Less is More

Standing atop the bone-white skyscrapers of 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, staring out across the futuristic metropolis, it’s easy to convince yourself that the game should be an open-world, free-roaming platformer. Faith has the ability to climb, jump and run like the wind, why constrain that energy into the tight corridors that make up the game’s story levels? Playing the 2015 sequel Catalyst answers this question. Mirror’s Edge is a racing game, and races need courses. Without focused channels, Faith’s kinetic energy dissipates, you end up aimlessly wandering empty city blocks, often circling back and stopping to check a map. The best moments in Catalyst are found in the story missions, where Faith is placed back in tight channels and given a specific goal, that allows the game’s creators to structure and pace the challenges you face, to guide the player through their work.

ME6This is a common trap gamers fall into, thinking a game would be improved if only a certain feature or mode, usually cribbed from a popular game in a different genre, were added to the original model. It’s in our nature, we’re idealistic, attracted to shiny features and pretty graphics, and unaware of the cost and effort required to develop the features our imaginations create. Spiderman 2 would be awesome if you could drive the cars like in GTA. Thief would be great if you had a crossbow and a better sword. Assassins Creed would be better if you could fly. SWAT needs a Versus mode. Sometimes the developers themselves are at fault. Grand Theft Auto would be better with RTS gameplay. Tomb Raider would be better with an Onslaught mini-game. Arkham City would be better if you could drive the batmobile.

tombraider7

Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 tasks the player with dismantling an oppressive military regime with guerilla tactics and enough small arms to to overthrow an oppressive military regime, across the mountains and valleys of a pseudo-Nepal (Tibet? I confess ignorance). Combat is tense and crunchy, frenetic and bombastic as you dive for cover, take potshots around corners, and toss molotov cocktails to cover a hasty retreat and catch your breath for another assault. Far Cry 4 also has an awkwardly bolted-on co-op mode that completely unbalances this combat. Playing with a partner allows for unlimited respawns, and the open design of the outposts mean it’s almost impossible for the AI to mount an adequate defence to two attackers. Even playing on the hardest difficulty, it’s easy to steamroll through the game’s most challenging single-player encounters, and much of the tension and fun in the game is lost. The levels, AI, and mechanics of the game simply weren’t built and tuned with co-op in mind. Far Cry 4’s co-op is fun, but a minor diversion in an otherwise solid game.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Harvey Smith, creative director of Dishonored, pushed back against calls to add co-op to the sequel to 2012’s Dishonored. The original was story-based stealth action game, with levels designed as intricate playgrounds and enemies tuned to act as foils for the player’s cunning. Smith knew that adding in co-op would either be lackluster and broken, or require developers be pulled from developing the single-player portion to more fully develop and balance the addition. After years of overseeing various projects, he knew what Dishonored’s strengths were, and knew that adding in co-op would be ultimately unsatisfying and weaken the sequel.

Disohonored1

Roger Ebert once argued that games can never be art because the vision of the creator is always second to other factor. To the (very limited extent) that the intent of the creative director of a game is subject to the demands of players or marketing teams to awkwardly insert gimmicks, I have to reluctantly agree. We expect movie directors to filter the multiple demands of the studio, their producers, actors, audience, and editors, and produce a work that fufills their intentions for the film. We need to accept similar restraint in our demands of game makers. As games become more about experiences, gamers have to similarly trust the vision of those making the game to shape and constrain that experience.

Ready

The best scene in 2016’s Triple 9 follows a drug raid executed by a team of seasoned professionals. Director John Hillcoat shows the precision with which Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie sweep each room, announce each action, and move as a single unit, to convey the kind of skill and rehearsed confidence that only comes from years of rigorous, process-focussed training.

Forethought and restraint are not qualities that one would imagine would lead to an exciting video game, but they are the crucial elements that set Sierra’s SWAT 4 apart from many other, more banal, shooters.

SWAT 4 is a game of on-the-fly tactical planning interspersed with bursts of smoke and gunfire. The heart of the game is in breaching doorways, in drawing conclusions with limited information, weighing risks and rewards, and eventually leaving all that behind and stepping into the unknown. Every choke point, every corner, every shadow can be lethal, and must be approached with caution. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but with a good plan and good luck you and your teammates may survive long enough to reach the next danger. If you’re really good the hostages may survive too.

SWAT2

The game stacks the odds against you from the start. Wounding shots are rare, and your enemies are trigger-happy. You can’t fire on sight, because killing a surrendering man in cold blood is frowned upon by society. A civilian dying ends the mission. Whether you were the shooter or not, you are at fault. You’re not above the law, you are the law, and the weight of the lives of everyone trapped in the dingy alleys and basements that make up the levels rests on your shoulders. You’re not there to win a match, you’re there to get everyone home alive. Your tools include the usual arsenal of pistols, machine guns, and rifles by necessity, but non-lethal tasers, bean bag shells, or pepper-spray paint balls are often your best choice.

Coordination and constant communication are essential to completing a mission and VOIP is an absolute necessity when playing multiplayer (the only way to play SWAT 4).  Missions can be played solo, but covering your friend’s back while they sweep under doorways for signs of hostiles is much more visceral. Practice develops shorthands and routines, a shared language and stories of missions that went right or horrendously wrong. SWAT 4 is a cooperative RTS in a FPS’s guise.

SWAT3

Despite a creaking engine, OS compatibility issues, and terrible net code, SWAT 4 is still played and loved in corners of the internet today. The original requirement for Gamespy to find public servers has been replaced by a fan-made server browser, dedicated fans still host servers open for anyone to drop into, and publish enough fan-made maps to fill any player’s appetite.

Although still satisfied with this rare gem, SWAT 4’s dedicated following has cried out for a sequel in forums and blog posts for years. Ready Or Not, announced this week by developers Void Interactive, is not the first project to hear this cry, but it perhaps shows the most promise. Void seem to have drunk the SWAT 4 Kool-Aid, and grok what did and didn’t make the original special. Their development blog hypes features like incremental leaning and cautious door opening that sound mundane to the uninitiated, but mean the difference between life and a chaotic, bloody death in practice. Their mandatory gallery of static renderings is full of the tools familiar to any SWAT 4 veteran: sting-ball grenades, door jams, multi-tool lock picks. Most of all, their trailer shows doors being bashed in. They know SWAT.

Void Interactive are pandering to a very specific audience, but they know the lingo well. High-res, pre-rendered trailers are a dime a dozen these days, but as a SWAT 4 evangelist longing for an official sequel that I know will never come, I am very, very ready for this spiritual successor.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

ME6
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? 

ME5
Faith wants to know