Two steps forward…

With each consecutive hardware generation it takes time to achieve what was possible at the end of the previous generation. New hardware requires new software techniques and often a return to first principles. The initial move from sprite based to polygon based games saw a marked increase in the spatial complexity of environments but was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in the size and number of objects that could exist within those environments. This clearest example of this can be seen when comparing Doom and Quake, two games separated by three years and an entire dimension. It wouldn’t be until five years later that the release of Serious Sam saw a return to the sprawling environments and hundreds of enemies that Doom boasted.

Twenty years ago I was playing a game that allowed me to explore thousands of square miles of virtual terrain. I was driving snowmobiles down mountains in order to meet one of over thirty non-player characters each with their own personality and skills which I would hopefully convince them to use in the fight against the invading forces of General Masters. This was Midwinter, prequel to the game I still  consider my favourite game of all time, Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom.

Since then, with each hardware generation, the scale of the environments in which I’ve been able to play has decreased. Only recently has the  trend started to reverse and I have been able to have a similar experience to that I had twenty years ago. Far Cry 2 is the nearest I’ve come to recapturing that experience of first playing Midwinter, yet even though Far Cry 2 shows a significant increase in graphical fidelity over Midwinter the range of options available to me, the possibility space of the game, feels reduced.

It would be extremely narrow minded of me to ignore the impact the increase in technology has had on my reaction to the game, or to underestimate how the subtle changes in available mechanics have altered the dynamics. Despite these advancements in both technology and design it’s still difficult to ignore the feeling that somehow I’m playing a version of the same game I played twenty years ago and that the core experience has changed little in that time.

Twenty years of technological advancement, several hardware generations all so I can have essentially the same experience available on my Atari ST. I can’t help but wonder if that time has really been put to the best use.

This is not the only example I can think of where a recent titles has felt like it could have been created years previously. Last year saw the release of Left 4 Dead, a major factor in its appeal is the ability to face off against hordes of zombies alongside three companions.  Four players together fighting off dozens of mindless enemies, it’s a fantasy that holds a lot of appeal. Yet that sense of four players against overwhelming odds, is an experience I can distinctly remember having eight years ago. Alongside three friends I faced down hundreds of enemies in the twisted ancient Egyptian setting of Serious Sam. The sheer number of enemies that game is able to thrown at the player is absurd, the final level is subtitled “Infinite Bodycount” and I honestly wonder how much of that is hyperbole.

The mechanics of Left 4 Dead could have been implemented seven years earlier in Serious Sam or even fifteen years earlier in Doom. The graphical fidelity of such an implementation would be much lower, but would the experience itself be that much different?

Of course it’s not only technology that has changed in that time. Those seven years have allowed artists, sound designers and level designers to hone their craft to the extent that even if Left 4 Dead or something similar had appeared earlier it would not possess the same level of craft. It takes time to learn and apply the techniques of filmic art direction and indirect training that make Left 4 Dead the holistic experience that it is.

This still doesn’t completely lessen the sensation that twenty years of technological advancement have done little for the actual design of games, and that is  a wasted opportunity. Commercial video games are approaching their fortieth anniversary and with the first few years of each hardware generation spent trying to recreate the experiences that were possible before it’s little wonder that it can feel like video games have had trouble growing up in that period.

The Perma-death interview.

A large part of what fascinates me about games is the subjective nature of the play experience itself, the notion that no two people will have the same experience even within a heavily scripted game. Recently Australian blogger Ben Abraham has been gaining attention for his decision to partake in an “iron man” play through of Far Cry 2, no reloading when his character dies the game is over. The manner in which this player imposed boundary altered his play experience is something I’m particularly interested in. Fortunately Ben was kind enough to answer some questions I had:

1. In your own words, what prompted your decisions to play Far Cry 2 in this fashion?

I think the initial desire was to impose a new way of playing Far Cry 2 that would lead to more of those fun moments where it feels like something is really hanging in the balance – where the outcome is hinged upon my performance. I thought that perhaps by imposing a limit of a single life, it would add more drama and weight to my actions and performance in the game and ultimately provide me with a more satisfying experience.

In that sense it was for entirely selfish, experiential reasons – I wanted to enjoy and continue enjoying Far Cry 2 having played it a lot already.

2. Having completed Far Cry 2 previously, can you describe some of the ways in which permadeath changed the way you approach the game? Have you noticed yourself doing things differently when you played it under normal conditions?

I guess the approach I took reflected my desire to have a fun experience, and so I took it very seriously and played it quite safe at first. When the initial sense of tension and danger wore off I experimented a bit more, deliberately courted danger a little bit. When playing normally however I probably strode right up to danger and punched it in the face, trusting luck and skill to get me by, but by prioritizing my survival I became much more reserved and cautious. Kinda boring, really.

Practical things that changed how I played included picking safe options, and utilizing all the points on my “How To Kill People More Effectively” strategy. Basically any time there was a dangerous option and a boring safe option, I took the safe one.

3. Do you think this type of play through is something you could imagine doing for a game you had never played before?

I don’t think so. Far Cry 2 is quite forgiving of your mistakes in the sense that if you ‘die’ with a rescue buddy around, you get a second chance. That’s one of the reasons I thought it would be feasible for an ordinary non-uber player like myself to complete Far Cry 2 without ever dying.

4. Is there something specific to the design of Far Cry 2 that makes it more suitable to this type of play through than other games? Do you think Far Cry 2 was a good choice for what you were intending to do, and if so why?

I think the buddy rescue system is one of the best ways of dealing with the problem of lost and wasted game-time that you get by forcing players to reload and try parts of a game again – and I do think that it is a loss. Jesper Juul talks about ‘time lost’ as a punishment in a talk from GDC earlier this year.

5. You have been describing the events that took place from a first person perspective (With a notable exception), and as a connected narrative, is there an explicit reason for this approach to the presentation of your experience?

Part of the attraction to the “one life” approach was that it made everything in the game more meaningful to the story – that is, never ever was an action ‘wasted’ because I died and had to start over. I had also hoped that it would add weight to every action, even insignificant ones, but as it turns out, it’s not quite that straightforward.

I wanted to write from a first person perspective because of a couple of reasons – firstly I was (and still am) increasingly bored with straight essay style writing about games. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the good ones, and they’ll certainly always have their place, but more and more I’m finding myself attracted to the kind of games criticism that involves some application of creativity of expression. I’m a bit of a desperate fan of Kieron Gillen’s somewhat controversial New Games Journalism style of writing because it doesn’t just give permission to a writer to be creative, it demands it. I think a lot of people mis-read it back in the day and took it as meaning that was the only way you were meant to write about games, but it’s not meant to be so constrictive – it’s just another tool in the critic’s toolbox.

I also thought that the first person perspective would let me describe how I was feeling while playing it, and as the whole point of the exercise was to change the experience, keep it new and interesting, that seemed the logical choice.

6. The concept of adding additional rules to a game is not a new one: “Iron Man” runs, “Speed Runs”, various approaches have been adopted when playing Thief: The Dark Project: “Ghosting” etc. From your own perspective why do you feel your play through has garnered so much attention? How much of it do you feel is because of the way your have presented your experience? Do you feel people are more interested in the story of your play through, or the concept of what you are doing itself?

I think Kieron Gillen when he linked to the story in RPS’ Sunday Papers hit the nail on the head when he said he wished he’d thought of it. Like you say, self imposing additional rules and constraints isn’t new, but the idea of writing about them is still not done particularly often, and almost never with a view to how it changes the experience.

So in that respect I think it’s the concept that made people sit up and take notice. Whether they stuck around and enjoyed the story, I can’t be sure, but if it’s any indication comments have dropped off slightly in the later episodes while pageviews are still holding steady at somewhere around 100 a day.

When thinking about whether people are explicitly interested in the story, the question I’ve got to ask is “What really is the permanent death story?” Is it the experience that I, the player, have in the game? Or is it the story I construct with blog posts and pictures as it’s received by readers of the blog (and eventually, in the PDF novelization)? From my vantage point as both player and reader of the story, I know that there are a lot of things that happened in the game that get cut from the written story because they either make it too long and boring, compromising the quality of the narrative, or they’re nearly impossible to convey to a reader.

How does one write about the feeling of boating down a river under the cover of darkness as the moon slides behind trees? How do you convince a reader that you really were imagining the feel of the breeze in your face, and the feel of being immersed in this environment? Does the reader even care whether or not I was engaged at this particular point or not? How do I convince a reader that the idea of a soldier who I already shot, but who was still staggering around, was going to burn to death mildly horrified me? The fact that it horrified me in a videogame at all is still amazing to me because videogames suck at making me feel anything other than a desire to collect shit or blow stuff up.

I think it’s in trying to convey these sorts of experiences and personal reactions that I draw the most inspiration from NGJ. Not that Permanent Death is even an NGJ piece, it’s not quite personal enough and it often borders on the edge of being Fan Fiction, so I guess there’s that.

7. Permanence is an unusual term to use when discussing any video game, after all isn’t every decision you make permanent? You can return, change your actions and play out the consequences of that alerted decision but that doesn’t remove the fact that at some point you did make that initial decision?

When writing my thesis last year, I downloaded a single-life speed run of Halo 2 completed on Legendary difficulty. I watched it religiously – I watched all two and a half hours of it through more than once. I think what was so attractive and mesmerising about it was that it seemed to me like this is how Halo 2 was meant to be played.

In terms of making sense within the overarching narrative and fiction, this was how Master Chief would have done it. Any time you die, you mess up and you fail to live up to the chief’s standard, so you have to repeat a section until you get it right. Why do we not see the inherent weirdness in this? I think we have this ingrained, rote-learned blindness to the fundamental strangeness of videogame narratives. We do not experience the real world in anything remotely like the way we experience the events in a videogame.

Obviously, there are lots of good reasons for some of this – if it weren’t possible to fail then where would the challenge in the game come from? I think there are some great alternatives just waiting to be discovered, but so far all we do boils down to retconning the story on-the-fly. Ideally, every game would be perfectly set at that optimum level of difficulty that made it just hard enough to stay interesting, but not hard enough that you ever die and have to repeat any sections. I think most games err on the side of un-boring and go for just a little too hard. Which is fine, but it’s hardly a perfect system.

8. In reference to the previous question, would the decision to play Far Cry 2 again after this play through mitigate the decisions you made? Is that your intent, to never play Far Cry 2 again, and therefore make this your definitive play through?

I definitely intend to play Far Cry 2 again in the future, so no, the series of events in-game that became ‘Permanent Death’ are in no way meant to be the (or even just my) definitive Far Cry 2 story-experience. For starters, they are a fantastically more boring sequence of events than I have had in even other games of Far Cry 2, so it would be doing the game a disservice to leave it at that.

I don’t think playing again would diminish the permadeath story, either. There will always be the written record that roughly equates to that in-game series of events so I don’t think it would be impacted by playing again – or even by someone else attempting the same (or similar) thing.

9. How do you feel about the fact that there is no way to prove you have actually done anything you’ve described? Have you ever considered that there is no way in which the game can confirm that you in fact have not died? Is there such a means of recording this information that I have missed?

It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking recently about what I would do if I died right before the end of the game in a brain-meltingly stupid way, by shooting myself in the face with a grenade launcher, for example. If I was tantalisingly close to the end and messed up I know I would be tempted to lie about it and just keep playing as if nothing happened – after all how would anyone know? As far as the written Permadeath story goes, it’s whatever I say it is, right?

I guess there is no way of proving that I really did all the things I said I did, except to take me at my word. I don’t know if I’d want to there to be a way of proving what I said I did was what really happened, either. I wonder if it would limit the things I could do with the written story – as in, I couldn’t get away with as much ‘sexing up’ of the story as I have so far. I’ll freely admit that I’ve added in all sorts of stuff to make the written story more readable – like adding in some imaginary reasons for why I did the things I did in game.

It’s quite boring to just say “And then I shot some dude because it feels good to click my mouse and have the little man fall over” so I often invent a motivation for the character. I think it comes back to the question of ‘What is the Permanent Death story?’, because if you’re being truly honest, there aren’t any reasons for why we do a lot of what we do in games. Why do we shoot enemy soldiers? Because we’re told we should? Are we even explicitly told that most of the time? It’s certainly not because we are afraid of dying ourselves, as would be the case in a real combat situation. So is it fair game to pretend that’s why I was doing it in the game? I think for the sake of making an interesting written story, it is.

10. Do you think if there was an Achievement for completing the game without dying (Well until the very end), this is something you would have attempted for no other reason that obtaining that Achievement? What about if there was a scoreboard recording the total play time before death, would you be interested in trying to beat the “scores” of others?

I think if there were an achievement for it I wouldn’t need to do the Permanent Death ‘experiment’/story. I’m not very interested in achievements so I may have never bothered with it, but then I may have just to get some additional replay out of the game. Who’s to say?

Actually, I take that first bit back – I may still have done the permadeath play through because it’s important to note that anyone who finishes the game already does never die – because any “narrative branch” of the story that leads to the players death, gets pruned off when they die. Your loading the game eliminates the series of events between that save and your previous death from the Far Cry 2 history and your character goes on none-the-wiser. You may know and remember, but as far as the story is concerned, no one else does because it never happened. Now, the difference with permanent death is that there are no pruned branches.

I’m not really a competitive player, so scoreboards hold next to no interest for me. If you want to play Left 4 Dead with me though, I totally love cooperation and I daresay I work harder at a game when it’s for a cooperative goal than when it’s for a competitive reason.

11. Personally where do you fall on the ludology vs. narratology debate? How do you feel your personal opinions have influenced the decisions you have made during your play through?

I think the ludology/narratology debate is worn out and as Ian Bogost says in his DiGRA keynote, even the question of whether it’s one or the other presupposes a formalist approach to the ontology of games. Realistically, my opinions on whether games are play versus narrative only really matters when thinking about games as stories or games as playgrounds and any other time of the day I’m quite happy to let games be whatever they want to be.

Bogost characterises the Ludology/Naratology debate as “a formalist rather than functionalist approach to the study of games” and by arguing over what games are we end up ignoring what games mean already.

12. A number of other people joined you in your permadeath play through at the start, I believe none of them are still playing having already died. Do you think there is anything about the way you have approached your play through that has helped you to stay alive?

I think it’s more sheer bloody-mindedness that’s kept me going. Michel McBride got bored and quit, and if you’re an experienced player it’s not that hard to stay alive on normal. A reader who started up his own blog was playing along too, but on the hardest difficulty and he didn’t last very long. For me, it’s turned into an endurance test, rather than a skill test.

The Taxonomy of Left 4 Dead.

Nearly twenty years ago Richard A. Bartle, co-creator of the first Multi User Dungeon (MUD) the precursor to the Massively Multiplayer Online Game, wrote an article entitled “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Player who suit MUDs”. Even today the classifications he set forth still hold true when examining the types of player who play World Of Warcraft and other MMORPGS.

This taxonomy can also be applied, with some modifications, to any multiplayer environment. There will always be those players who value winning over anything else, the Achievers, the Diamonds. Or those who simply enjoy the experience of playing with others, the Socialisers, the Hearts.

Playing Left 4 Dead recently it struck me that the characterisation of each of the four survivors seemed to conform to one of these four player types.

Bill, is the grizzled veteran, the professional. He knows what he’s doing and will get the job done with little fuss. The goal is to win (to survive) and anything that doesn’t increase his chances of winning is not worth bothering with. He’ll crack the occasional joke to break the tension but ultimately he’s the responsible adult of the group. He’s the Achiever.

Zoey, is the horror film fanatic. Like Bill she knows the rules, she’s seen all the films, she knows what happens when the dead start to walk the Earth. At the same time she’s always ready to lend a hand, and support the group. On her own she might survive but what’s the point is she’s the only one left? She’s the Socialiser.

Francis, is the misanthrope, the cynic. He might know the rules, but you can never be sure, as he’s perfectly willing to break them for his own benefit. He’s good to have around when the horde descend on you but if he has to he’ll leave everybody else to die, after all what does he care, he hates everything, so don’t expect him to care about you. He’s the Killer.

Louis, is a little out of his depth. Everything is an experience, everything is fascinating and new and exciting. He’s not sure of the rules, but fascinated in finding out what they are, and have some fun along the way. He’s just as liable to accidentally shoot you in his excitement as he is to shoot the shambling masses of undead. He’s an Explorer.

The nature of Left 4 Dead, is such that Bartle’s original classifications don’t fit exactly, with no explicit reward beyond survival Achievers cannot really be singled out by their desire to accumulate wealth or experience and the cooperative nature of Left 4 Dead means that Killers cannot be solely identified by their desire to impose themselves on others.

A more appropriate way to define the different play styles of Left 4 Dead, and a method that works for other multiplayer titles, is to examine where players fall on two axises defined by their tendency towards a focus on themselves (Cooperation) over others (Competition) and their attitude towards the rules of the game.

Left 4 Dead Taxonomy

Returned to out Left 4 Dead example, Francis and Bill style players have a focus on winning, on competition and success. Whereas Louis and Zoey style players have a focus on the act of play itself and their experience with others.

A team of prodominantly Bills will almost always get to the end of a campaign, they are effecient, reliable and proactive. They have a plan and they’ll execute it, even if the whole experience might seem a little joyless to the outside observer.

A team of Zoeys, might get to the end of a campaign but if they do everybody will get there together, as a team. Like Bill they are proactive and reliable, but they are also willing to risk themselves for the good of the team.

Much like a team of Bills, a team composed of a majority of Francis’ will get to the end, but it might be messy. They’ll keep each other alive as long as they need to because an extra weapon and extra pair of eyes is always useful, but come the climax it’s everybody for themselves.

As with a team of Zoeys a team with a high percentage of Louis’ might get to the end or they might all die horribly, either way it’ll be an interesting experience and something will be learnt, even if it’s just when not to throw a Molotov Cocktail.

With a little modification this taxonomy can be used to differentiate the types of players in other multiplayer games, or potentially even predict the outcome of team games, by examining the make up of players within each team.

Oh and by the way, I’m a Zoey. Who are you?

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (regardless of which, the fan reaction means it may well be changed) it’s impossible to play in fullscreen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and triggered a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there’s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing, and where it is in relation to you, can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for its ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing its bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier – when my wavering sanity permitted – caused me to form a horrific image of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked before about how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound of undeterminable source; tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (and regardless of which, the fan reaction means it’ll likely be changed) it’s impossible to play in full screen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact I found the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and cause a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there ‘s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing and where it is in relation to you can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It’s should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for it’s ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing it’s bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier, when my wavering sanity permitted, caused me to form a horriffic of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that almost tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked beforeabout how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound who’s source you can’t determine. Tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

Story Flow.

Note: This was originally written as response to some elements of Clint’s presentation, before I got stuck on the notion of logical immersion as flow and from there the concept of story flow. Maybe if I’d been paying more attention I’d have read Pat Redding’s presentation before I made this post. As it is I’ll be adding a follow up concerning that presentation itself, at a later date.

So I’ve actually got around to reading through Clint Hockings GDC presentation, “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”. His discussion of the two forms of immersion, that of the left and right brain, is a notion I have been aware of previously, but been unable to adequately express.

Playing Quake III Arena, I would often turn the in-game music off so I could listen to my own music selection. I found I could lose myself in the gameplay and still be able to enjoy the music. Quake III is what I would call a very pure game, the core mechanics are easily understood and the the aesthetics are all but inconsequential; it is just as playable stripped of it’s textures and visual effects. It’s a game of layered pattern recognition. Everything is based on patterns, the layout of each level, the timing cycle of each power-up, the movement of the enemies. Success comes from understanding all those patterns and positioning yourself and your cross-hair at the optimal point in space and time, repeatedly.

Quake III is one of the clearest examples of logical, left-brain, immersion I’ve ever experienced. In essence logical immersion is flow.

The other form of immersion Clint talked about is that of sensory immersion, or the immersion of the right-brain. The is more in line with the common perception of the term immersion. It is the ability of a created work to completely absorb you, it is what allows you to lose yourself in a book for hours on end, or to forget you need the toilet when watching a particularly film.

The end of Clint’s presentation seemed to tail off a little, ending with a call to unite both forms of immersion but with few suggestions on how to achieve this. This got me thinking; if logical immersion is akin to flow, is there is a similar theory for sensory immersive? Is there a dynamic difficult adjustment for story?

How could such a mechanism work?

The obvious first step is to have some means of recording players interaction with the story. SiN Episodes: Emmergence included a robust form of player statistics tracking that originally was intended for use by Ritual to make changes to future episodes. Tying such a system into something like the “AI Director” in Left 4 Dead would allow the game itself to respond to the behaviour of the player. This AI Director could study how individual players interacted with the story of the game: did they sit through every cut-scenes, or did they skip them but explore each level carefully and read every scrap of paper or listen to every line of dialogue? Adjustments could then be made, pushing more of the story at the player through cut-scenes or moving it into the world where the player could pull in as much as they desired.

That would handle the means of delivery, but what about the content of the story? Extended to include tracking player interactions with non-player characters, the AI Director could be used to bring certain characters to the fore or push them to the background. If the player spent more time with a particular character, events could be adjusted to make them the focus of the story. Or that character could take the place of another character and therefore be killed by the chief antagonist, spurring the player on to the final confrontation (Though that is a rather tired cliche). Characters themselves could be made to respond to the actions and perceived attitudes of the player and react accordingly.

Thematic elements could also be tied in, with colouration, saturation, sound effects and music all adjusting to keep the player in the correct mood.

Such a system would take player actions as inputs, and adjust itself to keep both the presentation and the content of the story within what the game judges to be the particular “comfort zone” of each player, ensuring that the story never became too subtle or complicated (avoiding anxiety), nor too obvious or vague (avoiding player boredom), thus maintaining a story flow.

Addendum:

On reflection it’s clear Clint had been thinking about this when he made his presentation, as one of his colleagues Pat Redding presented a talk at the Austin Game Developers Conference last year entitled “Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories That Flow”.