An honest illusion.

Note: This was originally posted as a comment on the Sparky Clarkson article I link to. As I was writing I realised there was a broader point to be made, so I extended and adapted that comment into this article.

Sparky Clarkson didn’t like Remember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why certain types of cinematic action game have a tendency to feel awkward and dishonest. I believe it’s due to a misguided attempt to hide from players that they are taking actions within a fictionalised virtual world that has its own specific rules and limitations; a focus on cinematic as the end rather than the means.

I agree that the goal of the “cinematic action game” genre is to “engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or even the best, way of achieving this.

To digress slightly, the oft misused and maligned concept of “immersion” is frequently cited as the point at which players “forget they are playing a game”. It is better understood from as a form of holistic completeness and coherence, rather than one of “systemic invisibility”. The player is never going to “forget they are playing a game” to any reasonably measurable degree, the artifice of the real world is too ever present to make that an achievable, or particularly rational, goal; no matter how deeply I am absorbed in a game if my bladder is full my body will relay that information to me urgently and persistently. What is a more useful way to frame immersion is as the presentation to the player of an environment where every action is responded to coherently and consistently so that there are no rough edges to their experience, no jarring edge cases where the implicit or explicit rules of the system break down and the illusion of completeness and wholeness is shattered. This is the “immersion” of the “immersive sim”, games like Thief: The Dark Project or Deus Ex which, no matter the technology used in their construction, are never going to fool anybody into thinking that they “are really there”, but which have a systemic honesty and consistency that makes them feel like complete worlds; where actions have discernible consequences, and it’s easy to get drawn into their constructed environments. This is also why Dark Souls is incredibly immersive despite its third person camera, overly large HUD and onscreen health bars; honesty and consistency.

The cinematic action game genre doesn’t have immersion as one of its goals, instead the means by which they strive to “engage the player as closely as possible” is through ensuring that the player and character frames are always synchronized, that there is minimal drift. The claim that the goal of the cinematic action game genre is that of systemic invisibility is a conflation of intent and methodology. Cinematic action games use the tropes of cinema toward the same ends, but that cinematic mimicry is not the end in itself. The goal, as it is with cinema, is to evoke empathy between audience and subject, between players and characters.

There are genres for which making the systems invisible, either initially or entirely, is a goal however these games are built with a degree of systemic depth and complexity that rewards exploration and experimentation. Cinematic action games rarely share this systemic depth because they are designed to tell a specific story and make the player feel a part of that story for however long it lasts. One of the best means by which this is achieved is through clarity and consistency; the rules and limitations need to be clear and consistent if the player and character frames are to remain aligned. This is why cinematic action games that try to make their systems invisible often fluctuate between two extremes with systems that are either unclear and arbitrary, or unintentionally obvious.

The diegetic navigation overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of The Last Of Us. Both serve to differentiate usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between The Last Of Us and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, and as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. Two identical objects might be highlighted by yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable begins to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other purely aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together starts to break down, the frames diverge. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it is absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps maintain the alignment of player and character frames by constraining valid player actions to those that are relevant within the current context.

Cinematic action games and other genres that combine multiple forms of play usually divide the environment into spaces that serve one form and those that serve another. Exploration spaces give way to combat spaces or vice versa. The “obvious combat arena” level design is a common problem where certain aspects of the design of combat spaces are so obvious that they are instantly recognisable as such unintentionally foreshadowing the combat encounter to come; the “room full of chest high walls” problem.

Remember Me is no different to other games it its division of space between different forms, one way in which it avoids the “obvious combat space” problem is by simply not attempting to hide it; when you enter a combat space combat begins, there is no ambiguity between the use of spaces and therefore no divergence in awareness between player and character. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore an area that will later become a combat space. You are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available become glaringly obvious indicators that this is not an exploration only space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up within in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable and distinctly artificial; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. Instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player greater forewarning than the character, creating a gulf between the two, and undercutting the tension created when safe spaces become suddenly hostile. Remember Me avoids this problem because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.

Games are artificial constructs, they have unique rules and limitations and in order to engage with them, in order to play, those rules need to be clear and consistent; or unclear and inconsistent in ways that the game is designed around. Cinematic action games are build upon a foundation of ensuring the player and character frames remain aligned and that any drift is kept to a minimum. It’s a relationship of trust, trust is built on honesty, and when the boundaries of the simulation are clear the game has to be honest.

Games have their own language, written in health bars, and experience points, and combo meters, systems designed to feed back information to the player with clarity and consistency. To strike out against the artifice of games is an insidious form of cinema envy, one that presumes that the language of cinema is the more developed language and the one toward which games should strive. Cinema is subjective, the camera lies frequently and intentionally; cinema disassembles and ambiguates as a means of eliciting an emotional response. This form of emotional manipulation has its place but when the player is in control, when their actions become those of the character such dishonesty is undesirable, it drives a wedge between the two, pushing the player and character frames apart in potentially irreconcilable ways.

Attempting to hide or obfuscate the boundaries of a virtual world can too often lead to confusion and ambiguity, to a game that feels dishonest. Without clear rules applied honestly players are left to second guess themselves and the game, the convergence of player and character frames that is the goal of the cinematic action game genre breaks down. Why can I climb this piece of yellow bordered scenery but not that one? Did I miss that bandit while exploring or did he only spawn after I opened the door? I don’t have the answers to those questions because The Last of Us is not honest with me about the application of its rules, they are hidden behind cinematic tropes. But I do I know that Nilin will always make that jump and that we both know when a fight’s about to start.

An empty house through a looking glass.

The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a game with a very specific legacy. Beyond simply the referential  filing cabinet code, this is a game that strongly evokes the storytelling techniques and style of Looking Glass Studios.

Nearly twenty years ago System Shock was released, allowing players to explore and uncover the fate of Citadel Station and its inhabitant; and witness the birth of the unforgettable SHODAN. At the time convincing interactions between players and human characters was challenging. As a means of sidestepping that problem Citadel Station was depopulated, everybody was either dead or had become horrific monsters incapable of coherent discourse. The events onboard Citadel Station were there to be discovered in what its inhabitants had left behind: scattered audio logs and environmental detritus.

In the intervening years other methods have been used to deal with the challenge of interacting with other characters. In Thief: The Dark Project and its successors the City was inhabited, instead it was the player’s role as a thief that discouraged and limited the means of interacting with those characters. Gone Home revisits the method employed by the original System Shock to overcome this still challenging problem, though the Greenbriar home is simply empty, rather than filled with dead bodies, the result is the same.

The Greenbriar home is littered with environmental details, the story of what has happened to your family in your absence is told through notes written to friends, and the placement of specific objects in specific places. It’s a game about environmental storytelling and narrative archeology. The story of the Greenbriar family is developed using the same tools that you use to explore the history and events on board Citadel Station.

Sam’s journal entries, uncovered gradually and potentially out of chronological sequence are, in functional terms, audio logs. Their placement and that of the other environmental details within the house is a way of matching physical exploration to temporal exploration, each area of the Greenbriar home that is unlocked, moves you forward in time through the events of the last year. The same mapping of chronology to physical space can be seen very clearly in BioShock 2 (a game which the core member of The Fullbright Company worked on, and one that itself is heavily indebted to the storytelling and design techniques of earlier games like System Shock). Each area of BioShock 2 represents a different stage in the life of Eleanor Lamb, from her birth and early childhood (Ryan Amusements) to her time spent under the care of Grace Holloway (Pauper’s Drop), through her time as a Little Sister and her eventually recovery and the experiments that were performed on her as a teenager (Fontaine Futuristics and Outer Persephone).

In both Gone Home and BioShock 2 (and of course the previous System Shock games before them) the further onward the player explores physically the more recent  the narrative elements within the environment become, until the final moments where the past and the present meet, and the two strands of the story merge.

Consider System Shock 2, the closing stages sees you explore the biomass of The Many while listening to the breadcrumb trail of audio logs recorded by Doctor Prefontaine; at this late stage the past (as represented by the audio logs and other environmental details) and the present are barely minutes apart, in fact you arrive just moments after the doctor meets his fate as recorded in his final audio log. The same experience occurs in the attic of the Greenbriar house, the past as narrated by Sam and the present  as explored by you as her older sister Kaitlin, are barely moments apart until, discovering the final journal entry, the final gap between past and present is closed the two threads knitting together.

That gap, that space around and between that which is known is at the heart of what gives this form of storytelling its power. Gone Home and System Shock, these are games about space; not simply physical spaces, the Greenbriar house and Citadel Station, but the space between, the things not said. The entire story of what happens is never revealed explicitly, instead you discover isolated moments of it in the form of an audio log or a written note, the space between those pieces and the other pieces of narrative you collect is left for you to fill. The order in which you discover each piece is controlled somewhat through gating and the mapping of physical space to temporal chronology however it is never enforced, you might miss a piece of information or discovering it out of order and this will change your understanding of the space formed by these pieces.

It is narrative by suggestion and inference, there are specific points that are defined but the space between them, the context in which these things occurred is for players to determine, and potentially reevaluate as new information is presented. In Gone Home, you can discover letters from your mother Jan to her friend Carol, discussing Ranger Rick who has just been transferred to work with your mother. You never know explicitly what your mother’s feelings are towards Rick though you can infer them from the suggestions of Carol and other things you discover within the environment; like the perfect evaluation Jan gives him along with the recommendation that his temporary transfer be made permanent. The implication that your mother is having an affair with Rick (in intent if not in deed) is clear, however this is a context that is fluid and open to interpretation and reexamination. One of the strongest indications of there being some form of relationship between Rick and your mother is the discovery of a book of Walt Whitman erotic poetry under her side of the bed within is a bookmark with a handwritten note by Rick. In the context in which these pieces of information are first discovered the inference is that Rick has given this book to your mother, however there is nothing to confirm that the message on the bookmark is referring to this book and not another; in fact given subsequent discoveries about the relationship of Rick to his girlfriend, and that of your parents it’s entirely possible, potentially even more likely, that the bookmark was referring to a different book entirely and that the presence of the book of erotic poetry in your parents room has an entirely different connotation.

This recontextualizing of information based on new insights is far from exclusive to Gone Home, though it is another aspect common to games of the Looking Glass Studios legacy. Early in Thief II: The Metal Age Garrett is asked to break into Shoalsgate Station and plant evidence against a member of the City Watch, when Garrett begins to question the task he is “distracted” by a bag of coins. Over the course of this mission things are learnt about Lieutenant Mosley (the woman who will benefit directly from the smearing of her colleague) that suggest she is not the most effective member of the City Watch when it comes to dealing with the Pagans. Only later will you discover that she is herself a Pagan working for the wood nymph Viktoria and though it is never explicitly explained this knowledge recontextualises the visit of Shoalsgate Station almost entirely. The appeal to Garrett’s avarice and hubris to distract him and ensure his cooperation is the same technique employed by Viktoria in Thief: The Dark Project, and every action you took within Shoalsgate has served to get one of her loyalists into a position where they could eventually assassinate Sheriff Truart. New information has recontextualised something that on the surface seemed like a simply case of internal politics and betrayal.

The techniques employed by The Fullbright Company in Gone Home have a long tradition, that can be see not only in games from Looking Glass Studios itself but also those influenced by them. That these techniques can be used to tell the story of both the horrific events of SHODAN’s birth on Citadel Station to the simply and honest tale of a Greenbriar family in mid-90s Portland, speaks to the strength and latent emotive power of these relatively simple techniques. To the potential that exists within those spaces between.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 9.

 “Greetings, Garrett! Thou art expected, though not precisely… welcome.”

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The voice recordings are the closest The Metal Age gets to audio logs. The need to discover and listen to each of them encourages exploration of Angelwatch.

Conclusion:

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.

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The Dayport district is dense with buildings, most scant feet apart. Old stone towers butting up against more contemporary constructions of wood and plaster.

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.

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Life Of The Party is a level of contrasts, the petty squabbles and bickering of the City’s various households set against the organised and single minded Mechanist Order.

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.

References:

  • 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.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 8.

 “These are strange times indeed when the builder’s chosen must cater to the folly of the unworthy.”

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The eerie chanting audible below is much clearer on the sixth floor, it seems to be emanating from the fountain or possibly something within.

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.

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Securing the key to Karras’ office from Vilnia will make things easier when you reach the fifth floor. Allowing Vilnia to remain conscious after you’ve secured the key is optional.

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.

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From the fifth floor landing there are three right angled turns before you can even see the main corridor of the fifth floor. Rounding each corner provides an increasingly more complete view of the space ahead.

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.

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Karras has no compunctions about discussing potentially disturbing topics while others eat. The truth of their origins casts a sinister light on the much smaller framed Servant who walks a route between the dining room and the kitchen.

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.

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The chest at the foot of the bed contains only a metal mace, it seems Karras has little regard for worldly possessions.

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.

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Opening the safe in Karras’ study will trigger the appearance of this golden cherub like creature. It’s reaction to you is dramatic and though it will run off it doesn’t raise the alarm or attract any attention to your presence.

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).

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As on the floors below the lighting creates a diagonal pattern of light across the floor, allowing you to move from one side to the other while remaining concealed. Entering Lord Bafford’s room will require you to risk being seen however.

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.

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Karras may have predicted Garrett’s arrival yet he remains confident in the ability of his security devices and Mechanists to ensure his “departure”.

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.

Boundary Conditions.

In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.

Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.

Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.

In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.

The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour  If I perform an unsupported action once, such as  jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.

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Apparently jumping on the head of the High Overseer is a Capital Offense in Dunwall. The game over screen is an inelegant but certainly unambiguous means of dealing with unsupported behavior.

When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour  is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.

In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions.  Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.

Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.

Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.

For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 6.

“Take some time to appreciate our gallery…”

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Karras has a unique interpretation of what a gallery should contain.

Annotated Walkthrough, 5:

Mounting the stairs of Angelwatch is an ascent into light. Climbing out of the basement like claustrophobia of the second floor the gas lamps are replaced with electric lights, the bare brickwork hidden behind paint and paper while small balconies, extending into the incongruously well lit atrium, face a large window looking out across Dayport. Initially this change in atmosphere is not apparent, a dimly lit hallway leads from the landing to the rest of the floor. South of the landing this hallway makes two right angled turns in quick succession. Turning first to the east the hallway connects to a balconies, then turns back to the south and continues past a number of doorways to terminate at the door to a small broom closet.

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The three balconies are just the right distance apart for a little acrobatics.

Opening onto rooms and hallways on three sides of the atrium the balconies provide a shortcut across this floor. It might be worth using some Moss Arrows on each of them as the patrol paths of the two Mechanists guards pass close to the entrance to each balcony. In additional, though she is concealed from this position, a Mechanist crossbow guard stands watch on the north facing balcony of the floor above.

To the north a large window looks out over Dayport, there’s not a great deal to see through this window, the large Angel statue obscuring any real view of the city beyond, regardless this single element helps to sell the idea that Angelwatch exists within the larger context of Dayport and the City itself. This is a marked contrast to the way locations are treated in other Thief II levels. First City Bank and Trust for example, is supposedly within the city limits yet it is presented as an entirely isolated construction with no connection to the streets and buildings that apparently neighbour it. The use of a series of city hubs in Thief: Deadly Shadows goes some way toward mitigating this sense of isolation. Locations are accessed directly from the streets of the city, yet the discrete mission based structure of Thief means this is something that cannot be entirely avoided.

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The play of light and shadow on the floor seems almost to mirror the pattern on the walls.

Patrolled by a pair of Mechanist guards Angelwatch’s third floor has little in the way of functional territory beyond providing access to one of the recording devices you will need to find. It exists because in a building such as Angelwatch it should exist, it marks a transition between the austere functionality of the previous floor and the ostentation of the upper storeys; more formal than the proceeding floor it is still less luxuriant than those above it. Much like the second floor the predominate colour throughout is grey, though here it is lightened by off white trim, and patterned wallpaper.

Turning south before your reach the balcony you will pass underneath a metal lintel supported by two beams. Visible throughout Angelwatch they serve the logical purpose of providing structural support while the shadows cast from them are deep enough to provide concealment in what are otherwise well lit corridors. On the upper floors these are covered with wooden paneling to conceal the metalwork within though their dual function remains.

The electric light inset into the east wall illuminates the doorway opposite while the shadow cast by the lip of its recess creates a patch of darkness at the base of the wall. Parts of this hallway are patrolled by both the Mechanists guards on this floor and if you wish to explore the room to the west you will need to leave the shadows to do so. The potential risk and reward dynamic created by this use of lighting seems wasted here. The room to the west holds nothing of interest, and its position on the illuminated side of the hallway means there is little benefit to using it to observe the guards’ patrol routes; this task can be performed just as easily from the safety of the shadows along the opposing wall.

This room does contain one object of note, within is the fireplace in the middle of the western wall, a simple element that can help you orientate yourself within Angelwatch.

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One of a number of rooms on this floor with little functional purpose.

Further south the next doorway opens to the east directly onto the gallery where another gramophone can be seen, once again on a table beneath a portrait of Karras. This area is referred to by Karras in the recording as the “gallery” though other than his own portrait and a statue of an angel the only objet d’art visible are a variety of cogs and gears. The implication is far from subtle, the Mechanist view of art and culture is myopic to say the least.

Entering from the western hallway, there is another entrance to the gallery on the wall opposite though this one is not directly in line, being instead a few feet further toward the south wall. In the middle of that curving wall a closed door leads into a further room. A female Mechanist guard patrols between this room and the entrance to the Library in the southwestern corner of this floor. The path of her companion also takes him through this room as he patrols between the third floor landing and the bedrooms in the northeastern tower. Next to the gramophone, in the north wall, a fourth doorway leads onto the balcony which looks out directly on to the large atrium window.

With four different entry points, metal flooring and lighting provided solely by electric lamps hanging from the roof, the gallery is immediately readable as a dangerous location. You need to listen to the gramophone recording, but how are you to go about it? The lights cannot be doused so there will be few places of darkness to hide in if the guards enter. The metal flooring will give you away if you move any faster than a crawl, noise that will alert the previously mentioned Crossbow guard currently hidden from view on the balcony above.

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The gallery, one of the most hostile areas in the whole of Angelwatch.

Again the options are manifold and depend on both your own preferences and the current difficulty level. With a few exceptions for specific level scenarios Thief II makes no explicit requirement that you maintain a low profile on any of its three difficulty settings, Normal, Hard or Expert. It is possible to directly confront guards and civilians regardless of the difficult selected however on Hard you will fail the mission if you kill any civillians, Expert adds the additional condition that you kill no human enemies of any kind. Though these restrictions limit some of the options available, the tools at your disposal can be used to deal with non-player character in non-lethal ways, either through distraction or incapacitation. Incongruously it is possible get away with indirectly killing NPCs even on Expert difficulty, within your inventory are Frogbeast Eggs, the creatures that hatch from which are effectively organic land mines that explode on contact with a NPC. Two Frogbeasts are enough to kill a Mechanist guard and any fatalities caused by them are not attributed to you therefore circumventing the restrictions of Hard and Expert.

Along with these limits on lethality, scaled increases in the quantity of loot required, and minor changes to the layout of each level, there is one other major change that occurs between Normal, Hard and Expert. Using a system influenced by GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, each mission requires the completion of certain objectives and as the difficulty increases the number and complexity of these objectives expands. Often completing these additional objectives will require exploration of more of the level, leading to more encounters and potentially requiring the expenditure of more resources. Unlike the other levels in Thief II changing the difficulty for Life Of The Party does not change the number of mission objectives, though the higher loot requirements and the restrictions on killing remain.

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A view of the gallery from the eastern entrance, the balcony can be seen beside the gramophone table.

Moving slowly and keeping the metal column in the centre of the room between you and any patrolling Mechanists will allow you to move through the gallery without drawing attention to yourself. Once again any NPCs within the level seem oblivious to the gramophone starting to play.

You can reach the balcony adjoining the gallery by jumping from either of the other balconies on this floor, or by descending a Vine Arrow from above if you are visiting the floors in a different order. This balcony provides little in the way of concealment, so if there are still Mechanists on patrol it would be advisable to stand back from the doorway once you have activated the recording, or find some other hiding place within audible range to partake Karras’ discourse on the beneficial nature of a “joyful spirit”. His proclamations on the power of aesthetic beauty finishes with a vague reference to the trustworthiness of the servants which he has gifted to each of his visitors.

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Staying out of their line of sight and moving quietly will allow you to bypass all but the most attentive guards.

South of the gallery is a carpeted room, where a woman in a red dress stands admiring the fireplace positioned in the middle of the south wall. There is nothing of value in this room, though it does mark a point on the patrol route of the female Mechanist guarding this floor. The carpeted floor allows you to move quickly without being detected, making this an ideal position to ambush her. The doorway to the east leads, via a short hallway, to the elevator.

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A carpeted floor and a number of dark corners make this rooms an ideal site for staging an ambush.

North of the elevator, inside a small room behind a closed door, is the third floor access to the ducts that run through the eastern wall. Directly to the north of this room, the hallway passes the fireplace on the east wall. Flanking this fireplace are two windows each recessed approximately two feet. Only textures these windows provide no view onto the City itself however the shadow formed in the corner of their recesses is enough to hide in. To the north of the fireplace the shadows surrounding the window are much deeper and extend further into the hallway, though reaching them from here will require moving through the section of hallway directly illuminated by the fireplace.

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A view back toward the gallery from the east wall, entry to the air ducts can be found behind the closed door to the left.

Past the fireplace the hallway makes a series of sharp turns to the west and then back to the north as it moves into the northeastern tower. The physical structure of Angelwatch is such that from the second floor two towers rise in the northwestern and northeastern corners flanking the atrium window and the Angel statue. These towers are only separated for two storeys after which the floor extends out again allowing the fifth and sixth stories to occupy a greater floor space than those immediately below.

While the northwestern tower is given over to the stairwell its counterpart is dedicated mainly to providing bedrooms, most of which are empty. The rooms on this floor are simply furnished and the initial assumption is that they are for what servants are needed to keep Angelwatch operating, of course this is unlikely as Karras’ has his own very specific servants who have little need for sleep. The other possibility is that these rooms are either for Karras’ less prestigious guests or the retinue of those guests who have their own rooms on the floor above.

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The northeastern tower, beyond the doorway to the left is the balcony, while behind each door is a spartan bedroom.

This point where the corridor opens slightly, a doorway to the west leading onto the atrium balcony, marks one of the end points of the male Mechanist guard. His patrol takes him from the third floor landing in the northwestern tower through the gallery to here then back again. From the opposing balcony it is possible to watch him reach this point and begin his return journey, the opportunity can then be taken to jump across the balconies from one side of the atrium to the other and get behind him.

Of the two bedrooms in this tower the one to the north which opens onto a well illuminated section of hallway is empty, while the room to the east with its door shrouded in shadow is occupied by a single female civilian. Another smart design decision, the placement of shadows around this eastern door allows you to observe the room beyond without having to reveal yourself until you choose to. Though with both doors closed the occupancy of each of the two rooms is initially unknown, the room to the north presenting the more risky proposition.

This northern bedroom is unoccupied and contains nothing of value. Despite their silver appearance the hand mirror and hair brush on the table do not constitute loot, though like all similar items in Thief you will need to pick them up before you can be certain whether they are valuable or not. Thief: Deadly Shadows would later implement a “loot glint” system to alleviate this issue with everything that was worth stealing signified by a glint. This single addition also has a number of useful secondary affects. By ensuring that all loot glinted it allows the game to reuse the same models for items like goblets and candlesticks while attaching a loot glint to only specific instances of each model as required. Allowing items to glint from a distance also enables their use as a means of drawing the attention of players to areas of the level they might not realise are accessible; if something is glinting on a distance balcony then there must be a way to reach that balcony. One of the downside to this loot glint is that by clearly indicating items of value it removes the sense of self discovery that comes from exploring a space at your own pace and developing a mental model of which items were likely to be worth stealing are which are merely props.

This problem isn’t present in the eastern bedroom, the bright blue and gold chest on the far side of the room obviously contains something of value, one hundred and twenty gold coins in fact. Avoiding detection by the woman standing at the foot of the bed seems like a challenge and it can be unless you are willing to take advantage of one of the quirks of the perception model used for NPCs in Thief.

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There is clearly something valuable in that chest, good for you that the woman isn’t the most perceptive person in the world.

As always there are a number of ways to draw her out of the bedroom or otherwise distract and dispatch her; Noisemaker Arrows or the application of a judiciously placed Broadhead. If you want to stay unobserved you can do so by sticking close to the wall of the room and moving around behind her, then over the bed to reach the chest. Of the various factors that make Garrett less visible one of them is keeping close to the wall and in this instance the benefit provided by doing so is enough to avoid detection.

Unsurprisingly the chest is locked, it will take both lockpicks in order to open it. Picking locks in Thief requires nothing more than the use one or both of Garrett’s lockpicks, Triangle tooth or Square tooth, and time. Audio feedback is provided by either a continuous clicking to signify unlocking, or a single duller click to indicate failure. Some of the more complex locks will require a change of lockpicks, possibly multiple times, until the lock has been completely picked. The status of a locked door or chest can be seen from the position of the handle, when it is pointing toward the floor the item is unlocked. For a locked door the handle is usually at the horizontal position, how much the handle will move with each second of picking is not consistent so there is no way to judge the relative difficulty of a pick before you start it. Fortunately it is possible to abandon a pick half way and resume at a later point if you are at risk of detection.

With the northeastern tower explored it’s time to move up to the fourth floor and from here there are multiple ways of doing so. There are the three obvious methods, the elevator and ducts can be found in the southeastern corner, while returning to the northwestern tower will allow you to mount the stairs to the fourth floor landing. In the southwestern corner of this floor, on the other side of the gallery is a door we have not yet explored. Beyond is the library of Angelwatch which occupies this corner of both the third and fourth floors, a set of stairs connecting them. There is even a fifth way to reach the fourth floor though it requires some skill, a Vine Arrow shot into the roof beams at the top of the atrium will allow you to climb from the balconies on this floor to those on the floor above. This is not necessarily an obvious route and it is not without risks, the Mechanist crossbow guard on the fourth floor balcony who will spot you should you attempt this route. With the tools at your disposal, Flashbombs and Noisemaker Arrows particularly, there are ways to distract her for long enough to reach the fourth floor balcony and find a hiding spot.

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The Angelwatch library, not very well lit.

We will avoid the more challenging means of reaching the fourth floor and instead, because it is still part of the third floor and has yet to be explored, return through the gallery to the Angelwatch library.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 2.

“Hey, the City looks almost bearable from up here.”

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Somewhere to the north is your objective, Angelwatch.

Annotated Walkthrough, 1:

From the moment it starts Life Of The Party feels different from the rest of Thief II. Everything is brighter, the surrounding walls no longer tower above you, even the sky seems closer.

Some familiar elements remain, the constant industrial drone that pervades every level, the sounds of civilization layered over it. Somewhere to the right somebody is snoring heavily, while footsteps can be heard ahead of you though something is a little off, they sound close but there is nobody in sight. Those footsteps are indeed ahead of you, but also below you, several floors down, at street level.

For the first time you start a level with neither your objective in view nor the sound of Garrett musing over the task at hand. It isn’t until you’ve moved to the edge of the Bell Tower, upon who’s upper floor you start, that Garrett makes his opinions known and even then it’s more cynical commentary than meaningful advice. You will need to scale the pipework on the opposite roof before he will make any suggestions regarding the best way to proceed. The suggestion to “follow the road north” is an almost cryptic one as there is an inaccessible building to your north and the road in question is aligned east to west.

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Grandmauden Road, your circuitous guide to Angelwatch.

Though initially confusing, the advice is good. It will be difficult to keep Grandmauden Road in view at all times on your way to Angelwatch but it will serve as a landmark by which to orientate yourself as you make your way along the Thieves’ Highway.

Looking down to the street below highlights this level’s inversion of the traditional relationships of space and height; no longer are the buildings of the City towering over you. It is a liberating view of what has until now been portrayed as a uniformly oppressive and restrictive environment. The buildings that once stood as obstacles during your flight from the Crippled Burrick (in Ambush!) are now the very means by which you’ll traverse the city.

Even before reaching this point there have been opportunities to stray from the path. To the left of the Bell Tower a ledge leads to a secret room containing a handful of gold coins and some Water Arrows. While following the snoring takes you to a small room where a liveried guard appears to be sleeping off the effects of a bottle of wine, some more loot can be retrieved from his unsecured footlocker. Heading in either direction very quickly leads to a dead end, but it won’t take long before the routes available will begin to diverge much more significantly.

Having used the pipes to cross Grandmauden Road there is another brief diversion available to you. A ladder on the left descends to a rooftop occupied by a pair of generators, the noise from which it is difficult to ignore. There is an open window in the building to the north, the guard within alternating between facing the roof and the room itself. The window ledge is just high enough to be climbed onto, though if you fail the sounds of your clumsy footsteps are certain to alert the guard even though the ambient noise from the two generators should have been enough to mask any sounds you may make.

Unfortunately the implementation of audio within the Dark Engine is such that even when you think they should background sounds are often not loud enough to completely drown out the noise you make. Occasionally frustrating this also works in your favour at times, as Noisemaker Arrows and other forms of audible distraction can still be employed in noisy areas. Any sound effects associated with the player or other functional elements within the world are always higher in the mix than ambient sound effects. This ensures they are always readable, even in circumstances where environmental sounds could realistically be expected to drown out all other noise.

Climbing, or mantling, is one of a number of secondary techniques within Thief II that extend the standard inputs to increase the scope of Garrett’s movement options. By approaching a low wall, or window ledge, and holding down the jump button while moving forward you can mantle up onto the wall. It’s not always straightforward, you will need to ensure that your view is centred correctly or you will miss the mantle attempt and inevitable make noise as you jump ineffectually against the wall. Extending this technique is the ‘running jump-mantle’, by running towards a wall and holding down jump at the last moment it is possible to grab the edge of the wall and pull yourself up. As well as being useful for reaching areas too high for the standard mantle it can also be used to scale walls on the other side of the gaps. A very useful skill in Life Of The Party, where a number of ledges can only be reached by leaping between buildings. The third of these secondary movement techniques is the ‘crouch-drop’ which is as simple as it sounds. By crouching and walking off a wall it is possible to land without making a sound, though care needs to be taken as when landing from a ‘crouch-drop’ you will automatically stand up again.

Development of these movement skills greatly increases the playable space of the level. Though the majority of locations can be reached through reliance on the standard move set, the directed graph that defines the relationship between accessible and inaccessible, safe and hostile, spaces is altered as each of the secondary movement mechanic are learnt. Two locations that were once only accessible via a third location can now be moved between directly, while routes that once restricted backtracking now become bidirectional.

The presence of these secondary movement mechanics highlights an often overlooked aspect of the Thief games. Despite their name the actual act of thievery is not where the focus of the game systems lie, what you do when you reach the loot is secondary to the means you employ to get there. Thief is a game about movement through space, and the manipulation of that space to increase its relative safety or hostility. As such in terms of its mechanical focus some of it’s closest modern contemporary are not the superficially similar Splinter Cell series which has a greater focus on the tools at your disposal, but rather Mirror’s Edge a game very explicitly about movement through, and therefore mastery of, space. The commonality of the mechanical and aesthetic experience between these two apparently disparate games will become clearer as your progress through Life Of The Party.

If you are unwilling or unable to climb onto the window ledge, there are other options. Positioned directly above the window is a wooden roof support, a good target for a Vine Arrow, and if you are willing to look for one there are plenty of crates and similar objects throughout the level. Whatever method your choose to gain access to the room, timing it to ensure the guard’s back is turned requires either judicious use of a scouting orb or a fair degree of luck. Whether the stack of coins within is worth the effort of attaining it depends on the difficulty setting and your own preferences regarding the acquisition of loot.

Watching over your actions, from a window in a building to the north is a hooded figure, a Keeper, who will have disappeared once more when your emerge from the room. This is not the only member of his Brotherhood to be found on this level though he does manage to be the more subtle of the two.

Moving west again you are soon presented with the first real opportunity to diverge from the straight ahead path. Climbing down a ladder onto a low roof two routes are now available, head inside the building directly east of you or jump across to a ledge on the wall of a building to the south and follow Grandmauden Road as it continues past the building and further east. It is worth noting at this point that the route of Grandmauden Road is not as straight forward as depicted on the map. Though the general direction is accurate the position of the buildings surrounding it often mean it has to go a short distance in a perpendicular direction before turning back on course. This can occasionally make it difficult to orientate yourself with relation to the map, however the road can be seen at enough points to allow you to ascertain which direction leads to Angelwatch.

Life Of The Party 09
Continue along this ledge to eventually cross Grandmauden Road or head through the building to stay to its east side.

Accessed through an open window the building to the east is the first of the self-contained encounter spaces. A corridor, two small rooms and a staircase with a single guard on a patrol route passing through each area. In Thief terms this is a trivial encounter, the corners of the room at the bottom of the staircase offer enough shadow to hide while the guard moves past. A window half way up the staircase will allow you to leave the building and keep heading west, however there is an alternate way out of this building and one that will allow you to bypass a large section of the Dayport streets.

Life Of The Party 10
Access to the Astronomer’s room can be found directly above this position.

Entering from the hallway, it’s possible to spot a hole in the wall directly ahead. Accessible from the roof-beams and partially blocked off by wooden boards this grants access to a secret area and eventually the Shemenov Estate. A Vine Arrow is the most efficient means of reaching the roof-beams as it is noiseless and the Arrow itself can be retrieved and reused.

The wooden boards covering the hole need to be broken, though they take no obvious damage when initial struck. Unless you have encountered the few similarly breakable surfaces in previous levels, this can be a little disconcerting as there is no feedback to indicate attacking is the correct approach. If you are trying to maintain a low profile, it will be necessary to ensure that the patrolling guard has closed the door and started up the stairs before you attack the boards as the noise will easily alert him. The sound of the guard’s footsteps as he scales the stairs to the room at the top and then returns, can feel like a ticking clock creating a moment of tension in what is a very simple situation. There is more than enough time to break through before the guard returns but it doesn’t necessarily feel as safe as it actually is.

On the other side of the wall is the attic room of an Astronomer who clearly has a rather dubious concept of both the scientific method and the value of human life; not to mention a single-minded fascination with the moon. It is possible to steal the Sunburst Device described in the Astronomer’s journal and doing so might actually be one of the noblest things Garrett will ever do. A final curious note about the Astronomer’s room is that though it’s possible to switch the electric lights on it’s impossible to turn them off again, they simply flicker a little and remain illuminated. It can evoke a brief moment of worry that lasts only as long as it takes to realise nobody can reach you here.

Thief is rife with moments like this, players, especially first time players, can not always be certain if an area is safe and this knowledge gap between perception and reality can be exploited to imply hostility where none exists.

Moving past some stacked crates, a window in an empty room below leads to the Shemenov Estate and a perfect example of the isolated problem encounter spaces upon which the Dayport sections of Life Of The Party are built.

Life Of The Party 08
Shemenov Estate, a good case study for the different spatial layouts available for a stealth game.

Despite there being at least three ways to reach the Shemenov Estate each require exploration to find and as such this section of Life Of The Party can feel much more isolated than some of the locations to the west of Grandmauden Road. This isolation, along with the limited number of AI agents (Two patrolling guards, one static guard and a civilian) make it a good case study for the various ways in which the Thief series uses spatial layout to promote stealth gameplay.

Stripped of any interaction verbs beyond those concerned directly with movement there are three ways of moving unobserved through a space patrolled by a hostile AI.

  1. Watch and Wait: Find a location along the path of the AI from which you can remain unobserved and wait for the AI to pass you heading in the opposite direction, then proceed across the space.
  2. Bypass: Locate an alternate route through the space that avoids contact with the hostile AI completely.
  3. Follow: Trace the same path as the AI until you find a point that allows you to break contact.

Since method 3 is a variation and combination of the first two methods, there are essentially only two approaches to stealth movement. The tools available to the player can be used to change the environment to facilitate either of these approaches but within most Thief levels it is possible maintain unobserved movement without a reliance upon tools. In general there is a path that offers a near zero change of detection, of stealth failure.

The first and second (external and internal) sections of the Shemenov Estate are good examples of these two methods of stealth movement, and the level design needed to support them.

The external section of the Shemenov Estate, which you enter from the Astronomer’s room, consists of a lower and upper roof space, linked by steps, with two rooms off the lower roof, one accessible from a closed door on the lower roof itself and the other by a second set of steps rising to the same level as the upper roof. This upper room is lit by a torch and has an attached balcony upon which is a guard. The other guard patrols between this room and the upper roof, though he has a tendency to embellish his route with occasionally and apparently random loops that making following him a risky proposition. Arriving on the lower roof, it is initially impossible to see the static guard, while the patrolling guard could also be hidden from view in the upper room on on the upper roof, though as he never actually stops moving his footsteps will quickly give his position away.

The erratic behaviour of the patrolling guard combined with an unawareness of the layout of the upper roof make any attempt to follow him a risky option, with no apparent means of gaining access to the upper roof without taking the steps the only viable option is either to deal with the guard directly or adopt the Watch and Wait approach.

Life Of The Party 12
An example of a room that serves a logical and functional purpose.

The level design in the Thief series makes a lot of use of what appears on first glance to be purely logical territory. Each level is full of small rooms and little nooks that seem to exist simply because such locations would exist in a bank or a warehouse. However an understanding of the dynamics of Thief shows that these locations are in fact just as much functional territory as logical territory. They may contain little, or even nothing, in the way of loot, and are likely undisturbed by guards or other NPCs, but their very emptiness makes them prime locations from which to observe the behaviour of the NPCs and plan your next move.

The room behind the door on the lower roof is a prime example of such a space. Ostensibly it is a guard barracks, with a double bunk and a small foot locker, however its position makes it an ideal place from which to observe the movements of the patrolling guard. It is away from his standard route and though illuminated by an electric light there are enough dark corners to allow you to wait undetected.

Life Of The Party 13
An alternate view of the Shemenov Estate showing the upper roof, and chimney to the Kitchen.

Despite the multiple ways you can leave the Shemenov Estate the route that will keep you heading in the direction of Angelwatch requires heading inside the estate itself and finding another way out to the north. The only way to gain entry to the interior is via the chimney on the upper roof where a Water Arrow is needed to dowse the flames in the fireplace before you can descend.

Even with the fire out the kitchen still presents a hostile environment, a torch illuminates the floor ahead of you which is made up of hard stone that is difficult to cross inaudibly, while a servant performs her duties in the corner. Once alerted she will scream and run for help from the guard on patrol inside the Shemenov Estate. If you move slowly you can leave the kitchen without being seen, however opening the door to the hallway without first taking the time to listen for what is on the other side is a risky proposition.

On the counter opposite the fireplace and behind the servant is a scroll that contains the latest in a series of missives concerning an Alchemist’s and the arrangements of two people to meet therein. This minor subplot is detailed in various scrolls found within several of the previous levels, even as far back as the third level Framed.

Life Of The Party 14
Not only a good hiding place, this storage area contains what feels like an intentional trick.

The second patrolling guard can be found in the interior of the Shemenov Estate, his route taking him from a small storage area opposite the door to the kitchen up two flights of stairs and out onto another roof.

Within the storage area beneath the stairs there are two chests,of the kind within which loot or other useful items are usually found, however in this case one of them contains a bucket that you will automatically pick up. Putting this bucket down creates a lot of noise which may alert either the guard himself of the servant in the kitchen; assuming you haven’t closed the door behind you. Though it’s a simple task to wait until the guard has moved away before dropping the bucket, it is equally simply (and more likely) to discard the bucket as worthless, allowing it to clank nastily on the stone floor. The placement of his chest was not unintentional and it feels like a slight admonishment against not thinking things through, against acting too quickly. After all which is more likely to be found under the stairs, gold or cleaning supplies?

Though the storage area provides a good hiding place from which to avoid the AI, as it marks one of the end points of his patrol it will not be possible to wait here and then proceed past him. Because his entire route cannot be observed from any one location exit from the Shemenov Estate will require you to take a risk and follow him up the stairs.

Each of the two landings is lit by a single torch and once plunged into darkness either makes a good point at which to wait for the patrolling guard to move past. Continuing up brings you out onto an unguarded rooftop with a high wall to the north. Mantling this wall and moving across another roof leads to the intersection of Grandmauden Road and The Baron’s Way, a well guarded intersection and the point at which all paths through Dayport converge.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 1.

“Angelwatch? Is this how our arrangement is gonna work, you coming up with ways for me to get myself killed?”
“Is this really Garrett the Master Thief I hear talking? If danger is going to be a problem for you, then…”
“Just– give me the details.”

Life Of The Party 06
Angelwatch, your stated objective but barely the halfway point of the level.

The third instalment of Groping The Map will be presented in the following parts:

  1. Introduction.
  2. Annotated Walkthrough, East of Grandmauden Road.
  3. Annotated Walkthrough, West Of Grandmauden Road.
  4. Annotated Walkthrough, The Baron’s Way and approach to Angelwatch.
  5. Annotated Walkthrough, Angelwatch, Floors 1 and 2.
  6. Annotated Walkthrough, Angelwatch, Floor 3.
  7. Annotated Walkthrough, Angelwatch, Floor 4.
  8. Annotated Walkthrough, Angelwatch, Floors 5 and 6.
  9. Conclusion and References.
  10. Additional: Life Of The Party and The Uninvited Guest.

Introduction:

The set up for the tenth level of Thief II: The Metal Age is mundane compared to what has already been asked of you: make your way across the wealthy Dayport district to infiltrate the Mechanist tower and find any information regarding the “Cetus Project”, and the “New Scripture of the Master Builder”. Already you will have guided Master Thief Garrett through an infiltration of a City Watch station to plant evidence against the Sheriff’s right hand man, escaped through the City streets after being betrayed and ambushed, and broken into First City Bank and Trust to obtain blackmail recordings from a safety deposit box. After all that infiltrating a Mechanist tower should be child’s play.

With the blackmail attempt a failure and Sheriff Truart lying dead on the floor of his bed chambers, you needed to tail the only suspect, his Lieutenant, to a contact with her co-conspirators and on through the Pagan woods to a reunion with an old foe the wood nymph Viktoria former companion to the Trickster who’s scheme, and life, you ended in the previous game. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, at least for the moment and with Viktoria’s help you start to unravel the ties between the deceased Sheriff and the enigmatic Karras, head of the Mechanists.

Fueled by a belief that all organic life is inherently flawed and holding that only those of mechanical construction are fit to fulfil the tasks of the Master Builder, Karras’ Mechanist are an insidious threat to the City and Garrett’s comfortable way of life.

In terms of gameplay and structure Life Of The Party is an exercise in carefully managed complexity. Starting on a bell tower some distance from your objective and with no defined path across the rooftops it would have been easy for the level to degenerate into a chaotic mess. With each level constructed as a series of unscripted problem encounters, and few explicit barriers between each one, a traditional Thief II level of the size and complexity of Life Of The Party would all too rapidly have snowballed beyond your ability to react to it; one accidentally alerted guard triggering sympathetic reactions from those within hearing range leading to a Benny Hill-esque chase across the rooftops.

To counter this Life Of The Party follows a structure that most Thief II levels avoid. Each building within Dayport is treated as a discrete encounter, those guards patrolling within unwilling and unable to follow you across the rooftops. The boundaries of the building serving as the boundaries for each encounter space. This approach serves the dual purposes of preventing an uncontrollable escalation and reinforcing the concept that each building is home to a different family with their own guard patrols.

Levels set amidst the streets and buildings of the City itself, rather than one isolated location, are not uncommon in the Thief series. The concept of exploring a part of the City in order to approach and gain access to one specific location is one that makes its first appearance in Assassin’s the fourth level of Thief: The Dark Project. Even within Thief II there have already been two levels that take place on the streets of the City, Ambush! and Trace The Courier. In all of these levels the buildings of the City mainly acted as barriers to progression, their interiors used either as shortcuts or brief detours to acquire loot. Thief: Deadly Shadows builds upon this use of the City, turning it into a multi-part hub linking each of the separate storyline levels. Whether this is the approach a Looking Glass Studios developed Thief III would have taken is unknown, though Life Of The Party seems like a good indicator of the direction they were heading and the type of location that the Siege Engine (Internal Looking Glass Studios name for the Dark Engine’s successor) was being created for.

As the tenth of fifteen levels Life Of The Party occurs at a point where players can be expected to have a strong understanding of the various game mechanics and the interactions between them. However, the structure of the Dayport sections means that despite featuring one of the least restricted and non-linear layouts of any Thief level it is also one of the most forgiving. Any mistakes can be rectified by making the leap to a different building where any guards will still be in their default patrol state. This holds true until you arrive at Angelwatch where you will be faced with some of the most challenging encounter spaces yet.

Life Of The Party marks the start of Thief II‘s third act, the true threat has been revealed and it’s time to take action. There are still some plot developments to come but those there are only clarify the nature of Karras’ schemes rather than presenting any truly revelatory information. This is also true of the game’s mechanics, some of the subsequent levels will present variations on existing concepts but nothing entirely new will be introduced. In preperation for these final levels, the Dayport sections of Life Of The Party allow for a last moment of experimentation in a relatively risk free environment. The discrete nature of the initial encounter spaces provide the opportunity to experiment with a reduced risk of absolute failure. It’s an opportunity that is worth taking as once inside Angelwatch the gap between partial and total failure will become much smaller.

Angelwatch is a beacon of Mechanist craftsmanship and hubris, a six story tower of metal, wood and marble with an artistic style bordering on Art Deco. While the majority of the City still relies heavily on torches for illumination Angelwatch features a much greater use of electric light sources which cannot be dowsed by Water Arrows. There are also several gas lamps which can be extinguished but unlike traditional torches are able to be relit by passing guards. In combination the hard floors, electric light sources, and sheer number of patrolling guards serve to make Angelwatch a difficult building to infiltrate, it is very clearly hostile territory. Get spotted within it’s chambers and it won’t take long before a half dozen Mechanists are hunting you.

The differences in aesthetics and structure between Angelwatch and the rest of Dayport highlight the contrast between the traditions of the City and its future as envisioned by Karras. Until now the threat posed by the Mechanists has been an abstract one, they were supporting the Sheriff and his attempts to crackdown on the City’s “unlawful”, and their security devices were appearing everywhere, but they themselves had been able to avoid public scrutiny. The Mechanists were a threat insofar as they were making life difficult for Garrett, however with Truart dead the true nature of their plans is starting to come to light, their impact on the City undeniable. Until his arrival at Angelwatch Garrett is the master of his domain, the Thieves’ Highway is where he is most comfortable, most powerful. The initial sight of Angelwatch towering over the surrounding buildings is the first sign that things are changing and that Garrett’s reign is under threat.

Ultimately Garrett doesn’t defeat Karras and the Mechanicsts out of some noble belief in his cause, he does it to survive because if their plans come to fruition there will be no room in the “Builder’s Paradise” for the likes of him. Life Of The Party is the point at which it becomes clear what the future might hold, and the point where Garrett’s actions change from those of guided by simple avarice to those motivated by survival.

An early version of this level entitled The Uninvited Guest was released as the demo for Thief II, and despite a generally similar layout there are a number of notable differences between this alpha version and the finished Life Of The Party; differences that I’ll be examining in a later post.

Originally Life Of The Party was to be shrouded in fog, as can be seen in The UninvitedGuest, however due to some problems with the release build of the Dark Engine and my current graphics card, it can be difficult to get the fog to display correctly at all times. Since it doesn’t have any direct impact on the perception levels of the AI I’ve made the decision to turn it off entirely for this playthrough.

Groping The Map: Liberty Island, Part 3.

“Everything was clear an hour ago. Then, BOOM!”

Liberty Island 8
Your first view after leaving the South Dock isn't very informative.

Annotated Walkthrough, 2:

Stepping up the ramp from the South Dock, the first sight to meet you is likely the dead body of a UNATCO Trooper, lying on the path ignored by the patrolling NSF.

Directly ahead there is a stone pillar of some sort, despite not blocking everything from view its position does mean that you will need to start moving off the direct path straight away. It’s subtle but the placement of this single stone pillar (Which was likely placed there to limited visibility for optimisation purposes), serves to push players off the direct line path to their objective in order to allow them to actually see the area ahead of them.

Pushed out to either the left or the right players will move into areas of shadow from which they can survey the area ahead of them and monitor the patrol paths of the NSF from a position of relative (That word again) safety. Providing players with this ability to see the area ahead of them before requiring them to move across it, serves a similar affect to that of the establishing shot in film. It allows players to mentally map out the position of object and NPCs within the environment, a mental map they can refer back to while moving through the area itself. This information enables players to make plans and encourages intentionality. Without these initial few moments to gain a lay of the land players will be forced to become reactive instead of proactive, and they may have trouble working out which direction to be heading in without some clear guidance from within the environment.

After a minute or so, it’s possible to locate the patrol routes of at least five NSF, two of whom pass close to the stone pillar north of the South Dock ramp making them easy targets for players who wish to take a direct approach to conflict resolution.

Combat in Deus Ex is a hybrid system that uses character skill more than player skill to determine the success of an attack, but not exclusively. With a Trained Pistol Skill (The level provided at the start of the game) it is still possible to kill an NSF will a single shot to the head, however from anything more than extreme close range players will need to hold the crosshair over the target’s head until the reticule shrinks to it’s smallest size. Only then is the shot guaranteed to hit; rapid movement and player stance also have an affect on the size of the reticule. With more skill points invested in each Weapon Skill the initial size of the reticule shrinks and the more player skill comes to the fore in determining the success of each attack. Increased levels of each Weapon Skill also provided bonuses to damage and weapon reload speed, though a headshot against an unprotected target remains instantly lethal.

Examining the corpse of the UNATCO Trooper shows that he was only carrying a Baton, a Candy Bar and a Carton of Cigarettes, another sign that he was a member of law enforcement rather than part of a paramilitary force. It is possible that the patrolling NSF removed any other weapons he may have had and if this is true then the NSF were clearly careful with regards to who was allowed to recover those weapons. While all the uniformed NSF on Liberty Island are armed with firearms (With a few exceptions) none of the additional plain clothed Mercenaries they brought with them are armed with anything more powerful than a Mini-Crossbow. Loaded with Tranquilizer darts these weapons are functionally lethal to JC Denton, still it is noteworthy that the Mercenaries and NSF are not exactly on equal terms.

Liberty Island 09
Pigeons, more than simply ambient wildlife.

Moving to the left upon reaching the top of the ramp seems a sensible decision as it enables you to search the dead body of your comrade, and continuing in this direction takes you into the darkness surrounding a shipping container. From this position none of the patrolling NSF will locate you provided you keep quiet. This is complicated somewhat by the presence of a number of Pigeons, which will take flight when startled, potentially alerting nearby NSF to something suspicious. This ability to be discovered indirectly is rare as it can be difficult to provide accurate feedback on which of your actions caused you be to noticed. Birds taking flight at your approach is something recognisable from the real world and therefore it doesn’t necessarily require an in game explanation, a suitable audio cue from the alerted NPC would probably be enough feedback to sell the idea.

Lacking the Light Gem of Thief: The Dark Project, or any other interface element to indicate current visibility it can often be difficult to judge exactly how hidden you are at any moment. As Alex Jacobsen reminds you darkness decreases your visibility, however the only certain way to avoid being seen is to break line of sight with any patrolling NSF. This requires you to pay close attention to the audio environment, listen for footsteps and use them to time your movements. These first sections of Liberty Island place the majority of patrolling NSF on the paved pathways making their footsteps clear and enabling you to pick them out easily against your own which, if you are keeping to the shadows, will be muffled by the grass.

This lack of clear feedback creates a large functional grey area between being seen and being hidden which increases tension at the expense of clarity, creating a conflict between improvisation and intentionality. The former often stems from taking actions without complete information while the latter requires players to make informed decisions.

Liberty Island
No matter where you are on Liberty Island your ultimate destination is always clear.

The route between the South Dock and the front entrance of the Statue is open, and patrolled by several NSF, the only cover being provided by several stacks of crates. A cliched symbol of level design Deus Ex once again manages to make this ubiquitous object serve multiple purposes.

Liberty Island
The humble crate, more useful than it first appears.

Breaking up the visual environment and providing cover in combat are the two most common uses of crates and other similarly shaped objects, they also serve as a cultural shorthand for ‘warehouse’ or ‘industrial district’. These requirements are all fulfilled by the crates on Liberty Island, however their placement also provides a route for stealthy players from the South Dock to the base of the Statue. Positioned in such a way as to provide cover from the NSF patrolling along the path, each stack of crates requires stealth players to time their movements between them to coincide with the patrol patterns of the NSF. Furthermore they provided a visual obstruction that at once keeps the player hidden from view while also preventing them from being able to see the NSF. Players are required to move without having first observed the area, in order to remain undetected they will need to constantly be comparing their current location, with the mental map they established earlier, along with any provided audio cues.

It is interesting to consider that if these positions of cover had been based on areas of shadow it is much more likely players would have been able to directly observe the patrolling NSF and so would not have to risk moving without complete information regarding the current state of the environment. Being forced to act on incomplete information? Once again the mechanics of Deus Ex mirror its broader themes.

Of course it is entirely possible for players to choose to obey their stated orders and “shoot on sight” any and all NSF they encounter, in which case the crates become useful points of cover, or positions from which to ambush the NSF at close range, thereby negating the affects of distance on their aiming reticule.

The presence of so many crates and shipping containers on Liberty Island indicate that it is some form of transit hub, and it was this that the NSF were targeting not the UNATCO Headquarters.

Liberty Island 12
If you didn't choose to take the Mini-Crossbow from Paul it can be found on this fallen NSF.

Taking a detour away from the Statue allows you to locate the UNATCO Headquarters, which is currently “under lockdown”.

Approaching the UNATCO Trooper inside the front gate initiates a conversation with what turns out to be Tech Sergeant Kaplan. Kaplan is less than thrilled to be on guard duty outside the sealed UNATCO Headquarters while the NSF are roaming the island. Trying to make some money to augment his UNATCO wages, he has a number of items which he has acquired and is willing to part with for a suitable price. Offering to “clean the place out” seems to impress Kaplan and leads to him providing the code to the Comm Vam in additional to your purchasing opportunities. A preferences for a “minimum-force approach” will still allow you to purchase items from Kaplan, though he will not provided you with the Comm-Van code and may comment on some of your purchases, particular if you choose to stock up on 10mm Ammo.

The door code for the Comm Van is the first code you will come across outside the tutorial and the number used for it has some special significance: 0451. A reference to Fahrenheit 451 and once the door code for Looking Glass Studios this number was the first door code in both System Shock and BioShock, it appeared in a modified form, 45100, as the first door code in System Shock 2, and it can be found written in reverse on a steamed up window as the first door code in BioShock 2, 1540.

The Comm Van is the first of the many examples of the Deus Ex mentality of ‘problems not puzzles’. Despite there only being a single door into the Comm Van there are several ways in which access through that door can be granted. If you have convinced Kaplan that you are a “born and bred killer” then he will have provided the door code and entry is immediate, otherwise some alternate means of access is required. Because the code is fixed it is possible to guess the combination, those with an understanding of the legacy of Looking Glass Studios might have done this anyway, though statistically guessing the correct code without any clues is extremely unlikely. The other way to gain access is to use a Multitool to bypass the Keypad thereby unlocking the door. If required there is a Multitool in a Crate between the Comm Van and the Satellite Dish.

Whatever method you use to unlock the door entering the Comm Van rewards you with an ‘Exploration Bonus’ of 25 skill points. Unlike other role playing games experience in Deus Ex is not rewarded for neutralizing NPC rather for achieving goals, or in this instance gaining entry to secured locations.

A couple of useful objects can be found within the Comm Van along with a Security Computer Terminal. Using either the login details found on a Datapad beneath the desk, or  your Hacking skill, this Terminal provides one means of opening the Hatch outside the Comm Van. Like the Comm Van this Hatch is initially locked but the variety of ways to unlocked it highlights the scope of the possibility space in Deus Ex. Locked and with an infinite door strength explosives are not an option so some other means are necessary. It’s possible to pick the lock, if enough Lockpicks are not available some exploration will reveal a crate containing a Lockpick behind the Comm Van, closer examination of this area will reveal the Key itself. Players who chose to access the Comm Van first have the previously mentioned option to unlock the Hatch via the Security Computer Terminal. Regardless of the method used, entering the small room below the Hatch is rewarded with an ‘Exploration Bonus’ of 50 skill points, a more complex problem has a commensurately larger reward.

Liberty Island 13
Security Bot, Camera, Turret, an arrangement that could be considered "patchwork security systems".

Not all of the problems on Liberty Island have such clearly delineated solutions nor do they have such absolute success conditions. The Hatch is either Locked or Unlocked, the same is not true for the patrolling Security Bot outside the Statue entrance. Unlike the two legged varieties operated by UNATCO this smaller wheeled bot was either been brought to the Island by the NSF or if it has recently been reprogrammed to be hostile to all non-NSF forces, yourself included. Its threat can be mitigated in a variety of different ways. Tools can be used to change its status from Active to Disabled, or from Alive to Dead, alternatively it can simply be avoided. This is a problem with multiple definitions of success depending on playstyle,  and often multiple means of achieving the required degree of success, how do you fairly reward players for a partial success? EMP Grenades (Such as the one found beneath the Hatch) can be used to Disable or Damage the Bot, it can be destroyed outright with explosives such as the GEP Gun or one of the TNT Crates found throughout the level. It is even possible to reprogram the Turret outside the Statue entrance to destroy it for you; the code for this Security Computer Terminal can be found on a Datapad between UNATCO Headquarters and the Statue entrance.

The direct route to the front doors of the Statue is a challenging one, the Security Bot is easily the most powerful enemy you will face during the first few hours of Deus Ex. Of course the direct method is not the only way to gain access to the Statue, and we will examine some of the alternative routes next.

Groping The Map: Liberty Island, Part 1.

“The bots have them bottled up, sir. We’d go right in, if it weren’t for the hold-back order.”

Liberty Island 01
The layout of Liberty Island has changed a little by 2052.

The second instalment of Groping The Map will be presented in multiple parts running over the next several weeks.

  1. Introduction.
  2. Annotated Walkthrough, 1: South Dock.
  3. Annotated Walkthrough, 2: Island exterior and UNATCO HQ.
  4. Annotated Walkthrough, 3: Island exterior and North Dock.
  5. Annotated Walkthrough, 4: Statue.
  6. Conclusion and References.

Introduction:

With the, optional, Training level providing basic training on the mechanics of Deus Ex the Liberty Island level is used to provide training in situ. A few new mechanics are introduced but overall Liberty Island presents the various interconnected systems of Deus Ex within the context they will likely be found throughout the rest of the game.

Aesthetically Liberty Island is an example of a common theme throughout Deus Ex, the use of modified but still identifiable real world locations as game spaces. The use of recognisable locations serves to ground the world of Deus Ex, the events that take place are not occurring in some fantasy realm or alien planet but in our own world, albeit after several decades of degradation.

This grounding in ‘reality’ has several purposes, in terms of narrative it opens up possibilities for environmental storytelling through the changes that have occurred in the world. Observing how these locations are presented in Deus Ex, we are reminded of how these spaces appear currently and the changes that must have occurred. A headless statue of Liberty, roadblocks throughout New York city, what such changes imply we are left to dwell upon.

Structurally this use of real world locations leads to a common style of level design through many of the locations of Deus Ex. Designed around a specific location and the immediate area surrounding them, levels are built with a layered onion structure. The primary objective is to gain access to the main location, usually a building or compound at the centre (Metaphorically if not physically) of the level. The goal is to peel away each layer of security until this centre is reached, it is here that the main objectives lie. Liberty Island follows this layout the first goal, to gain access to the statue itself, is achieved after exploration of the outer layers of the island. This is also the same base layout of many of the later levels, the NSF Airfield and Brooklyn Naval Base being two good examples.

This ‘peeling the onion’ theme to level design is a mirror to the development of the narrative. In a world of shadowy pseudo-government organisations and conspiracies, it becomes necessary to strip away the surfaces layers of misinformation and propaganda to expose the truth underneath. Using low level systems to reflect and reinforce higher level systems is something that Deus Ex does in a number of places, it’s a subtle technique but one that provides a cohesion to actions and events that a lot of games lack.

Released in 2000 the open plan layout of Liberty Island has more in common with the design of levels found in Thief: The Dark Project than with any of it’s Unreal engine contemporaries. There are several elements of the level design alone that hark back to Garrett’s adventures; in many ways it makes more sense to consider Deus Ex as an expansion and broadening of the Thief philosophy than it does to consider it as an attempt to add additional action adventure and role playing systems to a traditional first person shooter template.

The combat mechanics alone are enough to convince that despite the heritage of it’s engine, Deus Ex, is not a game based exclusively around shooting hostile NPCs. Much like the sword based combat of Thief, the ranged combat of Deus Ex is functional if lacking in depth, which helps to encourage alternate methods of play. However unlike Garrett, JC Denton has more options available than simply avoiding being seen.

In fact much as it’s combat mechanics are functional without being deep enough to carry a pure action game, the implementation of stealth in Deus Ex is handled with less fidelity than in a game where stealth is the focus. With little direct feedback regarding visibility or AI alert levels, it’s becomes necessary to not rely too much on stealth. Few of the core systems of Deus Ex are implemented deeply enough that they can be absolutely relied upon in all circumstances, even if you have spent the skill points necessary to improve in a particular area. This pushes players to experiment with alternatives. Mechanically nothing is perfect and there is no one optimal solution, this is as much true of the mechanics as of the world of 2052 itself.

Stepping off the boat onto the South Dock of Liberty Island the objectives at first appear very clear, terrorists have taken over the statue, and it’s your job to remove them. Very quickly this black and white certainty is put to the test, first by your brother Paul and then by the ‘terrorists’ themselves.  Everything about the game serves to reinforce this notion that there is no singular neat solution and that exploration and experimentation are the only viable options. The first hints of this philosophy of ‘problems not puzzles’, this awareness of the underlying complexity of the world, can be seen in Liberty Island, and it serves as a superb microcosm of the game as a whole. It could be said that the rest of Deus Ex is simply Liberty Island writ large.