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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lost Levels Talk Notes

Posted in Article on March 21, 2014 by mclogenog

At Lost Levels I gave a five minute talk titled “What Poetry Can Teach Us About Making & Reading Games.” Below are my notes, including points that I accidentally skipped during the talk. There are also some minor revisions for clarity’s sake. Enjoy!

1. In games we have content and rules. Think of this as a reduction of Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics theory (MDA). That is, there are rules governing what the player can and cannot do, and there is content that fills variables.

2. Poetry has a similar divide between form (what the poet can and cannot do) and content (what fills the constrained variables defined by the form). For example, the form may govern that the poet needs an iamb that rhymes with water. Many words work as content for the rules of the form.

3. Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a good demonstration for how form affects theme. The repetition of the title line and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” create a circularity that is very different from narrative poetry. It is hard to tell a story with a villanelle. Filling in the form with different content would still have this circular quality.

4. This is not the case of most poems. Sonnets and sestinas, which are really strict forms, can be about a ton of things. The form’s thematic constraint has more impact on how it forces the poet to approach the theme.

5. I think of this as a spectrum where on one side we have “no form” (free verse), on the other we have “strict form,” and in the middle we have “invented form.” At both ends, the rules that govern the poet’s choice of content allow for a huge range of thematic expression. In the middle, theme is limited much more by the form. (The villanelle is somewhere between the middle and strict form.)

6. One example of this middle, invented space is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Try using the form of this poem (yes it has internal logic and constraining rules) to talk about any theme other than what Eliot’s poem talks about. It’s like telling a story with a villanelle: really hard!

7. This spectrum also exists, roughly, in games, stretching from “no rules” (“not-games”) to “strict rules” (“game-games”), and a middle of subjective or biased rules (“art-games”). That is to say, on one hand we have “Press X to Win!” On the other we have “Press X” (if even that). And in the middle we have “Press X to win? What does it mean to ‘win’?”

8. As with poetry, this middle space is hard! The extremes of “not-games” and “game-games” are much more open to variation just by varying content. There is a reason why there were and are so many Doom clones. (Their content has changed a lot while their rules have only changed a little, with each new clone deriving from previous clones, leading to the current “diverse” rule sets of modern shooters.)  On the other hand, imagine replacing the trees in Proteus with burning buildings and turning the color palette grey and red. The rules could remain the same, but the content change dramatically affects the themes.

9. But if you’re in the middle, at this intersection of content and rules, the designers have to reinvent the wheel each time. For example, it’s tempting to make a Papers, Please-like (especially after all of the awards it received), or a Braid-like. We know that combination of rules and content are successful. But without stripping their rules down, there is a limited space for thematic expression. A content swap doesn’t work so well here! Without reduction, the rules of Papers, Please are inescapably about bureaucracy. It’s hard to even imagine a content alternative.

10. Conclusion: I don’t have any problem with “not-games” and I have no problems–in theory–with “game-games.” I just want us to be aware of the difficulties we face when we say “I’d like to make something kind of like Luxuria Superbia” (as one example). If that’s what you’re trying for, you’ll have a hard time escaping the original source. Anyway, I hope that next time you sit down to ask yourself “What kind of game should I make?” this talk helps you realize the spaces we can explore and the special difficulties of the middle.

(My fallback plan was to read Jack Gilbert’s “The Rooster.” I recommend that you look the poem up if you get a chance.)

Some Thoughts on RPG Stories

Posted in Article on September 28, 2013 by mclogenog

In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a set of expectations that together create an optimistic experience. The challenges the party faces will be appropriately difficult, and they will be rewarded with loot and experience for overcoming. If the party is inexperienced, death is unlikely, so long as the dungeon master is good; rerolling characters or forcing friends to sit out isn’t fun, even if it’s the consequence of a “fair” game. Similar grace is given in digital role playing games with the ability to reload saves, and sometimes features likes automated difficulty scaling. Given these rules, the experience is one of growth and accomplishment, yet the genre is also known for its story telling. Often the worlds are bleak, and the party or lone player character must overcome some looming threat and save the world. It’s serious business.

The problem is that these two things—gameplay about growth and story about the end of the world—don’t line up. If we want to tell a story of some bleak post-apocalypse, or pseudo-medieval feudalism, the player needs to have different expectations. It’s easy to imagine an alternative game: accomplishing the quest may have no effect on the greater problem, the dungeon may be a trap, the party or player character may suffer permanent wounds, and the only loot may be rusted beyond value. That could still be a role playing game, but those rules create a different experience. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and—to a lesser extent—Dark Souls are close examples. Because those games’ rules create a bleak experience, the narrative fits.

On the other side are games like Skyrim. Due to the way external rules (such as saving and automated difficulty scaling) combine with the internal rules of experience and skill trees, the game creates an enjoyable experience. The player knows that if an encounter is too difficult, by spending some time gaining experience elsewhere, anything will become possible. Short of a level limit, the player’s potential power exceeds that of any non-playable character or monster, making the player a hero in the mythic sense.

This choice of rules in Elder Scrolls games is not a problem on its own until these games try to tell an epic story. Dragons may be returning, or gates to oblivion opening, or gods reincarnating, but none of these threats are real within their game’s rules. By the time the player faces the final enemy, the player character is so strong that the whole conflict becomes a joke, and the non-playable characters telling you to hurry clearly don’t understand the way the world works. There was never a serious risk; the end of the world will wait until the player is ready.

Now, there are exceptions. Although I would include Bioware games (from Baldur’s Gate onward) in this category of optimistic role playing games due to their design, the drama of their stories feels somewhat more honest because their worlds have more consequence. Characters can, and often do, die. Mass Effect 3 created such a strong sense of narrative urgency, I ignored almost all of the side quests. That said, there is still a limit on this when dialogue is separate from the role-playing gameplay about growth and power. The same story might be told more powerfully, or more honestly, with the structure of a game like The Walking Dead.

That said, most fantasy games try to imitate Tolkien, Jordan, or Martin. To various extents, all of them wrote bleak stories that thrive on uncertainty. At their lightest, they suggest the existence of some positive force of fate that will make things right. At their darkest, “good” and “evil” become indistinguishable, and the triumph of one over the other becomes meaningless. Unlike a player character in a role playing game, these heroes suffer wounds, age, and die. At best, their power over time follows a parabola. If role playing games want to tell these stories, their rules need to change.

There is another alternative though. I like the playful optimism allowed by many role playing games. There is an agency in those worlds that extends to my view of reality; I feel happy knowing that it only takes practice to become better at programming or writing or so on. The world is not always as bleak as the stories we write about it. Instead of changing the rules of these optimistic games, we could change the stories. They could emulate mythology or embrace child-like absurdity. The rules of Skyrim’s world have more in common with Adventure Time than Middle Earth, so why not treat it that way? In short, many of our games are already optimistic and silly by design; if we want their stories to improve, we should either accept the honesty of their silliness, or change the games themselves.

On Artistry and Craftsmanship

Posted in Article on August 15, 2013 by mclogenog

A few days ago, some game design folks were talking about the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry. Specifically, Elizabeth Ryerson and Adam Saltsman suggested some exclusivity in that relationship, that refined craftsmanship interferes with or detracts from artistic expression. It isn’t clear to me in Elizabeth’s post whether this is meant as a general rule, or one specific to indie games, or even more specific to Michael Brough’s Corrypt, and Adam’s post leaves his definitions of craft and art vague, but I think there are other points that should be included in the discussion.

My initial impulse—one to be cautious of—is that, rather than craftsmanship interfering with or detracting from artistry, it serves as a prerequisite. In this relationship, craftsmanship is a skillful, creative act that has no meaning beyond itself while artistry is the created meaning dependent upon craft. There are problems with these definitions, since they blur with intent and context. For example, Duchamp’s Urinal was a work of common craftsmanship given artistic meaning through context.

Despite the exceptions and edge cases, there is still a lulling sense of “truth” to this explanation. In writing, craftsmanship and artistry intersect in the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck; in film, Kubrick, Scorsese, Kurosawa; and in art, Rembrandt, Monet, Michelangelo. These are the voices of the mainstream, where the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry is most accepted, if not usually in so many words.

The greater problem with this definition is that it can foster contempt of the experimental, especially when that means a reinterpretation of craftsmanship. Pollock, Mondrian, and Van Gogh are often dismissed because they do not meet an expected standard of “good” craftsmanship. They are, as my dad frequently says, “like finger painting.” He, like many in a mainstream audience, will not approach a work’s artistry if he cannot appreciate its craftsmanship.

There is still some confusion here, though. Although these artists had non-traditional goals for craftsmanship, their works are still skillful. Pollock may have splattered paint, and Van Gogh may have occasionally used his fingers, but their sense of composition is a mastered skill. Because of this, I think their goals of craftsmanship will gain (and have gained) acceptance over time, just as Picasso’s works have. But we are more willing to accept Picasso’s abstract works because he demonstrated that they were a choice rather than a limit of skill.  The confusion here, to restate it, is due to a subjective sense of good and bad.

What about “objectively bad” craftsmanship? I’m not sure there is such a thing, but for the sake of argument let’s define bad craftsmanship as that which requires the least skill. If I placed a child’s clumsy and generic drawing of a house (smoke looping in ringlets from a chimney) next to an effectively identical work by an artist, there would be some justified confusion. The artist may intend to represent the suburban dream and its ironies, while the child may think a house would be fun to draw. This leads to the theoretical hells of death of the author and the necessity of metatexts, but that’s not my purpose here; the confusion alone illustrates that our senses of artistry and craftsmanship are more complex than my impulse definition.

Another example should help. If a writer wishes to indicate an unreliable narrator or stream of consciousness, they could intentionally decrease the quality of their craftsmanship, making it less refined to reflect the character. There are few alternatives to this approach, but succeeding in it is still a mark of craftsmanship. Writing in a dialect, for example, requires skill that is not visible in the language itself; the skill is to make the language feel natural. Specifically, despite Huckleberry Finn’s limited vocabulary, flawed grammar, and racism, there is a craftsmanship visible through Twain’s composition.

There are cases, however, where intentionally bad, or intentionally non-traditional, craftsmanship does not appear to serve an artistic purpose. This is the territory of style without substance or style separate from substance. I find these works difficult to accept. Specifically, Cormac McCarthy’s style frustrates me because it seems to serve no purpose but its own; it feels contrived. Similarly, I have difficulty reaching a conclusion about David Lynch’s films because they often seem weird for the sake of being weird, rather than always serving an artistic purpose. Generally this problem is visible in films where the traditionally accepted techniques are ignored or non-traditional techniques are used.

Yet the discomfort caused by these alternative definitions, or rejections, of craftsmanship still serves a purpose. There are many specific cases where this allows for new artistry otherwise impossible, such as unreliable narration indicated by “bad” writing or “bad” cinematography. But it also forces the audience to engage with a work in a different way. Once the expectations of craftsmanship are subverted, the audience has to either participate analytically, or ignore the work entirely. The use of montage, jump cuts, and color correction in film prevents the audience from watching it in the same way they might watch a mainstream film.

Even with this beneficial side to non-traditional craftsmanship, the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry is nuanced, as I have hopefully shown. A film like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color may need some “bad” craftsmanship to achieve its artistic goals, but the extent of this necessity is unclear. With establishing shots, the film would have improved its craftsmanship and become more accessible to a mainstream audience, but without them, the audience is forced to either approach the work critically or ignore it. Since a few changes probably would not have reduced the artistic purpose, we can imagine an alternate form of the film that would be “better,” but we can’t be certain.¹

Returning to games and the specific examples of Elizabeth’s post, the visuals of Corrypt serve a purpose by being non-traditional, but the same artistic purpose may have been served to a wider audience through some other (more comfortable and mainstream) approach to its craftsmanship. The best version of the game is impossible to know, given the infinite alternatives and extents possible, but it doesn’t hurt to imagine.

The more significant question, I think, is this: what audience are we trying to reach? There is a small audience that willfully seeks challenging works, an audience for whom artistry is less dependent of craftsmanship. Then there is an audience like my dad that will see finger paints or the video game equivalent, “it looks like pong.” With this question of audience is the question of purpose, and that’s something we all must answer on our own.²

TL;DR: Artistry without craftsmanship can serve a purpose, but sometimes greater craftsmanship only helps. But the best balance of the two depends on purpose and audience.

Notes:

¹ See also Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”

² Money, the other theme of Elizabeth and Adams’ posts, resides in the intersection between audience and purpose. The “best practice” at this intersection is a topic for a different article.