Discovering my Destiny.

Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.

I don’t play shooters. We had GoldenEye when I was a kid but I only ever played against my brother and I’ve mostly avoided them since. I was initially drawn to Destiny despite this for a couple reasons. Partly it’s a function of dating a guy who is writing a book which examines the level design of a section of Halo in detail. I have sat through multiple lectures about its combat design, the way the game forces you to be clever about which weapons you use, the different behaviours the enemies exhibit, etc, etc, ad nauseum (lest anyone think this is a gendered thing let it be known that I have subjected him to treatises on the finer points of Harvest Moon more than once). The point is that I now have an intellectual appreciation for Halo and other shooters that I used to dismiss out of hand.

One of the reasons Destiny is the first shooter I’ve tried since then is that I tend to panic when shot at, particularly if I can’t find the shooter; I feel overwhelmed when enemies get close and in first person I struggle to keep track of what is out of sight. In Destiny this is less of a problem. The enemies shoot relatively slow, highly visible projectiles and as long as I stay far enough away, or keep my back to the wall, I can keep an eye on everyone who is trying to kill me and avoid their efforts. While some of the enemies like to get in close, like the Dregs of the Fallen or the Thralls of the Hive, Destiny gives me a way to manage them in the form of the melee attack. I have been playing as a Warlock, which particularly helps as her melee attack shoves enemies backwards when it doesn’t kill them, granting me some breathing room. Spacial awareness is still an issue for me but here one of the major complaints about Destiny actually works in my favour; if I have to return to an area over and over again then eventually I will memorise where the best cover is and I can avoid the corners I know I’ve been trapped in before.

There are other aspects of the gameplay that I know exist in other games but that I am only discovering for the first time with Destiny. The biggest thrill for me has been my gradual mastery of timing. I had heard people talk about how powerful games can make you feel but there is almost no comparison between the intellectual satisfaction I have experienced when mastering an RPG and the sheer pleasure of taking down waves of enemies, the joy of staggering a Thrall long enough to reload before hitting the melee button as he jumps toward you, or the gratification of popping out of cover just as your health refills to take down the last enemy in one shot. As I’ve played and my confidence in my abilities has grown I’ve become more aggressive, actively chasing down unshielded Captains or standing in the open to line up a precision shot on a Vandal as he fires at me. When this works, or I make it through a gruelling Darkness section, I feel invincible in a way few other games have ever managed. When it doesn’t? I go back to playing cautiously until my confidence returns.

The map looks like it ought to be on yellowed parchment, tucked within the pages of one of John Dee’s notebooks.
The map looks like it ought to be on yellowed parchment, tucked within the pages of one of John Dee’s notebooks.

My newfound appreciation for the gameplay wouldn’t have been enough to get me to keep playing Destiny if it weren’t for the story. People have mocked the naming conventions but they fit perfectly with what I think the game is trying to achieve. The lore reaches for the classic fantasy of Earthsea layered underneath the outward appearance of the space fiction of Arthur C. Clark and others. This sounds like it should be unbelievably pretentious but I believe it works if you are willing to delve into the Grimoire. Everything fits seamlessly if you do, with gameplay and story working to reinforce each other. For example the Dregs behave more aggressively in combat than the Vandals or the Captains and of course they would since their second pair of arms have been docked and they have to earn the right to regrow them. I have come across three Fallen Houses so far as I play; the House of Devils, brought low by the death of their Archon early in the game but still swarming the Cosmodrome; the House of Kings, determined after the fall of the House of Devils to take control of an old Warmind that could prove critical to the Guardians; and the House of Exiles, mostly made up of Dregs living among the Hive on the moon, while doing patrol missions there it is possible to thwart attempts by them at raising a mixed army of Fallen and Hive. These Houses each have a different colour scheme and appear at the appropriate points in the story but I only noticed because I had been primed to by the Grimoire; the Hive have similar distinctions although their ranks are made up of different religious sects.

I also want to address some of the complaints about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting. So far I have only reached the moon and it’s possible that it gets markedly worse later in the game but there have been several incredible moments from him. One early on is the first meeting with the Speaker. The Speaker expresses his hope that your Ghost chose his Guardian well and his response is “I did… I’m sure of it”. His uncertainty rings clear, but so does his willingness to put his faith in you. Later, on the moon, you come across a dead Guardian. Your Ghost asks “Where is his Ghost…?”. His sudden fear for himself and horror at what might have happened to his fellow Ghost come through perfectly. Peter Dinklage’s voice acting does a remarkable job of getting across the idea that your Ghost is an independent entity, with his own hopes and fears. The game reinforces this through the Grimoire but these lines exist outside of that, even if you never read a single card you will hear them.

I can’t fault anyone for finding Destiny lacking. My experience with it is by no means the norm, the gameplay that I find so satisfying isn’t new to most and as much as I wish more players would delve into the story I can’t blame those who assume the game itself doesn’t care whether they do or not. This is a shame because Destiny is so much more than it appears at first glance. The enemies have more depth and nuance than the broad banner of “the Darkness” suggests. The brief descriptions on some items hint at a longstanding rivalry between Hunters and Warlocks. While I suspect the Traveller remains a silent, enigmatic orb throughout the game, that my Ghost was born from it makes me inclined to learn more about it. I encourage anyone who plays to take the time to look past the surface to the rich history beneath.

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

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.

Territorial Control.

Having previously examined the possibly meanings that can be drawn from logical exploration, in the form of resource cycles in BioShock and Beyond Good & Evil, I’ve decided to take a step back and look more closely at the concept of exploration in a territorial sense. What meaning can this form of exploration impart? I have already looked at one way in which games define territory, this second method should serve as a complement, not a replacement to that. The original breakdown of territory into Logical and Functional is one that is defined statically, spaces that are Logical rarely change to Functional and vice verse. This time I’m interested in how the nature of territory changes dynamically.

To that end I’ve chosen to look at two games which handle the concept of territory in different but, I believe, equally meaningful ways.

The makeup of the physical territory in Halo: Combat Evolved (And other games in the series) is essentially binary. For a given location, the player is either not in combat or in combat, the space they inhabit is either Safe or Hostile. Within this Hostile space it’s possible to further subdivide the space into locations in which the player is under fire and those in which they are in cover. In the former space the immediate priorities are those of direct combat and with tactics and planning taking a backseat. In the latter space the player’s shields (Or stamina in the case of Halo 3: ODST) are able to recharge and the immediate priorities switch to tactics and planning. When all enemies in a location area have been neutralised the entire location switches from Hostile to Safe.

The overall aim of any location is to convert all Hostile locations into Safe ones. The tools provided to the player, are all geared toward the accomplishment of this goal. Weapons allow the player to directly engage enemies and neutralise them; items and vehicles serve as second order modifiers and power-ups, providing either additional weaponry or modifying the nature of the current Hostile space to improve the ability of the player to convert that location from Hostile to Safe; shields that create temporary cover locations or cloaking devices allow Safe movement through otherwise Hostile territory.

Every tool available to the player is one that is used to either directly or indirectly change the state of the space form Hostile to Safe. The underlying meaning of Halo seems to be that of safety through superior firepower.

The second game I want to look at is, unsurprisingly for me, Thief: The Dark Project. On the surface the makeup of territory in Thief also comes down to Safe and Hostile space, however one of the major differences between Thief and Halo is that the definition of safety in Thief is far more granular. Instead of a strictly binary divide between Safe and Hostile locations there exists a scale of safety in Thief. At one end of which are locations which are unlit, with soft surfaces for floors, and empty of non-player characters. Such locations are the Safest a Thief level gets. At the other end of the scale are locations which are well-lit, have hard floors, and are patrolled by non-player characters, these are the truly Hostile locations in Thief.

Any location within a Thief level can be placed somewhere on this scale, with most locations falling between the mid-point and the upper limit of Hostility. Few locations in Thief are Safe, at least to begin with.

Any area that is well-lit is one that is Hostile to the player, it might not contain any non-player characters at the moment but that can easily change. One of the most important tools for the player are water arrows which can be used to douse torches, extinguishing light sources and significantly altering that location’s relative safety. Intelligent use of water arrows can very quickly change a Hostile location into a Safe one.

However despite the variety of tools available to mitigate the Hostility of the current location, it’s difficult to make any areas completely Safe and impossible to make the entire level Safe. The majority of every Thief level is composed of Hostile territory. Regardless of how much time and effort the player may put into changing the exact breakdown of Hostile and Safe locations within the level there will always remain some Hostile locations; the player cannot ever be entire Safe within any location.

Playing Thief the underlying meaning becomes apparent: you are a rogue element within an overwhelmingly Hostile location and no matter how hard you try you can never hope to be entirely Safe. You do not belong.

NOTE:

Any such analysis of Thief: The Dark Project and it’s sequels comes up against a problem, which is that much like Halo spaces are mechanically only Hostile to the player when some non-player character is present to provide a direct threat. It is possible for a Thief player to incapacitate or otherwise neutralise every non-player character in the level, thus greatly affecting the Hostility of the level. What is important then is not the actual Hostility of a level but its percieved Hostility. Finally spend some time inside Thief: Deadly Shadow’s Shalebridge Cradle and you’ll understand exactly how Hostile a location can be even when apparently devoid of non-player characters.

Multi-level decision making.

At any moment during a game players are liable to be thinking about events in multiple timeframes at once. Performing tasks that are over in seconds, in order to achieve goals that are over in minutes as a means of completing missions that may take hours.

The lowest level of actions occur on the Immediate layer, these are the second to second decisions made in the heat of combat, during a conversation, or while climbing a wall. When and where to shoot, which dialogue line to select, which handhold to reach for. These events are the Encounters, over in seconds and repeated dozens of times during the course of the game. The narrative strength of actions in this layer is best served through directly embedded content. Animation cycles, dialogue lines, and the options available to the player all serves as vectors for narrative meaning.

Above this there is the Tactical layer, the longer term minute to minute decisions made in the execution of plans. Which particular enemies to engage, which NPCs to talk to, which wall to scale. These are the Objectives, and can be defined either explicitly by the game, or implicitly by the players themselves. Variation in these Objectives and the levels in which they take place can be used to provide narrative.

Operating above both of these there is often, but not always,  a Strategic layer, actions on this layer occur over a much longer term, possibly hours. They include, which missions to accept, which character upgrades to select, which tools to equip. They can be either explicitly defined as Quests chains, or often they are not defined at all the goal of the Strategic layer simply being to reach the end of the game. This layer is best used to define the narrative context for actions that occur on the lower layers.

  • The Immediate layer is Reactive.
  • The Strategic layer is Proactive.
  • The Tactical layer is both.

Though some traits can be associated with each layer,  the boundaries between them are fairly permeable. The goals of the Immediate and Tactical layer are often elements of those defined on the Strategic layer. Strategic goals lead to the creation of multiple Tactical goals, and multiple Immediate goals will be needed to fulfil a specific Tactical goal.

If the Strategic goal is to get to a specific location, it might require engaging in combat with several groups of enemies. This leads to the creation of Tactical goals concerned with how to deal with each enemy group and in what order. These Tactical goals in turn lead to the creation of Immediate goals, when to shoot, where to move. Successful completion of the Strategic goal requires successful completion of the Tactical and Immediate goals that stem from it.

In this way it can be seen that actions on the Strategic layer directly influence those on the lower layers.

Layers

Plans trickle down from higher layers to lower ones. Immediate actions are defined, their scope is limited by decisions made on the Tactical layer. Where you are and which tools you have at your disposal are based on decisions made at the Tactical layer, which in turn are influenced by decisions made on the Strategic layer. If a particular character upgrade has not been obtained on it will not be available.

This flow of influence does not only occur in one directions. Actions and their consequences trickle upwards. Events that occur in the Immediate layer change the Tactical status of the world, new routes are located, items are found. Events on the Tactical layer in turn affect the options available in the Strategic layer. Meaningful actions are ones that send ripples out beyond the layer in which they occur and affect decisions made on all layers: actions on the Immediate layer that leads to consequences on the Tactical and Strategic layers.

In ludic terms each layer has some degree of repetition, as there are only so many valid actions that can be performed at any given time. The repetition is mitigated most on the Strategic layer because the goals are long term, any repetition that does exist occurs over the course of several hours making it difficult to ascertain any patterns in the type of actions being performed.

On the Immediate layer the sense of repetition can be the strongest, as often the core mechanics of a game only allow for a few options. However at this layer the direct connection between action and outcome serves to lesson the impact of the repetition, as the consequences of actions on this layer are often the most directly stimulating, the blood spurts of a successful headshot, the ding of a loot pickup, the fluid animation of a character clambering over a ledge. Each one a little endorphin kick that keeps us engaged; if anybody is in doubt I point you to the immediate feedback presented in a game like Diablo.

The biggest problem with repetition comes on the Tactical layer. Action games suffer the most on this layer. Consider Far Cry 2, the actual combat mechanics and the options available to players in combat can be quite engaging (The Immediate layer is well designed). The ability to select which missions to attempt and in which order lessens the restrictive sense of repetition on the Strategic layer. However regardless of which mission the player selects and for whom, the short term goals required to complete each are usually very similar, if not identical: go here kill, these people\find this item, get back to here. The execution of these individual Tactical goals on the Immediate layer might be entertaining but that does little to cover up the fact that players are basically doing exactly the same thing during each mission. This is not helped by a lack of narrative feedback regarding the overarching consequences of actions. Assassinating a Police chief might be contextualised differently to the assassination of a Warlord but the narrative feedback from each event is not differentiated enough to mask the underlying repetition.

Because Tactical goals can take minutes to an hour to complete they occur over too short a timeframe for their patterns to be lost in the noise of all the other decisions, yet at too long a timeframe for that endorphin kick to keep players engaged. It’s here that a strong narrative context can keep players engaged in performing what are mechanic very similar actions.

Halo: Combat Evolved is another prime example of a game that suffers on the Immediate layer. Those “thirty seconds of fun”are, at least for me, some of the most pleasurable in gaming, but there can be no denying that on the Tactical layer the game is little more than a sequence of goals of the form: “Kill these hostiles.”

With their focus on Immediate and Tactical actions, action games are geared to a shorter play session, that serves to mitigate their repetitive nature. Plans are often completed within seconds or minutes, so players are given more points at which they are “free” to quit because they have no plans remaining to complete. Under these circumstances it’s little surprise that action game stories are fairly perfunctory, serving only to cover up the core mechanical repetition and provide a loose context for who, where and why.

In comparison a high level strategy game (An accurate genre name if ever there was one) like Civilization IV relies almost entirely on actions playing out on the Tactical and Strategic layers. This leads to a long term investment as players keep playing in order to see the consequences of actions, the beloved\cursed “one more turn” syndrome. Goals at these layers are well served by a more “hands off” approach to narrative, as players will be less likely to baulk at the lack of direct feedback on the Immediate layer, when they have played a greater part in the selection of the Tactical goals that led to those Immediate actions.

Mechanical Definitions.

At a low enough level all game mechanics are the same, we press a button, move a stick, and something happens. Action and Outcome. Process and Result. Context is what allows us to determine if we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board context is provided by the narrative of the game.

If a plot is conceptually a “to do list” of events, then the rules of a game define the game’s systemic plot, what actions are possible and when. Using this metaphor game mechanics are the constituent, atomic, elements of a game plot, so what are the constituent elements of a narrative plot? Sentences? Dialogue? Games are often compared to film, and a line of dialogue, an individual frame, these are potentially the atomic elements of film?

As a method of conveying meaning, what is the role of any line of dialogue, any scene?

  1. To move the story forward.
  2. To provide information.
  3. To characterise.

Nothing is wasted. Everything that is present should be important, and everything important should be present. If a character walks a certain way, it should provide information, characterise and move the story forward, or at least two of three. Shouldn’t the same hold for any game mechanic? How do we define a specific game mechanic precisely enough to determine if it meets any of these three criteria?

“Shoot this Grunt” is that the mechanic? Or is the mechanic: “Move yourself in the world so that you are Aiming at this character and press the Fire button”?

If an individual mechanic is to be an atomic element then surely the latter is too complex? It is several discrete actions: Move, Aim and Fire. In Halo: Combat Evolved it requires moving two sticks independently then pulling a trigger. It also has to occur at the correct time. But then so does a line of dialogue, a particular scene. If they occur at the wrong time they make no sense.

Events in the wrong context hold incorrect meaning.

Is it actually sensible to try and examine game mechanics devoid of context? Should a game mechanic be considered an action within a context? Not: “Press this button to increase this number”, which increases some arbitrary number in the underlying simulation of the game but: “Increasing my Strength”? Should it be even more high level, an abstract: “Improve\Change my Character”?

If game mechanics should carry meaning at which level should that meaning exist? Or does it exist at each level? Is meaning implicit in action or is it, as I’ve discussed previously, tied to context? Context might inform whether we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board, but does the action itself hold meaning free of this context?

Is it the responsible of the narrative context, to move the story forward, provide information and characterise or is it possible for mechanics to do that separate from their context?

Combat Evolved.

“Don’t get any funny ideas.”

I like Halo: Combat Evolved.

In any list of my personal favourite titles it would be up there with Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom and Thief II: The Metal Age. Each of the Halo sequels have been entertaining but none had the same impact, nor felt as pure in their execution as the original.

I have completed Halo at least five times. Usually I don’t replay games on harder difficult settings as often the more challenging settings in action games are simply exercises in frustration, the core experience unchanged except with enemies becoming bullet sponges. This is not the case with Halo, I completed the game on Normal, and after hearing how the difficult significantly changed the experience I opted to make a second attempt on Heroic. When I did that, everything changed.

On Normal I’d found all the weapons to be useful, but on Heroic the differentiation between each weapon and weapon combination became dramatically more apparent. The Needler went from simply interesting to the ultimate weapon for defeating shielded Elites; the Plasma Pistol from a mild irritant to the first part of a One-Two combo with the Assault Rifle to defeat Jackals. My attitude to the enemies changed too, Grunts went from amusing cannon-fodder to dangerous distractions; easy to kill, but armed with Needlers and Plasma Pistols they could inflict a lot of damage in groups.

Finally moving to Legendary the differences between the weapons and enemies became even more pronounced to the extent that Halo all but stopped being about action and became instead a tactical shooter; very specific weapon and target selection required to succeed. Still it never once felt like it was cheating, there were no precognitive ambushes, nor one-hit kill snipers; something that the sequels would later resorted to.

The changes that occur to the balance of the core gameplay when moving from Normal to Heroic are such that I maintain Bungie made a mistake in selecting Normal as the default difficulty setting. A suspect few people will change the difficult when th y first play the game and therefore never experience the tactical depth Halo has to offer. On Normal your starting weapons are effective in most circumstances so there is rarely a motivation to do anything more than hold down the trigger.

There are other problems with the game, the one most commonly mentioned is that of its repetitive environments. Even though some areas are explicitly duplicated during the course of the game, the enemy type, number and placement is different each time, as are the weapons you are likely to be wielding; the tactical space of the game is always different.

There are no boss battles, no dramatic spikes in difficult, or sections where an entirely new skill set is required. There are vehicle sections but the controls remain essentially the same, the right stick always controls the camera, the left always handles movement, and the right trigger is always fire.

The game introduces you carefully to each enemy, subsequent encounters requiring you to gradually develop your abilities and tactics. You start the game fighting Grunts and Elites in confined areas, then you move to fighting Grunts, Elites and Jackels in open areas, and then fighting with vehicles. It eventually introduces the Flood, and once you know how to deal with them (Involving sadly the worse level in the game, The Library, which combines both aesthetic and functional repetition), it asks you to fight the Flood and the Covenant, and then the Flood, the Covenant and the Sentinels. Each encounter requires that you take the skills developed previously and build on them.

There are only seven main enemy types, and ten weapon types (Including the two different types of grenades), enough to provide variety but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track of specific strengths and weaknesses of each. Again this is somewhere the sequels failed, the introduction of several new weapons, enemies and eventually usable items, meant that it became difficult to keep track of the interactions between each, and often led to some weapons being under utilised.

Halo has a limited number of objects each with very specific interactions through which it’s able to promote meaningful choices and tactical play; while still managing to provide surprises and challenges even on my sixth return visit.

“An entire Covenant armada, obliterated, and the Flood… we had no choice…”

Can I tell you a story?

Though nobody cares about your stupid story it’s likely that it’s not entirely down to the audience and their preconceptions of games. There are people who do see games as a storytelling medium, whether they consider that to be their primary function or not.

This is something that Ken Levine went on to discuss in his GDC presentation, he talked about how BioShock had been designed to work on three levels, what I would consider the physical, the intellectual and the emotional.

The first level, the physical, he described as the very straightforward “Where do I need to go, who do I need to kill?”, BioShock needed to satisfy those people who simply wanted to play, to maintain forward progression and be engaged. The second level, the intellectual, is the group Ken described himself as being a part of, those with “… some interest in the story.” People in this group need to be satisfied by the immediate action, but also need some context for their actions. The final group is those people who are deeply invested in the story and background of Rapture (The failed undersea utopia where BioShock is set), for this group “… you have to give them all of that love, a novelistic level of detail.” This is the group for which every detail matters.

These levels are in very simple terms the “What?”, “Who?” and “Why?” of the game. If you don’t know what you are doing it doesn’t matter who you are doing it to or why.

Every level should build upon the previous levels, the secondary and tertiary levels cannot be successfully catered too without first satisfying the primary level; people shouldn’t be asked to fight through the core mechanics of the game in order to appreciate the story; and they will resent being asked to.

The major issues arise when trying to balance the needs of these three levels, to engage the entire audience at once. If the game is loaded with too much exposition up front, those players who simply want to play will be, at best, distracted and at worse feel patronised. Too little depth and a game will be incapable of holding the attention of those who are interested in the story and they will quickly move on to something else. At the same time nobody should be forced to wade through copious detail in order to understand what is actually going on.

I find that often when games attempt to tell a story they overload the core experience with information, rapidly devolving into a succession of over long speeches full of proper nouns. Halo 3, is a game that, for all it’s ability to provide the visceral thrills required by the primary audience, has difficulty balancing these levels. So much exposition is throw up within the first few minutes that it becomes very difficult to follow unless you have been keeping track of the Halo cannon since the first game; a title that managed to cater to all three audiences in a much more successful manner.

There are people who are interested in games for their story, but there will always be people who simply want to be entertained on a physical level, and whatever story a game contains should strive not to get in the way of that.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because you’re telling it to the wrong people.

Motivation.

It’s common for games to provide an array of tools by which you can alter your own character or the environment to better suit a particular play style, but without some degree of active encouragement it’s possibly for a lot of these tools will go unused.

While playing System Shock 2 you are required to manage you resources, it’s necessary to be careful to improvise because it’s rare to have the Ammunition, Health Hypos, Cyber Modules or other resources required to blast through every encounter. Because you’re never particularly well supplied, you are forced to think about you actions, to use your abilities and the environment to gain an advantage.

The outwardly similar title Deus Ex: Invisible War also provides options to be inventive and experimental. There are a number of different means provided for changing the environment, however as resources are plentiful and alternate options clearly indicated, there is rarely any tangible benefit to experimenting. It’s possible to use a clever combination of weapons and BioMods to bypass a particular security system, but when there’s nearly always an air vent available to lead you around the area in question, there’s no advantage to be gained from expending your resources.

Given a choice it’s human nature to aim for the path of least resistance. If you are consistently in a state where you are well supplied, there’s a distinct disinclination to attempt alternate strategies, it makes no sense to try a tactic that might work when you already have one that does work.

Halo: Combat Evolved is a title that subtly encourages experimentation. In a standard first person shooter, there might be a dozen different weapons each with alternate fire modes, however most players will stick with one or two different weapons that are reliable in all situations. By restricting the available weapons to two at a time Halo encourages you to experiment; none of the weapons are universally useful, therefore it’s necessary to keep changing and experimenting with different combinations as rely exclusively on a single pairing rapidly becomes ineffective.

Necessity is the mother of invention: if players are never in a situation were need to try different strategies to survive then it’s unlikely they will be inventive for its own sake.