Halo’s Multiplayer Maps and Public Parks

Posted in Article on December 9, 2017 by mclogenog

If you asked me to recommend the best public park in town, I would need to know what you want from a park. One park offers quiet walks through woods, but lacks open greens for a picnic or sport. Another has a playground for the kids, but lacks seating for parents and forces them into a hovering limbo. This same question is true in multiplayer level design. While a multiplayer game is live, the maps are like public parks to its players, and not everyone wants the same experience.

With this in mind, there’s a challenge in writing about multiplayer level design. In singleplayer, the standard structure is series of obstacles to overcome with a limited set of actions. From these patterns in singleplayer levels, we can talk about what a level does, and how variations in those patterns create meaning. But in multiplayer, the obstacles aren’t always designed or consistent, and the player’s goals may shift to keep the game interesting.

I want to talk about the first Halo’s multiplayer and its level design, but it requires some explanation.

A Background on Halo
If you aren’t familiar with Halo’s multiplayer, here are the basics: each player controls an armored super-soldier and sees through their character’s eyes. These players use sci-fi guns to fight and kill the other player characters. When a player character dies, they respawn in the environment after several seconds. (Because of the tight link between a player and their character in a first-person game, we use “player” to mean the character. This shorthand of “player” for “player character” creates odd conversations outside of gaming, like “I shot him in the head, but his grenade still blew me up!”)

The environments in Halo’s multiplayer are self-contained with varied vantage points, weapons, and powerups to affect player tactics and to encourage to take risks and move around the map.

If you are familiar with other FPS multiplayer games, the identity of Halo comes from its floaty movement and its shield mechanics. With the movement, players are slow at full speed and are slow to accelerate. Unlike Halo’s contemporaries on PC, when the player jumps, they can’t affect their velocity. The jump itself goes almost as high as the player character, and the jump lasts longer than it would in Earth’s gravity. This slow movement becomes predictable, which means easy to shoot, which means there are consequences for making a bad move during a fight.

With Halo’s shield mechanic, players take damage to a replenishing shield before they take damage to a health bar. A partially damaged shield will start regenerating after a second, and take up to a second to complete. If the player takes damage during that regeneration time, all of the shield timers reset. If the shield is completely destroyed, the player is vulnerable to headshots and must wait multiple seconds before the shield starts regenerating. Some weapons deal greater damage to shields than health. Other weapons deal enough damage to effectively bypass shields. In the first Halo specifically, the human pistol is overtuned: two headshots break an opponent’s shield, a third headshot is an instant kill.

This combination of mechanics makes standard Halo multiplayer about sustained precision and thoughtful movement. Tighter environments amplify these mechanics and introduce an aspect of map control and positioning that defined competitive Halo.

Local Multi-Play
Imagine it is 2001 and I’m playing Halo on a couch with three friends. We’re all kids, and when we decided to play, the goal was to determine the most skilled among us. But after a couple matches, the skill disparity is apparent and we start improvising new goals and rules. Melee only on the map “Wizard”, back-whacks worth 2 points, falling-whacks worth 3. Or maybe active camouflage and sniper rifles on the map “Sidewinder”. If a variant grows dull, we adapt it mid match and start shooting instead of using melee, or we start driving vehicles through the fields of invisible snipers. At this point, the group’s goal with all of these variants isn’t about who won, or who is the best. The variants are about adapting the rules, adding chaos and unpredictability so that even the weaker players have moments of success. If the variant instead aggravates the skill disparity, then a player may throw the match or break its rules; this kind of “trolling” behavior in local multiplayer is a way for a player to signal that they aren’t having fun.

This whole pattern of play is similar to how children on a playground will adapt tag into “freeze tag”, or “lava monster” (only the player who is “it” can touch the ground), or “metal monster” (the player who is “it” can only move around the structure where they are touching metal). This freeform play is not about winning or losing, and if the game locks into a solved state, where one player is stuck being “it”, the variant has failed and requires modification.

Now, if you asked me in 2001 to recommend the best map in Halo, I may have said “Wizard”. It has four sections of axial symmetry, two sets of linked teleports, a discrete first and second floor, and four powerups of two types. The teleports and symmetry create a kind of disorientation, which for casual play introduced chaos and puts a limit on tactical play. “Wizard” is also small enough that disorientation doesn’t matter; if the player picks a random direction and starts walking, they will find an opponent to fight. The map was also suitable to many of our game mode variants. “Wizard” was the go-to map for shotguns-only, or melee-only, or absurd infinite-grenade games. It also makes a great King of the Hill map, due to a central pillar structure that players can only reach by jumping.

“Chill Out” was another key map in the rotation for our local multiplayer, but its design has more nuance to it and has stuck in my memory longer.

The Structure of Chill Out
“Chill Out” is an interior environment where each room feels like a subtraction from a larger solid. There are now views out into the space beyond. The environment’s textures belong to the covenant alien art set, but the architecture has the harsher angles of forerunner architecture; even within the Halo universe, it is difficult to place where this map would exist. There is also a low, dense fog in the lowest part of the map, informing the players about their location. This fog gives a cold impression, playing off the pun in the map’s name.

ChillOutMap.png
Green lines indicate teleport paths.

Structurally, “Chill Out” has three sections, and six rooms.

Offset from the center, there is a four-sided room with two-floor, two elevated platforms on pillars where the rocket launcher spawns, and a long ramp leading from the bottom floor to the top. From this rocket room, the top door leads to a long, sharp-angled hall that exits at pink room; this hall also has a one-way teleport to shotgun room. A lower door leads to gold room, and a small curved door leads to the shotgun room. There are also two large archways and a space above them that connects rocket room to a lower room with a broken bridge.

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Rocket Room. The door ahead leads to the shotgun room. Gold room is to the right, pink hall is above, and arches are to the left.

The bridge room has two wide halls on the lower floor connecting to the shotgun room and to gold room. The bridge doors connect to pink room on one side, and a spiral down to shotgun room on the other. Across the room there are two large pillars with a head-height gap to shoot through, and a one-way teleport up to pink room. Together, the rocket room and bridge room make up the middle section of the map.

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Mid. The bridge to the right leads to spiral, and left leads to pink room. The lower hall on the right leads to shotgun room, and the left leads to gold room.

To one side of the middle section are pink room, gold room, and pink hall. Pink room is where the active camouflage powerup and the sniper rifle spawn. One exit from pink room is part of the broken bridge across the middle. The other exit is up a ramp and into pink hall to the top of rocket room, with a window looking down on gold room. The window in pink hall is too small to easily jump through, and the angle offers little to shoot at, but it is effective for throwing grenades. Pink room is also small enough to be susceptible to grenades.

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Looking into pink room from pink hall.

Gold room mostly functions as a connection between one of the long halls from mid to the bottom of rocket room, but it also has a one-way teleport to the broken bridge at spiral. This teleport is risky because the player exits facing toward pink room with their back exposed to anyone at the spiral from the shotgun room.

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Looking into “Gold” room from the long hall. The door leads to rocket room.

The last section is the shotgun room and spiral ramp. This is where the overshield powerup spawns. whoever grabs it receives two extra layers of shield protection and a second of invulnerability on activation. Aside from the overshield, the shotgun room is a weak position. The shotgun itself is only beneficial in close combat, and the pistol starting weapon is more consistent across all of the map’s spaces.

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Looking into shotgun room from rocket room.

From the spiral, a player may look across the broken bridge to pink, but the opponent in pink may have the sniper rifle. The spiral is also vulnerable to grenades. From shotgun there is also a small bend to the bottom of rocket room, but it has blind spots to three sides, including above it where the rocket launcher spawns. The only other exit from shotgun room is the other long hall into mid, which is vulnerable from the top of the arches. There is also a teleport exit from pink hall to the middle of shotgun room, which can lead to unexpected close-combat fights.

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The view from spiral, while jumping.

Competitive Chill Out
In competitive 2v2 Team Slayer (a game mode where kills convert to points), the effect of this design is that both teams attempt to control rocket room and pink room. While players are in these rooms, the game blocks enemies from respawning nearby, which increases the likelihood they respawn in bottom mid or in shotgun room. From this setup, the team in control times pushes into the shotgun room with the overshield powerup’s respawn. For a team trapped in the shotgun room, the overshield is the best way push the enemy team and regain map positioning.

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The view from pink room.

If both teams are equally skilled, it is difficult to maintain this or any other setup. In 2v2s in particular, when one player dies, the other needs to move or risk facing a 2v1. Because of these power shifts, both teams must keep rotating between strong locations on the map. Some of these positions are about information more than the damage a player could deal from them. For example, at the door to the bridge from pink room, a player can see two exits from shotgun room and a clear view across rocket room, but not all at once without stepping out onto the bridge. Two of these views are too narrow to hit a running enemy more than once, yet it is a valuable position for spotting enemies. In this way, information control is linked to map control.

With competitive play, we can also think of each action a player takes as an exchange of resources. A player may exchange shield and health for a better position when they take fire, or a player may exchange a good position to get a powerup or weapon. Strong positions are those with many options with good exchange rates. Weak positions and “traps” are those where every option becomes a risk.

Other Aspects of Chill Out
For couch multiplayer, this isn’t how “Chill Out” plays. For us playing in 2001, “Chill Out” was less of a coherent playfield than a funnel for conflict and surprise.

Doors, Halls, Teleports
All of the door and hallways on “Chill Out” are long and narrow. Some doors are as long as they are wide, blurring the definition between a hall and a door. In the tightest of these spaces, a player can’t juke an enemy’s aim or avoid grenades. Some of the ceilings are so low that a player will bump their head if they jump. Due to this, a player can delay an enemy push or force a retreat by throwing a grenade into these hallways and doors. These structures also force a harder commitment than doorways in tactical shooters. The shield mechanics and their requirement for sustained precision in combat mean that a player must commit to entering an arena rather than poking ineffectually from the far side of a door.

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Big door from Gold to Rocket creates big blindspots.

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Long hall from overshield spawn, through mid, to gold room

The map’s one-way teleports also function as a kind of doorway, but they force an even harder commitment than actual doors. In casual play, where there is too much chaos to predict the game state on the other side of the map, the teleports are like a die roll: an enemy may be camping the exit, or the player may catch their enemy off guard. As a new or infrequent player, it is hard to even remember which teleport goes where, which can be a source of surprise and even humor in the gameplay.

The teleports are also a way to escape fights, since it is not possible to shoot or throw grenades through them. Whoever enters the teleport first can step back, wait for their opponent to chase, and strike them with a melee attack. Or, the player can bounce a grenade off the teleport entrance as they walk through it, discouraging enemies from continuing the chase.

Friction
One tenet of current game design is to limit the “friction” or “rough edges” that players encounter. One form of friction is to test boring skills. For example, crossing the bridge from pink room to spiral requires a careful jump, and timing it incorrectly means barely missing and falling into the open at bottom mid. There is a similar jump to the rocket platform, and another to the top of arches. These are frustrating skill checks because there is no partial failure state or room for recovery. The punishment of a slow, predictable fall from these failed jumps makes them even worse.

There are also broken chunks of the bridge on the ground of bottom mid. Although these add visual interest to an otherwise abstract map, they add literal friction to the play space. An inexperienced or distracted player trying to cross bottom mid will not realize what they are stuck on without looking down or jumping blindly, both of which cost time and may get the player killed.

We could also include the narrow hallways and low ceilings as sources of friction. These spaces feel uncomfortable. But fixing these areas, as Halo 3 did in its “Cold Storage” remaster of “Chill Out”, removes something from the heart of the map.

Closing Notes
There are a lot of aspects to “Chill Out”, or a lot of ways to view it. So, how do we talk about multiplayer level design? Is “Chill Out” good or bad? Is it a dog park to someone who wants a quiet stroll, or a playground to someone without kids?

We can list all the ways in which players play a map. We can divide a map into its components, describe their interrelations, and consider how each piece affects various players. Or we can take a narrative approach and tell stories of our times in these spaces. None of these approaches seem to fully reveal the heart of a map. But, inherently, isn’t that because a good map, like a good public park, should mean many things to many people?

 

 

 

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Quake’s Moats and Bridges

Posted in Article on November 23, 2017 by mclogenog

Throughout the first episode of Quake, there are moats and bridges. Each has varied mechanical functions, depending on the level. Thematically, what separates a bridge and moat from similar structures like catwalks across hazards is that they functions as a threshold the player must cross. At their best, these thresholds signify a first step in an attack against an enemy stronghold. This frames the player’s actions within the fantasy of storming a castle, which gives the player unspoken goals: get to the heart of the fortress and take it.

Compared to other level starts in Quake and in Doom, the bridge and moat setup offers better context for exploration and combat. Keep in mind that as we go through some of the examples from this episode, not all have equal impact, and players may experience these areas differently than I describe.  This is because the effect of this motif depends on level design working with game design and drawing from a player’s cultural awareness. This is not a fundamental property of bridges everywhere. With a different set of verbs, such as the cleaning verbs of Viscera Cleanup Detail, players could have different reactions to identical level design.

This is also just one motif we can look at with Quake. We could find even more riches by considering the design of the keys and locked doors, or by looking at how the game introduces each new enemy, or by studying each trap the levels springs. For a 21 year old game, there is still so much to learn from its design!

E1M1: Slipgate Complex by John Romero
We experience the first moat and bridge after descending an elevator from an enclosed tech base art set. Due to the orientation of the button in the elevator, the player will be looking to the left of the bridge and will hear the enemies before seeing them.

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First glance of the moat and bridge in E1M1

Turning right to face the alerted enemies, the player sees the moat and bridge in the middle of a box canyon with organic green and brown tones in their textures. Across the moat the player sees another tech base and also sees the alerted enemies.

From gameplay, the moat functions as a funnel for navigation. We are able to see our enemies and predict their path to us. The moat in this box canyon environment lets the player cull extraneous information and focus ahead on the enemies.

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The moat and bridge up close

One of the enemies is a Rottweiler, which we hear bark into its alert state. Because the Rottweiler melees, it crosses the bridge immediately to enter attack range. The bridge has railings along the side which partially obscures the Rottweiler and prevents a direct attack. The other enemy is a grunt with a slow shotgun attack, which can hit the player across the moat. The player only has a shotgun at this point, which has a slow refire rate and is less effective at range. If the player chooses to shoot at the Grunt as the Rottweiler crosses, the player may not have time to respond to the Rottweiler before taking damage, and the Grunt will still be alive. As the second space of the first level, this moat and bridge introduce the player to target priority, which is a recurring theme of Quake’s combat design. The level reinforces this idea in the next room where the player faces several Grunts, a Rottweiler, and an explosive barrel.

This moat and bridge also introduce the player to their first secret area. If the player is still becoming familiar with the controls of a 3D First Person Shooter, there’s a good chance of falling into the moat, and the only way out is through a secret area with a reward. Players who are familiar with 3D first person controls should also notice the secret easily. Either way, discovering this secret tells the player about the way the levels are structured, and that there are rewards for exploration.

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Walking in the moat in E1M1

Deeper into the second compound we see a second moat and several Grunts across from it. The water in this moat is a putrid green and will damage the player. There isn’t a bridge until the player presses a button, at which point it slides out and any living enemies will start crossing. This setup does not serve the same thematic function as the first moat and bridge, but mechanically it is part of a conversation the level is having with the player. Both moats serve a similar role to the pits players must jump at the end of Super Mario Bros 1-1. The first obstacle teaches the player in a safe environment. The second obstacle teaches the player with a risk. From then on, the levels use this established pattern as a building block for more complicated setups.

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E1M2: Castle of the Damned by Tim Willits
As soon as the player starts the level, they see they are in a room with a Grunt and an Ogre facing toward a large doorway. On the far side of the room is a moat of dirty water and a wooden bridge that the Ogre is crossing. As a way of introducing this new enemy, the level lets the player decide what to prioritize and when to start the fight. If the player waits, the Ogre will continue its patrol out the door, up some stairs, and around a corner out of sight.

E1M2_1.jpg

The player also starts on a higher platform from the two enemies. If the player immediately enters combat, they will have the advantage. Specifically, the Ogre enemy fires a projectile grenade that bounces several times before exploding, or will explode on direct contact with the player. Because the Ogre is on the low ground, he may miss, hit the edge of a stair step, and cause the grenade to bounce back toward himself. This setup is the safest way to fight an Ogre.

Visually, the environment reads as an old castle or dungeon. If the player stops to study the architecture, it doesn’t make sense as a real castle. Since the player is in a room that is presumably inside the castle, it makes no sense to have a moat and bridge here. There is no apparent water source or drain. In short, this moat and bridge fails the “who built this?” “Why would they build it this way?” and “What happened here since it was built?” questions we expect most modern AAA games to answer.

However, for the experience of Quake, answering these questions does not matter. The level wears the skin of an old castle, much as sections of a themepark wear their facades, or as dreams recreate just enough familiarity for us to see them as real. If we transplanted the game mechanics of Thief, then a kind of architectural semi-realism would matter more because the player would need to recognize rooms by their function (bedroom, kitchen, parlor) and recognize the value of loot associated with those locations. Realism for these games only matters to the degree it serves the whole experience, and for Quake that means spooky, dream-like castles and dungeons, not real ones.

Returning to the moat and bridge, since this is only the second level there is still a good chance the player may fall in by accident as they learn the controls. The bridge itself has ramps into the water that allow the player to easily walk back up. Although the water is dirty instead of a clean blue, the player does not take damage. Unlike the first moat of E1M1, the water here is deep enough that the player must swim. There is only real danger if the player falls into the moat before killing the Ogre. The Ogre’s grenades sink, and the Ogre will block the exit from the water where the player must enter range of its chainsaw melee.

For players who discovered the secret in E1M1, E1M2 offers a subtle callback. As with the first moat and bridge, there is a secret to the right. With E1M2, players must shoot the wall to discover it, and there are no hints other than knowledge from the previous level.

Moving deeper into E1M2, there is a large room with several balconies, a large pool of dirty water beneath it, and a catwalk crossing to the far side. This space functions more as a combat encounter, or a room that players inhabit for a duration, rather than the threshold function of the moat and bridge. There are many other spaces in Quake with extended catwalks and hazards to either side, but they operate as a separate motif from the moat and bridge.

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One of the catwalk and hazard setups in E1M2

E1M3: The Necropolis by Tim Willits
In the third level, after the first few areas of combat and an introduction to a new weapon and some new enemies, the level presents us with a really neat setup. This is one that blurs the boundary between my definitions of bridge and moat versus catwalks and hazards. Here we have a bridge extending to a tower, which has another bridge extending to a platform with a gold door. Below these bridges, instead of a moat we have a large room with water, and the player can see the gold key on a patch of dry land.

E1M3_2.jpg

This setup informs the player about their goal (the locked door), and about one of the steps to achieve that goal (the gold key). From here, the player’s navigation through the level has context. Even if the player loses track of where to go, as they might if they jump into the pit for the gold key, the larger goal gives some direction. If, for example, the player jumped into the pit and found a staircase leading down and another staircase leading up, the player understands they must return up to complete the level, and can assume that the staircase down is toward a secret instead.

E1M4: The Grisly Grotto by Tim Willits
At the end of E1M4 we get a fun reversal of the moat and bridge motif. With the other occurrences up to this point, killing the bridge guards and crossing it are the first steps into enemy territory. With E1M4, the bridge is the last step of a map. The player leaves a castle-like structure to cross a bridge to an organic gap in the cliff side. This setup is as if the start and end of the level were reversed, or as if the player is finally exiting the back of the castle that they entered in E1M2.

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E1M5: Gloom Keep by Tim Willits
This is the most obvious moat and bridge setup of this episode. Immediately on entering the level, the player sees a huge fortress, a front door framed by two massive pillars, and the bridge itself.

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Where this use of the moat and bridge falters is that that the player starts on the bridge. The player does not get to decide if it is time to cross and do battle, as the player did in E1M1 and E1M2. This weakens the alignment between the player’s actions and the theme of storming the castle. This setup also reduces the possibility to anticipate the fight ahead

Aside from this, the setup is familiar. If players fall of the bridge, the water is safe and will lead around to a side entrance in the castle. If the player swims underwater to the right of the bridge, they will find a secret cave with a health item as a reward.

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E1M5 also is the last level in the episode with a moat and bridge…

E1M6: The Door to Cthon by American McGee
But I can’t talk about Quake episode 1 without talking about E1M6! This is my favorite level in the game. Like McGee’s E4M1 in Ultimate Doom, this is a combat puzzle box where the player teases at various pieces to see what unlocks and what new traps will spring.

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Definitely not a moat and bridge?

E1M6 doesn’t have the moat and bridge motif, though, unless we count this diving board platform to reach the gold key? No? I guess I’ll have to save discussion of that one for another time.

Thanks for joining me on this look at one facet of the design in Quake’s first episode.

Cheers,
Andrew

Correction: previous version incorrectly credited E1M5 to John Romero, instead of Tim Willits. Fixed 11/24/2017 9:55pm

 

Towards Better Cooperative Play

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2017 by mclogenog

Let me share my best cooperative gaming experience:

My friend and I had decided to replay Halo: Combat Evolved on the hardest difficulty, as we have many times before. This time we played cooperatively online from New York to Georgia, both of us away from our hometown on the west coast. For the first few missions, the game was an excuse for talking about our lives and catching up, interrupting a topic whenever the combat became difficult. As the session progressed, I started to observe our different play styles and preferences, and how that affected our cooperation. As we began mission seven “The Library”—known for its long fights from all sides against the zombie-like Flood enemies in repetitive corridors—I decided to act on my observations about our preferences. For the length of the mission, I would be my friend’s bodyguard and prioritize keeping him alive. I kept this goal secret so it wouldn’t affect my friend’s behavior. Achieving this goal meant keeping coms clear and relying on shorthand callouts adapted from our time playing against other people. More importantly, this meant holding a model of his status in my mind: his position and direction, his health and shields, his weapons and ammo. When I saw him turn one way, I swept my aim to watch his back. When he took point down a corridor, I backpedaled while covering the rear. When I found health packs or weapons, I checked if he needed them more than I did. At the most frantic moments, we became a swirling dance of monster-killing efficiency.

There is a version of this cooperation that could have been condescending, like a parent in “tryhard mode” with their child. If I had perfected my goal of guarding my friend, he would have had nothing to do. I would have made the game boring for him, or worse, I would been selfish by “kill stealing” from him. Because of the difficulty in “The Library” and the difficulty maintaining the model of my friend’s status, the game remained challenging for both of us.

My goal was also more subtle than playing bodyguard, but it is the most accurate term I can find. When I found a rocket launcher, I asked him if he wanted it (despite the danger that comes with explosives in close combat). Or when we approached a tunnel too narrow for us to walk abreast, I asked if he wanted to take point while I covered behind. In these cases, I was a bad bodyguard for the sake of his fun.

Most cooperative play tends to mean parallel solo-play or turn-taking. These are cases where players affect a shared game state but have limited interaction together. Until “The Library”, most of the Halo playthrough with my friend had been parallel solo-play with some turn-taking. That is, we could have ran two separate singleplayer games while talking to each other and had an equivalent experience. In missions with multiplayer vehicles, we took turns driving. Or when we found power weapons on the map that we both wanted, we would take turns based on who took the last power weapon.

Some games try to solve this parallel solo-play problem through character specialization. The thinking is that if every player has a specific role, and each role must succeed for the team to succeed, then the game requires teamwork; harder challenges require more teamwork, which requires team building. The most common example is the trinity of tank, healer, and damage. Tanks draw the focus of enemies, healers keep their tanks alive, and damage kills the enemies. Through varied design, this calls for some synchronicity between players. For example, if the tank receives a huge burst of damage, the healer must react before the tank dies. Even though players’ actions affect each other’s success, this gameplay is still more of a parallel solo-play than cooperative play because there is limited reciprocity. The most frequent and important actions go one-direction.

This creates real problems in class-specialized player-vs-player games, especially for support players. A good support player keeps their tanks alive while they battle for control of objectives, but it is harder to credit their contribution to the team compared to roles that have metrics like kills or objectives captured. To make things worse, players have incomplete knowledge in realtime, avatar-based action games. A players can’t always know when they are a lower priority for healing than another player, or when they are positioned where the healer would need to take unjustifiable risks. This leads to increasingly bitter cries of “need healing!” To remain balanced, support classes have to deal less damage and have less health than other characters, which leaves them vulnerable to flankers and can mean a negative kill:death ratio. In worst designed cases, healing feels like a chore. With all of these factors combined, support tends to get all the blame and none of the glory.[1]

If we ported the designed healer-tank interaction to a real relationship, we would call it unhealthy for its imbalance. Nobody in a relationship should give all of their attention to a partner who doesn’t reciprocate attention or energy. But in the game-equivalent, players are expected to fill these designed roles to win. This design is especially problematic with how it links to gender expectations. Supports are often female characters with maternal qualities, and tanks are often hyper-masculine men, playing off traditional gender roles and the separation of public and private spheres in sayings like “behind every successful man [tank] there is a woman [healer]”. In male-dominated gaming communities, healer roles are often called the easy-to-play (read: boring) girlfriend role.[2]

Part of what separates the type of cooperative play I described at the start from these problematic forms is the amount of reciprocity between players. The first part of reciprocity requires one player to observe the status of another and act upon that information. For the loop to complete, the other player must realize they were affected and respond. Reciprocity fails when players have limited tools for observing player status, for acting upon that observation, for realizing they were affected, or for responding. We can think of reciprocity as an exchange of some resource, including time or attention. The amount of reciprocity depends on the degree and frequency of the exchanges. On one end, checking my teammate’s status could start a short reciprocal loop so long as my teammate knows that I am checking on them. On the other end, giving an expensive gift could begin a slower reciprocal loop to build trust and friendship.[3]

Returning to Halo, my cooperative experience at “The Library” stands out because its difficulty encouraged small but frequent reciprocal actions. At the most basic, surving “The Library” means coordinating movement and shooting, which requires players checking on each other and acting on that information. Not all of these actions are observed and reciprocated, but they are frequent enough that not all of them need to be. Such a high level of coordination was only possible while maintaining a rough model of my friend’s status because of hidden and imperfect knowledge in Halo. When I look at my friend’s character, I know what direction he is moving, where he is looking, what weapon he has equipped, and whether he is taking damage. I can start a basic model from this information, which lets me look away for several seconds and know that I won’t step into my friend’s field of fire or be shot in the back by enemies. The other status information like shields, health, ammo, and secondary weapon require communication to maintain, or rough approximations. With such a burden of information, it is no wonder that these moments are rare.

How could we redesigned Halo to reduce that burden?

  • Add your partner’s status to the UI, either as part of the HUD or pinned to the character model.
  • Reduce the amount of information by cutting design. For example:
    • Limit players to one weapon and remove ammo limitations.
    • Change the health system to recharge instead of requiring a shared, limited resource.
    • Improve the UI for indicating the distance to allies so that players can act without having to look.
    • Add dynamic “chatter” for the player-characters to call out enemies and status changes on behalf of the players.

Many of these systems exist in games created since Halo. Each come with costs to the core design and to production. Worse, many of them break the reciprocity loops by hiding the interaction! (Or perhaps, once this burden is removed, players are free to engage in higher-level strategy?)

If our goal is to add more reciprocity loops to Halo, or improve the existing loops, what design changes could we make?

  • Replace the flashlight with a waypoint marker. That marker could change based on the context, whether it’s an enemy, an item, an objective, or a beautiful view that a friend wants to share.[4]
  • Change the weapon and ammo system to a shared inventory so that one player could pick up a item for another.
  • Or add the ability to drop weapons or give ammo.[5]
  • Remove environmental health packs and give each player a line-of-sight heal ability on a short cooldown.[6]
  • Redesign mission objectives from “kill everything” and “get to the end” to “perform two separate actions simultaneously, or in a mutually-dependent sequence”.
  • Add enemies that force cooperative responses.[7]

Most of these ideas would make Halo a different game, and a bunch of unpredictable design problems would follow as a result. I have a sense these rough ideas would lead somewhere, but I would need to test them before I can say for sure.

Some notes for future research:

  • Skill-checks as a lens for thinking about whether a design encourages cooperative play.
  • Hypothesis that building trust between players requires the potential for failure or exploitation. How can we do this safely in online communities?
  • In games where player-characters improve, how do we avoid false stratification between players?
  • Hypothesis that decreasing stakes and urgency in casual player-vs-player games will reduce toxicity.
  • Can we, and should we, design around player skill gaps in cooperative play?

 

Notes, Further Reading:

[1] Philippa Warr gives a specific example through Overwatch‘s play-of-the-game system: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/05/31/overwatch-play-of-the-game/

[2] writes about supports in Overwatch as part of the bigger problem of unrecognized emotional labor: https://killscreen.com/themeta/overwatch-problem-caring-labor/

[3] A report from Project Horseshoe on game systems for building friendship between players: http://www.lostgarden.com/2017/01/game-design-patterns-for-building.html

[4] Some large multiplayer games like Battlefield and Rising Storm have scouting mechanics where players can tag enemies. However, with so many players, it is hard to tell who did the scouting, which makes it less valuable as a callout clarification.

[5] Dropping weapons during the buy-phase is an critical team interaction in the Counter-Strike series.

[6] Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 have team-healing mechanics, but they come at a time expense to discourage healing during combat, and a resource expense that makes it infrequent.

[7] Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 do this through enemy types that pin or stun the player until their teammates help.

Notes on Strafe

Posted in Article on May 29, 2017 by mclogenog

Earlier this month, Strafe came out. It styles itself as a first-person-shooter in the tradition of Doom and Quake. The tagline even places it in the year of Quake‘s release: “Bleeding Edge Graphics and Gameplay (C)1996”. Strafe falls short of that goal. There are bugs and framerate problems, but there are also design problems that I think are worth dissecting.

In case you aren’t familiar with Strafe, here’s the launch trailer:

Skill Checks and Loops

When I want to understand what a mechanics-driven game is about, I look at the skills it checks and how it checks them. Generally, “skill check” is a term from tabletop RPGs where a gamemaster asks a player to roll some dice based on their avatar’s skill and determine where the action falls between success and failure. For digital games, if we think of the designers as the gamemaster, then by asking what kind of skills the gamemaster checks, we can determine what kind of game they want to run.

We can also think about the player’s actions and skills as part of several layers, or loops, based on how frequently each occur. The first loop is second-to-second decision-making that players internalize as they learn the game’s mechanics. The second loop is minute-to-minute decision-making, which can also become habit through practice. Additional loops can exist for session-to-session or hour-to-hour.

(Mind that this framework doesn’t work for all games, especially those with narrative focus.)

Skills in Strafe

The first loop is about surviving second-to-second gamepaly. The skills in this loop build on each other, and as players internalizes these skills they can shift conscious attention to higher-order skills.¹

  1. Controls and input: moving and shooting in 3D environments
  2. Kiting: moving through safe parts of the map with enemies chasing out of reach, like pulling a kite by the string. (Because most enemies in Strafe are melee, players can kite large groups and clear them without taking damage.)
  3. Seeing the signal in the noise: identifying acid pools, fires, enemy projectiles, and enemies against the environments and debris.
  4. Map knowledge: avoiding dead ends or unsafe territory while kiting enemies.
  5. Target prioritization: identifying the enemies that pose the greatest threat, and changing position or weapons to kill them or change the priority.

As the player gains mastery of the first loop, they begin learning the second loop of skills required to survive the minute-to-minute gameplay.

  1. Resource management and exchange: players can spend scrap to buy ammo and armor, but players can also “spend” health to preserve ammo and gain positioning, or spend ammo to preserve health or shields. Players can also spend scrap for credits, which players use for items, which in theory help the player preserve health or ammo.
  2. Signal and Noise during map exploration: identifying resources among the gore and trash is an essential optimization.

The third loop for Strafe is session-to-session, trying to beat the game. With this goal in mind, there are ways to activate teleporters at the start of each zone and skip to them at the start of the next run. This serves as a partial success state, or a checkpoint toward the larger goal. Spelunky has the same logic for its zones. Even if a player knows they will fail their run, possibly due to bad luck or a few errors, this gives them a reason to continue.

At least that appears to be the design intent. In practice, it is unclear what steps are necessary to fully repair any of the teleporters. Skipping ahead also limits the number of powerups and items a player could earn in a run, which makes the boss more difficult.

Strafe_01

Based on the global Steam Achievements, this third loop is not successful. More people have completed the game without teleporters than have fixed the teleport in zone 2. (The achievements for fixing the teleporters in zone 3 and 4 are at 1.5% and 0.5% respectively.)

Bad Skill Checks

One way that skill checks fail is when there is a consistent, repeatable solution. This becomes boring quickly if there aren’t other challenges for the player. And when the skills in the first loop become boring, the second and third loop are often insufficient to keep the player playing.

If the goal is to create a game that players spend a long time playing, one solution is to add depth by improving the existing skill set. (To mix metaphors, raising the skill ceiling adds depth.) The other solution is to expand the low-level skills by adding more variety and ensuring more permutations.

In Strafe, combat has the same solution for most enemies and levels: eliminate ranged and acid enemies first, then safely clear melee enemies while kiting them. The level segments create two variations on this strategy. Tight layout features like the bridges, trenches, and hallways of zone 1 let players funnel enemies and turn the game into Duck Hunt (all shooting, no moving). The arena layouts in zones 2, 3, and 4 let players split groups to divide and conquer. Once players learn these simple strategies, there are few challenges left in the first loop of gameplay and players have to shift focus to the outer loops.

20170527193022_1.jpg

Another way that skill checks can be faulty is when they have a binary fail state. If a player died in one hit, then the player health would be a binary state: alive or dead. Another example of this is in stealth games where being discovered means instant mission failure. Because Strafe has a range of health and armor, and because none of the enemies can kill in one hit, there is room for partial failure in combat. This failure allows for recovery, which creates tensions. Partial failure also lets the player measure their progress toward mastery.²

This brings us back to “seeing the signal in the noise” as a skill check. In classic arcade games, isolating the information from distractions can be as important of a skill as reflexes.³ A player’s ability to overcome this kind of skill check is measurable in recovery time. The problematic signal and noise skill check in Strafe is different. When identifying an enemy or projectile against the environment, the player either sees it or doesn’t; there is no partial failure here. Worse than enemies and projectiles is trying to identify resources among gibs, gore, and trash.

20170528131223_1

For example, in the above screenshot from the arena mode “Murderzone”, there is some valuable scrap among the corpses, randomly dropped from one of the kills. This is not obvious without careful inspection, or by accidentally walking through it. In the main mode, scrap separates a successful run from one where a player died for want of ammo. Due to the noise, finding scrap can feel arbitrary instead of skillful, which limits the resource management skill of the second loop.

In zone 1, there are also keycards needed to progress through levels, or sometimes there are dismembered heads that need to be matched to an eye scanner. When trying to find a keycard amid the gore, there is no partial failure or partial success. The result of these item hunts is a slower pace with no gains for it.

20170527185233_1.jpg

Another way the game throws the signal and noise skill check at the player is with enemies that leave permanent acid pools on the floor and walls. These acid pools make no sound and deal a small amount of damage per second. As a result, a player who is backpedaling or strafing can take directionless damage and not know whether it is a hazard or a melee enemy, which are also sometimes silent. This clutters the mental map a player has to maintain while fighting, which burdens memory instead of attention.

By comparison, enemy projectiles in Doom have a sound effect attached to them with a fake Doppler pitch shift. The projectiles also play a sound when they hit a wall. These pieces of feedback allow a skilled player to dodge projectiles that they aren’t watching, and know when that information is no longer relevant. The skill in Doom is about threat priority and player attention, not about memory.

Another factor is missing feedback for a first person camera. With a different implementation, the acid’s effect on the player’s resources of health, shields, and map positioning could be an interesting obstacle. For example, Diablo 3 has similar acid-pool enemy attacks that prevent the player from kiting, or force the player to take the damage in exchange for positioning, but Diablo 3 relies on a top-down camera where the effects are always visible. Because Strafe has a first person camera, the same kind of acid-pool attacks require different skills from the player.

Closing Notes

There are other problems with Strafe—ambiguous feedback around upgrades, bad balance around weapons and items—but these are not fundamental. Some weapons and items make combat easier than others, but the combat remains the same. Tuning the balance here would affect difficulty, not player behavior.

The purpose of this framework is to identify what a game is about based on where it checks the player’s skill. Strafe has kiting, target prioritization, and map positioning; these are the basics of Quake, and there are some good moments here. But once players master these basics, the game is about signal and noise and arbitrary resource management. The strafing in Strafe is the easy part.

A puzzle to gnaw on:

The problems with Strafe‘s acid and gore could be fixed at an aesthetic cost (remove or reduce the gore, make the scrap more obvious, add sound to the acid pools, let the acid fade after time, etc.). These changes would affect the play experience and identity of Strafe, remove its rough edges. But if all the rough edges are gone, what does it mean to make a 1996-styled FPS in 2017?

Footnotes

¹ My thinking on this topic is shaped by a GDC talk Matthias Worch gave in 2014, “Meaningful Choices in Game & Level Design”, http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020570/Level-Design-in-a-Day

² In stealth games there is a related concept of expanding the failure-spectrum to create more drama. Randy Smith wrote about this for Thief 3, which Robert Yang summarized here http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2011/07/dark-past-part-4-useful-post-or-randy.html Despite the obvious benefits of this idea in stealth games, this is a concept I seldom hear discussed for action games.

³ In Super Hexagon—which borrows from the arcade tradition of Tempest and Asteroids—the hue-shifting, value-inverting, and screen-spinning in themselves cannot defeat the player, but they can confuse and misdirect. Mastering Super Hexagon becomes a matter of learning to see what is real, and learning to see past what is not, a concept we also see in puzzle games like The Witness.

Environmental Storytelling and Gone Home

Posted in Article, Level Design on September 24, 2015 by mclogenog

In Gone Home the player is Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman who has returned to the United States after a year in Europe. While she was away, her family moved to a new house, and the game starts with the player at the front door, facing a note from Kaitlin’s younger sister, Samantha. No one is home, and the game leaves the player to explore the house and piece together clues from the environment to discover what has happened during Kaitlin’s year away.

Gone Home reveals its story through audio diaries and the environment itself. The former, which come from Sam’s journal, are able to describe what the environment cannot: events that leave no evidence, or events outside the house. The audio diaries also require little interpretation from the player, since they are already Sam’s interpretation of events and details. Instead, they function as a supportive structure for what the player observes in the environment. Some details, like letters or notes passed in class, are as revealing as the audio diaries. Others, like a letter Kaitlin’s dad conveniently saved from twenty years before the story’s events, allow for exposition. These may be necessary to present the player with a coherent story, and they are mostly believable, but the moments where Gone Home’s environmental storytelling works best are more subtle.

There is a long history to environmental storytelling in games, but Gone Home is one of the first to dedicate so much attention to it. In older games, most of the objects in an environment were those that served some function. With limits on computer power, rendering and calculating the physics for many useless objects was cost prohibitive. Because most of these games were first person shooters, this limited environmental storytelling to dead bodies, weapons, and ammo. In some games, like Thief and System Shock 2, there might be evidence of a tripped trap, a note beside the body, or bullet holes in the wall to help the player piece together what happened in the moments before death. The number of unique objects in Gone Home wasn’t feasible until recently, and this is why most environmental storytelling has only been about dead bodies.

Sprung TrapA dead adventurer, some loot, and a trap panel (From Thief 1)

The best definition I’ve found for environmental storytelling comes from the talk, “What Happened Here?” that Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith gave at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. (I recommend listening to the recording and reading the slides if you haven’t already.) Worch and Smith define environmental storytelling as “Staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.” This definition fits the examples Worch and Smith give in their talk, and it also fits with most of Gone Home, but their emphasis in the talk—especially their practical tips for environmental storytelling—is on creating chains of events where the player is trying to solve the puzzle of what happened. This is the forensic approach, which has its uses, but it doesn’t explain how some of the stronger moments in Gone Home work.

Terrence OfficeTerrence’s Office (Note the whiskey on the bookshelf)

For example, one of the first rooms the player enters in Gone Home is an office where Kaitlin’s dad, Terrence works. Instead of depicting a single sequence of events like a puzzle to solve, the objects in the room reflect a range of actions. The chair is pushed away from the desk, and a book is on the seat, suggesting that Terrence read the book at his desk and then left it on the seat instead of returning it to the shelf when he was finished. There is also a bottle of cheap whiskey hidden above the book shelf. Crumpled pages in a waste basket show attempts at the opening paragraph of a novel, and each page has more typos than the page before it. A cork board is covered with sticky notes outlining ideas for the novel. There is also an incomplete product review of a CD player in the typewriter. More than an exposition-heavy letter or an audio diary, these details tell the player who Terrence is.

It also doesn’t matter if the crumpled pages in the waste basket are from the same night that Terrence read the book at his desk or started writing the product review. The mess of notes on the cork board suggest even longer periods spent working in this room. The combination of details in the office tells us about Terrence’s ambitions and frustrations. Instead of having the environment tell a story, the environment depicts the patterns of behavior that let us imagine the character living in the space. We can see Terrence going for the whiskey to relieve his writer’s block on not just one night, but many; we can see more than the few crumpled pages in the waste basket, but the reams he has thrown away. Instead of “What happened here?” the questions become “Who lives here?” and “What kind of person are they?” It becomes about the living present instead of a dead past.

Sam RoomSam’s Room

This is also visible in Sam’s room. Where Terrence’s office reflects a certain focus on his occupation and interests, Sam’s room lacks this; it is a teenager’s room. It has an eclecticism from so many interests and ideas built up over years of her life. there is a dinosaur stuffed animal on the bed, a small basketball hoop on the back of a door, and some SNES game cartridges. Sam’s bookshelf has the collection of the kind of classic literature that a teenager reads. Magazines beside the bed and a collage on a locker show Sam’s interests in pop culture. In the closet, there’s the collar of their old cat, Mittens, and a colorful Lisa Frank esque binder from Sam’s elementary school years.

There is a greater sense of sequence here than in Terrence’s office, but it is not the sequence of a single event. The variety of objects show years of Sam’s life building on each other, and the room hints at the process by which Sam has discovered who she is and what she cares about. A discernible chain of events doesn’t really matter here.

Sam DeskSam’s Desk

Showing who a person is and not just how they appear is a struggle in games. A model may capture a person’s appearance and it may show their mood, but the appearance alone doesn’t show who that person is. Early Buddhist artists faced a similar problem with depicting Buddha. Instead of making a sculpture of the man, they created footprints, empty sandals, and empty chairs. They implied his presence without showing him, and this gave the emptiness a sense of space and life that statues depicting Buddha lack. The strongest environments in Gone Home achieve the same effect. When we walk through these rooms, and see the how their occupants have shaped them, they come to life, not as single events, but as months and years played out at once.

On Thief’s Level Design: Maps and Territories

Posted in Article, Level Design on September 11, 2015 by mclogenog

There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borge’s called “On Exactitude in Science” where he describes an impossible map:

“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”

These same ideas—maps and territories, degrees of abstraction—are at the heart of the Thief series. They are what give life to its level design, and distinguish the series from all of the stealth games that have followed.

Each Thief game presents a series of missions where the player usually has to break into buildings, avoid detection, and steal valuables. In setting, the games are a kind of steampunk medieval city, and the protagonist, Garrett, is a kind of film noir hero fit to face the city’s darkness. It’s weird, but kind of works in a pulp fiction way.

The levels themselves are big and spatially nonlinear, requiring the player to explore and gather information before completing the objective. Combined with the tension of hiding from guards—or sprinting through mazes of rooms to avoid capture—and the hours it can take to complete one mission, it is easy to become lost. Because of this, where other stealth games are about gadgets or waiting for gaps to phase in to guards’ patrols, the Thief series is about its level design. Each mission gives the player a hand drawn map of the level they are exploring, but the detail and accuracy of the map varies between missions.

The map has also changed between the games. With Thief 1, the map highlighted the player’s current room. In Thief 2, the map also marked the rooms the player had visited and let the player write notes on the map. Thief 3 stepped back, made its maps less detailed and no longer highlighted the player’s progression through the level. It’s an improvement Thief 3 made on the series that almost makes up for the removal of rope arrows.

In Thief 1’s third mission, a tomb named “Bonehoard,” the map doesn’t reflect the labyrinthine tunnels monsters have burrowed. If the player checks the map, instead of highlighting a room, the highlight appears over the text “Where am I?” Instead of relying on the map, the player must follow the notes left by the dead adventurers who came before and hope the markings they left are reliable. The limits of the map become part of the level’s history and the player’s story.

constantine mapConstantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

In the seventh mission in the gold edition of Thief (the sixth mission in the original version), the player is tasked with sneaking into an eccentric’s mansion to steal his magical sword, and here the map only shows the exterior of the mansion, and the first few rooms beyond, which is about as much information as the player can gather in 5 minutes of wandering. Where a more detailed map allows the player to plan a course of action and then quickly execute it, as in Rainbow Six where a player can spend more time on the map screen than in the mission, an incomplete map forces the player to slow down, pay attention, and create a mental map in lieu of a drawn one. “Constantine’s Sword” pushes further in this direction by including traps, secrets, and disorienting architecture. The player who treats this mission the way they treated the less complicated manor missions won’t make it far.

When the player checks their map at the start of Thief 2’s third mission, a police station where the player must frame a lieutenant, they will find 5 detailed pages. The map’s rooms are labeled, and important areas are annotated. Instead of aiding the player, the map overwhelms and disorients. However, through the process of playing the level and checking the progress on the map, the map’s abstraction and the level merge, and the player leaves the level with a feeling of mastery.

police stationOne of the five pages of the police station map (from Thief 2)

Because Thief 3 doesn’t mark the player’s position or progress, and because the maps are less detailed than those in the previous games, the player has to rely on the way the rooms on the map are labeled and the way the rooms in the level are decorated. If the player is hiding in a room with few furnishings except paintings and statues, then this may be a gallery, and by checking the map and notes for mention of a gallery, the player can reorient.

Even the details in Thief’s levels are overloaded with meanings like this. In other games, a texture may be a designer or artist’s arbitrary choice, but here the floor material tells the player how slowly they must move to remain silent, how far away they will hear a guard’s approach, and how visible they will be. It also tells the player about the room, whether it is public or private, how many guards and servants they should expect, and where the room lies on the map. All of these details matter as the player determines whether this route is safe. And that’s merely the information expressed by the floor material.

overlook mansionOverlook Mansion is bigger and more complicated than this map suggests (from Thief 3)

With all of this information to process, a map is useful as an abstraction. It culls the trivial or redundant and preserves the essence. It gives us a literal big picture. Instead of marking the furnishings of a room and requiring the player to infer the room’s function, a map labels the room at a loss of detail: bedroom, study, library, atrium. A detailed map requires the player to infer upward (if the room is furnished with a bed, it is a bedroom), but an abstract map requires the player to infer downward (will there be valuable loot or information in the bedroom? Maybe the key you need? What about guards?). What we call the levels in the Thief series exist somewhere between the physical obstacles and its abstracted representation; they come to live in the mind.

This matter of map versus territory invites other questions. What makes a building a house instead of an office or a factory? What makes a room a library, or a study, or a bedroom, if they all have bookshelves? Do these labels describe or prescribe the behavior within them? How is privacy encoded into these spaces (why does sneaking through a bedroom feel like more of a violation than sneaking through the main hall)? Thievery becomes not just a matter of mastering the physical obstacles, but understanding the social values that are attached to architecture: class, power, secrecy, the divisions between public and private spaces. Of course, this deeper exploration of a level is only true in recognizable structures, like houses, cities, factories, and cathedrals. The more unusual levels—tombs, caves, labyrinths, and ruins—are often too alien, forcing Thief back on its fundamentals as a stealth game.

constantine mansionA corridor from Constantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

Of course, many other games have maps, but these are often perfect replicas or pulled directly from the game’s level editor. The map in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like Rainbow Six before it, is basically a wireframe view of the level’s geometry, even when the fiction shouldn’t allow for such detailed information. Because these maps lack bias, error, and are often too complete, they offer none of the mystery and delight of exploring a level in the Thief games. It is through the discrepancies of map and territory that we learn about the person or people who created the map, what they valued, and what they chose to ignore.

Thanks for reading

Neon Struct and Expressionist Level Design

Posted in Article on August 26, 2015 by mclogenog

In one of the levels from Neon Struct, a lightweight stealth game by David Pittman in the style of Thief and Deus Ex, the player is tasked with breaking into a vault in their character’s mind. This level, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” is an expressionistic design similar to parts of Psychonauts, Curtain, Barista 2, Radiator 1-2, Souvenir, and even more mainstream things like the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3.¹ This expressionistic approach to environmental storytelling is my favorite kind of level design, and I was glad to see Neon Struct explore it as well. Before I talk about the specifics of “The Mind of Jillian Cleary,” though, let me clarify what I mean by this approach to level design. The examples I listed above fall roughly into two categories.

In the first, there are games with developed characters that use subjective sequences, often framed as dreams, to give the player more information, or to help deepen the player’s empathy. These levels are exceptions from the rest of the game, and they rely on context from outside of the subjective sequences.

This is how the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3 work. Shepard wanders a dead forest, sees ghost-like shadows, and hears the voices of dead characters while following a child she saw on Earth. The dreams are humanizing moments that strip Shepard of her career-military, savior-of-the-galaxy, video-game-badass invulnerability. It makes galactic doom feel personal, and the return to Earth feel like a sacrifice. These recurring dreams lend their tone to the rest of the much-less-subjective game that contains them, and they give the player new ways to think about their character and their actions.

This is also how expressionistic design works in Psychonauts. Each level takes place inside the mind of a different character around a summer camp hub world, and once the player understands this structure, the player can usually guess in advance what a character’s mind will look like. The combat-fatigues-wearing Coach has a battlefield for a mind. The German secret agent, Sasha Nein has an organized cube for a mind. As the player proceeds through the levels, they learn about how the characters perceive themselves, and how that constructed identity differs from reality. Milla Vodello’s level is a dance party where the player learns how to levitate, but a room to the side hides demons and memories of an orphanage burning down. In another level, the player enters the mind of a mutated monstrous lungfish, to discover that it also sees itself as a monster. Some of these levels are more serious than others, but they all give the player a way to understand characters in ways that the player couldn’t by interacting with them in the hub world.

The second category are games that exist entirely within their subjectivity. At the start of these games, the player has to quickly determine who they are, where they are, and what the game expects of them, which can be overwhelming.

From “Handle with Care”

Robert Yang’s Radiator 1-2: “Handle With Care” solves this by opening with a first person cutscene where a marriage counselor addresses you as James, and then asks a man sitting beside you, Dylan, how he feels. From this, the game fades to white into a small room captioned “Internal Repression Service (IRS).” The room’s architecture and an insignia on the floor make the space feel like the lobby to a government building. Waiting room magazines to the side expose the character’s id (one of the magazines is literally titled “Id.”). After these observations, the walls descend, exposing a room with shelves filled with fragile crates along the walls. On the monitors attached to one wall, the marriage counselor addresses you, then turns to your husband in the screen’s periphery to address him, in a dialogue loop. All of these details establish the context for the subjective world, and once the player has had time to understand what they’re seeing, memories emerge from a chute, allowing the player to shelve them (locking them away forever), or break them (causing the player to briefly relive memories that may be real or imagined). This expressionistic level design lets the player delve within their character’s motivations in a way that is usually off limit to games. It is very cool stuff.

Part of the difference between these two categories of expressionistic level design is how their games handle the distinction between player and avatar. Whether the player fills an authored role, crafts the role they want, or exists as their self in the game, each has its own challenges.

(On a side note, Bioware RPGs work as well as they do because their distinction between player and avatar is a combination of the first and second approach. In their best moments, Bioware games become negotiations between the player and their character, such that the player leaves the game feeling like they know more about who they are while also feeling like their character is believable and compelling. I don’t play as Shepard, and Shepard isn’t me; her character exists in between, somehow.)

So how well does Neon Struct’s level, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary,” fit within all of this?

A sloppy playthrough of “The Mind of Jillian Cleary”

The level presents a vault to break into by playing a series of notes on an oversized keyboard. This requires the player to activate a generator to power the keyboard and discover the correct sequence of notes (“FACADE”, it turns out) to open the vault. The building in the center of the level is a U shape, with the vault in the center and the preliminary goals in each wing. The entrance through the roof (the only alternative to the guarded front door), places the player above the vault, so the player moves through the level by exploring each wing, and then returning to the vault area. The building’s walls are mostly transparent, which would normally allow the player to plan a route in advance, but since two of the objectives (the vault and the generator) are recessed into the floor and the third is a small note on a table, the player instead has to improvise along the way.

The generator room has nice wet-floor footstep sounds, giving the room a kind of dark dampness that may place it as a sort of subconscious power source for conscious parts of the mind (or this may have been an arbitrary choice). In place of the prior levels’ police and guards, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” is patrolled by demon-headed women with names like “Resentment” and “Anxiety.”

The center puzzle involving a keyboard is also interesting. In the level before this, the player stopped by some old friends’ apartments to hide from the Agency. While waiting for dinner, the player has the opportunity to interact with a (normal-sized) piano in the apartment. The series of notes Jillian performs when the player continues to interact are in key, which may say something about Jillian’s character. In Dishonored, as a counter example, if Corvo interacts with the piano in the Boyle estate, the series of notes clash, implying that Corvo can’t play piano. So the return of the piano and the music puzzle at the central of Jillian’s mind may hint at a life before her work as a spy.

But that’s as far as the level (and the game) goes in exploring Jillian’s character. We know she is a spy on the run, and we might infer that she’d once had piano lessons. It doesn’t feel like the design went far enough. There is no context for Jillian’s inner demons, and they also don’t feel like a response to the player’s prior actions. If this was Dishonored or Deus Ex, we could imagine “The Mind of Corvo Attano” or “The Mind of J.C. Denton” reflecting the player’s approach to earlier levels, the choices they made, how violent they were. But because Neon Struct focuses on stealth there isn’t much in the player’s actions other than the degree of mastery for “the Mind of Jillian Cleary” to reflect.

In this way, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” feels a little like Inception. It is entertaining and well crafted, but a little too clean to effectively represent dreams or the subconscious.

Later in the game, the player enters the “struct,” a tool for visualizing databases as a 3D space. Visually and structurally, it is similar to Mass Effect 3’s Geth server level, or the confrontation with SHODAN at the end of System Shock 2. Through the struct level, paths open and close when the player isn’t looking, and walking around a corner sometimes has the same effect as climbing a staircase, somehow. This impossible architecture and dreamlike incongruity is something that “In the Mind of Jillian Cleary” could have used more of, even if that meant removing all of the NPCs and making it a wholly atmospheric level.

Now, despite completing all of the missions in Neon Struct, I have a hunch there is another layer I’m missing, or that there are at least more secrets to find. The “stranger” characters were never explained in my playthrough, the visual similarity between the game’s “reality” and the world presented by the Struct might mean something, and Vinod’s story had no resolution. (And why do some of the doors grumble when you use them? This isn’t just me, right?)

The following probably says more about me than it does about Neon Struct, its level design, or any of the games I’ve mentioned, but I would like to see expressionistic level design pushed to its limits. I want these worlds collapsing under their own weight. In film, there are works like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, or Kubrick’s 2001, or (nerd alert) like the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even what Christopher Nolan tried to do with Inception. On its surface these are about boring old solipsism, but when handled successfully they are about facing the boundaries of understanding: the limits on our ability to understand ourselves and on our ability to understand each other. One of the possible endings in Radiator 1-2 gets damned close to this, and the end of Mass Effect 3 is up there too (if you ignore the stargazer sequence), but most of my other examples resolve too neatly. This is an area I would like to see level designers keep pushing.

It’s rare to see games approach this style of level design at all, though, and these two levels in Neon Struct were high points in my playthrough. If you like this kind of design too, then you’d probably enjoy checking the game out.

It also sounds like an expansion pack is in the works, and if the expansion for Eldritch (David Pittman’s previous game) is any indication of what to expect, this could be very cool.

Thanks for reading.

Footnotes:
¹ By expressionistic design, I mean that the level is trying to replicate a character’s subjective inner world instead of replicating the objective outer world we live in. I’m borrowing the term from German expressionism, which borrowed the term from the expressionist painters (a splinter from impressionism in late19th century painting). Expressionism isn’t boolean, however, and a work can signal this intent in many ways; film noir, for example, drew a lot of its style from German expressionism (Fritz Lang directed films in both styles), but its techniques are more about making the audience feel a certain mood or atmosphere than making the audience question the truth of what they are seeing. Some of these techniques, like dream sequences, are now fairly common in film. If you are still reading this footnote with interest, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Lynch where he interprets Lynch as a modern expressionist, and unpacks a lot of what expressionism means now.