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?

Painting a Broader Picture

The proto-steam punk fantasy world of 1998’s Thief is a world of barons, peasants and priests, where ancient magic clashes with new technologies, and gods of old walk the earth, though mankind fools itself into believing otherwise. Though Garrett will eventually come to realize that the pagan Trickster god is anything but mythological, he first encounters him disguised as a man named Constantine. There are clues scattered throughout the game that hint at his true form, in the whispers on the lips of the City’s peasants, in scribblings in journals and scrolls, and perhaps most effectively, in the paintings and works of art that inhabit the homes of Garrett’s targets. From the very first level, the developers of Thief hint at the Trickster’s true self.

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Hung on walls as seemingly no more than another form of loot, currency with which Garrett will stock up his supplies for his next heist, paintings in the world of Thief do a great job of adding flavour and depth to the nameless world. Low-resolution and grainy, they still break up the world’s repeating textures, and give level designers additional props to make a series of empty boxes feel like a person’s library or study. The drunken owner of the first mission’s castle hangs paintings and portraits without pattern or reason, to conceal his new-money status, to aspire to a level in society beyond his station.

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2013’s Dishonored, a descendant of Thief’s lineage, uses art assets in the same fashion, portraying a world beyond the levels’ environment maps and giving the player a glimpse of their enemy from their very first moments in the game. Corvo’s escape from prison takes him through a torture room, above which hangs an oil painting of the Lord Regent, the mastermind of Corvo’s imprisonment, and target of his vengeance. Though they will eventually meet at opposite ends of Corvo’s blade later in the game, this is the player’s first introduction, and the level designers place this painting directly in their path to establish Dishonored’s world and its actors, and to inform the player’s motive.

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Paintings, posters, and blueprints also give hints of events and regions beyond Dunwall’s borders, and make the game’s levels feel less like arenas and more like locations.

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Like in a good movie, proper set dressing in a video game goes a long way towards establishing a world and its tone, and can be used to subconsciously influence the player’s mood and motivations. Building and dressing a video game level is an art beyond enemy placement and managing chokepoints. High-resolution textures and the latest improvements in graphics engines are wasted without a skilled hand knowing how to best put them to use.

 

 

Allowing the Player to Fail

Five minutes after skipping past the opening credits, last year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider finds Lara Croft leaping heroically across an icy chasm and latching on to a rock face with her climbing pick. It’s a gripping and cinematic moment. Soon after, she exchanges gun fire with guards and tucks and rolls her way through an ancient tomb with practised ease. 20 hours of further gameplay finds her doing the exact same thing, but in a different tomb. Lara has found new weapons, new outfits, new uses for her bow, and unlocked new combat options, but she’s still the same accomplished action hero she’s always been, and ever will be.

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In comparison, the opening level of 2013’s Dishonored finds Corvo stumbling awkwardly out of his cell, flailing his sword around (as much a danger to himself as his enemies), and generally lurching around like knock-kneed teenager. This is because the player has been handed the keys to a high-performance vehicle full of mysterious buttons and levers, and left to their own devices to sort out what everything does. There will be plenty of embarrassing crashes, ground gears, and grisly deaths as the player determines how to properly unleash Corvo’s array of talents, but by the end of the adventure they will flit around the gloomy streets and hallways of Dunwall, and distribute sweet vengeance upon its citizenry with bloody panache. The developers of Dishonored created a network of systems (teleportation, slowed time, body possession, and for some reason rodent summoning to name a few) that take time to understand and master, but allow the player to play, experiment, and develop their own style of interacting with the world. By the final mission, Corvo is the player’s expression of themselves as mystical assassin, projected into a dystopian fantasy world through a mouse and keyboard. The developers of Tomb Raider instead created a series of exciting animations for Lara that the player can trigger easily, and sit back and watch from a distance, marvelling at how nimble and athletic Lara must be.

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Allowing the player to fail at any point, to make a cool character look silly, takes narrative control out of the hands of the game’s story teller and places it in the hands of the player, who may trip up the game’s learning curve, or break the game’s carefully crafted tone by meandering around the world, poking at its seams. It allows characters who the game tells us are skilled and suave to stub their toes, bump their elbows, and look a fool, but also allows the player the freedom to work in ways the developer never intended. This risk is rewarded by better making the player feel as though they’re inhabiting the main character, growing in ability as the character advances through the story.

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Mirror’s Edge similarly allows players to fail spectacularly, to faceplant off of 20-storey buildings or harmlessly waggle their limbs at security guards, who must be amused by, and pitying of, the gangly child in front of them who can’t quite seem to control her own body. Over time though, that gangly child learns to become a wall-hopping cyclone of brutal punishment, of arcing fists and feet that can lash out and dance away in the same moment, that can dispatch a pack of thugs with gleeful, laughing ease once the player learns how to properly control Faith. Without those initial stumbles, the artist that Faith becomes would have no contrast to the amateur she once was.

It’s no coincidence that Tomb Raider is a third-person game and Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored are played from a first-person perspective. The former tells a story about Lara Croft, a defined and established action hero who takes centre screen, and will allow the player tag to along on her adventures, so long as they stand back while she does the cool stuff. Corvo and Faith are vessels for the player to inhabit, a cipher through which they will stumble, struggle, strive, and eventually prevail over evil. The player is the central figure, and the focus of the game is their immediate experience.

A good story requires a character to evolve, to not only affect the world through their actions, but also to be affected by their experiences. Video games cast the player in the central role of their own story, and so must also let the player evolve over time. The vocabulary with which the player interacts with the game must be large enough to let the player fully experience that evolution, even if it lets them stutter. Systems that are complex enough to allow for staggering success as well as abject failure are difficult to create, and pull the reins of control out of the hands of the game’s authors, who may feel they know what’s best for the player. Ultimately though these systems create a much richer and more satisfying game, however painful the opening acts may be.