First Contact: Binary Domain.

A number of people whose opinions I respect, assure me that Binary Domain is a game worth playing. Specifically in regard to its combat mechanics, narrative, and themes.

While playing the first hour I took some notes. The reason the notes only cover the start of the game is that I have since restarted twice in an attempt to understand why my reaction, as shown by the notes, is so predominantly negative. I have yet been unable to reconcile my experiences with the praise lauded upon the game. It is not simply a case of not liking a competent game as much as others, this has occurred before and will again, rather I am concerned because I think Binary Domain is a genuinely badly designed game, one that makes mistakes in interface and encounter design I had thought long solved.

So what follows are my notes, as taken while playing, with some additional clarifications, to help see if I can make sense of why it provoked such a negative reaction. I have changed the order in which I took them as certain points are better explained in light of others.


I’ll start with what was actually one of the first notes I took.

Actually about as funny as it thinks it is.

It’s rare to find a game that’s genuinely comedic, and all too often action games swing the other way becoming overly self-serious, Binary Domain manages to find a tone that feels much closer to something like Beverly Hills Cop than I was expecting. It’s a brash action game and knows it, the script has yet to try to be anything else.

Why is A vault over cover but B climb? (Xbox 360)

This confounded me when I first played and I still don’t have a handle on it. The B button is nominally the “Interact” button, except when it isn’t. The A button will enable you to take cover and then vault over or dart around that cover, but B is required to climb up onto something, except when that something is a ladder in which case the A button is required. Operating a device in the world requires the B button however if that device is a control panel for a crane you cannot exit the crane interface by pressing B you instead have to press A.

Why give the character a voice if he’s not going to vocally respond? Conflict with voice input probably.

This seemed confusing at first until I remembered the game has an option to response to spoken voice commands. For that reason I can understand not having the character voice those comments as that would be redundant and potentially confusing. For players who are not using voice commands it’s jarring having the protagonist speak freely only up to the point at which you are given control of what he says. I can see this becoming a non-issue very quickly.

Off putting lag\acceleration on movement controls. May need to lower sensitivity.

This is probably my biggest complain: I cannot hit anything consistently. I am either wildly overcompensating or sluggishly dragging the cross-hair into position depending on the sensitivity setting. I’ve been using dual analog controls since the era of Halo: Combat Evolved but playing Binary Domain I feel like I’ve never touched a controller before. This is the main reason I restarted the game, I had hoped that more time with it would help me grasp the nuances of the controls, unfortunately that has yet to happen.

All the weapons so far sound incredible similar and you need to fire them a lot, soundscape is muddled cacophony.

A minor complaint initially but when combined with the next it makes the soundscape of Binary Domain a variation on a small number of weapon and impact sound effects, all of them similar and after an extended combat encounter I wanted to rest my ears.

You’d think they’d have chosen ammunition that does some actual damage against robots.

I appreciate that it is the start of the game, but every enemy I have encountered takes several seconds of sustained fire to destroy. It was pointed out to me that my approach should be to attempt to target vital parts of the enemies and so disable them, or turn them against their own. With the controls the best I am usually able to do is position the crosshair on the center of the enemy’s body, the degree of fidelity I would need to perform head-shots consistently is one I am unable to achieve.

Very aggressive enemies for a game with such a limited range of melee, or other close combat, options. Enemies will close and flank you with little you can do to stop them. Repositioning requires you to exit cover, so you expose yourself to those enemies ahead of you.

Enemies have a tendency to close range rapidly and either attack directly or move behind you. The former is frustrating as there are few options to deal with enemies in close range, the latter is almost always lethal as repositioning in combat to deal with enemies attempting to flank you will disengage you from cover therefore opening you up to attack from the front.

The focus button rotates the player to face the target not just the camera.

Like Gears of War there is a button to focus the camera on an important event or location. In Binary Domain it does not just turn the camera, it turns the player as well. This has led to me getting killed on at least two occasions.

Cover is almost exclusively perpendicular to the line of advancement you can’t flank enemies while remaining in cover. Nor can you move move between cover as fluidly as other cover shooters, it’s a first generation cover shooter closer to Mass Effect 2.

The layout of the levels so far have been unidirectional, with the AI advancing down a line directly opposite your direction of movement; except when airborne enemies spawned in behind you, but that is an entirely different complain. Cover is predominantly perpendicular to that line of advancement, allowing you to take cover from direct incoming fire. There has rarely been cover positioned parallel or at an angle to the direction of movement. Such cover would allow you to reposition to flank approaching enemies or deal with those enemies that have run past you. A good example of the type of space that I’ve yet to see in Binary Domain can be found at the end of the first level of Gears Of War. Exiting the prison Marcus and Dom enter a patch of ground dotted with low walls positioned both perpendicular and parallel to their direction of movement, Locust are positioned throughout and the layout allows for multiple possible routes through the space while remaining in cover. You can position yourself opposite the Locust and engage them directly or you use the space tactically moving around to flank them.

Doesn’t feel as fluid and responsive as Gears of War, or in fact Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

This is tied to the previous comment regarding my difficulty aiming, but is more concerned with the basic movement either out of or between cover. In those rare instances where such angled or parallel cover does exist there are no options to shift position to it without leaving cover, you cannot move around corners while remaining in cover the way you can in Gears of War, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These factors make moving in any direction other than directly forward inadvisable, limiting your options to staying put and shooting everything as it approaches  – hoping you can destroy them before they run past, and thus outflank you – or advancing directly towards the approaching enemy and engaging them at close range, the options for which are limited.

Not everything that looks like cover is.

Compounding my previous complains are objects or elements of level geometry that in another game could conceivably provide cover but in Binary Domain do not. This is particularly egregious on the roads approaching the Sea Wall and again on the far side. The road surface is frequently split and buckled, with some sections of road higher than others. While you can climb up these sections, you cannot take cover behind them, despite them being close, if not identical, in height to the low walls and blocks that do provide cover.

10 Days Earlier…

When this cutscene occurred I was disappointed it was not the opening of the game, it at least offers a stronger context for my actions than that provided initially and though the voice acting and script can be a little peculiar on the whole it was largely entertaining. The premise itself is one I have seen before though that doesn’t mean it is an uninteresting one. My fear is the given the nature of the “Hollow Children” either the player character, one of his squad, or the character he has come to Japan looking for will turn out to be one.


It is possible some of the specific control problems I have are because I have not understood the information the game has provided me, however if this is still the case on my third encounter with the opening sections of the game some of the fault must lie with the manner in which the gave conveys that information.

Some of the problems I have might change as I progress further in the game, something I fully intend to do exclusively because of the positive comments I have heard. If I was unaware of such comments I would have abandoned Binary Domain at some point during my second time through the opening sections; so far I see nothing that has made me want to continue, rather the game has been frustrating and overly punishing.

Contextual Specification.

When it comes to the creation of the common ground in which play occurs, the boundaries themselves can either be embedded or emergent.

Embedded boundaries are those defined prior to, and separate from, the act of play itself. They are the rules of the game and the narrative overlaid on those rules. These elements define what is possible and provide an underlying context.

Emergent boundaries are those that exist only during play, they include the actions of the player (though these are limited by the embedded rules), and the perceptions and biases the player brings to the narrative.

The embedded boundaries define the range of possible actions and motivations, the emergent boundaries define the precise actions and the motivations assigned to them by the player. Embedded boundaries provide the scope, emergent boundaries the specific shape.

Emergent boundaries are unique to each player and each play session, emergent boundaries form the fabula out of the entire possibility space of the game and its associated narrative. It is not possible for a designer to control these emergent boundaries they can only use the embedded boundaries to shape and influence the possible form of each player’s fabula.

The rules through which a designer controls and regulates the player’s interaction with a game directly influence the play experience but without context such abstract rules are meaningless. They can define what is possible but they cannot influence the meaning a player takes from a game. In order for rules to convey an emotion or idea, they need some narrative assigned to them.

The rules establish what actions are possible, the verbs, adverbs and nouns available to the player and their interactions. The narrative provides a fictional explanation for these actions as well as providing concrete instances of the nouns. The concept that “on contact blue objects remove red objects ” is a rule but the notion that “blue objects are water” and “red objects are blood” is part of the narrative. Additional elements of narrative can be layered on top leading to the concept that “water cleans blood”. The rules of the game have not changed from the original interaction of blue and red objects but now the action of using blue objects on red objects has been imbued with a much richer meaning.

The more narrative elements that are used to define the context the more specific the game becomes, and more pared down the range of potential meanings. The number of games that feature blue objects and red objects is huge, when the interaction between them is define the number of games that still fit that definition is reduced, this process of specification continues with each additional layer of narrative that is added.

Consider the the rule that “grey objects change their properties over time” this is a valid dynamic that is true of many objects, even now you are likely adding a context to that relationship to better understand it. If I contextualise “grey objects” as “weapons” then the range of valid possible examples are limited, though the relationship could still describe many situations from a weapon that can only function under certain circumstances, such as the “Hammer Of Dawn” from Gears Of War, to weapons that degrade in usability over time, such as those in Far Cry 2.

This process of specification is what takes a game from a collection of mechanics and dynamics to an experience with the potential to engage and enthrall. The embedded boundaries put in place by the designer can only take this specification so far. At that point the emergent boundaries defined by the player take it from the contextualised actions of the game itself to the unique personal experience of play.

Abstract concepts can be powerful but are difficult to appreciate without specific examples. In a game with little narrative context players will assign their own. They will personify game objects and assign motivations to their actions, becoming confused and frustrated if future actions do not fit these self assigned motivations.

This is an important consideration as player expectation is shaped as much, if not more, by their own perceptions and beliefs as it by any narrative context provided by the game itself.

Whenever any narrative element is layered onto a game mechanic not only does it strip out all other potential meanings it also bring with it a wealth of meaning both explicit or implied. These implied meanings are the most difficult to contend with, as they are part of the emergent boundaries defined by the player and are  often highly subjective.

The entire concept of ludonarrative dissonance exists because the implied context and meaning of abstract game mechanics are not taken into consideration. The embedded narrative context assigned to a specific game mechanic at the low level is in conflict with the narrative context layered onto the game at a higher level. What players have been led to believe about a game mechanic from its basic context with all its implied meaning, is being contradicted by the narrative presented at a higher level. The embedded boundaries of the game are operating in opposition to the emergent boundaries defined by the player; the common ground has broken down. The designer has not taken into consideration the implied meanings and associations that a specific context provokes.

What a Waste.

There comes a moment in Fallout 3 where, standing staring around at the skeletal trees and blasted earth, you realise all the mounds of rock you’ve been climbing over were once buildings; offices, apartment blocks maybe even shops and schools. In that moment you can see in your mind what that alternate history version of Washington D.C. might have looked like. A blink and it’s lost, everything is again sickly yellow and brown, blasted, broken, and irradiated.

I was wrong

Fallout 3 is neither “teeming with life” nor “harmless”, it’s a true wasteland. It’s strange, when I made my original comments I’d already spent several hours exploring the world but somehow it hadn’t clicked exactly how terrible everything was. I could obviously see that nothing was particularly pleasant but still there were people scraping out a life and it felt like there was always something to see only a short walk away.

fallout-3-16
How many people once called this home?

At some point the revelation hit me, and it was an entirely mundane action that provoked it. In order to get a better idea of where I was and where I was going I started to climb a hill. It was a simple thing really; I wanted to get to high ground so I could get a better view of the world. An entirely plausible natural thing to do when you’re outside. Standing on the top of that crumbling masonry, looking out at the rising sun for a moment I realised what I was actually seeing. Those four houses clustered around that crossroad surrounded by low hills? That’s meant to be a town? That’s not a town,  it’s barely a dozen houses…

… That’s not a town, it’s a fraction of a suburban neighbourhood. Those aren’t low hills they’re the remains of the rest of that neighbourhood. What freak chance spared those few houses I’ll never know but as some of the last buildings left intact of course they drew what few survivors there were to them; humans crave other human contact. That’s not a town, it was never meant to be a town, but right now it’s the closest anybody here has got.

It was so easy upon entering the world of Fallout 3 to simply accept that yes this is a post apocalyptic wasteland. It’s an intellectual acceptance, a theory, and as such easy to dismiss when presented with the grim reality. Within the first few hours the logical questions begin to surface. If this is a wasteland then why are so many of the buildings intact? Why are there so many people still alive? Why is there so much food around? All perfectly valid questions, on face value a surprising amount of civilization seems to have survived relatively intact. It’s only when you stop and consider what the world must have looked like before the bombs fell that you realise how utterly wrong everything now is.

There seem to be a lot of buildings around but before the war there would have been hundreds, thousands. The people? There was likely a time when you’d not be able to move without bumping into dozens of  men, women and children. That food? Almost all of it is tinned or heavily processed so laden with salts and preservatives it was was probably barely edible when it was made let alone now.

Maybe this is what the experience of Fallout 3 is meant to be like? Having finally left Vault 101 at nineteen you have no idea what to expect, why wouldn’t you just accept the world as it is. It’s different from the world you know but you’ve seen little to tell you what the world was like before. You know in your head that there was some sort of war, but what does that really mean? Maybe things have always been this bad or something close to it?

“This seemed like such a nice place.”

Rapture, the USG Ishimura, the Von Braun, we are so accustom to visiting worlds that have been destroyed, or are fated to be destroyed within minutes of our arrival that it’s difficult to associate what they are now with what they might have been. I can’t remember seeing what it was like on Sera prior to the start of Gears Of War, so how am I supposed to care about what it has become? There’s barely enough time or opportunity in the game to tell the narrative it has, let alone convince me that the world is somehow worth fighting for.

Only by spending hours in its world could I reach the point of realisation that Fallout 3 provoked, where I understood the reality of the situation with my heart and not merely my head. I needed to explore that environment and its inhabitants thoroughly before I could grasp the full horror of their situation on anything more than an intellectual level.

The war torn African nation of Far Cry 2 is a brutal, hostile place, that much is obvious within minutes of your arrival. I just wonder if that depiction is very far removed from how a lot of people in the west see Africa? Are depictions of the tragic, dehumanising, effects of war that powerful when common perception is often“well that’s what it’s like there anyway”? I very much doubt that’s an accurate portrayal of life in sub-saharan country, but I have little first hand knowledge, no foundation on which to base a comparison. I accept the Africa of Far Cry 2 as an inhospitable place but it rarely feels like something has been lost.

Being told how something is or used to be can only ever give you a concept, an idea. Unless and until you actually experience it that concept has little emotional weight  If you’ve never seen the world at its best, its most vibrant, how are you supposed to care about it at its most desolate and hostile?