Tag Archives: system design

Low-Level Systems

In my absence from writing and independently making games, I’ve been doing my best to play as many as varied games as I can get my hands on. The game combination which has specifically spurred this set of pieces (and it is a set) is: F.3.A.R. (henceforth entitled ffthrir), Shadows of the Damned, Bioshock 2 (“Minerva’s Den”), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, DiRT 3, Tactics Ogre, Trenched, Outlands, Gods Eater Burst, and Dead Rising 2. I’m also in the process of adding Fallout: New Vegas to the mix. Also Starhawk, but I’m making that once so I’ll omit it from discussion. None of these games have much (if anything) in common other than as a set indicating that I both play entirely too many games and play entirely too many games at once. One game in particular prompted the thought exercise that led to this series: ffthrir.

A F.E.A.R. 3 Analysis

ffthrir is such a strange game. If someone was to take a cold and impartiel view of ffthrir, I wonder if that person would find what is simply a largely competent and uninspired first-person shooter (a very crowded genre). What I found when playing ffthrir, however, was a game which appeared to not have the significant budget or AAA polish of its predecessors but, despite that, remained an incredibly fun and entertaining game from start-to-finish. On the surface, there was absolutely nothing extraordinary about the game other than its story hinging on a dead psychic girl who is pregnant with the rape-child of the player character from F.E.A.R. 2. What made ffthrir so enjoyable, however, was its dedication to ensuring that everything it did mechanically, it did well. While that is often not enough, it was in this case because the game didn’t really ask much of its player (which, industrially, is far from a commendable attribute). What ffthrir aimed (har) to be was an enjoyable shooter with an interesting cooperative mode and even more interesting multiplayer modes, and they succeeded on all counts. The reason their success was made possible is due, entirely, to how rewarding and interesting their low-level systems were designed and executed; it was simply fun to move and shoot.

That moving and shooting in a first-person shooting is fun is by no means a revelation. It’s why the genre exists and why Call of Duty has made more money than exists in active circulation at any one time (not a real statistic). What’s remarkable about ffthrir is how little else of the typical first-person shooter supporting cast is there: the story is passable, there isn’t a lot of complex scripted sequences or cinematics, no open world, no real continuity from level to level, and the level design itself is a throwback to shooters of the late 90s in its workmanlike environments and linear progression/cover placement. To tangent: this is with the exception of one remarkable bit of a level set in a Best Buy-esque electronics store. It’s astounding.

ffthrir is a shooter about moving around an encounter space as ammo and AI maneuvers dictate and all accompanied with the [present] industry standard two weapons and regenerating health. The fact that this is an entertaining game to play through given how many games I play through yearly, seems like it would defy explanation. In most media that wouldn’t be the case, but so much about what makes video games unique is through the interaction with a human player. A game which feels like it gives the player a unique experience solely through how it interprets the player’s actions on-screen has the capability to immerse and enthrall players almost regardless of the game’s specific context and surrounding elements. That importance of that supporting cast of X (where X is the set of the innumerable amount of things that go into the game) should never be far from a designer’s mind, but focus is often a helpful tool. So, in the interest of focus, here is an attempt at breaking down the low-level interactions in ffthrir(for the “Point Man”, which is the traditional shooter character in the game). There is going to be some interactions and overlap between these core systems and higher-level ones, but there isn’t really much of a need or use in being overly pedantic about how granular a given system or mechanic is:

  • Moving
  • Melee
  • Shooting
  • Cover
  • Inventory Management
  • Throwing a Grenade
  • Reloading
  • Avoiding Death
  • Slow Motion

All of these interactions are commonplace in the span of any given encounter throughout all of the game. To take it a step further: with the exception of slow motion these are all interactions that are commonplace throughout the first- and third-person shooter genres. It’s the specific execution, prominence, and the allowed overlap between all of these systems which give each game its unique second-to-second and minute-to-minute gameplay.

Low-Level System Design

Back when I discussed what I was then calling the “systemic integrity of expression”, I got a little bit ahead of myself discussing the high-level importance of various game systems when there is a lot of value in starting with a quick discussion of the lower-level systems that most gamers like/dislike on a largely subconscious level. One of the aspects of first-person shooters that has always fascinated me is the degree to which people begin to internalize all of the lower-level mechanics and systems. Whenever I get a new game, I have about an hour of complete unfamiliarity while my hands, eyes, and brain adjust to the slight differences in systems and input response from the last game I played. And then, once that learning curve has been surpassed, I subconsciously move on to the next layer of design features to really understand.

When I think about what constitutes a low-level system in design, I think of a single interaction (or feature) from the player’s perspective. So, while a number of various code features or content may make up something like the firing of a weapon, it is the act of shooting that weapon which is the system. And that system is made up of any number of individual art assets and code components, but it’s the combination of these varying factors which makes up the system as a whole. Firing an AK-47 in any modern first-person shooter is likely going be composed of a variety of the same components from game to game — sound effects, art effects, lighting effects, camera shake, controller vibration, aim/bullet assist, and recoil — but it is the specific tuning, combination, and implementation of these components which makes one weapon differ from game to game.

These low-level components aren’t exactly topics that are broached in casual design conversation, but they’re where the type of tuning and fiddling that make a game’s “feel” unique are derived. Two of the best talks across GDC 2010 and 2011 were both given by ex-Bungie designer Jaime Griesemer and carried session titles like “Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3″ and “Tuning the Muzzle Velocity of the Plasma Rifle Bolt on Legendary Difficulty Across the Halo Franchise.” It’s hard to think of a more seemingly minute detail of a game that could possibly make for an hour-long design lecture, but both years Griesemere not only pulled it off, but made it superb. And game development and design is a string of these sorts of seemingly-insignificant decisions; this is true regardless of the scope of the game.

If a system is defined as the concerted operation of its components, then it follows that good system design is about breaking down problems into a bunch of little pieces and knowing what to tune and when. That’s far more general advice than is particularly useful, though; specifically, good low-level system design is being able to identify a problem and consider one of the many solutions that could possibly fix it. In addition, the problem being identified needs to be at an appropriate level of granularity to yield positive and productive discussion following its identification. It’s not enough to say “the game is too hard,” designers need to know enough about the game to be able to say “enemy A does unbelievably aggressive” or “enemy B is impossibly accurate” or a more fundamental “the player’s health takes too long to recharge.” Saying “the game is too hard” identifies a feeling, which is a good starting point in a discussion, but it’s a fundamentally meaningless statement by which to balance the game.

Basically, in thought and discussion, spend time identifying the right problem before tuning things which will at best be a partial fix and, at worst, cover up a more glaring issue. Beyond that, system design is generally learning the granularity with which to break down a system as well as what is and what is not important to tweak (see: Sid Meier/Soren Johnson on tuning).

The Shooting in the Manshooter F.3.A.R. (ffthrir)

When compared to F.E.A.R. (1ear) and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin (fe2r), the weapons of ffthrir are actually fairly reserved and tame. There’s no particle cannon which vaporizes enemies, there’s just a laser and a nailgun (video games). There are the standard fare weapons, though, and these provide not only a good baseline for design comparison, but they’re also the primary weapons in the game as well.

For the sake of comparison, I’m going to look specifically at the initial SMG (acquired in the introductory level of the game) and the “advancement” of that, the assault rifle. First, there are the common gameplay elements you’d expect in a modern first-person shooter weapon:

  • Ammunition: max clip size and total ammo count
  • Rate of fire: the speed at which the weapon fires every individual projectile
  • Reload time: the amount of time it takes a player to reload the gun
  • Damage: How much damage each projectile does. This is modulated by where the projectile hits on a target and while I don’t know the specific breakdown for the game, it is, hypothetically, base damage for a torso hit, 0.75x damage for arms/legs, and 2x damage for a headshot.
  • Recoil: the amount the gun kicks the player’s aim vector per every shot fired (may operate with a different value set depending on hip fire versus iron-sights fire)
  • Spread: the x/y velocity variance (and the increase per shot) when firing a projectile — this may also function slightly different when using iron-sights as recoil will take care of the spread that is simulated when hip firing
  • Muzzle velocity: speed at which the projectile is fired from the weapon (which determines the delay between firing and the projectile hitting its target)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the values which go into the gameplay behavior of ffthrir‘s weapons, but it’s a decent working list. And to get the desired gameplay variance for two types of weapons, it’s just tuning these values to end up in a happy place for each weapon and each weapon within the context of every other weapon (both criteria have to be satisfied).

  • SMG: The “quick,” reliable, low-powered weapon. Moderate clip size/ammo belt, moderate rate of fire, fast reload time, low damage, low recoil, and moderate spread.
  • Assault Rifle: the “go-to” weapon is moderately powerful, accurate, but takes longer to reload and has more recoil. Low clip size, moderate ammo belt, moderate rate of fire, moderate reload time, moderate damage, moderate recoil, and low spread.

Here are two weapons with similar characteristics, but which behave slightly differently at a numerical level and, in practice, “feel” differently enough from each other that in my playthrough of ffthrir, these were the weapons I chose to have on me most often.

It’s not enough to have purely numerical variance between weapons. While these two weapons will feel different in the hands of the player who is familiar with the game, there may not be a perceptible difference to someone who is not extensively familiar with the game. This is where other presentational elements pick up the slack. The weapon model and audio will obviously be different, but there are other things that the game does to further differentiate their behavior in a very low-level way: controller vibration and camera shake. The only tool the player has for interacting with ffthrir is the game controller and how the game responds to his input. Controller vibration plays an obvious role in that it simulates the feel of actually firing the weapon, but the game camera needs to have the same caliber of response as well to maintain the player’s perceived simulation. By giving the assault rifle a stronger vibration and more potent camera kicks/shakes, that weapon is more obviously differentiated in a way that is consistent with the player’s perspective of the game.

That’s still not enough.

For every release of Battlefield prior to Battlefield: Bad Company, hit feedback was relegated solely to the game’s user interface. When the player hit an enemy, an ‘X’ appeared on the UI signalling to the player that his shot connected. There wasn’t much in the way (if any) of hit reactions on the player model and there was no blood. Without the interface, it was almost impossible to discern when a player hit an enemy and when he missed. As a result, games of Battlefield 2 (when the graphical fidelity reached a level where the lack of hit feedback became jarring), the game’s core shooting mechanics felt wrong. For all of the violence going on between vehicles and the large explosions, infantry combat was relegated to a very sterile, non-dynamic shooting model. It wasn’t until Battlefield: Bad Company was released where DICE added blood sprays and hit decals to the world, giving players a more natural, visual response to their primary method of interaction within the game.

Ffthrir handles hit response like any other first-person shooter, but they do it to a level of completion that manages to completely sell their first-person shooter gameplay. Enemies have blood sprays for every bullet they take, decals that get projected onto walls to highlight where the enemy was when the player hit him, animated hit responses so the enemy can clutch whatever part of him was just hit (and also momentarily stun the enemy), the crosshair/UI will have a quick flash to indicate a successful hit, and a voiceover clip to play for the added aural response. At the very least, one of these methods of hit response will be noticed by the player, providing him/her with the information he needs while maneuvering and shooting around the complex encounter space.

And that’s an analysis, more or less, of one of the lower-level components of the game that I outlined earlier. The resulting gameplay is the result of all of those low-level systems being tied together through a set of mid-level systems, which serve to deliver on the goals of the game as a whole. In my mind, that’s the ideal state of a low-level system: a thorough, encompassing set of components delivering on one aspect of the game. The firing of a weapon in ffthrir is by no means original or innovative, but it is a very simple, straight-forward, and well-executed system. The interplay with everything else in the game is what makes the game ffthrir, but taken as an isolated component, the weapons and the feel of using them in the game are solid.

By no means are all of those layers of the shooting systems necessary, but it’s all informed by the kind of game that ffthrir wants to be: a fast-paced first-person shooter which seemingly has more in common with an FPS from ten years ago than the more cerebral, genre mix of the genre presently. And the game is completely consistent in all of its low-level systems with this goal, and that is largely why it works so well. It does everything it aims to do, and it executes on each of those goals well.

GDC 2011: Day 3

Day 3 started, much like Day 2, at 5:00am, because for some reason I’m under the false assumption that I should continue waking up at my normal time all week.

That is a poor assumption.

Day 3′s sessions started with the keynote from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, and was entitled “Video Games Turn 25.” Largely, the session was about Iwata recounting the early days of Nintendo and attempting to promote feelings of pride and ambition in the development community through a variety of anecdotes. This part of the session was actually great to listen to, but it’s when Iwata began talking about the features and promise of the Nintendo 3DS specifically that the keynote became more of a light version of Nintendo’s E3 press conference (Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimes even came out at one point to talk at length about it).

What should have been the keynote was the next session, given by former Ubisoft Montreal Creative Director and now LucasArts creative Director Clint Hocking (about whose site/twitter name I had a remarkable discovery). The session, entitled “Dynamics: The State of the Art,” was general enough and entertaining enough to appeal to just about anyone at GDC — not just the game design track it was on — and contained an abundance of useful and insightful information. Hocking, whose GDC lectures are consistently amongst the best sessions that GDC has to offer, posited that before we bother talking about what specific video games mean, we need to understand “how they mean.” Hocking’s point being that we need to be able to understand the most basic aspects and at the highest levels of how an interactive medium conveys meaning through play. No single part of this session was mind-blowing, but its tremendous holistic value cannot be understated.

Next up was the GDC Microtalks, with Naughty Dog lead designer Richard LeMarchand presenting all of the individual speakers (ranging from David Jaffe to Colleen Macklin to Brenda Brathwaite) in his opening microtalk. It was in this opening microtalk that LeMarchand gave the theme for the session: “How you play.” Nothing in these sessions provides new information, but each lecture had a very sentimental core (except Jaffe’s, which had a largely practical tone about the amount of time it takes to get into console games) with the takeaway being largely inspirational in nature.

It was around this point that I disliked that the main conference didn’t have the same lunch break time instituted that all of the summits do. Not that my abilities to eat a sandwich while walking are particularly bad, but they are.

Frank Lantz’s “Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime” was next and it was a very interesting talk to hear, as I am largely unfamiliar with Go and a pretty poor Poker player. Lantz’s primary purpose was to illustrate the timeless nature and endless depth that both of these two games have and the way that they are pervasive in the mind of anyone who plays them. My favorite point was the relatedness between the notion of “expected value” and probability in Poker and how it leads people to inadvertantly come to understand the scientific method through a practical introduction to what is, essentially, bayesian theory.

“The Failure Workshop” was next and, really, the main takeaway from the whole session was to prototype early and test out ideas before rat-holing into tangential work too early on.

My favorite talk of the day came from Kent Hudson, a game designer at LucasArts and former designer at 2k Marin who did Bioshock and the in-production X-COM, entitled “Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?” In the session, Hudson went over both the theory/ideas behind a more systemically-driven game design that allowed games to take a less prescripted approach to story-telling and a more involving player experience. The way to get here is to more systemically measure a player’s actions and, specifically, their relationships to other entities in any given game. Through this relationship monitoring, the game can heuristically monitor a player’s actions and, as necessary, react to the sum total or an individual component of all that collected data when the time is right. Hudson referenced the three tenets of self-determination theory to determine what players really need in order to reach “happiness”: autonomy (referred to as “agency” in the session), relatedness, and competence. And it is through the successful recognition and embrace of these three pillars that a game can properly involve a player in its world. Hudson then took the necessary step from all of the theory into the practical world of AAA game development, by highlighting that it is necessary to rethink the way that AAA games approach content in order to properly be able to fill out a game world with content flexible enough to be able to respond to a variety of player stimulii. Hudson, specifically, referenced the removal of five major time- and money-consuming elements of content: VO, custom writing, environments, models, and animation, and ways to really “own” a style that allowed a development team to re-appropriate its budget as necessary for a game that isn’t as prescripted as a lot of today’s games typically are. Given that the last thing I wrote for my site was entitled “The Systemic Integrity of Expression”, I agree fully.

It’s somewhat sad that directly across the hall from Hudson’s session, David Cage was saying things like “Game mechanics are evil. Mechanics are a limitation. We need to redefine what interacting means.” Which, I mean, no.

After the day’s sessions wrapped, it was time for the Independent Games Festival awards show and the Game Developer’s Choice Awards show. Unlike last year, the awards show was unexpectedly entertaining and completely hilarious due to IGF host Anthony Carboni and GDCA host Tim Schafer being thoroughly amazing. It weirded me out a little that, during the Game Developers Choice Awards, so many of the categories were filled with games that I had so little love for. The closest I got to rooting for a game was when Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies and Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker were both up for a nomination (in the same mobile game category).

The day ended with some good fun at the Nidhogg tournament at the Eve Lounge and then some other miscellaneous happenings.

The Systemic Integrity of Expression

I receive strange looks when I tell people that I think Alpha Protocol was a better game than Mass Effect 2. More strange looks, still, when I talk positively about games like Nier, Lost Planet 2, and Kane & Lynch 2 over those like Fable 3, Red Dead Redemption, and so on. I’m used to it.

It’s not like I don’t understand why people like some of these games. Mass Effect 2 is a well-made space opera that brings fond memories from an abundance of 70s-onward science fiction source material that is close to a lot of gamers’ hearts. Red Dead Redemption is a very thorough, loving recreation of the an underused setting (one which I have a great deal of personal love for). Fable 3 is the third game in an ever-evolving, clever action/RPG series; a series of whose first entry I played through at least three or four times. These are all appealing games in a lot of ways, and I have little-to-no doubt as to why some people adore them so. I also understand the predisposition to like these games as they represent the culmination of years of talent from the very well-respected and remarkable studios which produced them.

More still, I understand how easy it is to fall in love with a game which so wholly reproduces the feeling or memory of things which are near and dear to our past (or present) interests. To argue against the allure of riding a horse through the rolling landscape of Texas and Mexico in Red Dead Redemption is likely impossible and, more to the point, unnecessary. There should never be a doubt that what Rockstar San Diego achieved both artistically and technically with Red Dead Redemption is anything but outstanding. And if Red Dead Redemption was the film it sometimes so desperately seems to want to be, that might be enough (probably still not, but that’s neither here nor there).

Thing is, these games are all so mechanically and systemically broken — or, worse, simply uninteresting — that their allure seems to reside largely in the appeal their reference/source material allows them.

In playing through Mass Effect 2, I wondered what kind of game I was supposed to be playing. Am I playing a third-person action game? If so, the care devoted to a feel and control in a game like Uncharted 2 is certainly not present. And if I’m playing a role-playing game, why am I either bound to a good path or bad path (for maximum use of their associated gameplay systems) or a schizophrenic character who punches children in one scene and resuscitates a polar bear and carries it to safety in another. There’s either a comically good (or bad) role that I’m bound to playing to put the game systems to best use — one which does not carve out something even close to a believable, much less a compelling, character — or I choose the answers of the character I want to build and become some systemically ineffective player but maybe get an interesting story out of it. That these systems can’t really be narratively reconciled is a design sin in its own right, but it’s compounded by the fact that whatever shallow or complex character I create in the dialogue/story bits of Mass Effect 2 is entirely irrelevant to the character I play as during the overly abundant shooty bits of Mass Effect 2. It’s not a matter of ludonarrative dissonance, it’s ludonarrative irrelevance.

I generally get a rap for being overly invested or analytical about the systemic integrity of games; what confuses me, though, is why everyone else is not. When I talk about my love of mechanics and systems which reinforce themes and narratives, I’ve actually had the example of the Uncharted — a game series I thoroughly adore — cited as some purported counter-example. While it’s true that the Uncharted games are linear and feature a sometimes disturbingly cheerful protagonist despite his having killed hundreds (thousands?) of enemy soldiers, Uncharted is a game which I feel elegantly marries its narrative and systems. The goal of this game series is to emulate that of the Indiana Jones-era action/adventure movies and, despite its flaws, Uncharted and Uncharted 2 absolutely nail this goal. There is no point in either of these games where I feel like I’m limited from what I want to be doing within the universe these games exist in.

Jack Bauer endures more moral dilemma and executes better judgment in the matter of “who do I shoot and who do I not shoot” in the most absurd and overwrought episode of 24 than Commander Shepard does at his absolute best moments in any of the Mass Effect games, so we can’t possibly be looking at this as some sort of fulfillment fantasy can we? It’s either pulp science fiction, in which case it’s a game that is theoretically relegated to the nerdiest of the science fiction nerds (much like my library of Jim Thompson books are for a Noir nerd)… But that’s not the case. Mass Effect 2 is a major AAA game development endeavor beloved by millions upon millions of gamers across the world. So, again, why do we care?

We care because there’s something alluring about the mere concept of having anything to do with the path that Commander Shepard takes throughout these games. The illusion of choice and the perceived consequence of our personal decisions as the controller of these games is an intrinsically interesting prospect to us. Despite how much the Mass Effect games make explicit both visually and through its narrative, our minds will still fill in the gaps with something that somehow makes this mass murdering do-gooder (or do-poorer or schizophrenic do-whateverer) compelling. And, likely, this occurs because there is absolutely nothing in Mass Effect 2 that is not hideously well-polished. There is very little in the game that can be considered a “rough edge” — it’s just all so pretty and palatable.

There aren’t an abundance of times where you can find as close an analogue between two recent games as there is with Mass Effect 2 and Alpha Protocol, so let’s stick with that.

Putting Alpha Protocol side-by-side with Mass Effect 2 is an unfair exercise; one of these games is gorgeous and polished and the other is Alpha Protocol. It’s hard to look at Alpha Protocol and see anything remarkable but, given the time, it’s a surprisingly clever game with expressive mechanics that are tangibly (if loosely) tied to the narrative. And even the level design in the game allows for a modicum of expression within the realm of the game’s high-level conceit: empowering the player to play through an absurd super-spy storyline as a character reminiscent of James Bond, Jack Bauer, or Jason Bourne. You can shoot dudes, you can tranquilize dudes, or you can stealth your way around dudes. At times, you can smooth talk your way out of dudes entirely, but the conversation system in Alpha Protocol is actually somewhat complex and timing/situation-dependent and does not, at any point, highlight what the “good” or the “bad” way to react to a situation is (thus, it’s difficult to exploit your way out of a situation).

Alpha Protocoldoes, at no point, imply that you could Sam Fisher (pre-Double Agent and Conviction) your way through the game; you’re bound to the kind of spy that could kill an entire room of dudes easily if you so chose to. It’s not a complex simulation, but it’s a fully, if roughly, explored set of consistent systems. It’s within that conceit that there is expressive wiggle-room, and the mechanics of Alpha Protocol do a lot to take that conceit as far as it can within it’s sub-AAA production values. It’s not a pretty experience, but it’s all there, and it all works to create an entertaining experience that surprised and entertained me, on the whole, more than Mass Effect 2 did.

When I think about my time with games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3, I think I had a perfectly acceptable experience. I probably had the experience that the development team wanted me to have with their games. With Red Dead Redemption, I at no point didn’t experience the story of John Marsden, but I sure didn’t play it. With Mass Effect 2 I got the new gang together and did some really cool stuff in space, but outside of the combinatorial approach to a “dynamic” ending, I didn’t bring much to the game as a unique player.

And then there’s Fable 3. When I played Fable in my college dorm room after a particularly dull Michigan football game (Wolverines! or something?), I had a ball. I got to be this asininely powerful guy who, over the course of an admittedly short experience, I defined into this hideously ugly magic-abusing lightning rod of a guy. And, sure, it only took four-five hours. And, sure, it was ludicrously easy. And, sure, it wasn’t a particularly novel storyline. But, what Fable was remains one of my fondest gaming memories: an action/RPG where the way I played the game actually seemed wholly unique from my friends. My old, magic rune-covered dude rocked some mean lighting that cleared entire screens of enemies. One friend had a big weapon and a dude with horns. Another actually tried to find some kind of balance. And while it doesn’t sound like much it was, in practice, a refreshing thing to see how differently we all played this one, seemingly hyper-linear game, from one another. We all, largely, experienced the same story, but we all took the gameplay segments we were given and put a little bit of ourselves into those.

Now, six years later, I’m playing Fable 3 and wondering what the fuck happened to the potential I saw in that game. I’m now playing a game where, almost insultingly, I’m meant to be along for the ride rather than defining my gameplay style. Rather than defining my game through play, I’m opening discrete chests along the “road to rule” which ends in me unlocking everything there is to unlock in non-dramatic and uninteresting fashion. Instead of playing how I want to play, I’m making a few high-level choices about how I run my kingdom in order to prepare for an oncoming assault. And, while it’s a clever twist, it’s a wholly unexceptional one that allows me, as the player of this game, very little room for expression. I eventually find that I can exploit the passage of time in the game and just leave my Xbox 360 running while my various estates pool absurd amounts of gold instead of oppressing my people for money during discrete game events, but this is not a rewarding discovery, it’s a cheap one. I’m not using lighting to kill everything (and, in the process, making my character age quicker and get scars everywhere), I’m doing the equivalent of taking the game disc out and hitting it on the ground until it does what I want when I put it back in.

None of these games are bad games; not by any means. I’ve talked to people who have loved all of the games that I’m presently ranting against and their reasons for loving them are entirely valid. As a game designer, though, it seems that we’re arbitrarily limiting the potential of what remains a limitless medium in order to maintain some collective vision of the narrative experience. The nature of an interactive medium should be the feedback loop between the player and the game; to not explore (or, at least, consider) the expression space of this cycle seems to be a missed opportunity.

Inaccuracy and Stakes in Kane & Lynch 2

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, much like Kane & Lynch, is a remarkable and flawed game.

The first half of Dog Days is a linear third-person shooter which treats its levels as a living space within which the player is constantly moving and adjusting his position as-necessary for reasons of additional cover, vantage point, or ammunition. The first two are nothing new for a current generation shooter; cover has been done to death by many a game. What’s fantastic, though, is how Dog Days works to recreate a big movie shootout: massive inaccuracy on both sides of an engagement and characters who are frequently changing up their weaponry entirely (not just reloading). Ammunition is not just a number on the HUD which is constantly non-zero but, rather, an actual resource which must be managed within an engagement as players burn through missed round after missed round. The firefights during these early segments of the game are more about bullets going everywhere than they ever are about the aim-adjust-headshot shooter loop.

It’s easy to see how players could be frustrated by this system: some of the core shooters in the FPS genre have always been about allowing those with the talent and skill and hand-eye coordination to dominate the playing field with accurate weapons (namely competitive shooters like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament). And even the introduction of aim spread by more tactical shooters, and the more inaccurate aiming system of cover-shooters like Uncharted and Gears of War still provide a fair amount of aim control in one firing mode or another. Regardless of the actual scheme employed, the end result of shooters seems to come down to a single core tenet: provide players with a reasonable semblance of aim control and the ability to predictably (and reliably) take down several similarly-typed enemies. If variation is to be introduced into the system, it needs to come in the form of a different enemy, not a different tool.

Starting Dog Days, players are given the choice between varying types of sub-machineguns and pistols, neither of which have much stopping power nor accuracy. Every encounter in the introductory levels of the game becomes a two-sided round of whack-a-mole with one side popping up, draining a clip, then going back into cover to reload, and the other side then taking his chance. Eventually one side will get the hits necessary to take down the other side. And, given an infinite supply of ammunition, these encounters would look hilarious to all involved (especially given the extraordinary documentary-style camera/effects the game is presented with). There is no infinite supply of ammunition, though, so while an encounter initially starts with each side comically popping in-and-out of cover, the need for either more ammunition or a new weapon quickly takes center-stage and requires the player to venture out of his safe zone into the more treacherous “no man’s land” space in the middle of an encounter area. Cover is dodgier, vantage points are less obviously advantageous, and, worse still, the player doesn’t have an abundance of life to live through any sustained enemy fire. This system works incredibly well for Dog Days.

Instead of consistently and cleverly mixing up this system for the mid-to-late sections of the game, Dog Days, instead, makes the same critical mistake that Kane & Lynch 1 did: raises the stakes. And while there are no invasions on a capitol building in Havana with a small and disposable revolutionary army in tow, there are still helicopter battles. This time there are helicopter battles over downtown Shanghai in the middle of the afternoon. And, for reasons which confuse me, a level that takes place in a giant warehouse as Kane and Lynch fight off soldiers or something. It’s all incredibly painful to play as the memories of the excellent first half of Dog Days reside in one’s head. And to make matters worse, not only are there far higher “stakes,” but there are ludicrously more enemies and the weapons the player has access to are far more accurate and predictable and the game becomes solely a matter of: pop out, headshot, duck, pop out, headshot, duck, etc. Which works when the inner loop is a crisp and balanced set of systems, but that is a thing that Dog Days doesn’t have the benefit of.

Despite my issues with each individual game, I am still entirely of the mind that the Kane & Lynch series, now two games in, is an incredibly interesting and promising one which is severely overlooked. Dog Days‘ first three hours or so of gameplay was tremendously interesting and well-paced and I consider the game worth it for that alone. I just wish, like I have before, that the games would stop trying to top itself as players progress through them.

Sea of Dreams

Bioshock was a game defined by its three major components: its streamlined, interconnected game systems, its standout narrative moments, and, most of all, the setting of Rapture and the meticulous level design that gave it life visually and systemically to bring the other components together. Irrational 2k Boston Irrational very clearly understood what made Bioshock unique on all levels. The combination of weaponry with plasmids and the trade-off of using one over the other formed a clever combat system which was constantly surprising the player when various elements combined in fresh ways or the level reacted to the player’s actions in helpful/harmful ways. Every level told a focused, contained story about some facet of Rapture; each had a unique macro design with a mini-hub approach that repeatedly required the player to backtrack and see various rooms in new ways as the game introduced new features. Meanwhile the game was building up one of the smarter narratives in the gaming world leading to one of the greatest climactic moments in the history of video games. The portions of the game that followed the climax were, ultimately, unnecessary and somewhat forced for game length, but only due to the comparison to the events that preceded them (except the final boss, that was purely awful). By the time Bioshock ended, the player had played through the tale of Rapture in its entirety.

By all accounts, a sequel to Bioshock was unnecessary and a sequel to Bioshock that remained in Rapture was picking from the bones of greatness. That said, 2k Marin managed to make a sequel whose narrative is intelligently focused by adding a new tale while simultaneously expanding on the memorable characters from the first game in ways that do no harm. The expanding on characters like Frank Fontaine, Atlas, and Andrew Ryan is more than a nod to Bioshock 2‘s predecessor and, rather, an extensive attempt at enhancing our understanding of these characters. The audio diaries which tell the story of these characters’ rise to power often comes across as completely tangential to all of the player’s actions, but when a specific audio log (or Andrew Ryan’s museum) nails its delivery and content, it’s a fascinating attempt at recreating a story from past to the present as the player works his way to the climax of the new tale.

The restraint that 2k Marin exercised in the high-level narrative of Bioshock 2 is astounding. Any attempt to one-up or surpass the execution of major moments or clever plot twists would come off as clearly fabricated attempts at doing just that (as Modern Warfare 2 discovered). Instead, Bioshock 2 goes for the heart: the story of a father, a daughter, and the controlling, scheming mother who has taken the throne of Rapture in the aftermath of Fontaine and Ryan. As hackneyed as the story sounds here and as awkawrd as it feels for the first few levels of Bioshock 2: stick with it. It’s worth it. Sofia Lamb is rarely interesting, but that’s okay, because Eleanor Lamb is purely captivating. Her transformation from the adored baby destined to for the metaphorical throne of rapture to the devious, destructive toddler, to the hyper-intelligent, insightful young adult is subtle and marvelous. The character of Eleanor Lamb at the end of Bioshock 2 is one of the most natural, clever, and endearing characters I have encountered in a video game.

It is unfortunate that so much time of Bioshock 2 is spent trying to understand what it is before ultimately realizing its purpose in glorious fashion. The first handful of levels of the game are all so reminiscent of Rapture that they come across as soullessly reverent. They absolutely nail the aesthetic and appeal of Rapture, no doubt, but they do so without much feeling or character. It is not until Siren Alley that players begin to seen glimpses of what made the levels of Bioshock so special: the level as short story. And as close as Siren Alley gets to this concept, it’s not until Dionysus Park and Fontaine Futuristics where Bioshock 2 becomes the absolutely brilliant successor that it needs to be. Regretfully, Dionysus Park is the sixth level in a nine level game.

Due to the player’s role as a Big Daddy in Bioshock 2, the management of Little Sisters is now a gameplay system. The player accumulates Adam through the interactions that make up this system; namely, the rescue/harvest choice (the same as it was in the first game) and, now, through the gathering quests. When the player adopts a Little Sister, rather than harvesting her directly when the time comes, the Little Sister jumps on the player’s back and remains ‘invisible’ in subsequent gameplay other than offering adorable little one-liners and commentary on gameplay actions. When a special, 2k Marin-placed corpse is encountered while the player has an adopted Little Sister, players have the option of gathering Adam from the corpse. The Little Sister is placed on the ground, and she gathers Adam while the player fends off the horde of Splicers that smell the Adam and want a piece of it for themselves. Thus, these gathering segments are bite-sized protection quests.

Since the corpses that the player can gather from are placed throughout areas of the standard level, the quality of a gather segment can vary wildly. They are almost universally tedious until the player makes it to Dionysus Park. The story of Dionysus Park is that of Stanley Poole. And Stanley Poole has a dark, dirty secret. His secret is contained within the Adam that the Little Sisters gather from the corpses. Stanley, though, idolizes Johnny Top-Side (the player character), and is willing to let him gather up the Adam in exchange for his silence on what he discovers. These gather quests, then, which have been optional and time-consuming side-quests up until this point in the game, now become the active goal of the level. And when each of the three Little Sisters that occupies the level is rescued/harvested, the player learns a little bit more about Stanley Poole’s secret. With this reward system, on top of the accumulated Adam, the annoying side-quest actually has a ludic and narrative purpose for being executed and, as such, seems far more tolerable. This is on top of the fact that the gather quests in Dionysus Park are now at the fore-front of the progression and, for the most part, make-up some of the best-designed encounters in the game.

Near the end of the game, the player takes on the role of a Little Sister through a surreal, disturbing look at Rapture through the eyes of these conditioned little girls. It’s a ludically mundane section, intended to be more of a mood and atmospheric piece that a legitimately interesting gameplay segment (much like the occasional underwater bits), but it’s a nice change of pace from the combat-combat-combat focus of the rest of the game. What’s strange about this segment is that, during it, the player can still gather Adam from corpses. This is not, by itself, bizarre; the player is a Little Sister, Little Sisters gather Adam from corpses. What’s bizarre is that there are splicers throughout this section of the game with direct line of sight to the Little Sister who is harvesting the Adam from corpses and they remain completely peaceful and unaffected by the Little Sister’s actions. It’s unsettling and weird and stressful the first time, raising players concerns about risk/reward and all that, but after the fourth or fifth time gathering Adam from a corpse with nearby Splicers, this strange and obvious inconsistency stands out and taints the integrity of the level as a result.

Part of the reason that the first half of Bioshock 2 is so awkward is the speed and seeming carelessness with which it introduces the features that Bioshock pioneered. A weapon can now be used alongside a plasmid, leading to a constant feeling of “dual-wielding” two completely different functionalities. Early on, firefights can quickly become a matter of blowing through ammo rounds on the Rivet Gun while trying to hit something while, simultaneously, attempting to use Electro Bolt to stun the enemy as you tear through your EVE reserves. With only a single plasmid and the Drill and Rivet Gun, combat is already filled with three radically different functionalities, none of which are particularly shallow, and the game is asking the player to manage all of this while engaged in active combat in a cluttered, busy, and interaction-heavy level. This becomes exponentially more difficult as the player gets a full eight plasmids and eight weapons and must manage all of these and their uses, presumably intelligently, amidst Thuggish Splicers, Leadhead Splicers, Brute Splicers, Spider Splicers, Big Daddies, Big Sisters, alpha series Big Daddies, and Houdini Splicers. Combat in Bioshock 2 for some of these early levels feels like a screen that is overloaded with explosions, screen effects, activity, damage, tips telling you to use first aid, more explosions, more screen effects, health and EVE depleting wildly, spamming the two triggers, and moving through a very colorful, wide-open environment with cover in unintuitive places.

And since so few of the plasmids are different from Bioshock in their basic functionality, Bioshock 2 also manages to create a profound feeling that I’ve been here and done all of this before, except it was better then. For all the restraint shown in its narrative, none of that restraint is present in Bioshock 2‘s combat. If the main complaints about Bioshock‘s combat were that, while interesting, it was overly-streamlined and somewhat lacking in personal customization, then 2k Marin’s response was to just blend all of those elements together and force the player to choose how to proceed. Except this doesn’t really work.

At no point does Bioshock 2 ever do what it really needs to in order to provide the player with a feeling of mastery, understanding, and the choice that the narrative so desperately wants to convey: allow the player to specialize. By the end of the game, the player has all of these weapons with these neat, crazy upgrades and all of these upgraded plasmids that do these neat things, but at no point does the game ever take the player aside and say: “Hey, you like doing this? Well, you can do that, but you’re going to have to kind of focus on that.” From the moment a weapon or plasmid is presented to the player, the player has the option to upgrade it, somehow, and the game essentially says: rest assured, at some point you’ll be able to afford this. The scenario I kept running into while playing is that I really like Electro Bolt because it not only has the most interactions within the game world, but it lets me do all I want: slow down combat. So what am I going to do? I’m going to focus on getting better with Electro Bolt using all of my various weapons, because I understand the weapons I have and their effects. I went through the game and upgraded all of my plasmids because I had an over-abundance of Adam (by the game I had all of my eight plasmids at their highest levels), but I only ever really used Electro Bolt.

Why did I solely rely on Electro Bolt? There is a Winter Blast plasmid that actually freezes enemies; combat doesn’t get slower than an icicle. It’s completely illogical that I would continue to use this one plasmid that I got at the very beginning of the game throughout the entirety of Bioshock 2 despite getting a lot better at the game and managing my eight weapons. There is a mechanical and a psychological reason for my reliance on this one plasmid. The psychological reliance is that the game made the acquisition and use of Electro Bolt an actual core element in the first mission of the game. It taught me how to use Electro Bolt, what its various uses were, and it allowed me time to really understand the use of this plasmid. No other plasmid in the game had the amount of game time dedicated to player understanding of it than Electro Bolt; some plasmids were relegated to the Gatherer’s Garden and got no fan-fare at all. This approach to doling out features works in a wide-open game that encourages exploration (like Far Cry 2), but not one which is fast, brutal, and confusing. The mechanical reason (and this is a console-specific reasoning) is that the plasmid/weapon control scheme for Bioshock 2 involves the use of the shoulder buttons; holding each shoulder button brings up a radial menu of the selectable plasmids/weapons. The problem here is that a single-tap of the shoulder button cycles through all eight selectable plasmids/weapons, rather than switching back-and-forth between the last two plasmids/weapons. So at no point can a player really get comfortable with a plasmid/weapon combo without stopping the game and switching from a menu.

The major new enemy in Bioshock 2 is the Big Sister. She’s lean, she’s quick, and she’s deadly. She’s a dangerous, ‘upgraded’ Big Daddy, essentially, and her inclusion in the game is thoroughly unnecessary. The goal of the Big Daddy is that it is a peaceful enemy until the Little Sister he is guarding is in danger or the player has actively attacked it. During this peaceful period, the Big Daddy is slow, lumbering, loud, and completely predictable. What was fun about Bioshock was using this period to set elaborate plasmid/weaponry traps, then trigger the Big Daddy, and watching the gauntlet of death take his health bar down. Sometimes active combat against the Big Daddy was never required whatsoever; taking the big fella down without so much as breaking a sweat was always an accomplishment for me when I played through the original game. Taking on a Big Daddy in active, close-to-mid quarter combat was a dangerous, fast-paced, stressful endeavor. Players were rewarded for thinking through the scenario and avoiding that need to go toe-to-toe. The way that Bioshock 2 approaches the Big Sister allows for none of this strategy. She is, essentially, nothing but the toe-to-toe combat sections that players engaged in with the Big Daddy enemies, except faster and more incomprehensible. The one positive element of the Big Sister encounters is that there is a brief window before she arrives where the player can familiarize himself with the layout of a room before the Big Sister’s eventual arrival, but it’s not enough to do any of the high-level planning and strategy of the Big Daddy combat; instead, it’s just more screen shakes, damage indicators, and postprocessing screen effects while rapidly attempting to stun and damage the Big Sister.

There are, technically, eight weapons in Bioshock 2, but two of these six are more utility items than weapons. The first of which is the hacking tool, which has three types of ammunition: auto-hack bolt, remote hack bolt, and the mini-turret. The mini-turret is, well, a mini-turret that the player throws down — at which point it becomes autonomous. That’s handy. The other two ammunition types are more problematic. The hacking minigame in Bioshock 2 is a vast improvement over the first; it’s quick, it’s thematically appropriate, and it allows for some tense moments mid-combat where a quick hack is necessary while hoping that enemies don’t notice you hiding in a corner while you do it. It’s a shame that the existence fo the hacking tool completely negates the role of the security entities. Rather than having to stun a camera, run under it, and hope to hack it before it turns back on and sets off an alarm when it sees you — as was the case in the first game — hacking can be done entirely from a safe distance. Shoot a dart at a camera, hack it, and walk into a room like nothing ever happened while a friendly camera alerts you to enemies. The same is true of managing enemy turrets. Due to the long-distance hack tool, the role of security systems in Bioshock 2 are almost always beneficial to the player and never threatening. If an alarm goes off, it’s uncommon and, for me, generally was more of a reload state than a play-through-it scenario. An alarm going off meant I screwed up as a player, rather than just being a thing that happened in the course of play.

The other non-weapon is the research camera, a presumed upgrade to research [picture] camera from the first game. Rather than taking static pictures during active combat to increase your “understanding” of enemies, the player starts the video camera and then goes back to normal combat while the camera rolls. The more unique actions the player takes during the course of combat with the research subject increases the eventual number of research points the session yielded. As the player acquires more and more research points for an individual enemy type, he increases his understanding of it, and unlocks are awarded (more damage, generally) along an invisible progress tree until the final unlock, a plasmid/gene tonic, is awarded. The strange aspect of this interaction is that it makes a system out of a tedious interaction of not having your weapon active at the beginning of combat, then having the game automatically switch back to the weapon (something that, strangely, never feels natural), and proceeding as normal. It’s a bizarrely abstract mechanic for the game which never feels quite right. The research camera seems designed to encourage players to mix up how they handle combat, but there doesn’t seem to be the concept of repetition from session-to-session, so doing an Electro Bolt and then simply killing an enemy generally yielded a solid score from the video session. Over and over and over again.

Bioshock 2 really is an exceptional game. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where my progressive enjoyment has deviated quite so wildly from beginning-to-middle and then middle-to-end. So few games really understand what needs to be done to create an enjoyable ending, that playing one which absolutely nails it is a refreshing experience (even if the road to that point wasn’t quite as excellent). I’m also quite comfortable saying that Bioshock 2 is worth it solely for Eleanor Lamb which, given the narrative, makes complete thematic sense.