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

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.

Groping The Map: Pauper’s Drop, Part 2.

“There ain’t a side of the tracks more wrong than under ’em.”

Pauper's Drop 2
The platform for Pauper's Drop was never intended for long term use.

Annotated Walkthrough, 1:

Stepping onto the platform at the start of the level one thing is immediately clear, this place is dirty. Compared to the luxuriant excess of the Adonis, or the manufactured joviality of Ryan Amusements, Pauper’s Drop feels old, decrepit. Designed initially as temporary housing for the workers building the Atlantis Express Line, The Drop became home when those workers found there was no place for them in the rest of Rapture.

The hand written sign above the entrance way says it all, whatever this place was before, it’s Pauper’s Drop now.

Pauper's Drop 3
Originally, Maintenance Junction 17, to those who live there it is forever Pauper's Drop.

It’s interesting to note that The Drop appears to be sealed from the outside. A decision by those above to keep somebody in, or the work of a friend to those within, to keep the rest of Rapture at bay?

Even before you’ve entered The Drop proper there’s a distinct air of humanity to the place that has been lacking so far in your return to Rapture. This place might not be particularly welcoming but for somebody it’s home, and as a product of the Rapture above, you are not welcome. That’s made abundantly clear from the moment you Hack your way in, the first sight to great you being the corpse of a fellow Big Daddy, a Rosie. This is a motif that is repeated throughout the level. Big Daddies are not welcome in The Drop, Subject Delta especially not.

Pauper's Drop 4
Somebody cared more about keeping the ceiling up than the Big Daddy alive.

Moving forward you can see the various lines of the Atlantic Express stretching off across Rapture, and Big Sister watching. Looking through the windows throughout Pauper’s Drop you can see Big Sister circling in several locations, observing, waiting.

Pauper's Drop 5
Big Sister is watching.

Heading further forward you come across something that has only really been hinted at in the proceeding levels. The deification of Eleanor Lamb is one of the key themes of BioShock 2, and the ritualistic nature of it is a concept that is first presented here for a payoff at the conclusion of the subsequent level, and a confrontation with the self styled Father Whales in Siren Alley.

Pauper's Drop 6
The observance of rituals shows that the Splicers are not completely devoid of humanity.

Rounding the corner the level opens up as you approach the Fishbowl Diner and after your second sighting of the Brute Splicer, you are ‘welcomed’ by Grace Holloway, a character who knows who you are even if you don’t know yourself. The area in which the Diner is situation is one of the most open areas yet experienced in BioShock 2, and it serves as a hub from which you can explore the separate wings of The Drop.

Like all such locations in BioShock 2 the area around the Diner appears more open than it actually is. There are few entirely clear sights lines between one side and the  other. As well as helping with the optimisation of the level by ensuring that not everything can be seen at once, it also means that there is a variety of cover for both you and your opponents during combat.

Trapped in Pauper’s Drop you need to gain access to the Sinclair Deluxe and obtain the override key from Grace Holloway. That things will not go as simply as that is a given, and if you decide to approach the Sinclair Deluxe first you will find their way blocked by a Brute Splicer acting on the orders of Grace herself. In order to clear this obstruction you will need to locate and make use of the Research Camera, a device familiar to players of BioShock.

Pauper's Drop 7
This type of environmental destruction remains in the hands of NPCs only.

This form of gated progression is a common technique to keep players from moving onward until a particular skill has been learnt or tool acquired. It is a technique used extensively throughout Half-Life 2 and is to some degree a form of the tool based exploration that is one of the cornerstones of the Metroid series.

Though free to explore the Diner and Downtown in any order you choose the Sinclair Deluxe is off limits until you have proven your understanding of the Research Camera. A skill that will prove vitally important as the game progresses. This is a very similar goal to that used in BioShock‘s third level, Neptune’s Bounty, where players are required to photograph, and defeat, three Spider Splicers in order to convince Peach Wilkins to grant them access to the Smuggler’s Hideout.

Actually obtaining the Research Camera is a multi-part objective in itself. You will need to explore the whole of the first section of Pauper’s Drop in order to locate it and only then will you be able to access the Market, where the Camera can be used to research a Brute Splicer and grant you the Drill Dash ability.

The Camera itself can be found within King Pawn in the Downtown district, and it is here that you will head if you heed the advice of Augustus Sinclair. The doors to King Pawn itself have been chained shut and you will need to find another way in through the Clinic. However the Clinic itself requires a keycode to enter, a code which can be found within the Fishbowl Diner.

Since there is no explicit requirement to enter the Sinclair Deluxe until after you have visited one or more of the other locations several variations of Sinclair’s dialogue have been recorded in order to provide the correct information in the correct order. The keycode lock on the Clinic door is another form of gated progression, serving to ensure players understand the need to locate keycodes using clues within the environment, often through listening to audio logs. It’s worth noting that the audio log outside the Clinic explaining the whereabouts of the person responsible for changing the code, Tobias Riefers, plays automatically upon collection; unlike the majority of other audio logs throughout the game. This particular log contains important information and therefore you are required to listen to it. Showing players a location and then requiring that they return to it to complete a subsequent objective is a common means of making use of all the available space while instilling a sense of familiarity in players.

Asking players to explore a location they are already aware of reinforces the interconnected nature of a level, this is especially true if the game recognises that the player has already completed any objective in this area the first time around. Something  BioShock 2 does at several points throughout Pauper’s Drop.

Pauper's Drop 09
When the code is that obvious, why is the Clinic still locked?

The late Tobias Riefers can be found slumped against the wall inside the Fishbowl Diner, the Shotgun in his possession apparently not enough to prevent his death. Though it’s presence does make you wonder why none of the Splicers around have taken it for themselves…

The ambush upon obtaining the Shotgun is reminiscent of a similar occurrence in the Medical Pavilion in BioShock, it would appear in Rapture the Shotgun is a highly popular form of bait. The ambush itself serves an interesting purpose, it is unlikely that many will will switch out the Shotgun for another weapon having just acquired it, so the attack in close quarters serves to highlight both the main strength of the Shotgun and it’s major weakness. Attacked at such close quarters the first Splicer will almost certainly be on the receiving end of a point blank blast to the face, an action almost certain to be fatal. However from here the encounter gets more unpredictable, as the small magazine size (Two shells) make itself immediately apparent. You will need to either switch to an alternate weapon or start to get creative with combinations of Plasmids and melee attacks. The lessons learnt in this brief encounter will serve you well when you enter the Sinclair Deluxe and are faced with a number of similarly point blank encounters. It may also inform the decisions you make upon next locating a Power to the People machine, that Shotgun Clip Size upgrade is clearly a useful proposition in any close range encounter.

With the code in hand it’s time to head Downtown and, assuming you’ve not been there before, your first encounter with a Brute Splicer.

Pauper's Drop 14
Apparently trains do stop here after all.

The Downtown section of Pauper’s Drop is less open than the area around the Diner and initially appears much smaller. Your objective is clear from the first moment you step into this area, the broken neon signage above King Pawn is impossible to miss, this signposting augmented by the sight of the Brute Splicer jumping from the roof toward you. One thing is clear this is an important location and one you should seek to explore.

Pauper's Drop 11
One of the numerous 'Film Noir' inspired images to be found in The Drop.

The door to King Pawn is chained and padlocked and an alternate means of entry is not immediately obvious. If this is your first time in Downtown the audio log leaning against the wall of the Clinic and the keycode locked door are clear indicators that this is somewhere that warrants further investigation. If you are returning here having already secured the keycode it’s likely you’ll enter the Clinic immediately and pay little attention to the other doorway in this area. On the opposite side of the central square to King Pawn, past the fallen train car, the way to the Market is currently inaccessible, presumable to prevent anybody from defeating the second Brute Splicer before they have obtained the Research Camera. Since anybody reaching this point is likely to be more interested in King Pawn and the Clinic it’s likely few will realise this door is sealed shut until the Research Camera has been acquired. It’s a rare instance of being locked into a particular area without some form of explicit in world acknowledgement. However the low probability of anybody attempting this door until the correct time means drawing attention to it would probably do more harm than good.

Pauper's Drop 12
The moment it all changed for me.

Entering the Clinic was the moment that defined this level for me personally. Up until this point the layout had seemed to conform to a fairly standard design, similar to the majority of levels in BioShock: a central hub area with a number of side spokes branching from it. A floor plan exemplified by the Medical Pavilion and Hephaestus among others. Though Pauper’s Drop conforms to this design on a macro scale, each spoke serves as it’s own little hub from which areas seem to branch outward and outward. Moving up the stairs I was expecting to find a back room that allowed access to King Pawn and maybe one or two extra rooms containing items and possibly an audio log. Instead there are two exits at the top of the stairs and exploring either leads to various walkways, and hidden rooms, with little obvious dead end in sight. In the space of one moment an area that had seemed so obviously limited in scope became a much more interesting place.

What seems obvious on the surface is hiding a web of interconnected passages and backrooms. There is much more to be seen if you scratch the surface than you would imagine from a cursory glance. It is a metaphor for BioShock 2 itself, there is greater complexity at work than might initially appear. Stumbling over walkways between rooftops and through decaying apartment buildings I felt like I had changed from a visitor with a very specific objective, to an explorer rummaging through the private areas of Rapture. I was no longer an observer I was an inhabitant.

Pauper's Drop 13
Apparently even the citizens of Rapture had a need for Private Investigators.

Among the many areas that become accessible upon entering the Clinic, the majority of which are not vital to progression, is the office of Private Investigator Rock Flanagan, in whose office can be found an audio log describing how he had to pawn his Genetic Research Camera. Since this reinforces something we have already been told, that there is a Research Camera in King Pawn, I wonder if at some point during the development of Pauper’s Drop players had been required to actually locate the Research Camera for themselves and this audio log is a remnant of a previous focus on investigation. Something that would fit with the obvious ‘Film Noir’ references throughout The Drop. This concept seems to be reinforced by comments made by Senior Level Architect Alex Munn in the Deco Devolution art book.

It’s actually possible to gain entry to King Pawn fairly quickly after entering the Clinic, however with so many options available for exploration it’s unlikely you will go there immediately. When you do find your way into the pawnshop the method you use is one that will soon become familiar, especially in Siren Alley. Using a hole in the roof to gain access to an otherwise blocked area, or alternately using a hole to rapidly exit from an area, is something that you will find yourself doing several times before the game is over.

Both of these layouts are variations on the structure of level design I refer to as a loop, or circuit. In essence it is the concept of: long way there, short way back. Players are required to invest time and resources in order to access a climatic or otherwise important part of a level but from there can return to the start quickly. This is usually achieved in one of two ways, by completing a loop that only works in one direction a ‘saw-tooth’ loop or by ‘unblocking’ a route that had initially been sealed. Numerous examples of the ‘saw-tooth’ loop can be seen in Borderlands where players are required to make their way through a number of lower level enemies gradually in order to reach a boss encounter. Once the boss is defeated the layout will allow players to jump from a window, balcony, or ledge to a location much closer to the start of the level.

The ‘unblocking’ form of loop is seen in Ryan Amusements, where upon reaching the end of the Journey To The Surface, players activate the security override and open previously sealed doors throughout the level, allowing rapid access to the start of the ride.

This form of looping structure can also be combined with gated progression to lock players into a particular location until they can perform a required task. A good example of this can be seen in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 where players drop through a window into a confined location and must destroy the Combine Auto Turrets within in order to leave.

Now that the Research Camera has been found it’s time to head to the Market district, aka Skid Row…

Sequels: Continuing the Story.

Sequels focused on continuing a story started in the original can be uniquely challenging. Freed of the need to introduce world and characters the focus shifts to expanding the world, and a deeper exploration of the central themes. Providing a bigger context, a broader canvas, on which to explore the escalating consequences of the actions of the characters.

In The Godfather Part II we see Michael Corleone attempting to expand the operations of the family, while dealing with the choices made previously by himself and his father Vito. The continuing themes of family and respect are weaved throughout along with several references both direct and metaphorical to events from the first film; the final scenes strongly echoing the ending of the original in both tone and content.

“… if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

The goal of such a sequel is one of expansion and escalation, the problems are larger, the stakes higher; to put it another way everything is “Bigger, Better, More Badass”.

This is seen in numerous game sequels, players are provided with larger locations to visit, more powerful tools to wield, and tougher challenges to face. The problems are bigger and so are the solutions.

In Half-Life the initial goal is to escape the Black Mesa Research Facility, there are detours, and the eventual goal becomes something greater but the story is essentially confined to Black Mesa. Escape from the facility comes only at the conclusion. From the very first moments of Half-Life 2 it’s explicitly clear that you will no longer be restricted to the confines of Black Mesa, the world has expanded and you are no longer solely concerned with self-preservation.

The Half-Life series also serves to highlight an inherent character development problem with game sequels. By the conclusion of the original game the player character will have faced and surmounted numerous challenges, often learning new skills and acquired tools and weapons along the way. They end the game a more competent more powerful character than they began it. In order to repeat this sense of character development and progression in the sequel players will be stripped of their acquired skills and abilities. Just how many times does Gordon Freeman have to lose his weapons, just so that they can be carefully portioned back out?

What purpose is served by developing a character when they are fated to lose all progression the next time they appear? Would audiences have accepted The Godfather Part 2 if Michael Corleone was no longer the Don but had to earn that position all over again?

One way to mitigate this is to treat sequels in an episodic fashion with only the most basic of story elements carried forward into each subsequent title. The Tomb Raider games use this approach, until their recent revival, each title was a self contained story with only the barest links to the previous games. Such an approach allows for recurring characters and themes to provide a sense of continuity, while not requiring an extensive knowledge of the back story that might be off putting to new players.

Some sequels sidestep the issue by developing the story around a different protagonist. While avoiding the previous problems such games still need to spent time reestablishing the rules and underlying context for the world. Attempts are often made to tie the actions of the new protagonist to those of their predecessor, such as in Fallout 2. In these cases the overarching storyline is not so much that of either protagonist but the world itself.

“My ancestor could beat up your ancestor.”

An interesting twist on this is the approach taken by System Shock 2, and more recently F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, that of a new protagonist but a returning antagonist. Set some forty two years after the events on Citadel Station System Shock 2 features a new blank slate avatar who once again has to deal with the machinations of SHODAN. The story of System Shock is not really the story of the player at all, it is her story. This bring us back to a variation on the original problem; does SHODAN’s reappearance in System Shock 2 serve to invalidate the actions of the mysterious hacker, the player character of the original System Shock? The SHODAN found on Tau Ceti V only exists because of your actions in the original game but doesn’t her very survival call into question the value of your original success?

The beginning of Alien 3 changes the entire tenor of the final sequences of Aliens, as going back and watching it again we know that some of those characters are destined to die. Is the assumption that players are unlikely to revisit the original game so anything is fair, even turning what was once a  success into a failure?

The structure of games based on progression from a state of powerlessness to a state of empowerment seems at odds with the desire to continue a story arc; any progression in the first game is immediately negated for the start of the sequel in order for the cycle to begin anew.

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.

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.