Groping The Map: Liberty Island, Part 6.

“Don’t think you know something about the Lady I don’t. My dad did tours out here.”

Liberty Island 37
From tourist attraction to the Headquarters of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition; Liberty takes on a whole new meaning.

Conclusion:

There’s one word whose use is all but unavoidable when discussing Deus Ex: ‘possible’. The path across Liberty Island I have described is only one of many available routes, though all players start and end their paths at the same point the possibilities for what occurs between are legion. Convince Harlen Filben to give you the key to the Statue entrance, or ignore him completely, free Agent Hermann or leave him for the UNATCO Troopers to rescue, arrest NSF Commander Leo Gold or exterminate with extreme prejudice. The choices are yours and by making those choices you are responsible for the consequences.

The themes and mechanics on display in this level are ones that you will become increasingly familiar with as your progress further into the world of Deus Ex. Though some of the later levels present a more limited possibility space the same basic concepts and interactions you first experience here remain consistent. Augmentations and upgraded skills change the range of tools at your disposal yet their interactions with the systemic foundation of Deus Ex rarely change.

Liberty Island is the first level of Deus Ex and compared to similar first levels there are some notable differences. Within moments of arriving you are given the opportunity to use one of the most powerful weapons in the game, the GEP Gun. Even if you are unaware of it’s position in the hierarchy of weaponry in Deus Ex, it is clear that it is an extremely powerful weapon and to be given it this early is a markedly different decision than would be made by the designers of a pure action game. It doesn’t take long to understand the reason why being given access to this incredibly powerful weapon doesn’t totally unbalance the game. Weapons in Deus Ex are merely another form of tool, and though many problems on Liberty Island can be solved through the direct application of violence that is rarely the ‘path of least resistence’ that it would be in a more traditional first person game.

The ‘onion’ like structure of Liberty Island is populated with problem encounters both large and small, this serves to create a possibility space both physical and mechanical that can be freely explored and approached from a variety of directions. With few strict barriers between each problem and no set point of entry you are free to examine each situation from various angles before making any decisions on how to act. This ability to analyse a problem before initiating action promotes intentionality. You are in control and when things don’t work out as planned the reasons are usually easy to understand. It’s possible for elements of one problem to spill over and affect another but this is never truly unpredictable. All elements within the broader problem of Liberty Island itself operate on a consistent set of systemic principles and when unexpected elements do appear their behaviour is predictable. Deus Ex puts you in control, but not always in power.

The flip-side of this freedom to form plans and act on your own schedule is that Liberty Island can suffer from some pacing issues. Some problems will naturally be overcome quicker than others and that is difficult to predict and account for. This can lead to certain routes across the Island feeling more sluggish and drawn out than others depending on your playstyle. An inherent weakness of a game like Deus Ex, when players are the initiators it’s very difficult to manage pacing for dramatic purposes without cutting against that very player intentionality that is a core principle.

Liberty Island 38
One of several areas of Liberty Island that was overlooked in my walkthrough.

As a member of UNATCO, your standing orders with regard to those affiliated with the National Secessionist Forces are “shoot on sight”. They are a ‘terrorist’ organisation who have shown little regard for human life are to be treated as such. This clear cut morality is put to the test very quickly on Liberty Island. The other UNATCO Troopers you meet, such as Tech Sergeant Kaplan and Corporal Collins seem far more ‘gung-ho’ than the NSF whose discussions you overheard. The NSF might not all be named as the UNATCO Troopers are, but they seem far more nuanced in their beliefs than those supposedly upholding the side of ‘law and order’. It’s possible that the reason one group is comprised of named individuals and the other isn’t is simply due to the fact that the player character, JC Denton, is assumed to have already met all the UNATCO Troopers stationed on Liberty Island.

Before you meet him the final ‘boss’, if such a video game centric term is appropriate, is given a name and a face by another unique individual, Harlen Filben. Leo Gold is not some terrorist archetype, he is a person with his own opinions and judgements regarding his actions. Though there is plenty of fodder to be found, especially when the Majestic 12 forces appear during the later stages of the game Deus Ex is possibly the closest we have yet come to surpassing Steve Gaynor’s metric for meaningful violence, and it was released over ten years ago.

Liberty Island is Deus Ex in microcosm, any analysis of the former is inherently also an analysis of the latter. The focus on problems built from systemic elements, the broad possibility space with room for creative solutions, even the problems with pacing, all these issues are as true of Deus Ex as a whole as they are of Liberty Island in isolation. This ability of Liberty Island to be representative of the game that will follow marks it out as a near perfect introductory level.

References:

  • Liberty Island is the work of Designer Harvey Smith.
  • Deus Ex is the work of Ion Storm Austin (Now closed). It was published by Eidos Interactive, now a subsidiary of Square-Enix.
  • A Postmortem of Deus Ex written by Project Director Warren Spector can be found at Gamasutra.
  • The entire script of Deus Ex can be found at GameFAQs.

Groping The Map: Pauper’s Drop, Part 7.

“Nobody was s’posed to reside down here long term – but when you’re broke in this town, you’re not exactly swimmin’ in alternatives.”

Pauper's Drop 38
So, what do you see ahead?

Conclusion:

As the fourth level in BioShock 2 Pauper’s Drop is at once the start of the core of the game and the end of its tutorial; from here onward everything is up to the player or the whims of the characters who inhabit each part of Rapture.

At this point players have been introduced to the three characters at the heart of this new tale of Rapture, and experienced a reintroduction to the city and the ideals upon which it was constructed. With those introductions out of the way it is now time for the story of Subject Delta’s journey of reunion to begin in earnest.

Pauper’s Drop is a turning point for BioShock as a series, there is little within this level, structural, mechanical or aesthetic, that would feel out of place in the first BioShock. However the signs are there that this is the start of something new. This is a part of Rapture that served no utility; neither industrial space nor commercial centre, Pauper’s Drop exists for no other reason than the fact it should exist. In any city there will always be a place for those who don’t belong yet have nowhere else to go, and in this respect Rapture is no different from anywhere else.

This is a theme throughout BioShock 2, Subject Delta’s journey to be reunited with Eleanor leads through parts of Rapture that exist simply because they must, there is little glamour here but what exists bares the unmistakable tang of the real. Where BioShock was concerned with highlighting the artistic, industrial and scientific heart of Rapture, BioShock 2 is an exploration of its logical territory the spaces that exists simply because they couldn’t not exists in such a city. BioShock 2 is the story of Rapture from the inside out, in BioShock you were a visitor, this time you are a resident allbeit an unwelcome one.

From the very first moments of entering Pauper’s Drop you are recognised, but more than that you are expected. Though you cannot remember it you have been here before and your actions then still colour the opinions of those whom you meet. You cannot escape your history, though you can act to redefine it, change what it meant if not what it was. That is another core theme of BioShock 2: we are defined by our actions and in turn those actions define those to whom we have a responsibility, our children.

Pauper's Drop 47
"Gorgeous, clever little girl."

Occuring at the point where the player’s toolset can be increased dramatically through the expenditure of Adam, the encounters within The Drop have been designed to provide opportunities to experiment with different tactics while providing subtle hints on how best to make use of the tools currently available.

Pauper’s Drop introduces some key changes in level design from the original BioShock such as a greater complexity of environments, both visually and spatially, along with the increased use of vertical spaces and multiple layers. Though featuring both spatial complexity and verticality Pauper’s Drop has no overarching spatial theme and so serves as a good introduction to the types of spaces that will appear later. Siren Alley has a greater focus on verticality and movement between levels, while Dionysus Park features sprawling spatial complexity and subtle differentiation of an otherwise visually similar environment.

Pauper's Drop 48
Life in The Drop is hard, sometimes too hard.

Humantiy still exists within Rapture and in few places is that more obvious than Pauper’s Drop.  BioShock was an outsiders examination of the ideologically foundation of Rapture through an exploration of it’s three pillars: Art, Industry and Science. BioShock 2 is a look at the human side of Rapture, at it’s people, through the eyes of one of their own. Pauper’s Drop marks the start of that insider’s journey. From the moment you first encounter Grace Holloway you are complicit in her fate and by extension the fate of all Rapture. Pauper’s Drop is the tipping point, before you were merely a freak anomaly within the Rapture Family, something to be either absorbed or expelled. Now you are worse than simply a rogue element, you have free will, you are an individual and your actions will have consequences far beyond the confines of The Drop.

References:

  • Pauper’s Drop is the work of Level Designers Steve Gaynor and Monte Martinez along with Level Architect Alex Munn.
  • BioShock 2 is the work of 2K Marin, 2K Australia, Digital Extremes and Arkane Studios. It is published by 2K Games a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive.
  • Additional material on BioShock and BioShock 2 was obtained from the BioShock Wiki.

A Human Reaction.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the later stages of Far Cry 2.

It could be argued that the power of any work lies in its ability to make us question ourselves and our own beliefs.  This is something games are already capable of, though maybe those responsible don’t even realise it.

In a comment to a recent post by 2K Marin’s Steve Gaynor, Clint Hocking, Creative Director on Far Cry 2, stated his opinion that games need to move beyond “storymaking” to the creation of compelling experiences connected by meaningful human motivations. As can be seen from my subsequent comment this is an area I am very interested in and I find it noteworthy that Clint feels this was an area where Far Cry 2 failed. For me it contained some of the clearest examples of exactly what he is describing.

I’ve talked on several occasions about my reaction to Far Cry 2 and some of the feelings it evoked, though I have been avoiding some of the more specific instances due to a concern over what they might say about me personally. On reflection the name of this blog reflects my intent when starting it, which was to explore games and game design, my reaction to games is a major part of the power of games so to avoid discussing it would be irresponsible.

I first met Nasreen Davar in the Doctor’s Surgery in Mosato Selao after helping Frank Bilders bring a shipment of weapons into the city, and consequently restarting the conflict there. She was the first women I’d met and I’ll be honest she was fairly attractive. After warning me to leave through the back of the surgery I met up with her again in the Marina, where she became a buddy and subsequently saved my life on more than one occasion. Upon the death of Frank Bilders she became my de facto best buddy and throughout the next few hours I remember fighting alongside her on several occasions.

During the closing stages of Act 2 I had just completed a mission when I received a call from Nasreen who was in trouble at the Airfield and needed my assistance. Having experienced the structure of the game I had expected her to call, however in my mind was the thought that I was probably nearing the end of an act and therefore events would likely take a turn for the dramatic. I recalled the fate of Frank Bilders and very quickly concluded that I would not allow that to happen to Nasreen. I stole a jeep and raced to the Airfield, though it only took a few minutes I can clearly remember my feelings as I sped to rescue her. I would not let her die, she was going to be alright, I would get there and anybody who got in the way wouldn’t last long enough to stop me. The sensation I had when I rounded the corner into the Airfield is one that will stay with me possibly forever, I saw Nasreen standing by a vehicle on the middle of the airstrip fighting for her life. I floored the jeep bounced along the track behind the hangers and crashed to a stop barely feet from her. Leaping out I ran to her and managed to finish off the last of her attackers at point blank range. She had not died, I had saved her.

An hour or so later I found myself captured and imprisoned, with Nasreen in the cell next to me.  Waking up I heard her being dragged off, as she passed my cell I heard her shout out that: “You know what they’ll do to me!”

To me the implication was very clear. I wasn’t sure how far the game would be willing to go in it’s portrayal of the brutality of war and suspected it would hold back from going to the places I was considering. However I was not certain and I absolutely did not want to witness it if the game was willing to go that far. Escaping I felt a sense of righteous fury and abandoned all thoughts of leaving on my own. I could not leave her in their hands because I was sure I did know what they’d do to her. The two individuals guarding her cell didn’t stand a chance, and if I’m honest I used far more ammunition putting them down that was in any way necessary. As it turned out the game did not go to the dark places I had feared it might and Nasreen was to my eyes, only superficially harmed.

The emotions Far Cry 2 evoked in me were certainly not what I expected going in and were easily on par with anything I have experienced in film or literature, more so in some sense because they directly influenced my actions. However, and now we come to the part that originally prevented me from discussing these events, I have cause to wonder if the reactions would have been significantly different if my buddy had not been an attractive woman.

I’ve never consider the notion that women are inherently in need of protecting to hold any weight whatsoever, yet I’ve still taken some criticism from my sister because of what could be considered my ingrained sense of benevolent sexism; I’d consider chivalry to be a positive aspect of my character and though I generally hold doors open for anybody I am consciously more aware of doing so for women.

When I first met Nasreen I’ll admit I was surprised at seeing a female mercenary in the game, not because I saw anything wrong with the idea, instead I felt it was, rightly or wrongly, a big deal for a game to feature a women in such a role. Yes I found her attractive, but I never felt in any way she was inherently less capable than any of my previous mercenary buddies because she was a women.

Still I can’t help but wonder, would my reaction have been different if the circumstances that presented themselves had involved a male character? The implications of Nasreen’s line in the prison had such an affect on me because of the associated context of a woman delivering that line in that situation. I don’t know if the same line would be spoken by a male character in that situation or if it would resonate as strongly. I would be interested to know if Clint and the rest of the team at Ubisoft Montreal intentionally considered this aspect and how it would affect the presumed predominately male audience of their game when they made the decision to include female characters?

Call To Arms: Friends Like These

On his blog BioShock 2 designer Steve Gaynor has posted a Call To Arms in which he encouraged designers to submit designs that evoke a feeling or conflict not typically expressed in existing games. Here is my submission, tentatively entitled “Friends Like These”.

Friends Like These represents the player as a blob, constantly traveling onwards through a void filled with various other blobs. Your progress is signified by three metrics, two bars which indicated Hope\Optimism and Guilt\Self Loathing and the speed at which you are traveling through the world. The aim of the game is to reach the natural end of your existence (A point that is not explicitly know, as we never known when our time is up), without your Guilt reaching it’s limit or your Hope running out, if that happens the screen fades to black with the a message that “You succumb to your Guilt.” or “You are lost to despair.”

Since you are always moving forward through your life, your only control comes in the ability to move across your life stream to bring yourself closer to, or more further from, the other blobs in the world. In terms of appearance all blobs look similar but unique. Once you get within a certain distance of another blob they begin to have an affect on your own blob, the distance at which this affect is felt and it’s strength is different for each blob.

If you spend too long without coming into contact with other blobs your Hope will begin to lower.

Some blobs are friends, the closer you get to them the faster you both begin to travel they will also tend to stick with you if you move away (Up to a certain distance) allowing you to bring in more friends and collectively rush to the end together. When a large group of blobs is together like this your own Hope begins to increase.

Some blobs are not friends, these blobs will slow you down but they will not be so likely to stick close to you if you move away.

The third type of blobs are toxic, they follow an erratic path but if you can stay close to them your speed increases dramatically, everything else seems to rush past and you race towards the end together. However these blobs also dramatically increase your Guilt the effect growing exponentially the longer you stay with them.

The affect of other blobs on you is not the same as their effects on each other. Though two blobs might both be your friend they may not be friends with each other, some may even be toxic to another but not you. Bringing such blobs into a close group results in other blobs slowing the group down and could potentially lead to the group itself fracturing if you are not careful about how close you allow those opposing blobs to get. If you bring in a blob to a group that then causes the group of split apart your Guilt will begin to increase until you either managed to bring the group back together or leave it behind (Life is harsh).

How do you want to live your life? Do you stick to your friends through the good times and the bad, or do you leave them behind when the going gets tough? Do you latch onto that one person who burns with an inner fire, they’ll show you the world but might kill you in the process?

Addendum:

It would perhaps be better to not include explicit meters or messages, for Hope and Guilt.

Hope could be represented by the size of the blob and Guilt by transparency or colour. If the former fell too low or the latter rose too high the overall colour scheme and music of the game could change to be more sombre and despairing, your blob would in turn become pale and shrivelled.

However if the player reached the natural end of their life the colours would become brighter the music more uplifting. Your blob and those around you would be bright, and full.

Playing through and witnessing that going it alone, or tying yourself to the whims of an erratic individual, lead to a pale shrunken existence, ending in despair and darkness. But that grouping together and sticking with others led to a bright full life ending in light and colour. Would you need to be explicit? Isn’t the message of togetherness and friendship over selfishness clear enough without being so blunt?