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.
Since I started them in 2010 my Groping The Map articles have proven to be some of the most popular work I’ve written. In those three years however I have only been able to complete my analysis of three different levels, this is both a significant reduction from my original goal and a personally disappointment.
With each article my ability to analyse level design has increased, as have my talents as a writer. Recently I completed an approximately 15,000 word series on the level design in Dishonored for Issue 1 of the Sneaky Bastards magazine, and I think this is some of my best work to date. In an ideal world I would be able to focus primarily on writing such as this and produce these articles at a rate greater than one level analysis per year.
To that end I’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign with the aim of enabling me to focus on producing more Groping The Map content. The aim of the campaign is to produce “Groping The Map: Book 1” a .PDF ebook, which once researched and written will be made available free of charge, and devoid of any DRM. Any support you can offer will go towards ensuring that I can focus primarily on these articles, with the goal of releasing Book 1 sometime within the next six months (subject to alteration). If possible I would like to produce some physical copies if there is sufficient demand. These physical copies would be sold at cost, however given the number of screenshots used these would need to be printed in full colour making the cost price somewhere in the range of £10 (before postage and packaging); that is an estimated price per-unit based on a run of fifty copies.
The current plan is for Book 1 to include four articles of approximately 10,000 words each on the following levels:
- The Omega Ranch – Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
- Nova Prospekt – Half Life 2.
- The Silent Cartographer – Halo: Combat Evolved.
- Jacknife – Mirror’s Edge.
I started Groping The Map because I felt there was a need for level design specific writing. There is already a wealth of work dedicated to environmental art and the use of specific level design software, but there are very few examples of level design “close reading” that examines every aspect of a level and its role within the rest of the game. With your support I can devote myself to working on these articles and hopefully within six months release a .PDF that will more than double the number of Groping The Map articles.
No matter how well the campaign does I still fully intend to work on additional Groping The Map content, I just can’t make any commitments as to the schedule without a change in my circumstances.
“Greetings, Garrett! Thou art expected, though not precisely… welcome.”
Coming two thirds of the way through The Metal Age the infiltration of Angelwatch in Life Of The Party would make a fitting location for the finale. Unlike the actual final level the Mechanist tower of Angelwatch was foreshadowed as far back as the second level, Shipping and Receiving, and for The Metal Age to conclude here would not have been inappropriate. This is not the end however and there are still great levels to come before the finale in Soulforge; that doesn’t stop Angelwatch from serving as a conclusion of sorts. The journey from the streets of Dayport to the Mechanist tower is symbolic of the change in the forces of antagonism from Sheriff Truart and his City Watch to Karras and his Mechanists. From this point the final five levels will see a greater focus on Mechanists and their supporters over the citizens of the City; Life Of The Party is the final time in The Metal Age that you will set foot in the City itself.
The story arc that started with Sheriff Truart’s clampdown on the “unlawful” is over, his death at the hands of Viktoria’s agents serving to bring to light the true danger facing the City. The threat once posed by Truart is nothing compared to what Karras has in mind. The shadow of the Mechnists’ plans falls across everything that has come before, yet the true extent of Karras’ machinations is only revealed once you reach Angelwatch.
With Viktoria’s slightly improved Vine Arrows to replace the Rope Arrows Garrett’s inventory is complete liberating the final third of The Metal Age to throw everything it can at him. Life Of The Party feels huge, the size of a level is not always an indicator of its overall quality yet here that scale is used expertly, a careful player can take a hour or more to reach Angelwatch where they will find there is nearly as much space within that single building as in the City streets surrounding it, and then they have to make their way back possibly while harassed by Mechanists.
This is Thief level design at it’s smartest, sprawling environments make for complex problems but by isolating each one within natural and consistent boundaries (household guards are responsible only for their building) it breaks the complex problem into manageable portions that can be dealt with individually. The logical separation of each building means this division of the level into pieces occurs almost invisibly. Form and function in perfect alignment. The discrete problems of the Thieves’ Highway can be dealt with on your own terms whereas inside Angelwatch you will need to be reactive, improvisational. Where the City is constructed from mismatched brick and wood illuminated by easily dowsed torches, Angelwatch is constructed from metal and stone, and lit predominately by electric lights. Wandering NPCs, blind corners and closed doors limit your ability to plan forcing you onto the back foot. A master thief when roaming the City Garrett is but a hunted insect inside Angelwatch.
Standing in the middle of Dayport one of the richest districts of the City, Angelwatch is an imposing statement of the Mechanists’ power and influence. It is also strangely devoid of purpose, six stories high yet with only a small chapel and office providing space of any clear utility Angelwatch is a façade. Too much of the building has been designed with a focus on presenting a particular image of the Mechanists rather than as a building with a function. Too many of the rooms appear designed for guests rather than the Mechanists themselves who have little use for carpeted floors or ballrooms. Compared to the Mechanist Seminary you will have visited earlier Angelwatch is an architectural billboard, a way of showing off the glory and power of the Mechanists while actually revealing very little.
If the level had begun on the rooftops within sight of the Mechanist tower it still would have felt like a complete experience, by extending out the surrounding areas of the Dayport district the impact of that first glimpse of Angelwatch is magnified. Though you will have infiltrated larger buildings over the course of The Metal Age those, like the First City Bank and Trust, were isolated locations divorced from the rest of the City. Dominating a portion of the City, towering over everything around it Angelwatch is large but in comparison to the buildings you will have passed through in order to get here it looks gargantuan.
Levels set in multiple locations, such as the Dayport sections of Life Of The Party can feel of a lower fidelity than those in set within a single specific place. The rooftops are rife with locked doors and inaccessible areas, while within Angelwatch every internal door can be opened, every room explored.
Life Of The Party show the disjointed view of the City as seen by a thief, moving through a few rooms of one building just to get into another, banks and castles and apartment buildings compressed together, rooftops repurposed as shortcuts, windows and skylights used as entrances and exits. None of these buildings are seen in their entirety there is just enough to provide a hint of its purpose. The mundanity of life within the City witnessed through the moving lens of the thief; the journey through Dayport is an impressionistic one, a brief patchwork of sights and sounds that leave the sense of having explored an entire city district. Then, climbing out of the window of one building onto the rooftop of another there it is, Angelwatch: complete, assertive, modern. Like an Art Deco portrait in the middle of a Impressionist landscape this new presence in the City is jarring and impossible not to react to; the Mechanists are here.
Life Of The Party is not the introduction to the Mechanist Order or it’s mysterious leader, it is instead a reframing of the Mechanists from shadowy conspirators operating at the fringes of society to direct antagonists. It could have been made differently, separated from the City the infiltration of Angelwatch would still have made for a strong level, without the Mechanist tower the rooftops of the Thieves’ Highway could easily provide the layout for a myriad other levels; much as the City streets played host to both Ambush! and Trace The Courier earlier in The Metal Age. It could have come at an earlier point, maybe replacing Eavesdropping and seeing Garrett sneak into Angelwatch to overheard Karras’ meeting with Truart in his office. By occurring when it does, in the way it does Life Of The Party achieves with space a statement that would have felt clichéd if put into words. The Mechanist are taking over the City and their ways are not the old ways, now they have arrived nothing will be quite the same again. Only when directly juxtaposed with “normal” City life do the extremes of the Mechanist doctrine become real. A grand edifice looming over the streets and rooftops of Dayport, Angelwatch is for all its imposing visage still strangely artificial, much like the religion of Mechanists it has been created in the image of one being, not the Master Builder who they profess to serve but Father Karras.
NOTE: A comparison of Life Of The Party to the earlier version The Uninvited Guest is forthcoming, though there is no set time frame for that yet.
- Life Of The Party is the work of Designer Emil Pagliarulo.
- Thief II: The Metal Age is the work of Looking Glass Studios (Now closed). It was published by Eidos Interactive, now a subsidiary of Square-Enix.
- Additional material on Thief: The Dark Project, Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows was obtained from Thief: The Dark Wiki.
“These are strange times indeed when the builder’s chosen must cater to the folly of the unworthy.”
Annotated Walkthrough, 7:
After avoiding any wandering guests on the stairs the sixth floor landing offers some shadows in which to wait before you enter the ballroom. The door is unlocked and the light illuminating the area immediately beyond is easily extinguished by the switch beside. Vilnia, commander of the Mechanist guards within Angelwatch, can be found talking to one of her men in the southeastern corner of the ballroom. They are standing close enough to the eleva
tor that despite it being possible to reach the sixth floor using it, remaining undetected presents a significant challenge.
Largely empty of people, the party having clearly broken up some time ago, the majority of the sixth floor is in darkness, the few pools of light from the overhead lights easily avoided. The ballroom floor is composed of tiles of what looks like marble or some other hard stone. Garrett’s footwear will make crossing it stealthily a laborious process, fortunately there are large wooden tiles edging the marble around the perimeter of the room. Providing a nice aesthetic contrast to the black and while stone tiles the wood is soft enough to reduce the sound of your movements, enabling you to circle the room without drawing unwanted attention.
A large fountain dominates the centre of the room, providing a thematically consistent means of breaking up sight lines. If you choose to brave the tile floor there are a few piles of coins to be recovered from the water at the base of the fountain, possibly at some point during the night’s festivities somebody mistook it for a wishing well.
Moving left from the doorway the wooden tiles run the length of the north wall, staying on them will take you past an arrangement of empty chairs toward a pair of guests. They are standing near what would be the eastern fireplace, all but one of the chimneys on this floor being closed off and hung with Mechanist banners instead. A woman and a man, the latter has a coin purse on his belt though, as somebody has pushed a chair against the wall near them, in order to acquire it you will need to risk moving across the marble floor; this is the type of situation were a Moss Arrows would be perfect though the one hundred gold coins in his purse might not be worth expending resources to obtain.
Near the opposite wall, on the far side of the fountain, a Mechanist worker bot sits watching over a selection of instruments. Of the three only the harp can be interacted with, though Garrett isn’t exactly blessed with musical talent. The flute and horn arranged next to the harp can neither be played nor stolen which does bring up the question of why the Worker Bot chose this place to sit? If it had been one of the Servants standing in its place the knowledge that they were once people would have given this little tableaux an extra layer of melancholy.
South of the instruments the gramophone on this floor can be found in its customary position on a table beneath a portrait of Karras. This is the final recording in the sequence of six though it is unlikely to be the sixth recording you will have found. Starting with an audible record scratch the message goes on to explain how the Servants that have been gifted to each of the guests will have arrived at their properties by the time those guests return. Karras also explains that occasionally the Servants will need to return for “small adjustments” and will do so at the signal from the “guiding beacon”. These are aspects of their construction and design that will prove to hold great importance for the conclusion of The Metal Age.
Approaching the gramophone will likely trigger a conversation between Vilnia and her subordinate. He is distinctly unimpressed with the manner in which Karras is treating the nobles of the City, people he deems “unworthy”. Vilnia is quick to reassures him, reminding him of Karras’ ability to control the Servants at his whim and making the first mention of “rust gas” and referring to the Servants as “weapons”. This is the most explicit acknowledgement yet that the Servants are a vital part of the Mechanist leaders plans.
Once their conversation has been concluded Vilnia will head towards the stairs and the fifth floor, if you intercept her on the way you can steal a key from her which will make gaining entry to Karras’ office easier. Given that the conversation between her and her fellow Mechanist can trigger when you are close to the gramophone one way to avoid the recording drowning our their conversation is to allow the latter to initiate and then return to the landing. From here you can remain in darkness and still hear what is being discussed. Vilnia will pass through this area on her way downstairs and can easily be relieved of her possessions, once this has been done you can return to the gramophone to listen to Karras’ recording, before following her down to the fifth floor.
The fifth floor is the busiest of any within Angelwatch, it is also the most self contained with a kitchen, dining room and private bed chambers, along with his office. The fifth floor appears to contain everything Karras might need to maintain his position as head of the Mechanists without ever leaving Angelwatch. With the Mechanist founder absent those left on the fifth floor are primarily guests who have yet to retire for the night, along with a trio of guards. Two of the latter follow strict routes which can be observed and predicted the third stands immobile outside Karras’ office. The guest are prone to wander at a whim and care must be taken to avoid running into them accidentally.
From the landing a series of right angled turns block the majority of the fifth floor from view, the patrol of one of the Mechanists on this floor will take him right out onto the landing though the shadows against the western wall of the corridor provide enough concealment to avoid detection.
Along with being the busiest Angelwatch’s fifth floor is also its most spatially complex unlike the floors below, where space is taken up by the large central atrium, the rooms and corridors of the fifth floor fill all the available space. Though many of the rooms on this floor can be entered through multiple doors, they all open onto one of the long, regularly patrolled corridors. The presence of mobile NPCs either in the corridors or the rooms themselves encourage observation and a slower pace; such a methodical approach to exploration will be rewarded as alongside the Objectives you will need to complete on this floor, there are more secrets to be found here than in all the other floors of Angelwatch combined.
The hallway from the landing ends in a ‘H’ shaped junction, a closed door blocks the way ahead while a short corridor leads further into the fifth floor; before branching into two further corridors leading to the east and the north.
Through the door to the east is a roughly ‘L’ shaped room within which Vilnia can be found if you have followed her down from the sixth floor. Though this room is lit with electric lights mounted on the walls the NPCs that reside within (a male noble and potentially Vilnia) stand with their backs to the room. This space is on the route of a wandering noble woman in a red dress and at the Mechanist who patrols out onto the landing, fortunately the carpeted floor will allow you to rapidly move to avoid their detection should any of the doors open unexpectedly.
The door immediately to the south opens onto the main east to west corridor of the fifth floor opposite the locked and guarded door to Karras’ office. Unless you plan to deal with the Mechanist guard directly it’s better to avoid entering the corridor through this door. Beyond the door a noble man stands in front of a small table, upon which are two golden cups that he will remain oblivious to the sudden disappearance of; he is equally nonplussed by the separation of him from his purse and the fifteen gold coins it contains.
Beyond him an interior wall extends into the room narrowing it just before it extends out to the northern wall; a second table is positioned below a window in the exterior wall. The journal on the table details the names of those in attendance. Interestingly, despite their protestations to the contrary, the Rothchilds were in fact invited though for whatever reason the invitation never arrived. Also invited were a number of other nobles whose names may be familiar, including Lord Bafford first encountered in the opening level of Thief: The Dark Project. One name that will not be familiar, at least not yet, is that of Lord Gervaisius; this Mechanist support will become more important as events unfold leading to a series of visits to his home.
Opposite this table, in the corner created by the space taken out of the room, a door to the south opens onto a small darkened area at the end of the main corridor. The dining room is through a set of double doors to the east, while the kitchen can be accessed by the door on the far side of the corridor. Despite being passed through by both a metal Servant and the wandering noble woman, this space is dark enough to remain concealed provided you don’t block their path. This darkness at the end of the main corridor will allow you to observe the door to Karras’ office and the guard standing outside; from here a Gas Arrow can swiftly render him unconscious, alternatively a Noisemaker or other thrown object can be employed to draw him away from his position. Care should be taken with the latter tactic as sometimes the Mechanist will not correctly reset to his previous alertness state once he returns to his position outside Karras’ office and this can make it much more challenging to leave the office without being detected.
Through the double doors to the east the dining room is now empty, within a gramophone has been placed at the head of the table. Karras is clearly still having problems with the technology as the recording skips several times before beginning properly. The fourth in the sequence of six this recording see Karras become explicit about the origins of the metal Servants he has gifted to his guests, their transformation was not a matter of choice; his nasal tones showing rare emotion as he describes their former lives, the idea of such an “useless” existence disgusts him.
One of the Servants, this one noticeably smaller in stature than the others you may have encountered, walks between this room and the kitchen to the south. Nothing is made of the different size of this Servant though given their origins it is plausible that not all of the Servants were adults when they were mutilated.
The eastern fireplace is open on the fifth floor its fire providing the main illumination and presumably primary heat source for the kitchen. Just inside the door a fully grown Servant stands with his back to the door, easily avoided, he will search for you if you make a noise within the kitchen. A hole in the floor directly to the south of the fireplace connects to the vents that run throughout the building making this both a potential entry point onto the fifth floor and a means of rapid egress once your Objectives have been completed.
On the southern wall of the kitchen a door opens into another corridor that runs the width of the building behind Karras’ office, from his private chambers in the southwestern corner to the elevator in the southeastern. Beside this door a note has been affixed to the wall, this is a duplicate on the second floor detailing the deactivation of the mechanical security devices and the placement of a guard outside Karras’ office.
The southern corridor can also be reached from the store room off the kitchen, the darkness within making this a good place from which to observe the movements of the noble woman and the Mechanist guard who regularly move through this area. The space between the southern fireplace and the elevator is well lit with a clear line of sight along it’s length. Though there is a dark area around the kitchen door than can be hidden in while waiting for the elevator to arrive attempting to reach the fifth floor using it means gambling that neither the Mechanist nor noble woman are anywhere along the corridor.
Further along the corridor to the west, opposite the southern fireplace a door opens into a small and apparently empty closet. If you look between the interior door frame and the wall you will be able to spot a switch that once pull opens a concealed panel in the back wall of the closet, the wall shared with Karras’ office. Inside this secret compartment are the controls for the Wall Safe Alarm, switching this off will prevent the alarm from triggering when you use the safe in Karras’ office making the escape from Angelwatch easier.
In the southwestern corner are two rooms with unusual layouts; the smaller bedroom appears to have been created by taking an irregular shape out of the larger study. Spartanly furnished but with distinctively patterned walls these two rooms are clearly for somebody important, and with Vilnia having her own chambers on the second floor it seems likely that these are the private chambers of Karras himself.
The doors to both these rooms are locked, the key hanging from the belt of the Mechanist who patrols this part of the fifth floor; he will use it to open the door to the study and make a brief survey of the room before returning to his patrol. You can use this opportunity to sneak in behind him and should you get trapped on the wrong side of the locked door there is another key on the study floor beneath the desk.
There is a locked safe in the rear portion of the study, and within is the latest draft of The New Scripture of the Master Builder, rewritten from its original form as a Hammerite religious text this updated scripture details Karras’ plans imbuing them with divine guidance. This latest draft deals specifically with the Servants and their deployment across the City as instruments of the Builder’s Plan.
Returning to the corridor, two more doorways can be found to the north, each of which opens onto a bedroom. The first is dark, its inhabitant asleep, the key on top of the shelves beside the bed provides a clue as to who this guest is, Lord Carlysle. The inhabitant of the second room is still awake and can be found standing in front of the western fireplace; as he is known to be in attendance this has been presumed by some to be Lord Bafford himself though there is little evidence to support this (personally I like to think it is him).
Between the two guest bedrooms on the opposite side of the corridor is an alcove within which stands a statue, a closer look at the head of which will reveal one of its eyes to be a button. When pressed this button will unlock and open a secret compartment opposite Lord Carlysle’s bedroom inside are a Gas Arrow and a Mine alongside a pair of potions; if you have failed to deactivate the alarm in Karras’ office these may come in useful during your escape.
With your other Objectives complete it’s now time to enter Karras’ office and locate whatever you can relating to the ‘Cetus Project’. Observation and timing will allow you to avoid everybody but the static guard outside, and if you have obtained the key from Vilnia the locked office doors should present no problem. As well as the expected desk Karras’ office contains yet another gramophone, once you listen to it you will understand exactly who the “special guest” mentioned in the note to Vilnia was; Karras has been expecting you.
Behind Karras desk is a picture of an island dominated by a lighthouse. The only painting within all of Angelwatch not of Karras himself it immediately draws, the eye the blue of the water contrasting sharply with the browns of the wall. A switch on the underside of the desk will slide this picture aside to reveal a wall safe and the plans for the ‘Cetus Amicus’. These plans list the location of the project as Markham’s Isle and it’s possible this is the island in the picture. If you have not located or disabled the Wall Safe Alarm operating the button under the desk will trigger alarms throughout the building. Along with making escape from Angelwatch difficult triggering this alarm will also result in a number of Mechanist guards waiting for you on the rooftops beyond, including a Crossbow guard outside the vent access hatch.
In order to finish the level you will need to return to the bell tower where you started, the quickest way is via the Shemenov Estate, especially if you have already dealt with the guards within. With the knowledge of Karras’ plans in hand its now time to do something about them.
For the past year, along with occasional posts here, I’ve been writing for Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Blog. The work I’ve produced there has been similar in form to my Groping The Map series. Now Sneaky Bastards is looking to develop beyond the website into a print on demand magazine, and we need some help getting this project off the ground.
The first issue will focus on Dishonored, and my contribution will consist of approximately 12,000 words on the incredible level design within that game. Given the nature of print these articles will be shorter than both the standard Groping The Map format, and the series on Thief II: The Metal Age I’m producing for the Sneaky Bastards website. That isn’t to say the analysis will be any less in-depth, in fact the shorter format has enabled me to move away from the annotated walkthrough approach I had initially taken and focus more on higher level design analysis.
I would like to ask you to have a look at our Kickstarer page for Issue 1 of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine. The print and digital editions are included as reward tiers though if we can get the magazine off the ground they should be available in the future as direct purchases at a price closer to that of a traditional print magazine. For the moment we need to reach our target in order to make the magazine a reality so any and all contributions are greatly appreciated.
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.
Dead Space: Extraction is a game that knows what it wants to be. Within a series that wears its horror film influences on its sleeve Extraction is the most direct translation of those influences to the video game form. As an on-rails shooter the cinematography and pacing are an obvious point of comparison sharing as they do many of the hallmarks of the horror cinema the game draws from. Though many games make pretensions to having Hollywood level scripts Extraction is the first game I’ve played in several years that actually felt like it had a script that could be from a film, based as it was around a limited cast of characters and the interactions between them more than on some plot critical MacGuffin. Each character you encounter over the course of the game’s approximately six hour campaign is clearly differentiated by their background, their visual design, their personality and their accent. It presents one of the most authentically diverse casts I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and manages to be a rare example of a game that passes the bechdel test.
Forced together under extreme circumstances the differing motivations of each character begin to reveal themselves and the plot is propelled forward primarily by these reveals and the direct obstacles the characters find in their path. Even the most limited experience of the conventions of horror films will be enough to realise not all of these people are going to make it out alive, and though some tropes become overused the script does manage to leave you guessing as to who exactly is going to make it out alive, if anybody.
While Extraction succeeds on many aesthetic and technical levels it’s notable that the one area where it struggles the most is when it tries to be scary; when it tries to evoke the same emotions as the horror films it aspires to. The unbroken first person perspective, while capable of providing moments of brief tension and some surprisingly effective jump scares, doesn’t allow for the dramatic irony that is successfully exploited throughout horror cinema. While the other Dead Space games use a similarly restricted camera, the ability of the player to control both the camera and the protagonist’s movement actually adds to the suspense; events can occur and threats can arrive from areas not currently within the player’s field of view. Extraction is kinder in it’s presentation, the camera will always turn to direct your view to the current threat and the Necromorphs will limit themselves to attacking from that direction. Only once all threats have been dealt with will the protagonist then turn, allowing subsequent attacks from a different direction.
Only attacking when players can see them is decidedly polite on the part of the Necromorphs an attitude reminiscent of the mooks in an action film who will patient wait for their turn before attacking. As a means of preventing the player from feeling cheated this consistency makes sense, yet it also undermines any attempt to provoke a sense of unease or fear in the player. When you know you are always going to be pointed towards anything threatening there’s no uncertainty yet it’s within the uncertain and the ambiguous that fear grow.
As a game that allows, we could even go so far as to say expects, to be replayed for higher scores and better ratings, there is a further logic to this consistency. To enable players to master each level it makes sense for enemy placement and attack patterns to be consistent and predictable. Yet there might be ways to keep to the optimising requirements of the score chasers while still providing an experience able to provoke fear and unease.
Interestingly some of the the best techniques for doing this are ones I would be reticent to recommend for any other style of game. There are a number of variation but the underlying principle of all of them is to use the fact the player has a limited ability to move the camera against them, to actively work in opposition to player desires and expectations, to intentionally obfuscate and frustrate. The way to make Extraction more frightening is to do the opposite of what the first person perspective is used for in other genres, by reinforcing the already existing separation between protagonist and player. It’s a difficult line to walk, too much frustration and nobody will want to play, but too little about you have a horror game that is only scary because of its context not its content.
- Instead of only moving the camera once all Necromorphs have been dealt with we could instead link certain camera movements to a timer: face this way for thirty seconds then this way for ten seconds. Under threat from all sides the protagonist would naturally shift their view between each threat instead of focusing only on one to the exclusion of all others leading to them turning away while there are still enemies approaching in order to deal with threats from a different direction. With known threats now approaching from beyond your field of view the threats you can see become not just a problem in their own right but also an obstacle to your ability to deal with the other threats.
- Foreshadow attacks by allowing players to see threats that the protagonist doesn’t react to. A Necromorph moving fast across part of the screen, clearly a threat but the protagonist turns away before the player can react. It’s still out there and will become a more direct threat at some time, but when, and from which direction?
- Require the player to use some portion of the to screen perform one action while still engaging in combat on the rest of the screen. This technique is used a few times in the early chapters of the game with the screen split between a combat sequence and a puzzle, but it is abandoned thereafter despite it providing one of the most tense moments of the game.
- Allow the protagonist to keep moving while under attack, throwing off the ability of the player to aim accurately at the approaching Necromorphs. This is something Extraction does begin to do in the later levels but even then it is used sparingly. Not knowing if you are going to stumble and miss a shot is frustrating and makes the environment itself a threat.
These tweaks, along with variations and combinations of them, could really help to increase the tension of Extraction with only few changes to the core systems and while maintaining the balance between player and protagonist that exists in any game that doesn’t allow the player control over basic movement and world interaction.
There is a lot to enjoy in Dead Space: Extraction, from a plot that actually makes sense, to characters that are relatable without relying entirely on clichés, to more of the superb Dead Space aesthetics and environmental design. With all that going for it, it was sad to find the moment to moment experience failing to reach the highs of tension and fear that it felt like it was striving for. If Extraction had been able to capture the unease and prevasive dread of the original Dead Space, or better yet that of the thematically similar System Shock, I think it would have had a strong claim for the best of the series.
“To serve the nobility is the highest privilege in life of course but slavery is just so… distasteful.”
Annotated Walkthrough, 6:
Without the option to read the books sitting upon the shelves there is little to determine if the library of Angelwatch was created to serve a functional purpose or whether it exists merely as ornamentation for visitors. At least one Mechanist appears interested in reading the collected works, he might just be easily distracted but the Mechanists have already shown themselves to be more professional than the household guards regularly encountered throughout the City.
Regardless of his motivations the single Mechanist on this floor is easily avoided. Entering the library from the third floor the more obviously safe route lies to the west keeping to the shadows against the wall and away from the Mechanist. Staying in darkness and moving pass the bookcases in the southwestern corner of the Library will lead you to the foot of the stairs and your means of access to the fourth floor. Despite the shadows it is sensible to move slowly through this part of the library as a Worker Bot can frequently be encountered amongst the shelves at the bottom of the stairs. Detectable by the mutterings it makes to itself the Worker Bot is a smaller companion to the Combat Bot. Unarmed and blind until they have heard a noise Worker Bots will immediately flee to sound the alarm upon confirmation of a threat. Fortunately there is not always enough space for the Bot to maneuver through this part of the Library and it can frequently be found stuck on the geometry, and is thus easily avoided. When it is not getting stuck the Bot walks a patrol that in general takes it through the third floor, down the stairs to the second floor and back again. When and where its patrol crosses paths with that of other wandering NPCs will determine where it is likely to get stuck on walls and steps. The jostling two NPCs partake in when attempting to move through the same narrow space can often be enough to nudge the Worker Bot into a position from which it cannot free itself. Unfortunately when it is stuck in such a way it cannot be deactivated with a Water Arrow to the boiler, it will also still react to noise and if it detects anything the change of AI state has the effect of breaking its paralysis and it will merrily stomp away to raise the alarm.
Carved from stone, and partially illuminated, the stairs to the second floor of the library, (the fourth floor of Angelwatch) don’t immediately present the most inviting route, thankfully there are other options. As with any hard surface, Moss Arrows or moving slowing will enable you to reach the floor above undetected, though looking up presents additional possibilities. Paneled in wood the library ceiling is a perfect target for a Vine Arrow, or two, bringing the walls of the upper level within reach.
The next gramophone recording can be found on a table against the west wall, along with yet another portrait of Karras. By this stage you’d be forgiven for sensing a degree of narcissism from the head of the Mechanists. It’s possible, and likely, those portraits were hung exclusively for the night’s festivities yet they do seem to have been given just as much prominence as any of the many religious icons on display inside Angelwatch. It doesn’t seem like happenstance that there is a portrait of Karras hanging in the Mechanist Chapel, the Library and as the first thing visitors will seen upon entering the main concourse. Karras’ elevation of himself to a position of equality with the Master Builder is a theme that will become more noticeable in subsequent levels as the Mechanists take on the role of primary antagonist over the now deceased Sherrif Truart.
The bookcase adjacent to the gramophone table will allow you to initiate the recording while remaining hidden from the noblewoman and her strange companion; and as with the other recordings neither of them react to it starting again apparently of its own accord. The fourth recording you will have heard, this is actually the second recording of six and will shed some light on the “Servants” Karras mentioned in the recording found in the Chapel on the second floor. While describing the various tasks the Servants are suited for there is a noteworthy pause before the final task “gardening”, at this stage it is meaningless and may well go unnoticed. Only in the final few levels of the game will the relevance of his pause become significant. It is also not the only time the Servants ability to serve as gardeners will be referenced during your visit to Angelwatch.
Scant feet from where you are standing the noblewoman’s strange companion is one of the very Servants Karras is referring to, Servants he has provided as a gift to his guests the very richest citizens in the City.
These Servants lie at the heart of Karras’ grand plan, and his apparently generous act of gifting them to the noble houses of the City is merely a means of ensuring they have access to the extensive gardens likely kept by the City’s richest. Installed within the body of each Servant is a device called The Cultivator which, when triggered by a signal from Karras, will emit a substance known variously as either Rust Gas, Necrotic Mutox or The Breath of The Builder. This substance consumes all organic matter it comes into contact with creating a rust like compound and more of itself. By seeding these Servants within the large gardens of the City Karras hopes to start a chain reaction that will produce a cloud large enough to destroy all organic life, thereby converting the City into the Builder’s Paradise.
Events witnessed by Garrett within Angelwatch foreshadow a plot reveal that will not occur for a further four levels.
Even without this foreknowledge the Servants themselves are unsettling, having already listened to the recording in the Chapel you will know that they are not entirely mechanical in nature and were once members of society, those deemed troublemakers and vagabonds but still, humans not machines and certainly not whatever they are now. When they speak the dual nature of the Servants is unmistakable, there are clearly two separate voices, two distinct identities existing under that single immobile mask. A subdued voice, often of a girl or young man can be heard begging for help, for forgiveness, this entreaty is then echoed by a second more composed, more artificial voice. Whether the first voice is meant to indicate that something of what the Servants once were remains, or whether it is simply a remnant, a ghost, is not clear though the second voice clearly belongs to the dominant identity as this is the one that takes over when the Servant becomes suspicious or alerted.
Exit from the library can be found in the northern wall, almost directly above the door on the floor below. This door opens onto a brightly lit corridor running east to west. The library side of the doorway is in shadow though not enough to entirely conceal you from the noblewoman and her companion so it may be necessary to make a decision between potentially arousing their suspicion or moving through before you are certain of the safety of such an act. Of course, there is always the option to lean into the door and listen for the footsteps of any NPCs that might be moving around this corner of Angelwatch’s fourth floor.
Having already encountered one on the floor below, and considering the party supposed to be taking place tonight, it should come as little surprise that there are more civilians on this floor, and they are move active. In fact there are more people on this floor than on any of the those you will have previously visited.
In the wall opposite a door opens onto a room containing the western fireplace. Its carpeted floor and the shadows cast by the fireplace make this a good place to pause for a moment, especially if you have timed your exit from the library badly and nearly walked into either one or both of the patrolling guards on this floor.
Opening the door will have triggered a conversation between the two nobles standing to the north of the fireplace, though the dialogue has been written as if you have interrupted them mid-conversation. What initially sounds like a conversation about the morality of creating such Servants, quickly goes awry as whatever compassion Margaret may have is quickly eroded by Christopher, and the thought that the Servants might make good gardeners.
When the conversation is concluded the woman will leave via the door to the north and proceed up the main staircase to the sixth floor. It is possible that the man will also leave, though this is a much less frequent occurrence, one I’ve been unable to recreate. This scenario is seen on several occasions throughout Thief. Once triggered two or more NPCs will engage in a scripted conversation, their discussion including some information useful to the completion of your current objectives, or simply providing some contextual grounding to events, upon conclusion one or more of them will begin moving. Keeping these NPCs in a fixed position until their conversation is triggered means that whatever they have to say is less likely to be missed by the player, this is particularly useful if they are discussing events relevant to the current level, as is often the case. Additionally it encourages patience in players who do trigger these conversations as moving away before they are completed will limited their knowledge of where the NPCs elect to go afterward. As with any scripted event foreknowledge can be used to exploit this behaviour, which is a form of player behaviour few games have attempted to compensate for.
Aligned east to west the main corridor on this floor runs the width of the building, and depending on the timing of their patrol routes can be patrolled by either one or both of the Mechanist guards on this floor.
The male mechanist patrols between the fourth floor landing and the elevator at the end of the main corridor, while his female companion walks a route that overlaps with his, taking her from the northeastern tower to the landing and back. Overlapping patrol routes are common in the more challenging areas of Thief, they have the benefit of appearing to be more secure while in fact providing an easily readable security loophole for players to exploit. Two guards patrolling through the same space creates a redundancy, they can no longer be guarding multiple places at once. When they are both in one area the rest of their patrol route will be left unprotected, and when they both leave that area they will not return until they have completed their patrol. If you think back to the main rooms on the previous two floors they were both at a point where the patrols of multiple NPCs overlapped. On the second floor the entrance to the Chapel was a point where the patrols of the Combat Bot and the Mechanist guard overlapped, while the third floor gallery marked a point on the patrol route of both Mechanist Guards on that floor. When both NPCs are in the same room, it presents a challenge but observation of their movements will allow you to find a point in time at which neither of them are in that room and it becomes all but unguarded, a perfect security loophole. This is one of the core principles of level design for stealth games the creation of spaces that appear secure but on examination prove to be terrible examples of security.
East of the library the main corridor is joined by parallel corridor leading to the fourth floor landing. A small metal machine sits quietly in the centre of a darkened alcove to the east. This is one of several areas like this on the fourth floor that several little function beyond being places in which to hide either yourself or the bodies of guards you may have killed or otherwise incapacitated. The position of this alcove makes it a superb position from which to observe the patrol routes of the Mechanists on this floor or from which to ambush the male guard as he rounds the corner on his way to the fourth floor landing.
Unlike the previous floors the main corridors here lead directly onto the landing and the wandering civilians that are a frequent hazard throughout Angelwatch’s upper stories. Fortunately the shadows cast by the lights inset into the walls extend further across the width of the corridor than the similar ones on the third floor. Not only does this allow a cautious player to traverse the length of the corridor undetected, even by a guard bare feet away, it also allows them to open the door in the western wall without revealing their presence. The reaction provoked by a door apparently opening of its own volition is inconsistent but usually the most you will need to deal with is a single reaction line from any NPCs that observe it.
The landing of the fourth floor can easily be one of the busiest areas in the whole of Angelwatch. Triggered upon reaching the third floor landing a young man walks an extended route which may take him from the second floor and the bedroom in the south centre of this floor and back again. At the same time, and triggered by reaching the fourth floor landing itself, a woman in a red dress walks between the library and the second floor There is also the possibility that there will be a third Mechanist Guard on patrol, his route occasionally taking him between the library and the northwestern tower. It can be difficult to ascertain the exact routes these NPCs take as they are extended, include numerous pauses and might in fact change over time. The relative unpredictability of their movements means making assumptions about who will be in a particular area at a given time can prove dangerous. It’s not uncommon for these wandering NPCs to come across hastily stashed bodies, either dead or unconscious, and sound the alarm. As with most hazards in Thief the only consistent solutions are direct intervention, which often leads to an escalation of problems and might not even be viable, or excessive caution. (Note: I studied the patrol routes for these three NPCs and the Worker Bot over the course of hours and I’m was still not convinced I could say for certain what their exact patrol routes were. It was only later that I found out that there are no fixed paths for these particular NPCs they are meant to be unpredictable.)
To the east the balcony extends out over the atrium, opening as it does directly onto the landing, and with a Crossbow Mechanist standing watching on the southern balcony the acrobatic route to the other side of the atrium is less useful it may have been on the third floor.
The optimal time to traverse the main corridor is when the both Mechanists are in the corridor leading to the fourth floor landing, it’s a trivial task to wait in the alcove at the south end of the corridor until it’s time to move. If you decide not to wait there are still ways of avoiding detection. Half way down the length of the corridor an archway to the north opens onto the first of two small rooms which eventually connect to the southern balcony, where the Crossbow Mechanist will be standing with her back to you.
On the opposite side of the corridor an unlocked doorway opens into an empty carpeted room. Directly in front of you is the fireplace against the southern wall, while flanking you on either side a single beds with expensive blue chests at their feet. Both locked these chests contain a health potion and a small stack of gold coins. With the door closed behind you this is a relatively safe room, but leaving it can be a problem if you don’t take the time to find out the position of the guards in the corridor beyond; possibly either through listening at the door or by using a Scouting Orb.
Through the archway a small closet to the east serves as a good place from which to observe this stretch of the main corridor. At the same time its darkened interior, door and position off any patrol routes make it a great place to hide the bodies of dead or incapacitated NPCs.
Faint chanting or choral music can be heard through a further archway to the north, beyond two angel statues stand in alcoves flanking the doorway to the southern balcony. Bathed in light from above the sound seems to emanate from the statues themselves. Whether it is actually chanting or the noise of wind moving through myriad pipes and ducts above is difficult to make out. Directly above is the office of Karras himself where the noise is hard to make out if it is present at all, but on the level above a large fountain dominates the ballroom on the sixth floor where the sound is as strong as it is here. It’s possible ducts connect from the roof of Angelwatch to here and the sound is simply the wind moving through them, or that music is being piped in as part of some religious display, either way the sound is difficult to make out and unsettling for it.
The sound is similar to the industrial droning that can be heard throughout Thief and with no discernible source it can be difficult to ascertain why the sound exists at all. One effect it does have however subtle, is to make the statues and the area around them uncomfortable as if there’s more than simply the sound that is unexplainable.
The patrol routes of the two Mechanist guards diverge at the end of the main corridor just north of the the elevator shaft. As on most other floors the area directly ahead of it is well illuminated with electric lamps, though there are shadows at the end of the main corridor that provide enough concealment to wait out its arrival if you opt to use it.
Following the patrol route of the female Mechanist leads into the northwestern tower with its guest bedrooms, all of which are currently unoccupied. Before reaching them you need to pass the fireplace set into the eastern wall, in the shadows to the south of which is an entry point into the air ducts.
Entering or exiting the ducts on the fourth floor presents the greatest risk, the means of access is scant feet away from an area patrolled by two Mechanists and there is neither a door nor walls to obscure the sound of your footsteps on the metal plating. In an emergency, or when you have already been detected, this still provide a good means of escape from Angelwatch, though there is a more dramatic means of escape just around the corner.
Much like it does on the third floor, the corridor leading into the northeastern tower makes a pair of sharp turns, first to the west and then back to the north where a doorway leads onto the atrium balcony; best avoided if you’ve not dealt with the Mechanict Crossbow guard as the it provides little in the way of concealment. A closed door to the north opens into a modestly furnished bedroom. There’s little of interest within beyond a small coin purse that one of Karras’ guests has apparently left on the table.
Opposite the entrance to the balcony the corridor continues again to the east, before turning north when it runs alongside the external wall, doorways to the west led into a pair of bedrooms, again modestly furnished compared to the likes of Lady Louisa’s suite. The first of these rooms contains a locked blue chest holding the paltry sum of five gold coins, less even that can be obtained from the purse on the table in the other bedroom.
Where the corridor meets the eastern wall of Angelwatch a window has been opened, looking out as it does over a number of deserted buildings this window is not notable for the view; though it does offer a better look at the fate of the drunkard’s companion who you may have spotted earlier. Beyond the window a narrow a ledge runs along the side of the building to a point above the original hatch through which you entered.
Extending out from the wall, atop an angled metal platform, is the giant angel statue that you will have first seen when approaching Angelwatch. With no Slowfall Potions anywhere in the level (Likely to prevent players attempting to reach the streets of Dayport), the drop to the metal below is fatal. It isn’t be until Thief: Deadly Shadows that players have the option of creating their own means of cushioning their falls; shooting a Water Arrow into a patch of Moss causes the Moss to rapidly expand creating a soft carpet which mitigates falling damage. Fortunately there are still options, the metal side of the platform on which the angel stands is made up of a metal grating, into which Vine Arrows will gain purchase. The ability to hold fast on this surface is the single difference between Vine Arrows and the Rope Arrows you will have come across in prior levels. By shooting a Vine Arrow into the grating and taking a leap of faith from the ledge, you can jump the gap, grab onto the Vine and descent it safely to the ground. It’s even possible to perform the same action in reverse, by using the Vine Arrow to climb onto the platform before leaping across to the ledge. Doing so is difficult to and will almost certainly result in you taking damage as you land on the ledge.
It’s likely this is the first example of a grated surface you will have come across in this level so its connection to Vine Arrows might not be obvious, this and the risky acrobatics involved make it doubtful that this will be the primary means of entering Angelwatch for most players.
Back through the window it’s time to continue upwards. Instead of heading straight to the fifth floor we will instead use the main stairs to ascend to the sixth, as visiting the floors in this order provides some benefits that will make things easier when we reach Karras’ office.
It’s not uncommon for games with a well defined core mechanic, specifically action games, to include sections with different mechanics to break up the pacing and provide variety. When it comes to these “palette cleanser” sections it seems the stealth section is on a par with the turret section as the favourite choice of developers. If a new action game doesn’t feature one it will almost certainly feature the other, if not both. Given my feelings towards Thief II: The Metal Age and similar titles it should come as little surprise that I am fascinated and frustrated in equal measure by stealth sections in games. With very few exceptions stealth sections in games that haven’t been designed specifically around stealth mechanics are poorly executed. Think of any recent game with a stealth section; it was likely passable at best, if not outright unpleasant.
The obvious argument is that simple resource management means any mechanic used only for a single section of a game is going to receive less attention than a mechanic around which the game is focused. I’m sure this is true and has an affect on the implementation of stealth sections, however I believe there is a specific problem with the mechanics of such sections; they are based not simply on poorly implemented stealth mechanics, but on bad stealth mechanics.
Stealth games are about power and the relationship of power to physical location. Good stealth games make the player a powerful agent in a world designed for them to exercise that power, bad stealth games make the player a weak agent in a world designed to reinforce that weakness. Bad stealth games, and by extension bad stealth sections, confuse being stealthy with hiding. It’s a fine distinction but an important one.
Consider Garrett, protagonist of the Thief series. Outside his cynicism his defining attribute is that he becomes invisible when in a dark area. It might never be explicitly stated but when the Light Gem is completely black Garrett is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Darkness is a safe zone for Garrett and he has a variety of tools at his disposal with which he can alter the environment to increase the size of that safe zone.
This basic concept, the manipulation of the environment in your favour, is also present in the Splinter Cell series. Sam Fisher shares Garrett’s curious ability to become invisible in the dark, but the nature of the darkness as safe zone is taken further by the inclusion of alternative vision modes that allow him to see as well in darkness as light.
Both Garrett and Sam Fisher operate in environments which are, the majority of the time, in darkness. Environments where they are the ones in positions of power. The various guards and other non-player characters in the world might be better armed and more numerous than either protagonist but they lack a lot of their abilities. To them the darkness is a hindrance, to Garrett and Sam Fisher it is home. With access to an enhanced move set and the ability to modify the world around you, playing as either protagonist you have the upper hand. You have the ability to plan your approach and the moment at which you act. Things don’t always go as planned and you often have to improvise to survive but the choice of where and when to initiate action is yours.
Compare this mentality to that manner in which stealth sections in action games are presented. The core mechanics of such games provide the player with the most power when they are heavily armed and operating in open well lit environments. The available verbs are those that make the most of that environment. When such games enter a stealth section the rules are changed, the previously available verbs, are either entirely removed or drastically curtailed. Non-player characters are now the ones operating from the position of power. Darkness for Garrett provides the ability for concealed movement and safety, for the standard action game protagonist it represents a diminished vocabulary and restricted move set.
This use of a diminished vocabulary in order to encourage stealth play can be seen clearly in the two stealth sections of Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy). Both sections are a variation on the same theme, with the teenage Lucas trying to gain access to a restricted hanger on the airbase on which he lives. Stripped of the ability to interact with anything beyond that which is required for forward progression there is no choice of where and when to initiate action, the player must react to the game world and respond correctly or fail and be forced to restart the section.
Good stealth mechanics revolve around making the player powerful and giving them the means by which to exercise that power; bad stealth mechanics revolve around making the player weak and requiring them to work to mitigate that weakness.
Mirror’s Edge feels like a game made specifically for me. I’ve worked in offices, shopping centres, and warehouses and am now being asked to exploring highly stylised but authentic recreations of such spaces, using my new abilities to gain a mastery over these environments that I could never hope to achieve in my day to day life. It even borrows a move (the running slide) from Far Cry 2, which is fortunate as I’ve been attempting it in every game since. A few hours play and I had started to look at the world in a different way, no longer did I see window ledges, pipes, or rooftops. I saw paths, escape routes, leaps of Faith.
There’s even a subtle sense of the Looking Glass Studios aesthetic in the game mechanics: application of a limited set of tools to turn the environment to your advantage. In this case the parkour abilities of runner Faith instead of the elemental arrows of master thief Garrett.
Mirror’s Edge is at its best when being pursued. The pounding of your feet on the ground, the rush of the wind as you leap between buildings, the kinaesthetics are outstanding. There are times where all the elements gel and you are able to lose myself in its core fantasy…
Barging through a door I see the rooftops, a patchwork of stark white and grey metal spreading out ahead of me. I’m giddy, a child again, but the police are closing, they are armed I’m not. None of that matters, up here I have the power, this is my playground. I sprint to the right and leap off, tucking in my legs at the last moment I land with a roll on the building opposite. Moving again, losing no time, sliding under the pipes I need to get over that fence, how? There, that wall, that air conditioning unit. Two steps up the latter I turn, spring across to the wall then off again. Up and over the fence. I hit the ground hard, a stumble. Bullets chew the floor around me, but I’m still moving. Arms pumping heart pounding, a gap in the roof. No time to think about it I angle towards the wall my momentum taking me up and along over the gap…
Sorry forgot where I was for a minute…
Unfortunately such pure moments of sensation don’t last. Much too frequently you are faced with a jump or other obstacle that slows you down, that seems for a moment impossible to pass. A section that will inevitably lead to trial and error and death, repeated, unpleasant and rarely educational death.
At the heart of both those moments of total engagement and those of controller-snapping frustration lies a control system and movement list that is at once straightforward, intuitive and barely explained.
Beyond standard first person analog movement and camera controls there are only three buttons required for navigation of the environment; up, down and a 180 degree turn. Combinations of these are all that’s required to pull off even the most complex sequence of jumps and climbs. It’s context sensitive yet strangely intuitive. The simplicity of control strengthens the connection between you and Faith. Up is always up. Standing still it’s a simple jump, moving forward at speed it becomes a leap. Running towards a wall it’s a climb. Fast enough and you’ll take several steps up the wall before grabbing the top, too slow and you’ll clamber up and hang there.
This allows you to feel capable and skilled from the very beginning. Within minutes you are being asked to perform tricky manoeuvres and pulling them off with speed and style. Mirror’s Edge succeeds in making you feel skilled very quickly. The downside to this is that the tutorial only provides information on the more basic movements, with little subsequent reinforcement of those lessons. It is easy to forget certain options are available and therefore become frustrated when faced with an obstacle that requires a rarely used part of your movement vocabulary; Faith’s ability to press herself through narrow gaps, or jump backwards from a wall run being the most common culprits.
Besides these moments the only movements required for the majority of the game are variations on jumping, ducking, and wall running. With the need to only think about these base abilities movement at speed quickly becomes instinctive. Almost every obstacle can be overcome with one of these and enough momentum. Here is the core of Mirror’s Edge, conservation of momentum. The need to keep moving; to keep your speed high and carry it through into each subsequent move. It’s a vital concept that is described once early in the game and never expanded upon. There is little education or reinforcement regarding which moves help to conserve momentum and which don’t. This lack of clarity is compounded by the need to approach certain obstacles with a counter intuitive thought process. In order to retain the most momentum there are times where it is better to avoid the obvious path, sprinting around otherwise scalable obstacles because the direct path will slow you down too much.
With every ability available to you from the start the skill comes not from working out the required route but in finding and following a path that allows you to keep moving. It is a game to be played at full speed, every new rooftop analysed in the time it takes to make the leap onto it. The path over, under or around each obstacle selected moments before you reach it, will your momentum take you up over it or do you need to dart around the side? Keep moving, stop and you’re dead. There is barely time to look before you leap and what little you have needs to be spent looking ahead to the next jump. Everything has to be done two moves in advance, no time to look around when you get to the other side, you need to be moving, if you don’t they’ll be on you.
When you understand the abilities available, how they can be used and combined you find yourself stringing together convoluted routes with little conscious thought. Feet pounding, wind rushing past, the sense of speed, movement and mastery of your environment is incredible.
Fluid movement isn’t the only act required of you in Mirror’s Edge, or more specifically it is but the game seems to go out of its way to imply otherwise. Combat is an option, and often you are advised by you in-ear guide and mentor Mercury to “get ready for a fight” moments before making the jump into an areas with three or more hostile NPCs with a long climb up a pipe your only escape. The obvious impression is that you need to either incapacitate or kill everybody in the immediate area before attempting to climb the pipe. Although direct engagement is an option, and you have a number of ways of shifting the odds in your favour, combat is not one of Mirror’s Edge‘s strengths, and it does itself a disservice by implying otherwise. Especially as a little thought and a fair degree of cunning will allow you to get through each encounter engaging at most two hostiles and occasionally avoiding combat alltogether. Using your superior speed and athleticism, you can play cat and mouse with your pursuers, drawing them away from your escape route long enough for you to make a break for it. This style of avoidance based gameplay again has a distinct Thief vibe to it and feels like a truer fit to the core fantasy of being a free-runner than the timing based disarms and melee combat moves.
That is the core of where Mirror’s Edge falls down, it tries to over extend itself, break out of its own fantasy and be more than it is capable of. It’s a game about being smarter, faster and more capable than your adversaries. It’s not a game about guns, combat or revenge. It’s about fluid movement and mastery of a limited contextual move set. It’s not about getting stuck for nearly half an hour because your forgot some obscure ability it’s likely you were never actually told about in the first place.
When it remembers what it is best at it feels like no other game, but when it tries to be something it’s not or requires you to act in a manner contrary to that which the game mechanics imply is correct it fails. Levels are designed with an eye towards allowing you to pull off impressive moves yet they often require precise alignment that comes at the expense of the very speed required to achieve them successfully. It is a game that rewards mastery while failing to give you the information required to attain it. It is a game best played avoiding confrontation that goes out of its way to force it upon you.
When it works Mirrors Edge can be a joy, when it doesn’t it feels like a chore and there are few worse sins for a work of entertainment to commit.