Smelling The Ashen Roses

If you hold the ‘X’ button on your controller while playing Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, (or ‘F’ on a keyboard, if you’re a purist), Corvo the magical assassin will sheathe his sword and drop his spell-casting hand from view. In-fiction, this is supposed to draw less attention to Corvo, as he presumably tucks his arsenal away neatly inside a breast pocket and whistles an innocent tune. In reality, this feature was surely included by the developers to make it easy for players to remove any distractions from the screen, admire the obvious labour that went in to crafting the world of Dunwall, and let them take beautiful, beautiful screenshots.

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As much as video games are about story and challenge and mechanics and player growth, with today’s graphics engines they have also become artistic showrooms. Particularly in first-person games, vast amounts of effort are spent by teams of artists to create fully realized worlds, a process that blends architecture, digital painting and sculpture, character design and animation, and countless other professions.

Recent forays into the use of procedurally-generated content have had mixed results at best, and although the promise of infinite worlds built by algorithms instead of a team of artists is tempting for developers, the joy of seeing the fingerprints of intelligent design in a game, in appreciating the gestalt of a product shaped by humans with a directed vision, is hard to beat for the player.

Though the alleys, rooms, and rooftops they create often serve as static arenas for rote combat, and though it can be easy to rush through them in a blur of steel and blood, it’s worth pausing occasionally to enjoy the scattered dioramas of deliberately placed assets. Admire the richly painted textures, the stray light beams and cobwebs and bushes and dust motes and goblets that were placed with deliberate care, before you pull out your poisoned-tipped crossbow, behead a startled guard, and get blood all over the clean marble floors. Do you know how much mopping it takes to get blood off of marble?

Mirror’s Edge: Running, No Skipping

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a game about mastering a set of skills and then testing them. You, as Faith, will fight security guards, destroy buildings, dodge lasers and ride flying spy drones above a technicolour concrete jungle, but to do any of this well you’ll need to become adept at the game’s system of precisely-timed jumps, rolls, flips and slides. The more fluent you become in the game’s vocabulary, the more naturally you’ll fly through the challenges it throws at you, and the greater the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel while doing it.

ME2Mastering these moves is then hugely important to the game, and it’s no coincidence that the vast, open structure of the city of Glass affords you a giant play ground in which to grow as a runner. What first appears an obstacle course quickly become a sprawling, tangled network of racing lanes, mapped out in neon behind your eyes. Fences and scattered crates are your launch pads, 10-foot gaps an excuse to enjoy a quick tumble, walls just another surface to support your careening weight.ME3
Side missions and collectibles dot a massive city map, and critically, there’s no quick-travel teleport system of the kind that plagues so many open world games. If you want to tag a billboard on the other side of the map, instead of pressing ‘Y’ and being magically carried to your destination, you’re going to have to hoof it, and this traversal, a chore to be skipped in nearly every open world game, becomes a constant joy. The
challenge of hitting jumps, rolls and spins in time with Faith’s momentum is rewarded not with points or currency, but the visceral satisfaction of maintaining a breakneck speed. Through this repetition controlling Faith quickly enters your muscle memory, so that when you choose to step off a window ledge and into a story mission, the mechanics of the game have become innate, and you can focus on the more bombastic set pieces the game reserves for its central plot.

There, then there, then there, then up there, then off that, then over there

Still aping GTA 3, 15 years on, open-world games have become such so commonplace that developers have forgotten to question some basic premises. Game worlds have become elaborate, fully-realized living environments, and there’s certainly an appeal to the sense of adventure that comes with exploring a vast world. But if players routinely fall back on quick-travel to skip to the fun parts of a game, we should ask if we really need the spaces in between, or if traversing those spaces between can be made to serve a better purpose. If schlepping from street to street, town to town, or island to island isn’t the focus of your game, if it’s more fun for the player to push ‘Y’ than to experience vast stretches of your game, why waste budget and hard-drive space on the video game equivalent of an intermission? 

Faith wants to know