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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

A Healthy Obsession

The corpse-strewn medieval countryside of The Witcher’s Northern Realms is a violent and desolate place. Every bend in the road conceals a lurking gang of cutthroat bandits, every thicket a pack of wolves, every craggy outcropping a flock of shrieking harpies. Wander beyond the safety of a village’s meagre log walls and you’ll find fairy tale monsters just waiting to rend you limb from limb, unless you’re ready to take steel in hand and beat back the things that go bump in the night.

Staying alive requires combat, and combat requires button-mashing and managing priorities under fire. Do you hang back where it’s safe or hound your enemy before he has a chance to recover? Do you focus on the ring leader or his underlings? The axman who’s approaching or the archer who’s hanging back? Potions and magic abilities add an element of resource management to the twitch-based frenzy. Do you try to trap the ghoul in a magic prison or mind control the drowner into submission? Prepare a health potion  to keep you alive longer or a burst of adrenaline to end the fight sooner? Weighing these options carefully means the difference between feeding the corpse-eaters and walking away with a mere flesh-wound.


Geralt must heal these wounds, or die and lose his progress, a tradition as ancient in video games as any tomb on Skellige. It’s a way for the developer to add consequence to the battles. Without damage, there are no stakes, and without stakes, you’re just watching Medieval Times dinner theatre. On higher difficulties, this requires finding, preparing, and carrying food wherever you go. Flagons of ale and crusts of bread litter the wilds and flood your inventory. Staying alive means always planning for your next battle, and packing a light snack. It’s contrived, but a welcome bit of additional resource management to keep you in the mindset of a roving Witcher.

On easier difficulties, this system needlessly hamstrings the rhythm of the game. A conceit is introduced that meditation completely heals you, so a quick catnap beside the hacked-off limbs of the those who stood in your way is all that’s needed to get back in working order. This creates a routine of meditating after every battle that quickly becomes a chore, forcing the player to toggle to a menu to recuperate health at no cost beyond their annoyance. If the game is going to let the player recuperate health for free, it shouldn’t force them to navigate layers of menus to do so. The life of a Witcher is one of questing, fighting, and loneliness, not repeatedly phoning the concierge to schedule a wake-up service. It sticks out awkwardly from an otherwise meticulously seamless game. If the player can be given free health on easy difficulties, do it automatically, and save the player the headache of constantly remembering to schedule their daily sukahsana.


Mirror’s Edge tackles the problem in both its incarnations by giving Faith a glass jaw. The focus of the game is more on racing than combat, so the developers want Faith’s health to reinforce that approach. Faith can always run away from a battle in perfect health, but if she digs in and takes too many hits, she’s toast.The recent Doom reboot uses health as an incentive to pull players deeper into the demonic fray. The marine can heal himself instantly if he’s willing to charge headfirst into the maw, where the heart of the game pounds to an electro-metal beat. Plenty of more casual point and click games eschew dying entirely, because the game focuses on puzzle solving and story over resource management. Health as a resource and the system by which it’s limited and replenished should complement the focus of the game, the theme and mood the developer is trying to set. Reusing familiar but jury-rigged systems like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does only creates a system that periodically bores the player and does nothing to enhance the game.

There’s a chair right beside you, just sit like a regular person for once.

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