Artistry in Cities: Skylines

I am not good at Cities: Skylines. Oh, I can build a town that brings new citizens flocking in droves. I can balance the budget and alleviate traffic jams and periodically drop a stadium in an empty lot to bring prestige and fame to my quaint ‘burb. But I’ve come to realize that by focussing on these tasks I’ve been playing the game wrong, or perhaps even the wrong game.

440px-fosbury_flop_englishThe Olympic high-jump competition was, for centuries, a mixture of various styles of getting a human body over a suspended bar, until athlete Dick Fosbury introduced the Fosbury flop in 1968, a method of jumping that arcs the body backwards in flight to gain precious extra inches. That extra height quickly made the flop the only way to excel in high jumping, and pretty much the only method used in competition today.

Video games see similar revolutionary discoveries, shared and discussed in forums and on Youtube. Speedrun videos let runners optimize routes in various games (see Mirror’s Edge) until the difference between a world record run and an abysmal failure comes down to a matter of frames. Getting a winning time in Mario without taking advantage of certain peculiarities of the game is impossible. Games are more than races though, and have become complex enough to allow real talent to grow and be recognized by other players.

Disohonored1

Dishonoured was at first glance a slow, plot-based stealth game that rewarded patience and role-playing Corvo as a reluctant but honour-bound killer. After watching experienced players fly through ‘high-chaos’ runs of the game’s missions, it’s hard not to agree that the game is best enjoyed in a mana-fuelled, blood-soaked, rage. The proper, most fun way to play Dishonoured, the one that the developers clearly had in mind when placing assets and coding enemy behaviours, is as a high-velocity psychopath, taking full advantage of the game’s many mechanics and subtleties.

Cities: Skylines, released in 2015, hides a similar potential for sheer artistry beneath its city management exterior. Youtubers have created a world-building sub-culture, sharing videos of intricate architecture, beautiful landscaping, and set design to create convincingly detailed worlds. The goal is not to win the game as defined by Colossal Order, but to use it as both brush and canvas for their creativity. Watching a dedicated Cities:Skylines player paint an island and its inhabitants into existence, the mix of jealousy and admiration one feels must be similar to that felt by a bronze medallist watching Dick Fosbury win gold. It’s as though we’re not even playing the same game. They have discovered a depth to Cities: Skylines that you weren’t aware was even possible. While you focus on budgets and population density, they’re playing the game to its fullest. Their dedication and inventiveness deserves applause, for best appreciating what what Colossal Order made possible, even if it took years to do so.

CBC Thinks Justin Trudeau Is Just Dreamy

There’s an argument to be made that the CBC provides a valuable service to Canadians that justifies its billion-dollar annual cost. Canada is a geographically vast country with many isolated communities, and for many the CBC is the only easily-accessible source of news or entertainment. But surely the value of the content provided by the CBC should be factored into this argument. A strict adherence to journalistic integrity and ethics, and a commitment to always serve the public interest is what distinguishes Canada’s state broadcaster from the fatuous, idol-worshipping propaganda we see in foreign dictatorships, right?

Justin Trudeau recently visited Saskatchewan to promote his carbon tax, and stopped in at a Regina firehall for speeches and a staged photo-op. The local CBC branch was immediately smitten by photos of Justin half-heartedly donning a fireman’s jacket. Fair enough, for the heart wants what it wants. Not content to doodle in their trapper-keepers though (JT + CBC = <3), or maybe limit their Tiger-Beat fawning to an opinion piece, CBC Saskatchewan published a full news story to keep Canadians informed that “things got … steamy — at least on Twitter.

What’s slightly more embarrassing than the idea that this ‘news’ article was even considered in the first place is how far the author had to search to find corroborating opinions on Twitter to validate their premise. Without someone, somewhere, making a comment about Trudeau’s looks, the author wouldn’t be able to call this mash note ‘journalism’, and so they scoured Twitter’s feed just long enough to find sufficient evidence to adhere to CBC’s double sourcing guidelines. 3 accounts with about 1200 followers apiece, (only one of which it would appear actually belongs to a Canadian) represent ‘Social Media’ in the author’s opinion.

Thank you CBC. It’s good to know that you have Canadian’s backs when it comes to reporting on events that shape our lives in turbulent times.

Just be glad to know that the CBC is not a cheap date. Sweet talk and shiny gifts are nice, but at the end of the day nothing says ‘he loves you’ like cold hard cash.

Why A State-Run News Media Is A Bad Idea

Questioning the source of news stories is always a healthy practice, a beneficial cynicism we develop through years of experience. We understand that news programs aren’t produced by Samaritans with hearts of gold, but usually by corporations, for financial gain. That story at the top of the Camel Cigarettes News Hour, revealing that 9 out of 10 doctors recommend Camels Cigarettes for their smooth flavour and low tar probably isn’t Pulitzer material, and we’d be silly to think otherwise. Ulterior motives abound and should be scrutinized.

downloadIn Canada, one of our largest news organizations, the CBC, is funded not by a private corporation but largely by the government. That doesn’t make their motives any less deserving of scrutiny though. Even though an entity says it has your best interests at heart, it may not be telling the whole truth.

Consider the apparently pressing issue of incompetent financial investors. CBC raised the alarm in February that many bank employees, paid to give financial advice to customers, might bad at their jobs. Hidden cameras and flashy stacks of cash (and non-sequitur b-roll footage of babies on rocking horses) were deployed because that’s what news-y shows do, and otherwise the viewer might not believe that people might be bad at their jobs. The CBC introduced a dramatic problem that threatens the elderly, single mothers, and even you! But what can stop this villainous evil? Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Children

CBC then escalated the story in April, with concealed-identity interviews showcasing dark silhouettes and blurred faces dropping bombshells such as ‘Banks like profits’. With its foot in the door, the CBC ramped up its sales pitch. The only sure-fire, fast-acting, guaranteed effective cure to the scourge of financial investors? “Calling on the industry’s regulators across the country to implement something called a statutory best interest standard.”

bmo-insiderLest anyone think this was the CBC’s idea, they quickly published a follow-up news item citing polls that crow “89 per cent want the titles used by people selling financial investments to be regulated“! “It’s time for governments to stop discussing, debating and delaying, and start taking concrete action.” All the cool kids want regulations! You should too! Your friends and neighbours are doing it. You don’t want to be the last person on your block to demand government regulation, do you?

In short, a state-run media has gone out of its way to find a problem that not many people cared about, scare its viewers, and insist that it alone holds the solution, government regulation! What is the price of this miracle cure it’s selling? More laws, greater influence over the private sector, committees, studies, reports, debates, and new positions to oversee the whole works, employing government workers for centuries to come. All to fix a problem that could be addressed with Yelp reviews.

Private corporations are flawed, but at least we’ve developed a healthy skepticism for their tricks. Government has become so ubiquitous that we have a blindspot to the power we’ve granted it to feed us news, and the conflicts of interest that can create.

Rethinking Net Neutrality In The Age Of Trump

The topic of ‘Net Neutrality’ laws sits in the middle of a debate over which is worse: big business or big government. Internet access is a vital commodity, and exclusively provided by private, for-profit companies. With the established wired and wireless networks spanning North America, bandwidth is a vast, but not unlimited resource. The question posed is who should decide how this limited resource is distributed, and by what mechanism. The ‘for it’ side argues that private companies could artificially limit bandwidth for their own gain (profit) and should be regulated by government to distribute it according to the government’s definition of ‘fair’. The ‘against it’ side argues that private companies should be allowed to distribute bandwidth according to market demand, and that allowing governments to impose regulations on private companies is inefficient and a target for political coercion.

For years it was easy to cast each player in this debate in black and white caricature, government as good and business as evil. In the United States, Barack Obama’s administration was seen as principled and noble, treated with reverence by the press and defended passionately by the left. How could a government headed by a such an affable, jeans-wearing, bike-riding, smooth-dancing aw-shucks herald of civil rights and human dignity be distrusted? Obama was a champion for minorities of all categories, he fought for healthcare and the middle class, they said. Anyone who opposed such a benevolent and kind institution must surely be paranoid, unreasonable, or just on ‘the wrong side of history’.

Then, November came. Barack Obama was unexpectedly replaced not by the left-wing, media darling Hillary Clinton as so many predicted, but by Donald Trump, who had been portrayed for a year as unhinged, unstable, and unbecoming of the position. Republicans took a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. The drum-beat accusations of fascist, nazi-pandering, totalitarian, rights-trampling evilness migrated from Clinton’s campaign speeches into the teleprompters and opinion columns of the media, and from there to the popular wisdom of the left. It became cool to worry about concentration camps and military raids, and to tweet of fighting back against totalitarianism.

Now advocates for Net Neutrality on the left are forced to confront a contradiction: Is access to the internet a fundamental right, the protection of which should be entrusted to the enormous and arbitrary powers of government, or is the government a malicious, dictatorial regime that must be #Resisted? Should such a critical resource as internet access be entrusted to an institution helmed by one so demonized as Donald Trump? This is a conundrum which could be foreseen as easily as it can be avoided: Don’t give government any more responsibilities than absolutely necessary. You don’t have to worry about it abusing power it doesn’t have.

The future is unpredictable, and laws outlive the political climate in which they were created. This has to be considered when deciding how much regulatory power to grant governments. Once in place, regulations are hard to rescind, and often only get worse over time. Without taxpayer funding and a police force to back them, private companies rise and fall entirely at the mercy of their customers, and rather than every four years, your ballot is cast every time you open your wallet or take your business elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether people’s newfound distrust in government causes any to revisit their  opinion on the wisdom of Net Neutrality. Politics makes strange bedfellows, so with any luck Trump’s election will introduce some to the benefits of limited government.

 

Dwarf Fortress

When I first played Dwarf Fortress, I bounced off it like a timid bunny rabbit, crossing a busy highway just a little too slowly.

It was late 2005, or 2006, back before the game had a z-axis and you just dug eastward into a flat cliff. I was in university, and procrastinating. This was before the game had vampires, or farms, or a military, or graphics. First you found a river, then a lava stream. I didn’t make it to either. The maze of keyboard shortcuts you need to memorize to make any headway sent me packing after about 10 minutes. This hasn’t improved in the decade since.

Still, for months I’d read stories of how amazing this game was, once you buckled down and learned to speak its language, stories of grand adventures and elephant raids. Its promise haunted me. So, I broke down, unpacked the latest zip, and gave it another shot.

Bounce.

It wasn’t until about 2 or 3 cycles of this that I finally grokked Dwarf Fortress. First you have to overcome the interface. Then you have to learn its intricate network of industries. Then you have to learn the dozens of ways that dwarves can die. Then you have to relearn all of the above when a new version drops and upends everything you’ve learned before. Eventually you learn to enjoy the learning. I’ve since played Dwarf Fortress for hundreds of hours, without exaggeration, and I’m still learning. The game scratches the city-management itch like make other games, but the magic is discovering the intricacies of how all the little systems interact, all the nooks and crannies.

Since those early days, the game has grown. It gained a third axis, and always new systems. It became a game of legend, and spawned imitators who have risen and fallen in its wake. Gnomoria, A Game Of Dwarves, Clockwork Empires and countless others sought to bottle and sell the strange melange of freedom and punishment, of role play and micro management, of Sim City and NetHack. Each has fallen short in their own unique way, while Dwarf Fortress continues on in disaffected nonchalance.

Its hard to judge Dwarf Fortress harshly for any failings. It’s not finished, and creator Tarn Adams makes no promise about it being done, or welcoming, any time soon. This is his project, and he’s beholden to no one to make it in any way other than that which suits him. This uncompromising ethic is Dwarf Fortress’ curse and its blessing, the secret to its charms. Adams’ vision is of Dwarf Fortress as a narrative generation machine, capable of  simulating worlds and adventures as detailed as they are epic. Given what it accomplishes already I have no doubt he will achieve this.

As it stands, Dwarf Fortress is best considered a collection of systems that tests the player’s ability to survive. Shepard your dwarves through their first winter? Great. The first goblin attack? Wonderful. The unnamed horrors that lurk below your engraved-marble floors? Splendid. Lovely. You’ll never win of course, as there’s no ‘win’ state, but don’t you feel special for surviving for so long? Until you didn’t. But you will always know why you lost, and the lessons you learn will serve you well in the next game. And the game after that. And so on.

You’ll build castles, cathedrals, forges, intricate traps and vast military machines to crush your foes. Your dwarves will grow and die, wage war, and carve their story into the of the mountain you call home, and it will be your home because you laid out every room and hallway by hand. Your fortress will start small and end grand, in bloody ruins and smoking rubble, and you will serve as witness to its history.

The game still doesn’t have graphics. Or a sensible UI. A tutorial. A story campaign. An ending. Balanced AI. Those are just window dressing anyways, what matters is the simulation, the stories it tells you. But it does have fans, dedicated fans who have patched in some of the above, out of love for the game and its creator. Their wikis and mods and plugins and forums are built by people who shared the same struggles, who overcame them together, and who want to pass their wisdom and enthusiasm for the game on to you.

Recommending someone play Dwarf Fortress is like recommending someone try heroine. It’s irresponsible. Best case scenario, they bounce off as well. Worst case scenario, they persist, and spend hundreds of hours playing a delightful game that they could otherwise spend outside. It only rewards as much as you are willing to give it, and that kind of investment isn’t for everyone. I’m grateful, ashamed and proud that it is for me.

In Your Face

You are Lara Croft. Archeology student turned reluctant heroine, your adventures have carried you across the globe and deep into its crust, into an ancient tomb, thousands of years old. Dodging traps and enemies, risking life and limb, you finally stumble into its most sacred chamber, a shrine constructed by a forgotten people, built to house a tome of profound wisdom, whose dusty pages may hold a Rosetta Stone-like key to better understanding the mysteries of humankind’s origins. Time seems to stand still as you approach a glowing marble dias, this far from the outside world the only sound is the dry crackle of a flickering candle. Hesitantly, your fingers tremble as you reach to open the cover of this priceless artifact, this wondrous discovery that has laid buried for aeons.

NEW SKILL MASTERED: FAST HEALER!

Um… yay?

User interfaces in games must walk a fine and thankless line, balancing giving the player enough information that they’re not confused and lost in a new world, and staying out of sight enough to not distract the player from more pertinent in-world information, like where they’re driving, and who’s shooting at them.

jc13
Not Pretty

Games began as text-based affairs, and adopted 2D and 3D graphics and on-screen graphical elements over time. Now they’re predominately solely graphics-based, the best-known and best-selling descending from a lineage that began with Wolfenstein, Doom, and to a lesser but much more profound degree, System Shock (but more on that masterpiece later). Gamers are accustomed to on-screen crosshairs, health meters, and ammo counters lurking in the corners of their vision. As processing power has increased, gameplay has grown more complex, and world markers, crouch indicators, XP tallies, notifications and more have been thrown into the mix.

wc13
Pretty

The problem is that graphics have grown better and better over time as well, to the point where flashy, non-diagetic displays can ugly up a beautiful scene, get between the player and the world they’re exploring, and generally pull them out of the immediate experience. These improvements also mean that there are much better ways to convey information though, like texture or animation changes to indicate the degrading health of the player’s avatar, in-world ammunition displays or maps, or a reliance on physical iron sights for aiming. The ability to completely disable UI elements is becoming a standard option in games, as in Witcher 3 or Far Cry 4. This not only lets the player better appreciate the beauty that the games are capable of rendering, it also forces them to pay more attention to their surroundings, and adds extra challenge, like removing training wheels from a bike.

fc13
Pretty

As reliable and well-worn as on-screen prompts have become, better graphics in games demands more thoughtful and subtle use of UI to feed the player everything they need to know, including a rethinking of just how much UI is needed in the first place. A picture already tells a thousand words, there’s no need to break into the game’s narrative just to add a half-dozen more.

Far Cry 4

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s a moment in Far Cry 4 where the player must progress through a Kryatic ritual of self enlightenment. You burn incense, spin a prayer wheel, and make an offering of flower petals at a small, dignified shrine. This being an Ubisoft game though, each canned animation of your character carrying out these tasks is accompanied by a karma meter filling slowly at the top of your screen. No joke, the last step takes you from 75% karma to a full 100% karma, and the mission can then proceed to the fun bit, holding off a military invasion with machine guns and molotov cocktails.

It amuses me greatly to picture a design team standing around a white board discussing whether lighting a candle in solemn reflection should earn the player 25 karma points or 30. What colour bar best represents the player’s progression towards inner peace?

Far Cry 4 is immensely fun. Its sprawling steppes are full of encampments to assault, animals to hunt, and towers to climb. This far into the Far Cry series Ubisoft knows what they are doing when it comes to first person combat, vehicles, and hiding collectibles across all of creation. They know that camp assaults were the best part of their previous game, and so they’ve made them easy repayable in 4. They know how to make guns feel meaty and satisfying, and how to make encounters with wild animals terrifying and tense. They just don’t know how to handle more subtle concepts well.

Far Cry 2, the first of this mold, took place in the humid jungles and arid deserts of Africa. Far Cry 3 travelled to the south pacific, to allow for a brighter colour palate and more water-based exploration. Far Cry 4 backpacks to a faux Tibetan landscape, because the wing suit is amazing and combat is more fun when there’s a vertical component, with enemies spread up and down a mountainside.

With each migration, a fresh coat of location-specific veneer is applied over the basic game mechanics. Far Cry 2 had malaria pills to prevent the player from growing listless and bored, and conflict diamonds as currency. Far Cry 3’s skill system was tracked through the main character’s culturally-relevant tattoos. Far Cry 4 groups player skills into 2 libraries represented by a tiger and an elephant, and tracks XP in the form of karma points, earned by murdering hundreds and hundreds of people. With each iteration, the pretence grows thinner and thinner.

Make no mistake, Far Cry 4’s combat is glorious and boisterous, its world is detailed and beautiful, and Ubisoft have spared no expense in making Kryat a theme park of excitement and heroism. They are experts at open-world first-person shooting. It’s when they sometimes try to apply these talents to more esoteric concepts like religious observance that they fall flat on their face. Like a ’72 station wagon, a thin veneer is always quick to crack. Gamers know what XP and skill points are, there’s no need to play game-mechanic dress-up with every new franchise instalment.

Automation Is Not a Justification For Universal Basic Income

Hand-wringing opinion pieces on the rise of automation and its impact on minimum-wage jobs have become vogue online. News articles about automated check-out lines, touch-screen fast-food menus, and computer-controlled cars are inevitably followed by editorials predicting an impending collapse of society as workers are replaced by circuits boards and algorithms whose only cost is a monthly electrical bill, and who never sleep or need a vacation.

These authors immediately and without fail give their game away by insisting that this is a problem that can only be solved by imposing a Universal Basic Income, mandating that the government take money from a small segment of the population and distribute it more fairly amongst the entire population.

This is marxism.

Given the historical record and moral repugnance of communism, socialism, and marxism (as these ideas routinely follow each other around), the only thing more shameful than calling for marxism is fear-mongering and feigning concern for one`s fellow man in order to do so. Authors who use advances in technology as evidence for their necessity are as short-sighted and ignorant of human nature as communists, socialists, and marxists have ever been.

Jobs are not an artificially limited resource in finite supply, and subtracting those jobs that can be performed by machinery from the current total does not leave humanity with a permanently lessened sum. Jobs are any activity a person can perform to produce a good or service in exchange for goods or services provided by other people. Jobs are potentially as infinite as human wants and needs, and limited only by our ability to imagine new ways to help and serve eachother, to improve eachother’s lives. So long as humans have the ability to act, they will find goods or services to offer that technology can’t replace. Actors, hair stylists, journalists, all provide services that at one point in history humans didn’t even know they wanted, and to assume that we have achieved the totality of all services that we will ever want is laughable.

Humans adapt to change. This is the same fact ignored by proponents of minimum wages, price regulations, or government subsidies. If an employee costs more to hire, a business owner will adapt by firing employees to reduce costs or raising prices to increase earnings. If a service such as education is made cheaper by government subsidies, institutions like universities can quickly raise the cost without reducing sales, as the difference in cost isn’t absorbed by the customer. Similarly, if a person loses their job to obsolescence of any kind, they quickly adapt to find a new job. This may require learning a new skill-set, working in a different industry, or providing a good or service to the world that has never been explored before, but humans do not sit motionless, waiting for a mystical body to dole out work like rations in a food line.

Technological change is nothing new, and history has seen new technologies supersede entire industries before. There is far less demand today for chimney sweeps and farriers due to electric heating and the automobile, but the demand for electricians and mechanics has grown in proportion. The new jobs that arose are in place of the old are far safer and more comfortable for those who perform them, and the humanity is far better off for the change. The savings incurred in placing robots into the workforce has and will continue to allow companies to undercut each other’s prices, as lowering the cost of production allows for lowering the price of their products, motivated by market competition. The cost of living has and will continue to fall as a result of technological advances, and as this drops consumers are left with more money to spend, and new industries arise to take advantage. Interior decorators and wedding planners would seem ludicrous extravagances back when a solid meal required an entire day’s hard labour, but are now viable careers in an age of plenty.

That the kind of tasks in which robots and automation excel; menial, repetitive, and back-breaking tasks, can and will be replaced by something other than a human is a fact to be celebrated. There is nobility in every kind of work, as every job by definition benefits society, but if less human capital is spent on necessary but monotonous tasks,  countless hours of human life are freed to be spent on tasks better suited to human creativity. If a job can be performed better and more cheaply by a robot than a person, bless the person for doing that job until now, and bless the creator of the robot for making that job obsolete. That the miracle of human ingenuity would be used as justification for the type slavery imposed by marxism would be ridiculous were it not so horrendous.

Of Polygons and Clay

Nearly every NPC in Hitman has a name. Given the population density of some of its levels, this is astounding. Every patrolling guard, strolling pedestrian, and lounging socialite has been christened by a level designer, and placed within the game’s clockwork diorama. When setting up a Contract, one of the game’s extra-value modes, the player can tag NPCs as targets, and in doing so discovers a whole layer to Hitman’s simulation that’s not immediately obvious. While not a new feature to many RPGs, this is rare and welcome attention to detail for an action game.

hm3

Hitman isn’t about committing murder, but about planning murder, and a majority of the game takes place in the calm before the storm, as Agent 47 stalks his prey and plans his moves. The world around 47 needs to be one in which the player can loiter, an activity that quickly exposes the seams in most game worlds. Cut-and-pasted character models with cut-and-pasted animation loops quickly fall into the uncanny valley, and with graphic cards rendering people’s appearance with ever finer resolution, their  behaviour needs verisimiltude to match

Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs tried a similar trick in 2014. The pedestrians who wandered the sidewalks of the day-after-tomorrow open-world Chicago were randomly assigned names and foibles that could be gleaned by hacking their smart phones. Unfortunately these characters never persisted for more than a few moments. The player might bump into Sarah with a gambling addiction on a street corner, but driving a block away would cause the game to dump her from its memory. Sarah ceased to exist. Drive by  the same corner later and a newly-rolled character would be occupying Sarah’s spot. In a game world the size of Chicago, it didn’t make sense to maintain a stable cast of characters beyond those required by the story, and the mobs of pedestrians quickly became bits of scenery, SpeedTrees for an urban environment.

hm4

Hitman’s slower pace requires a different tact, one that stands up to closer scrutiny. Its more constrained locales allow the game designers to craft and maintain a persistent and lively population. Mrs Uschi Neubrandt soaks up the sun on Sapienza’s sandy shore. If the player fails a mission, a visit to the same beach on the next try finds Neubrandt in her favourite spot. A maid berates Rocco for being late to his first day of work, and breaking into his apartment confirms Rocco’s name and position of employ.

Like a shem inscribed upon a golem, bestowing names upon NPCs breathes life into their texture-mapped polygonal husks. Argelia Degrandi sneaks a smoke in the middle of her shift, the overflowing ashtray propped on a nearby windowsill hinting at the stresses of housekeeping for a mafioso. But why is Louisa Doria crouched alone at night outside of a floral shop? What message is so important to model Jessika Truesdale, that she would sneak away in the middle of a fashion show to check her phone?

hm5

Over repeated play-throughs, as the game’s various modes encourage frequent use of the same environments, the player grows to recognize these characters, furthering the illusion that they are unique, sentient people, and deepens the impact of playing as Hitman’s Agent 47. Acquiring a disguise to proceed through a mission doesn’t require you to solve a puzzle to unlock a power-up, it requires you to choke Claudio into unconsciousness, and stuff his body into a dumpster. This may motivate the player to change their plan, adding additional challenge for the sake of sparing an innocent bystander, or attacking Claudio may be considered a necessary sacrifice. The player feels a greater weight to their decisions, and more fully immerses themselves in the persona of a sociopathic gun-for-hire.

hm1

Technology has advanced to the point that it can render photo-realistic worlds, but these require the work of storytellers and artists to populate, a costly process. Having reached a plateau in terms of how far prettier graphics can draw the player into a game, designers are experimenting with new tricks to convincingly sell their simulations, and something as seemingly simple as giving NPCs names can have a tremendous pay-off.

Stepping Off The Roller Coaster

A rock hangs in mid-air over a side street in Prague. On my first few strolls around the city I didn’t even notice its Damoclean mass, as it has been raised a good 15 feet or so above the pavement, fixed in place with a roughshod network of guy wires and pitons. Now that I am aware of it’s looming presence, it feels odd to walk through its shadow, knowing that the wear and tear of time that has eroded the city around me must also be acting upon its moorings. I look to see if anyone alters their path to avoid its footprint, but everyone else is either far more trusting, or fatalistic, than I. This perched boulder is just another part of city for them, and faded into the background of their daily lives.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Deus Ex’s Prague is Half Life’s City 17, if the roller-coaster plot that scooped you up in its opening scenes was taken offline for repairs. It lets you wander around a bit, take a breather and appreciate its offerings, while repairmen are summoned to tinker with its engine. Neauveau-Euro-Futurist architecture and advertisements have been slowly inserted into the existing old-world neighbourhoods, grown accustomed to each other, and weathered very recent civil war. Dust and grime have seeped into its crevices, a patina it wears on its sleeves.

It’s autumn in Europe, and passersby have their collars turned up against a chill wind that blows dead leaves from the occasional tended tree into the gutters. High-end electric cars share the roads with more economical bicycles, homeless people sleep on park benches beside business men out for a afternoon cigarette. I take corners at random, follow sidewalks and alleyways, and poke my nose into any boutique shops that take my fancy. Because this is Deus Ex, my sightseeing inevitably involves some light burglary, but only briefly. I stack garbage bins in back alleys, crawl through vents, and help myself to remnant ammunition and software packages from a below-ground drug den. I leave the bricks of cocaine untouched, as I’m not interested in sparking any unnecessary conflict at the moment.

Far from the sprawling but sparsely-populated hundred-mile landscapes of Just Cause, Far Cry, Skyrim, and countless others, Deus Ex’s open world is a much more constrained, but densely packed packed experience. Warren Spector, director of the first Deus Ex, has long dreamed of a ‘One City Block’ rpg, a game so densely and convincingly packed with AI, detail, systems and physics that a gripping adventure could take place within its confines, and be richer for that limitation. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a compelling step in that direction, and a promising shift in focus from the current trend in games towards cavernous-but-barren worlds.

Eidos: Montreal have created a rich slice of an alternate world, and built a game and story to fill its streets. In time I’m sure the seams will start to show, as painted-on doors repeatedly deny me entrance, and side missions find me careening back and forth across the cobblestones with such frequency that the charming small details fade from my attention. I know that conspiracy and adventure lie behind every closed door and grating, that soon I will be exchanging gun fire with militant gangs and saving the world in the name of truth and justice, but for the time being I’m content to enjoy Prague as a trench-coat clad cyber-augmented tourist, a mirror-shaded out-of-towner enjoying the local colour.