can only target part of them.

Instantaneous movement between two points on the same horizontal plane is useful; the effect Blink has on your perception of, and engagement with, vertical space is where it becomes truly transformative.

By not being limited to the horizontal, Blink changes the usable topography of a level. Normally in a first person game it is possible to jump onto higher surfaces and in so doing alter your vertical position. Given a standard model of gravity the path to these higher spaces is slower than the path down, though it is also much safer. From a high point you can leap off and will likely take damage when you land. With Blink you can teleport up to a roof and back down with the same expenditure of time and Mana. You can move as rapidly and safely in the vertical dimension as the horizontal one.

The ability to Blink while time is frozen ensures that falling holds little fear for the assassin Daud.

The ability to Blink while time is frozen ensures that falling holds little fear for the assassin Daud.

The Knife Of Dunwall DLC changes the core Blink ability, further enhancing its strength as a tool for vertical movement. When initiated time will freeze provided you are not manually moving in any direction. This means you can fall from a great height and at the last moment initiate a Blink and have as much time as necessary to target a safe landing spot. The reverse is also possible; you can perform a Blink at the top of a jump and use it to reach even greater heights.

One of the constants of first person games is movement through space, by providing you with a power that allows for near instant movement between two points in any dimension Dishonored disrupts the standard model of movement and succeeds in making vertical movement almost as safe and rapid as horizontal movement, changing the way players perceive and interact with the space around them.

Sneaky Bastards Issue One, now on sale.

The first issue of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine is now on sale, available to purchase in either .PDF or print editions the magazine features 100 pages of full colour ad-free content on Arkane Studios’ Dishonored. Alongside interviews, a stealth focused review, and critical commentary, the magazine features 48 pages of level design analysis from me on every level in the game and the two Daud focused pieces of DLC (The Knife Of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). This analysis takes a similar form to my own Groping The Map content, and that I have already been producing on Thief II: The Metal Age for the Sneaky Bastards website, albeit more focused and condensed to better fit a magazine format.

Issue One covers Dishonored and the two pieces of story based DLC.

Issue One covers Dishonored and the two pieces of story based DLC.

Groping The Map: Book 1 – SAMPLE.

In order to promote my work on Groping The Map: Book 1, I have decided to release a .pdf sample of the first nine pages of the chapter on Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Consider this a “vertical-slice” of the book, as you can see I have made some changes from the traditional format that the articles had when posted directly to this site. I’d greatly appreciate any and all feedback on this sample and please feel free to share this as widely as possible.

In addition to this sample of previously unseen work I have complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, again feel free to share as widely as possible:

Additionally I, along with a collection of other really smart writers have started RunJumpFire. I have a new weekly column there called Design By Example where I analyse one specific game mechanic or mechanism each Wednesday. Currently I have articles up on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Super Metroid, forthcoming this month are articles on Dishonored and Alpha Protocol, the column archive can be found here.

Groping The Map: Book 1

Groping The Map: Book 1

The future of Groping The Map…

Since I started them in 2010 my Groping The Map articles have  proven to be some of the most popular work I’ve written. In those three years however I have only been able to complete my analysis of three different levels, this is both a significant reduction from my original goal and a personally disappointment.

With each article my ability to analyse level design has increased, as have my talents as a writer. Recently I completed an approximately 15,000 word series on the level design in Dishonored for Issue 1 of the Sneaky Bastards magazine, and I think this is some of my best work to date. In an ideal world I would be able to focus primarily on writing such as this and produce these articles at a rate greater than one level analysis per year.

To that end I’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign with the aim of enabling me to focus on producing more Groping The Map content. The aim of the campaign is to produce “Groping The Map: Book 1” a .PDF ebook, which once researched and written will be made available free of charge, and devoid of any DRM. Any support you can offer will go towards ensuring that I can focus primarily on these articles, with the goal of releasing Book 1 sometime within the next six months (subject to alteration). If possible I would like to produce some physical copies if there is sufficient demand. These physical copies would be sold at cost, however given the number of screenshots used these would need to be printed in full colour making the cost price somewhere in the range of £10 (before postage and packaging); that is an estimated price per-unit based on a run of fifty copies.

The current plan is for Book 1 to include four articles of approximately 10,000 words each on the following levels:

  • The Omega Ranch – Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
  • Nova Prospekt – Half Life 2.
  • The Silent Cartographer – Halo: Combat Evolved.
  • Jacknife – Mirror’s Edge.

I started Groping The Map because I felt there was a need for level design specific writing. There is already a wealth of work dedicated to environmental art and the use of specific level design software, but there are very few examples of level design “close reading” that examines every aspect of a level and its role within the rest of the game. With your support I can devote myself to working on these articles and hopefully within six months release a .PDF that will more than double the number of Groping The Map articles.

No matter how well the campaign does I still fully intend to work on additional Groping The Map content, I just can’t make any commitments as to the schedule without a change in my circumstances.

The Stealth Gaming Magazine.


Sneaky Bastards - Issue 1

Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine (Issue 1: Dishonored)

For the past year, along with occasional posts here, I’ve been writing for Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Blog. The work I’ve produced there has been similar in form to my Groping The Map series. Now Sneaky Bastards is looking to develop beyond the website into a print on demand magazine, and we need some help getting this project off the ground.

The first issue will focus on Dishonored, and my contribution will consist of approximately 12,000 words on the incredible level design within that game. Given the nature of print these articles will be shorter than both the standard Groping The Map format, and the series on Thief II: The Metal Age I’m producing for the Sneaky Bastards website. That isn’t to say the analysis will be any less in-depth, in fact the shorter format has enabled me to move away from the annotated walkthrough approach I had initially taken and focus more on higher level design analysis.

I would like to ask you to have a look at our Kickstarer page for Issue 1 of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine. The print and digital editions are included as reward tiers though if we can get the magazine off the ground they should be available in the future as direct purchases at a price closer to that of a traditional print magazine. For the moment we need to reach our target in order to make the magazine a reality so any and all contributions are greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

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.