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.
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.
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.
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.
So E3 2012 has come and gone, and made some people angry along the way. For my own part I spent most of that period scouring the internet for any and all footage of one particular game, but what I did see of the rest of the event seemed just about as juvenile and unrelated to what gaming is to me as it has always been.
There were many things demanding of criticise about E3 and those things need to be criticised, vocally and repeatedly if anything is to change. The entire policy of “Booth Babes”, the fetishistic treatment of violence, the reliance on spectacle over substance, the substitution of “gritty and mature” for actual content, these are just a few of the problems E3 brings up. I can’t in good conscience suggest these things, and many others, should not be criticised, I just worry about the form some of these criticisms take and the language used to voice them.
Journalist and indie game developer Tom Francis is a smart guy, and the game he’s making is rather good, so I expected to be impressed with his E3 inspired manifesto. For about ninety percent of it I was in complete agreement, however certain implied and in one particular instance explicit criticisms stood out.
If you hamstring that to ensure the player gets a pre-packaged experience, you’re crippling this medium to make it resemble a less interesting one.
Inherently anything described as a manifesto is going to suffer from some degree of exaggeration and grandiosity but still I find ”crippling this medium” to be an unnecessarily strong choice of words. I struggle to find two people who agree on how to define what this medium that we call video games is, so to declare something as crippling it is either presumptive or simply naive.
The context for this statement is that certain design approaches, particular those of the likes of Call of Duty are attempts to make games resemble a different and “less interesting” medium, that of film. I can let the “less interesting” part go since these things are subjective but I find the underlying premise troubling.
Why is making a game that is “film like” a bad thing? Interactive Fiction is “book like” but that didn’t stop the Interactive Fiction panel at PAX East 2010 from being the single most creative and intelligent part of that entire event. To completely dismiss a design approach because it appears to represent or reinterpret one medium in the form of another shows either a surfeit of hubris or a dearth of imagination.
Call of Duty is not a film. The very things that make it “not a film” are worthy of examination and critical engagement rather than blanket ridicule. There are few better ways of destroying a community than by instituting a purity test and that’s exactly what we do when we use language like “actual video game” or “crippling this medium”.
Two minutes spent with the archives of this site, or thirty seconds in my presence, should be more than enough to confirm that my tastes in games, and my personal design philosophy is closer to that of Tom Francis than it is to the likes of Infinity Ward, yet I don’t feel that’s enough justification to imply they are acting in a detrimental fashion. Not liking something is not a valid basis on which to make the claim that it causes harm either to itself or others. Should all games follow the path embarked upon by Infinity Ward? No, but no more than all games should do anything.
Video games still have big problems, in terms of demographic reach, and their representation of minorities, sexuality, and themes not defined by violent conflict. Against all that to single out one design philosophy as being flawed when it’s difficult to even find a consensus on the defining traits of video games to begin with is hyperbole that serves little purpose.
Ninety percent of Tom Francis’ manifesto is golden, and on the whole the criticisms of Kris Graft are justified, but let’s free them from the over exaggeration for a moment and accept that those of us who agree with them really have no better claim to what is and isn’t good for this medium than the millions of people playing Modern Warfare 3 right now.