I awake and find myself in an abandoned armory. All I can hear is the sound of a fly buzzing through the air. Occasionally, some other unidentifiable animals create a serene soundscape of yelps and caws in the background. Despite the complete lack of windows or portholes in the weapon dealer’s hut, I get the feeling that it’s sometime in the early morning.
In an attempt to determine what I’m supposed to be doing, I bring out my journal. According to its pages, I am tasked with going to a chemical dump and finding a recipe for Agent Yellow. According to my notes, Agent Yellow is a military-grade defoliant and the other faction, who I’m pretty sure was the source for my last mission, is sitting on a huge supply at this chemical dump. So that’s that then.
Putting my journal away, I open up my map to try and re-orient myself. I can only assume this is what amnesia feels like. My map says I’m at Mike’s Bar. I figure I’ll go to the actual bar and catch up with old friends. Opening the door back to the outside world, I see a big white supply truck parked right outside. It’s got an absolutely massive gun mounted atop it. I think this is mine. Even if it’s not. Also it’s the middle of the night. So much for intuition.
Every movement I take is confusing. Basic walking is simple enough. Jumping too. I’m clearly still in tune with what it takes to both aim and fire my gun as well. As I attempt to switch my weapon, though, I find myself throwing a grenade. A grenade right into the back of my supply truck. My old supply truck now, I guess. I keep trying to get my pistol out, failing miserably every time. One time I even noticed that I was crouching. Then it hit me and, by hit me, I mean I reached the end of the combinatorial line and only had a few impulses left which would get me what I wanted. Success. I have my silenced pistol in hand now as I walk to the bar.
Along the way I shoot a lawn chair.
When I enter the bar, I notice the fly that in the armory must have followed me in. An old guy at the bar looks at me, and leans on the bar in an apparent attempt to feign disinterest. He says “Here comes trouble” when I approach him and has a grin on his face. He seems incapable of saying anything else once we’re face-to-face, though, so I assume we had some awkward relationship in the past. A twenty-something at a nearby table asks me “What are you doing out here, man?” when I walk by. That’s apparently as far as he wants to take the conversation as well. A blonde guy near the door doesn’t even care for an introduction and just stands there, checking out the old guy at the bar. I feel the urge to break the ice between the two. This bar’s dead.
Leaving the bar I accidentally threw a Molotov Cocktail instead of switching back to my AK-47. It, unfortunately, landed on a blue jeep near the bar. I hope this was blondie’s. I notice that my white supply truck is still there in one piece; I get in, the engine turns over, and drive as quick as possible out of the growing fire by the jeep. Quickly opening my map, I see I’m only about a five minute drive out from the chemical dump. I put the map away and get going. Thirty seconds pass and I take the map back out because I’m lost. Oh. Okay. There. Got it. Map goes away again. Okay, fuck it. This thing stays out.
Is it wrong of me to wish this thing had a radio? The creaking I’m hearing from this bridge as I drive over it is somewhat terrifying.
My map says I’m near Cock Fights. That sounds awesome. Wait, what, why am I being shot at. Oh. There’s apparently a patrol near the Cock Fights. I suppose that makes sense. Keep the cocks in check. Feverishly, I put my already-damaged supply truck in reverse and go as far away as I ca–I hit a tree. I jump out of my truck (from the right door as apparently I hit something on the left side as well) and make a run for it oh god dammit I just threw another grenade. Amnesia is rough. Hiding behind a nearby rock, I wait for the sound of the voice of one of my assailants to get a bit closer… And, there. It took half a clip, but he’s down. I sit still for a few seconds and see one of his comrades running out to look at his downed body and, bam, he joins him. Well. He would if I could aim. Now that I have three of them shooting at me at once, I fall back a bit.
Unfortunately, I fell back too far. As I attempted to take out the other guards I managed to burn through both of the clips of ammunition for my AK-47. Swapping to my silenced pistol, I realize the futility of being an amnesiac who jumps right back into the fight as if however many months have passed won’t affect a thing. Crouching down to the ground, I move through the grass in a serpentine fashion just as I have been taught. I notice a two-door white car as I walk past and just as I make a mental note of its location, I see a slumped over body leaning against it. I don’t remember shooting this guy.
My screen turns red. How have I been shot? I’ve been all sneaky-like. Looking around, I see the body slumped against the car was not a dead body, but someone who had been injured and was taking cover. He holds his pistol weakly in the air as he lets a few more rounds off in the direction of my face. I’m hit once more. I throw a grenade — this time it’s intentional — and run for cover. Now he’s dead. Oh. The car. So is the car. Frick.
I know there’s at least one other guy still in the area. I have a mental count going. Plus I hear him talking to himself. I think I can sneak up on oh my god it’s a grenade and this time I didn’t throw it. And I’m still near the near-wreckage of this car. I run for cover, away from the guard, and scrape by with just a few injuries. I have the cat-like reflexes of a cat. A cat recovering from amnesia. I stick a syringe in myself to make the pain go away and then switch back to my weapon HOW MANY TIMES CAN I ACCIDENTALLY THROW A GRENADE. Or in this case another Molotov Cocktail. My bodily impulses need to get in check. Also my sneaking ground is now on fire. Time to take this fight to the guy who started it. And there he is. I drop my pistol’s entire magazine into his face. And… He’s still standing. I reload and fire off eight more rounds in rapid succession. Still standing. I say screw it and run up closer, aim for his head — because it’s personal at this point and because my pride can only take so many misses — and he goes down like a drunken narcoleptic.
Looking around, I lost my supply truck. The car I planned on taking is only a burned-out husk. My sneaking area is on fire. There are three dead bodies. I’m down a health syrette. And I have no ammo. There are also neither cocks nor cock fights occurring at this location.
Oh, this is apparently an ammunition-heavy outpost, though. So scratch that bit.
As I’m walking to the chemical dump, I notice my diamond finder 2000 blinking. I follow its signal to a nearby, thankfully abandoned, shack. I whip out my machete without lighting anything on fire, break down the door, and open the briefcase that I only hope isn’t some poor soul’s life savings. One measly diamond. So I’m sure if that was the case he just recently started saving. I’m providing him with an incentive to find a better stash, really. I slash a few more things with my machete because it restores some small amount of self-esteem given that I just blew up two cars and almost died at the hands of three poorly-trained guards. I also run in sprints and do neat little slides which make me think of fonder days.
I see an unmarked guard post near the Claes Products chemical dump that I momentarily contemplate seizing for the sake of cryptographical completeness. I then have a flashback about the rigorous battle I just completed and think better of it. Maybe some other time, I say. Well. A little look won’t hurt. I ascend a nearby hill and take out my spyglass and have a gander at the guard post. I see angry guy with gun. Two angry guys with guns. Three– oh, they have ammunition. I don’t need any of that. I mark that on my map and skidattle.
Except apparently I chose the one direction in which they have a sniper looking at. This can’t be a real thing right now. I run through the forest towards the chemical dump with my machete, in the hopes that this sniper has ADD. He doesn’t. He somehow has the only direct line of vision into this small little valley entrance to the chemical dump. I turn around, try to find him, and eventually see a small sliver of a man in the distance. Armed only with my silenced pistol, as I don’t want to alert the whole guard post to my location, I line up the shot and…
I die. This is an actual thing that’s happening. Oh. Wait. I’m not dead. I open my eyes and low and behold: a beautiful woman! She’s helping me! This is totally the best icebreaker. I’d talk but the only thing I can think to say is “Hey, I like your face” so I keep it in. She gets me to my feet, instructs me to check my wound, and fires off a few rounds at the sniper to give me some breathing room to do so. I like this lady. By the time I inject a syrette into my wound, she’s gone. And I make a mad sprint towards the chemical dump.
It’s a very wide-open space. Scoping out the terrain with my spyglass, my only real option is a sprint towards a nearby wood pile and then take out the only guard I can see quickly and quietly. Chances of success: slim.
I make the mad dash to the wood pile easily enough. I pull out my silenced pistol and creep a bit closer to the guard. He’s walking towards me, so I line up the shot. Holy crap I actually took him down. Go me. As I crawl towards the body to get some ammo, I discover that there was a second guard nearby whose clothes helped him blend in with a tree. I duck behind cover and hope he just thinks his friend is sleeping. He stood over the corpse a second too long and I took him out in one shot. I now assume that before I lost my memory I was pretty much the consummate badass. Crawling a bit closer to the big warehouse, I notice another guard who is almost completely invisible in the darkness. He was dispatched with as much ease as his two compatriots.
Moving forward, I crawl along the side of the building look for an entrance. I hear at least two guards chatting it up inside. I eventually find a small torn hole in the fencing which is just big enough for me to crawl through. It’s also right next to a giant explosive barrel. And a nearby guard. Fantastic. If I was a smart person, I would not do what I’m about to do. I take out the guard in the warehouse with my silenced pistol, hoping it doesn’t draw an abundance of attention in the next ten seconds. I slip into the warehouse prepared to be sighted by a group of guards and… nothing. I look up to the second floor railing and see nothing. I then hear a group of guards outside talking:
“Do you hear that?”
“Yeah, are they attacking?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s just one guy.”
I killed that guy.
His friend ran for cover, so I made my way to the back of the warehouse. Unfortunately, another guard discovered the corpse of the first guy that I dispatched in the area. Just as I turned around, he tossed a grenade my way. I run, evade the blast, switch to my AK-47, and empty a clip through the smoke. Unsurprisingly, I fail. I then see a muzzle blast from the enemy as the smoke clears, aim at it, burst fire, and kill him. I run up to the second-floor railing in the warehouse as three more enemies close in from me at the front entrance. I try to throw a grenade and realize, unfortunately, that they’re all gone for some strange reason. I see a crate filled with grenade supplies in the distance, though. I drop two magazines taking out two of the three enemies closing in on me. With only fourteen rounds remaining, I turn around to drop down to the ground and see, oh hey, I see a brief of diamonds. I grab it, because money is important, and then run out of the warehouse to a nearby hut (grabbing the grenade supply in the process).
I also find some ammunition and syrettes in the hut. And, uh, a folder? I grab it and I feel like my objective is complete. Now I just have to make it back to blondie at the bar who I now discover is the source of my mission. There’s a jeep nearby that somehow managed to make it through the skirmish that I grab and drive out in style. I hit a few trees and ran into a river, but I made it out of those A-OK. No problem. The engine is smoking but that’s a feature.
Since I took the same route back to the bar as I came, I knew to avoid the cock fights. I hug a nearby wall as I drive speeding by and WHAT WHY is my malaria striking now. Really? I take a quick pill and realize that not only is the cock fight guard post restacked with enemies, but they heard my not-so-incognito jeep. This time, though, I’m not screwing around. I man the mounted gun and just relieve the guards of their posts. Done and done. I do a quick repair job on my jeep’s engine and we’re good to go.
The rest of the drive back to the bar was surprisingly uneventful. When I walk into the bar, blondie says “The bitch is back” which I guess is a thing. He then promptly asks if I found “it.” I hand him the folder, and I guess his name is Paul, and he tells me “Holy crap this is great!” And that’s it. No diamonds or anything. My reputation increases, which is all well and good exept I can’t buy new weapons on reputation alone. Thanks a lot Paul. Dick. I knew you were no good. I should have gotten the old man to take you out. Why do you even want a recipe for Agent Yellow anyway? I should just kill you now. I won’t. But I should.
And because a simple mission for some blonde guy in a bar yields such interesting, dynamic gameplay that compels me to write about it in ways that I simply don’t for most games, Far Cry 2 is my Game of the Decade.
Resistance 2 is a first-person shooter which doesn’t seem to understand what era it was released in. There are moments in the game where a player, in the role of Nathan Hale, is walking through a forest, the screen will shake and some loud footsteps will occur for about a second, and then an enemy will break out of his camouflaged state and deal one brutal swipe to the player, killing him instantly. There are platforming segments where falling in the water (water that can be swam in) will result in instant death due to an invincible alien dolphin that eats players. Worse than all of this, though, are the numerous combat encounters where the game will attempt to constantly “raise the stakes” by throwing more and more varied enemies at the player at once in a large set-piece battle. One big, bad, challenging spider robot was done an act earlier, so now the player will be tasked with killing three big, bad, challenging spider robots all whilst killing the various grunt enemies that litter the battlefield. Once spider robots one and two are down and the rocket ammunition is gone, then the final spider robot must be killed while swatting off drones that hover around the “safe area” that seem to do more damage than most of the other enemies in the game. There may or may not also be aliens using a weapon that can shoot through walls, making any cover from the spider robots and the dozen drones useless.
There has always been a fine balance in gaming and game design between challenge and frustration. As game designers, we want our players to constantly feel like their personal level of expertise within the confines of a given game or genre is always put to the test without allowing the player to fail that test (or at least to fail it often). If a player is playing a game as intended and isn’t missing some fundamental gameplay principle or mechanic, we don’t want to frustrate that player for playing the game as intended. The ideal scenario is that we want to challenge gamers, not frustrate them.
Challenge is a term that the gaming and game development collective all use and practice, but is theoretically relegated to some nebulous understanding. Challenge is the intentional introduction of gameplay forces that work against player progress as a means of encouraging skill growth or adding meaning to player achievement. If challenge is thought of as a force that impedes player progress for purposes that are beneficial to the player, then a primary reason would be enforcing a certain skill requirement that forces players to either learn new mechanics or think of new strategies of play. Designers don’t want players to necessarily feel like they’re better or smarter than the game at all times, or else we’re ruining a player’s sense of interest or accomplishment by constantly diminishing the meaning of their actions. And since challenge is the intentional introduction of frictional forces between play and progress, frustration can be a byproduct of the unintentional or undesired application of challenge elements into a game.
In Resistance 2, the player’s progress through the game is marked by increasingly more “epic” set-piece battles where the game attempts to out-do its earlier efforts. This boils down to there being more and more varied enemies in a given battle that generally takes place in an increasingly large arena of battle. This is not in and of itself a problem for the player; in fact, it’s generally an accepted method of progression to task the player with increasingly more dangerous and difficult scenarios as he makes his way through the game. The main issue with Resistance 2 that makes these set-piece battles is that enemy awareness for the player’s presence completely defies expectations in its sensitivity and focus. When a player enters a major battlefield passively or peacefully in an attempt to get to cover before taking major action then his perceivable consequence would be one where all battlefield actors continue what they were doing when the player entered the arena — if an enemy was attempting to kill one specific allied unit, that enemy would continue to engage in this activity. When a large quantity of enemies actively appear (because appearance is what matters, if a player does not and cannot know the reasoning for an action then it is irrelevant) to break off their current activities in order to target the player, the game instantly becomes an consequence-defying experience.
Theoretically, the distinction between challenge and frustration is pretty clear: challenge is good, frustration is bad. Practically, the difference between the two concepts is anything but pronounced and can either be a result of poor balancing and design or simply a player who has an unexpected style of play that the game is unable to course-correct. In the case of Resistance 2, the frustration comes out of a game which relies on cheap enemy tactics to unnecessarily supplement the intrinsic difficulty of the scenarios that the game supplies.
Do games still need need to be difficult? A great deal of the up and coming game developers and designers, myself included, are of the mindset that the games we all grew up playing are more intentionally challenging than a majority of current games. This is kind of a straw man in and of itself solely due to the fact that anyone who was around to play the games ten or twenty years ago has undoubtedly increased their gaming skills over ten to twenty years of playing games. Though, with that said, there is a still a truth the claim: older games were harder, but not necessarily because they were more challenging. Take the beginning of Super Mario Bros., the NES original, as an example. The very first few seconds of the game charge the player with bypassing a goomba enemy. Within the scope of the game, this event requires the most trivial of actions by the player, but if, for whatever reason, a given player was having a hard time bypassing this enemy and died three times, then the game was over. If the player died twice and had one left, then that player’s progress through the rest of the game is going to be more difficult than a player who progresses past that first goomba with all three lives. Should the game be challenging because one player didn’t know the necessary gameplay mechanics and lost one of his starting three lives in learning that he has to jump over or stomp on the goomba to pass a certain area?
The concept of giving a player a finite number of “lives” with which to progress through a game has gone by the wayside for genres of games that don’t intend to thrive on a sense of retro gaming or nostalgia as part of their appeal. In general, this is for the best. Arbitrarily limiting a player’s attempts at gameplay progression (a concept born out of coin-operated arcade machines) is a design ideology that is no longer required to challenge players and, instead, simply frustrates players. Games that requires players to manage lives, eventually, caused players to continually abandon their progress through a game because they could get past a leg of gameplay without losing one of those finite lives that would come in handy later in the game. If we’re making a game that aims to challenge players, this is not behavior that we want to have challenged. We want to challenge a player’s skill at the game, not their ability to perfect an early leg in the game so that they had more attempts at later levels or bosses.
A lot of games are attempting redefine the way in which players are challenged. Far Cry 2 encourages player experimentation amidst challenging scenarios by offering the player an in-game buffer through a mechanic that allows a player’s “buddy” to rescue him/her when on the brink of death (thus eliminating the player’s need to reload or restart from a checkpoint). The recent Prince of Persia game eliminates death entirely and the challenge in the game comes from performing a series of gameplay elements more fluidly. Fable 2 allows players to die but instantly resurrects them, creating, as Jonathan Blow coined it, faux-challenge. Flower makes a player’s actions important and meaningful purely through the way the player reacts to the game world and the sense of flow that is earned through skillful gathering of flower petals; the game does not even provide the player with a failure state.
Challenge is not a bad quality of games, but it’s given the success that the aforementioned recent games have had at changing player perception of challenge it is not a quality that all must possess. The worst way to foster player creativity and experimentation in games is to actively work to punish them when they go off-script. There is no reason that games should attempt to limit a player’s ability to progress simply because that’s how designers and players are trained to think of games. By rethinking the way that games challenge gamer skill, new attempts at making a player’s interactions with their games meaningful can arise.
The average video game, as it is thought of by both mainstream culture and even most gamers, is a heavily-authored gameplay experience with a discrete beginning, end, and climaxes strewn haphazardly about. At this point in the life of the video game, gamers are essentially conditioned to think of games as self-explanatory adventures with a very specific premise, purpose, and linearity. On a fundamental level, the way that gamers approach progression and purpose in a game like Call of Duty 4 is the same way that gamers did back in the mid-1980s as a pudgy plumber tasked with saving a princess. In Call of Duty 4, the set of tools will change from mission to mission, but the player will continue along a carefully-scripted path with intent and focus until that mission’s terrorist princess is found and rescued/executed. This method of game design essentially keeps the gameplay bound to the whims of a script or plot, but it provides its players with very well-crafted and well-paced entertainment.
The gaming industry has taken a number of its cues from film. This is not a slight (in the slightest); as an initial influence for narrative form, gameplay pacing, and general presentation, the role of movies have played a significant part in the development of video games. A number of the industry’s most popular and enjoyable titles have a great deal of cinematic qualities to them, one of which is the Call of Duty series. Call of Duty has always given players very tightly-designed set piece battles interspersed with in-character/perspective narratives in a manner which, for the very first title in the series, seemed heavily influenced by HBO’s Band of Brothers miniseries. Then there are games like Quantic Dream’s Indigo Prophecy and forthcoming Heavy Rain which place the foundation of their game design on emulating the experience of cinema through a very limited and constrained set of player actions. These games are, quite literally, interactive movies that ideally take the best aspect of a movie and combine it with the most enjoyable features of a video game. In practice, these games are typically interesting for a single play-through (if that) and allow for minimally-interactive gameplay over a sub-par cinematic experience.
A game which is wholly designed around the power of dynamism and emergent mechanics is one where a player is his own gameplay experience director; a player manages pace, narrative, difficulty, and any number of other components which make up the specific game. The game’s designers abandon total authorship in favor of promoting interaction through player creativity and experimentation. In order to make this methodology work, though, a given game must have a thorough system of game mechanics which has the ability to actively promote and encourage player interaction in meaningful ways while dynamically balancing the game world. It is, in a sense, an economy or ecosystem of “fun.” It’s an approach to game design which results in a true gaming sandbox, turning the game into what is classically understood to be a “toy” rather than a video game. The difference between these two terms can be seen as nothing more than a linguistic bait-and-switch, but there are some who consider the contrast to be a legitimate differentiation: a video game is a game which provides discrete objectives in a traditionally authored manner and a toy is an interactive sandbox with “no real point.”
Labeling a video game as a toy (which often seems to be used in a derogatory sense) then leads to the informed sect of the gaming mass asking: where’s the game? This is a question that serves as a plague for the existence of truly open-ended games like Keita Takahashi’s recent Noby Noby Boy. Noby Noby Boy, quite literally, gives its players a playground in which gamers can just experience the game mechanics working in harmony with each and the game world as a whole. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, I suggest watching a random person play around with the game (the game’s site is unique as well). It’s almost completely incomprehensible, but it’s clear that that the game has some sort of ecosystem in which the player is an agent of… destruction? The purpose and intention of the player’s character erm–thing is left entirely up to the player’s discretion. Noby Noby Boy is, in this sense, one of the truest examples of a dynamic, emergent game design; however, there is no proper economy of gameplay mechanics. It’s a playground where there is no repercussion for player wrong-doing, no presented reasoning for advancement, no rewards for experimentation beyond the absurdity of the basic situation; in short, there is no real reason to play or continue playing Noby Noby Boy. And that’s a problem.
Video games aren’t toys, but video gaming as an entertainment medium already present players with a number of toy-like qualities such as the promotion of player creativity and experimentation such as the kind of player ingenuity that flourishes in the confines of something like Spore’s creature creator. Games can also provide an open playground for entertainment like the aforementioned Noby Noby Boy or, for an example that is representative of the traditionally-held notion of a video game, Real Time World’s Crackdown. The problem lies with the fact that video games are not toys. Toys are something that are real, persistent, easily accessible, and provide an instant gratification and tactile response for people. People of all ages are drawn to the allure of toys, especially ones which inherently promote creativity such as LEGO and Play-Doh; there is no complex instruction manual (unless you’re going for a specific LEGO model) or no confusing interfaces or control mechanisms, the toy is just there for playing. Games have no such luxury of simply existing in our common, shared physical space; they’re complex pieces of software that are designed to be as entertaining as possible but typically have a high barrier of entry in terms of console or PC hardware, monitor or television, controller or keyboard/mouse, and the actual twenty-to-sixty dollar game itself. And after all of this, it’s not enough for a game to simply present itself as a toy.
Where the completely open-ended gameplay of Noby Noby Boy went wrong is in its inability to present its players with meaning, purpose, and profundity. This is an area where the cinematic influences in video games have very positively influenced game design: the message model of meaning. Constructing a game world governed by the most well-balanced system of mechanics and then filling it with all manner of interesting micro-narratives will mean absolutely nothing on its own. A player can approach that world with no semblance of emotion or purpose and subvert the intention of every developer and designer on that hypothetical game’s development team because that player has no reason to willingly submit himself to the game or become immersed in its world. It’s in following a cinematic method of storytelling, then, that games have squeezed out their model of narrative presentation. Which is a topic unto itself, but the notable aspect for this piece is the way that cinematic storytelling imbues meaning on a player’s actions in games.
Consider Naughty Dog’s recent Playstation 3-exclusive action/adventure game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. In a lot of ways, it’s a very safe, by-the-books game. It has a scruffy-looking and witty main character, his older and more experienced wise-cracking sidekick, and a cute and precocious romantic interest. In this game, the trio are involved in a multi-locale trek to uncover the secret of Sir Francis Drake’s fortune and the whole story has this very Indiana Jones-like atmosphere and whimsy to it (despite the main character killing thousands of people over the course of the day). What was remarkable about Uncharted was not its plot or its gameplay, but rather it was the game’s ability to infuse its entire cast of characters with more personality than most games ever approach for even a single lead character. Every cut scene in Uncharted was a reward for the player completing a segment of gameplay and these cut scenes expounded on the life and depth of each character in such a way as to continually build upon each character’s meaning and contribution to the game. Every time a cut scene aired in the game, the player was drawn a bit more into the world of Uncharted through the game’s leading man and woman. And when the player is drawn more to his in-game avatar, every in-game action is more impacting, every scenario is more meaningful and understandable, and the integrity of the game design is strengthened.
At this point, the goal becomes allowing for the creation of an open-ended game with its emphasis placed on the emergent scenarios produced by its game design to reflect the same sense of meaning and purpose in its dynamic sandbox as a game as heavily authored as Uncharted. To a large extent, Maxis had a great deal of success with The Sims series in this regard. The Sims games are primarily sandbox gaming experiences that charge players with the sole goal of running a successful household of sims. These games have the mechanics to promote a game design which consists of surprisingly deep strategy gameplay while simultaneously allowing players to treat the game as nothing more than a high-tech doll house. The Sims manages to create exigent circumstances solely through the nature of its source material: if there’s something that every gamer in the world understands, it’s the pressing needs and minutiae of the daily life of a human being.
If only it was simple to “open up” existing game genres and fill them with an economy of self-balancing game mechanics. Far Cry 2, for example, has some of the most brilliantly designed and implemented combat I’ve seen in a video game in years. Players are given their tools of destruction and then are, in the short term, tasked with the elimination of enemies. The game populates the world with various factors: grass, huts, ammo depots, propane tanks, and so on. The way that combat unfolds is dependent on all of the game’s mechanics working together to create a dynamic, unpredictable combat scenario that generates a player narrative that is a combination of what the game’s designers intended and what the net yield of the system of game mechanics created while the player worked to resolve the combat situation. And as well as Far Cry 2 worked to create these emergent gameplay experiences, the game took an enormous development team years to create; over it’s forty-three months of development, the team size peaked at 65 people for year one, 105 for year two, and an astonishing peak of 268 individuals for the third and final year of the game’s development.
Putting the reality of development complexity and cost aside, the real question becomes: do players really want the power (responsibility?) to play a game and determine what they find fun within a given playground? Video gaming’s adoption of a cinematic flair for storytelling has led to games which possess a number of movie-like qualities, but no one would ever argue that a game like Call of Duty 4 is bad or not enjoyable because of it. For the high price of an average game, though, we should be offering players more than a heavily-authored single-player campaign that is only interesting for one play-through.
Shortly after I started my first game of Far Cry 2, I was treated to an on-rails taxi ride where my driver pointed out some of the unique sites of Africa. There are groups of civilians wandering in hope of escape from their country, varied wildlife, the spreading of a flash fire spreading from a patch of dry grass to a nearby tree, and more than a few angry-looking mercenaries. Functionally, this segment did nothing for me that Half-Life’s tram ride didn’t do back in 1998. Though, the tour did allow me time to take in the harrowing beauty intrinsic to Far Cry 2. The game’s microcosm of Africa is beautifully realized and serves the game as an entity unto itself; a living, breathing pseudo-ecosystem. More than that, Far Cry 2 provides the player with a robust toolset of destruction that makes each of the game’s bountiful combat encounters play out different every time.
When the segment ends, my character blacks out as a result of what I soon discover to be a latent case of malaria finally manifesting itself at the worst imaginable time. Upon waking, I see that I’m recumbent in a shanty hotel room and there is an unfamiliar figure standing at the foot of my bed, reading my confidential mission documents aloud. He quickly makes himself known as The Jackal, the infamous arms dealer that I have been sent to assassinate. This first scene represents the sole objective of Far Cry 2’s premise in its entirety: it introduces the player to The Jackal, gives some basic background on who he is, and what his relation to the player is. The scene ends when my character’s malaria flares up again and he blacks out.
Next time I wake up it’s to the sound of explosions and fire all around me as my hotel (and likely the rest of the village it’s in) is being ravaged from a battle outside. I grab a nearby pistol and then learn the basic game maneuvers as I crawl through debris and jump over broken walls until I eventually make it outside the village and, once again, black out.
Far Cry 2 actually begins after another hour or so of pedestrian tutorial quests. My primary enemy in the country knows who I am and that my only mission is to kill him, I’m stuck in the middle of a violent civil conflict between two warring factions (each of which are filled with higher-ups willing to do whatever it takes to beat the other), and the weapons I grabbed early on in the tutorial are jamming up in the middle of a battle. My pistol basically disintegrated at one point near the end of the tutorial segment. What’s worse is that my character is suffering the full extent of his malaria — short of death, I suppose — I get violent attacks that can only be held back by medicine given to me by members of an African Underground movement and I can only run about fifteen yards before I almost pass out.
It’s not uncommon for a game to start a player off in an altered state; a number of games have a player start off exceptionally strong and then strip away all of the upgrades after an introductory segment. Some games start a player off weak and the player will slowly become more and more powerful. Far Cry 2 starts a player off with weak weapons that are prone to rapid degradation and a deadly incurable illness. The only way to move forward is to work closely with one of the two factions who are at war with one another and tearing about the African culture and people in the process.
What I have going for me are my friends. I rescued a woman named Michelle, a fellow freelance killer, who was being held captive by a group of mercenaries in a slaughterhouse and since then she has become a sidekick who will intervene in the heat of battle. She introduced me to another mercenary when I went to meet up with her in a nearby bar. Together, these two people will end up forming their own unique narratives with and for the player. One of them will serve as a means of subverting a number of the missions given to the player by one of the two factions by offering optional “sub-quests” that will both hurt one of the factions while making the eventual completion of the base mission easier. The other buddy is a player’s parachute: when he/she is “rescue-ready” then he will come to the aid of a player who was killed in battle by offering a resuscitation and brief fire support. The game’s buddy system forms part of Far Cry 2’s story; the optional sub-quests flesh out the details between a given buddy and the player and form a narrative that is, in part, unique to a given player.
More importantly that the subversive sub-quests are the rescue buddies that will end up forming a sort of emergent narrative that will enhance a player’s view of a combat encounter — these are the stories that gamers will take away from Far Cry 2 and talk about with their friends. Stories about how their friend Michelle, Nasreen, Marty, Hakim, or some other character game in just when a player got an unexpected shotgun blast to the chest and died. And then that rescue buddy came in and brought the player out of his near-death state by coming to the scene with his AK-47 or Desert Eagle blazing and then dragging the player to safety and then announcing “Heal up and let’s go; there are about three guys left out there.”
Much like a Grand Theft Auto game, Far Cry 2 takes place in an open world while holding the player to a fairly strict progression system through the single-player campaign. The premise delivered through these narratives is best handled in somewhat linear manner, though, because these are the least interesting stories that are told within the game. Most of the missions (and all of the various side-quests) that a player can engage in are just an excuse to go to a specific location to battle a bunch of people.
Combat is where Far Cry 2 is at its very best. The game provides a toolkit of back-of-the-box seeming features that, surprisingly, actually add a lot to the way that a combat scenario plays out in-game. There’s the naturally-spreading fire, weapon degradation, partially destructible environments composed of materials with realistic properties, non-scripted artificial intelligence, day, night, and weather cycles, and countless other systems all working simultaneously. The material properties allow for players to employ somewhat realistic strategies mid-battle; if an enemy is standing behind a wooden fence, then a player can just shoot through it and, hopefully, kill the enemy. If a pair of guards are standing next to a series of ammo canisters the player can throw a Molotov cocktail at the area and the ammo containers will explode and violently shoot a huge number of ammo rounds in its vicinity (killing whoever is near it). And if another pair of enemies are standing right atop a large patch of dry gas? Use a flamethrower to ignite the whole area in flames and watch the fire spread to a nearby gas canister which sets off a chain reaction of explosions through a town. The number of crazy situations that I’ve had spring from these gameplay systems in my time with the game are just too limitless to recount here.
As I was playing through a series of missions one day, I noticed something strange about the enemies that I was fighting. At this point I was about sixty or seventy percent through the game and my character had built up a bit of a reputation for himself in the game world and I had invested money in a Stealth Suit that would give my character an increased ability to hide when crouched around grass. Since I took a liking to conducting all of my dealings in chaos at night, this mission was occurring at around 3-4:00am in the game world, so the sun had yet to rise. I was able to clear most of this enemy encampment stealthily thanks to the sound suppressor on my MP5 submachine gun and was in the process of hunting down two or three more targets. I had no idea where they were but I was able to hear a few distinct voices so I was just tracking the sound of the spoken dialogue. And then I stopped to listen to what the enemies were actually saying; instead of the usual taunts and proud machismo the enemies were now scared. These few remaining souls were aware who I was and that they had no chance to make it out of the situation alive and they just wanted to hide and be left alone. As it turns out, reputation is an actual value that has corresponding effects in the game world. As a player goes through missions and eliminates various faction members and higher-up faction figures his reputation will increase. As the reputation increases, the entities that inhabit the game world will start reacting differently to the player’s presence.
The most commonly-listed flaw with Far Cry 2 is the amount of time gamers have to spend traveling to-and-fro and how that travel is constantly interrupted by enemy checkpoints filled with guards that seem to respawn all-too-quickly (whenever a player leaves a “sector”). It’s a valid enough concern as vehicular travel (and vehicular combat, to a lesser extent) is such a prominent focus of the game. The enemies do, ultimately, respawn far too quickly but this fact made checkpoints something I wanted to avoid. And, as such, it opened up an aspect of the game that I would never have discovered otherwise: the joy of intelligent navigation. Far Cry 2 does not have an automatic route navigator; if a player wants to find his place in the game world then he will need to use his in-world GPS device combined with the in-world map. It’s a cumbersome endeavor but it functions as such for good reason: it’s not something that someone should be doing in the heat of combat.
Looking at the map and plotting out a trip was a sort of mini-game unto itself. It’s a process that should be done at the beginning of any mission and retained in the player’s mind for as long as possible. Whenever I was given a mission to complete I wanted to avoid as many checkpoints as possible, so as soon as my mission briefing was done I would find a vehicle and then get out my map and plot my best course. Often, a “best course” would involve a brief trip to a bus station, pick up a car near the bus station, and then drive to the objective on a main road for as long as possible and then take a detour through a rough forest or valley path to avoid checkpoints. Sometimes just avoiding land entirely would be a good idea as the waterways in Far Cry 2 function a lot like highways. This wasn’t even a process I was fond of early in the game but, really, playing Far Cry 2 is never about rushing into action and combat from the very beginning.
I’m not even touching on the game’s subtle user interface or its clever narrative techniques for this piece. Far Cry 2 is an enormous game that is so much more than any of its individual components or features. It’s an open-world first-person shooter that truly and successfully embodies the concept of emergent gameplay. The game’s vision of Africa is never a mere backdrop for tried-and-true gunplay, it’s an actual character in itself; the represented beauty and danger serve as gameplay mechanics for the player’s exploitation at any point in the game.
To date, Far Cry 2 is the finest example of what video games can be.
Last week I lied a little. It is likely that there will be no more Mechanics articles in the future or, if there are some, they won’t be on the weekly basis that they have been lately. I do plan to continue writing a weekly article of sorts, but I don’t really want to limit the scope of topics to game mechanics as I’ve past up some interesting topics (interesting to me, at least) in order to fit the goals of the column type. One of my favorite ones, the Far Cry 2 one, wasn’t really even a valid entry in the series.
So, yeah, that’s done.
I did start my second play-through of Far Cry 2 recently, though, and that’s proving to be just as enjoyable as the first time through was.
Also of note: The Shield is now over and it was fantastic, Rambo and Hancock were pretty bad, Left 4 Dead is overrated, The Wire’s first episode was promising, Sacred 2 is mindless fun, Fallout 3 was okay, and Fable 2 was disappointing.