The player in Bioshock Infinite interacts with the game in three roles: passively observing first-person cutscenes; explorating the environment and collecting loot (money, ammunition, audio diaries, etc.); and combat. As a shooter, the majority of the player’s time is spent in combat, followed by exploration.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s role, when considered in the light of the mechanics the player operates under in both exploration and combat is inconsequential nearly to the point of invisibility.
While the player is exploring, Elizabeth moves around constantly. If the player is standing still or walking around a small area, Elizabeth will sit down, or wander around peering closely at things, or dance a few steps—animations for “boredom”, I guess you could say. When the player starts moving with purpose, Elizabeth will sometimes run ahead, or sometimes fall behind; she doesn’t call for the player to catch up or to wait for her, but just tags along, undemanding. In these states, the game offers no incentive nor pressure to interact with Elizabeth, nor in fact any way to do so.
The opportunities for interaction with Elizabeth feel artificial and mechanical. From time to time, Elizabeth will call out when she has spotted a lockpick or audio diary. When the player is collecting or spending money, Elizabeth will sometimes offer some money that she has supposedly gathered from the environment (but is in fact spawned for the occasion). That these offers always follow immediately after the player’s actions adds to the artificiality.
Elizabeth also has the role of deciphering the two or three codes and picking the many locked doors that separate the player from the next area or a small side area with special loot. It is odd that while only Elizabeth can pick locks, and notices lockpicks in the environment, the player is required to pick them up, and has a HUD display to indicate how many lockpicks they have, and how many the door requires. In consequence, the rules of this system are more visible than Elizabeth’s part, and the resource management more important. The player doesn’t even have to seek Elizabeth out and ask her to pick the lock for him: merely looking at the lock and pressing a button makes Elizabeth come tripping up, pick the lock, and a few seconds later waltz off again.
This is notably different from the system Ken Levine described to Polygon not long before release:
“We have all of these systems that after you are in combat and you ask her to, like pick a lock or something she wouldn’t be like, ‘OK, Booker.’ She actually cools. Her emotions cool down over time because you have a lot of dissonant moments.”
There appear to be no such systems in the game, but instead two or three scripted sequences where Elizabeth confronts Booker about his violence.
During combat, Elizabeth’s role is much the same: she sometimes offers the player salts, or a health pack if he’s running low on either. She will occasionally call out to alert the player to a new enemy; but it’s not as if the player has to look at her and see where she’s pointing (a very human kind of interaction)—instead the enemy is automatically highlighted on the player’s screen so as to be immediately visible even through any objects that are between it and the player.
A central element of the narrative in Infinite is that Elizabeth has a unique talent of manipulating “tears”, wormhole-like rifts that connect parallel universes. But in the exploration and combat roles, the mechanics again belie this, both for the few tears that you encounter while exploring, and the many weapon stashes, turrets, oil spills, and so on that can be summoned in combat arenas. To open one of these years, the player looks at it and pushes a button, and it appears. Elizabeth says a line of dialogue in response to this, but is not involved in the mechanics of it. She does not even have to be near an object to summon it, unlike the narrative depiction of all the tears in cutscenes. Nor does the player does not have to be concerned about her emotional state or fatigue, as the E3 2011 preview promised.
There is a real missed opportunity here to design the player’s interaction in such a way to present Elizabeth as a human character, and to reflect the codependent relationship that the narrative insists that she and Booker share. But instead, the systems the player interacts with are simplistic and transparent resource management or powerup activation problems, with Elizabeth’s character shoehorned in between a button press and its action.
The flying city of Columbia is rendered in bright, loud colours. The game’s only nod to flight is the skyrails, which offer even less freedom than the city streets. The oppression, the racism, the violence too is bright and loud. But the player is neither oppressor nor saviour, but merely interloper, until the game forgets the oppression and revolution. Everything is bright, loud, but wasted. As the song says: “I can’t stand this indecision married with a lack of vision.”
I’m finding it hard to process my feelings about Eidos Montreal’s new Thief game. The original games are very close to my heart, so I’m naturally wary of any changes to what I consider to be the core elements of Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age:
Thief is a game about being exposed and vulnerable in the light, and impossibly powerful in the dark; and the delicious tension of the inbetween. It’s about the world of sound: fearing the loudness of your own movements; dreading the approaching footsteps of an enemy; wondering which corner is hiding that whistling guard. It’s about freedom of movement, of choosing your route through a level, of climbing over walls and jumping onto balconies, of finding your own shortcuts through the third dimension with rope arrows. It’s about dousing torches to bring shadows, mossing floors for silence, blackjacking guards and dumping them in dark corners to roam unthreatened.
And in a way it’s about the paradoxical tension and fusion of magic and technology; and the wrestling for dominance between pagans, hammerites, and keepers; and the cynical, reluctant hero called Garrett in the middle of all this.
I don’t think Eidos’s Thief will live up to all of this. I don’t think it can: Eidos isn’t aiming to build these same systems again, but are developing their own design that resembles it in some ways, and diverges in others. But as much as I accept that it won’t be the same, I still want it to be. And so my hopes and fears are whipped up and soothed by the snippets of information that early previews are revealing:
The magic formula for designing a great stealth game: Force players into a series of impossible situations and then give them the tools to escape.
— Game Informer, April 2013
“Ten to fifteen years ago, you’d have to watch the guards patrol and wait for a moment to move. If the guards saw you, it wasn’t really game over, but it was almost like you might as well just press the reset button. The big difference today is that players don’t want to play the same sections over and over again. Our job is really to make it so that when you are seen you have options to move through or stumble the guards and then jump back in the shadows.”
“We’re trying to find a balance between making combat enjoyable and allowing you to enter into combat if you want, but at the same time not letting you completely clear a room that way. … We want you to play as a thief, but we don’t want to force you to play as a thief. You can play the game aggressively if you want, but it won’t be as easy.”
It just seems a terrible shame that the slang and accents that ran through The City as strongly as mortar and water are perhaps being dismissed as something allusive and on the level of footnote or in-joke. The language of Thief was as much a part of the atmosphere of the place, its credibility and otherworldiness, as the skyline or the shadow. To hear guards swear is not only crude in a linguistic sense, I find it confounding and it causes the sense of place, so immaculately crafted, to creak at the seams.
It’s a beautiful, extraordinary place, this city, but is it recognisable as a version of The City? The weirdness, that not-quite steampunk ahistorical off-kilter sensibility, was lacking.
If you like taking people out and looting at your leisure, that’s an option. If you like massive fights, go for it. And if you’re like me and your preferred approach to stealth games is ‘no touching’, you can be a ghost.
We also get to see new ways of traversing the environment, like a dash ability that lets Garrett move between two adjacent areas of shadow without anyone noticing his movement.
“You’re right that [sound is] crucial,” says producer Stephane Roy. “It’s really, really, really, really important for us. For of course the ambience but also the type of game. Just imagine the diversity in the ‘barks’ also with the AI - with the next-gen we have the possibility now that the barks will be really connected with the action you do. … Fans of the old Thief franchise will recognise in the demo you saw earlier that there are carpets, and the carpets actually change the way, you know, if you’re running you will not make a lot of sound. So this is more for the fans.”
When you’re navigating narrow beams you will be guided along them automatically and dismounting will require you to press a button. … There will be a mini-map, too … and while there’s no cover system, you definitely can lean and you’ll definitely be concealed when you do.
Yes, we do have some 3rd person elements – but they’re really kept to a minimum, we don’t have a lot. 3rd person is used to improve your awareness of your surroundings – for example, during vertical navigation. We’re really taking particular care to make sure that we’re not jarring players back-and-forth between cameras.
Will fighting/combat ever be the best choice to take? If you do choose to take that kind of approach you’ll be challenged by both the guards and the environment/level design
“Another good example is, now it’s really a first-person game. The team did some prototypes with third-person perspective. … What was interesting is that when you’re in first you’re very intimate and focused and, like, closed-in, and you need to look behind you. And when you’re in third, you kind of automatically felt like ‘Okay, if I can see me, other people can see me.’ That was sort of interesting. But at the end of the day it’s much more important that player’s comfort is actually looked after more than some kind of narrative brainfart.”
Before Deus Ex: Human Revolution was released, I felt a similar wariness. But then the press preview build—containing the opening few areas—was leaked. I got my hands on it, and tried it, and was immediately hooked. It was clearly different from Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War, but was a wonderful thing in its own right. I spent at least forty hours playing and replaying that “unofficial demo”. So despite my concerns about Thief, I hope it will be a great game. I want to get hooked on it the same way. Perhaps a part of it also might be leaked by some enterprising master thief? It would be thematically appropriate at least.
Or perhaps, like Garrett hiding in the shadows for the right moment of opportunity, I will just have to wait.
The imbalance between lethal and non-lethal systems in Dishonored:
There’s a clear divide between lethal play and non-lethal play in Dishonored’s mechanics. Lethal gameplay has ornately designed mechanics to promote exciting, hilarious, or at least memorable situations. This is where the Deus Ex influence is felt most directly. They’ve developed a series of intricately interwoven systems with the express purpose of fostering emergent behaviours. Rats can be summoned to attack guards, or destroy bodies, or be possessed in order to circumvent security systems, that themselves can be hacked, or disabled, or avoided outright. Time can be frozen to do things like cook your grenade and leave it at the feet of a group of enemies, or possess a bodyguard to walk in front of his own bullet.
Dishonored’s lethal play mechanics have effectively created a chaotic ludic language players can easily express themselves in. This is when the game’s at it’s most engaging, offering skilled and creative players the means to achieve their goals using absurd Rube Goldberg machines that rarely work—but when they do, the result is incredible, triggering multiple rulesets against one another, and making the player feel like a villainous mastermind.
On the other hand, non-lethal play has an extremely limited, or at least extremely straightforward vocabulary set. The player can blink, choke people out, tranquilise people, and briefly possess rats and guards just to sidestep security systems and locked doors. And that’s really about it. There really aren’t any proactive sneaking mechanics like the ones explored in the Thief series. You can’t take out lights, or throw noisemakers, or put down moss to make your footsteps quieter. Occasionally you might find a bottle to throw as a distraction, but because it takes up both your hands and needs to be manually carried around instead of being placed in your inventory, it’s not really a viable option if the guard you need to distract isn’t right there.
Compared to the complex web of interactions for lethal play, non-lethal play has mechanics that are much more insulated from having effects that reverberate throughout the system. You knock a guy out to get inside undetected. You possess a guard to go through the security gate. You do thing X to achieve thing Y and the move on to the next part of the level. The idea of chaining rulesets together on ghost runs and non-lethal playthroughs really doesn’t exist the way it does when engaging in lethal play.
System Shock’s medical floor:
System Shock 2’s medical/science deck:
This actually feels like a starship. Gone are the mazelike twisty corridors of System Shock, whose guiding principle seemed to be “fill every available inch of space with meaningless corridors and secret passages”; in their place is a space that feels authentic, with subsections and hallways, offices and maintenance access, an architecture that merges the needs of the crew with the constraints of a spacefaring vessel.
This authenticity pervades nearly all of the Von Braun. Every room has a purpose, its location and strucutre, and the objects and furniture within it attesting to that purpose. Crew quarters are cramped, with barely room for a bed, a shower, and a digital picture frame on the wall—and naturally, officers get more room and more amenities. Laboratories have worktables with scientific equipment. Security stations watch over the main corridors. Crew dining areas have galleys attached, and the galleys have freezers for food storage. The recreation deck provides facilities for a broad range of recreational activities: sports, cinema, drinking, gambling, and even “sensual stimulation units”.
Of course, this kind of verisimilitude is not unique to System Shock 2, nor is it entirely absent from the modern crop of games. What makes the level design in System Shock 2 particularly exciting to me is both the pervasiveness of this architectural plausibility, and its openness. You can visit every room, and (after dealing with the minor problems of no power and a blockage in the shaft) every deck. The contents of each room do not mysteriously resemble recurring waist-high cover, neither are the corridors full of unopenable doors (although there are a handful of those), nor are the rooms strung together into a carefully paced sequence, with gates at key moments to prevent you going back. Although there are a few of those too.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is the levels in System Shock 2 have not been built to fit the game’s combat rules. And this has two effects: firstly, the pacing is all over the place. The level designers do control the pacing to some degree by limiting the appearance of enemies to particular decks, and ensuring that you visit the first few decks in a particular sequence. But the pacing on any individual level is very much at the player’s control. If they are slow, careful, and methodical, they will hear and see enemies first and they will avoid setting off security alerts and gun turrets. But if the player wants to race through, they will find that they often hit trouble coming the other way (but can run away from that trouble quite often too). So the pacing, and hence the tension, is really just the game feeding the player’s style of play back to them.
The second effect is that the combat is all over the place. An encounter with a shotgun mutant in the cramped Fluidics Tunnels in Engineering deck (and yes, those mazelike tunnels are a blight on the rest of the Von Braun) is a very different thing to encountering them in the central atrium of Med/Sci. Room to move, obstacles to take cover behind, and environmental hazards all vary the flavour of a combat encounter. And because the enemies are drawn to sound, you have the potential to encounter them in a wide variety of rooms, even those off their patrol routes. The end result—the intitial experience of encountering System Shock 2’s enemies is thus chaotic, unpredictable, and hence very tense (if not sometimes downright panicky). As the player becomes more fluent in the game, this big messy dynamic system becomes a fun system to poke and prod at as you explore and progress the game’s plot.
I just played through System Shock 2 for the first time. I’ll be writing up some scattered impressions of it.
I get excited when I enter the next room. The sign above the door reads “Chemical Storage” and inside is a shelf piled with jars of chemical elements: molybdenum, cesium, barium, technetium. They are arranged in no particular order, and some are lying on the ground beside the shelf, clearly having fallen off.
I get excited because these many jars suggest to me that there’s yet another system in this game. There’s an adventurous feel about a design that is built of so many systems, as though the designers were still hacking their way through the thick jungle of possibilities, where now most large games simply follow the well-worn paths of familiar, polished mechanics.
My excitement is a little premature, as it later turns out. The chemicals do not presage the crafting system I had envisioned, but instead exist as arbitrary roadblocks to the game’s research mechanic. When you pick up an unknown artifact—an organ from a mutant’s body, a vial of an unknown formula, or a strange organic implant—you must research it before you can use it. And sadly, this research mechanic is isolated, not part of a system. You right click on the unknown object, then click the “Research” button in your MFD. And then you go on your way; the research proceeds in the background as you go (the MFD’s progress bar indicating, I assume, how many chapters it’s written for your doctoral thesis so far). After a while, with a ping, you get a message telling you the MFD needs some chemical or other to continue the research. And so you trundle back to chemical storage, pick up the jar, and right click on it to use it. And that’s it—the chemicals’ only function in the game is to resolve this arbitrary barrier to the use of these unknown objects.
A mechanic that merely introduces an additional hurdle for the player, without the possibility of interesting side effects or interaction with other systems—down with this sort of thing.
Making up the team was:
Aaron Dron, who, although a sysadmin by trade decided to go rogue and did almost all the artwork. He now knows what a pancreas looks like. In fact he’s probably still haunted by gory internal organs in his dreams after researching all that reference material.
Daan Nijs decided he’d like to try writing a game instead of a compiler. He also supplied most of the sound effects and music. I’m pretty sure he just downloaded it though.
Hazel McKendrick who works as a game developer during the day, and moonlights… as a game developer too (crazy!)? She was the lead developer, and also did most of the writing (including the blurb I’ve stolen below).
Me, who took a break from his web dev role for the game jame. He did most of the gameplay programming and level design, so most of the bugs are probably his fault.
Without further ado, here’s the game we made:
LEGITIMATE BUSINESS SIMULATOR 2013
LEGITIMATE BUSINESS SIMULATOR 2013 is a 100% MEDICALLY ACCURATE surgical simulation game. Start out on the lowest rungs of your family business as you fight to keep hearts beating… and make a cash-grab for vital-organs. This educational adventure game teaches countless life-long lessons, including:
- Anatomy - identify popular organs such as the lungs, pancreas and spleen!
- Economics - what determines the street value of a kidney?
- Budgeting - why shell out on chloroform when a simple hammer will do the job?
Caution: contains black humour and depictions of internal organs. Cannot guarantee nut-free.
Global Game Jam page for the game with full credits for sound and music.
The wording [of the SimCity beta EULA] is definitely overreaching, but that’s the nature of EULAs; because there’s basically no punishment for stating something that’s unenforceable, you just throw a bunch of crap in there and see what sticks.
It looks like the usual cover-your-arse-and-then-some lawyering approach of claiming thrice what is reasonable so that you have a hefty buffer zone after being beaten back to still getting what you really wanted. Grab it all, every excuse, every right, just in case. They’re not paid to later go “ooh, we really could have done with a clause to let us ban that one guy who’s being a jerk”.
This post contains spoilers for The Walking Dead.
In popular discussion of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, I’ve often seen the opinion that the choices you make don’t matter, that they don’t have consequences. Here’s how this line of argument goes:
Episode 4: Your group is escaping from a swarm of walkers, having climbed up the stairs inside a clock tower and escaping across to a nearby roof. But then Ben, bringing up the rear, gets pulled over the railing by a walker, and you only just manage to grab him. He is hanging four stories up above the walker horde as you struggle to try and pull him up; then he says “There’s no time! Let me go!” There are only seconds to decide what to do. ”Lee, we both know,” he says. That he’s a burden. That he stole supplies from the group to placate the bandits. That he failed to stop Clementine wandering off when you left him in charge. That he means well, but that’s all. Do you (a) pull him up, or (b) let him fall?
If you let him go, he dies. He falls down to the ground, and, badly injured, is set upon by the walkers. If you pull him up, he survives—for the moment. In episode 5, while jumping from a balcony to another roof, the balcony collapses, and Ben falls to his death. In the end Ben died anyway, so it didn’t matter whether you saved him earlier or not.
But this argument is dead wrong. This is not a game about a plot. The twists and turns of fate, the events that befall the game—these don’t matter. Ben would have died either way, but he died by my choice, by my actions: I let him fall in the clocktower. And now Lee has another death on his conscience that he regrets; but Kenny is relieved: he reckons Lee did the best thing for the group, ridding it of a problem.
Ben dies either way, but my choice changes who Lee is. It changes how Kenny sees him. If the others find out, it will change their opinions of Lee. And it changes my perception of events, and my relationship with the characters, and will cause me to make choices differently, or choose my words differently in future than I might otherwise have done.
That is one of the bigger decisions in the game, but the smaller ones matter too. As a character in a different zombie apocalypse story says, “You’ve got to enjoy the little things.” In episode 3, Lee is investigating the theft of supplies, and Duck—Kenny’s hyperactive ten-year-old son—wants to help, playing the role of detective. So I let him. “A clue!” he announces as we find some broken glass. He’s not the sharpest tool in the drawer, but his happy enthusiasm brightens a pretty awful day. And when we find a final clue, I give him a high five. “Duck thinks you’re incredibly awesome,” the game tells me.
And this matters, too. Duck thinks I’m great. I think he’s pretty fun to be around. There’s an emotional connection there, which becomes incredibly important in the later events of the episode—but I won’t spoil that.
In The Walking Dead, the choices you make have consequences in character development, instead of in the plot. Your choices matter enormously. They define the kind of person Lee is, and how Clementine and the other survivors see him. And that really matters.
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Neil Gaiman was talking about getting feedback on writing, but this is also very much applicable to dealing with feedback on your game from playtesters.