The Private Lives of NPCs

At a conference I recently attended I was struck by a comment somebody in the crowd made after a particular paper. We were discussing the depictions of good and evil in games, the use of morality systems and the assigning of “good/evil” values to the player’s actions, and this person noted that this very often plays itself out in the form of sidequests instead of the main quest, which tends to be much more fixed. Whether you’re playing FalloutThe Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect or the new Deus Ex, you can go up to a range of strangers, ask them about their lives, and they’ll give you something to do on their behalf, which will often influence your karma. This person in the crowd (my apologies if you are reading this and I’ve forgotten who you were!) then made a comment which stuck with me, and from which this piece is generated: that NPCs “have no private lives”.

This, when one thinks about it, is strikingly true: we’ve all encountered the NPC who will readily tell you, a complete stranger, about their innermost concerns: they’re worried about their partner having been killed by goblins somewhere in the wilderness and want you to find them, or that they need an enforcer for a shady business deal (quite why the player might be less shady than any other enforcer remains to be seen), or they’ll pull you into a family drama, or have you arbitrate a feud over lost items and forgotten books, or strong-arm someone who needs strong-arming, and so forth. Similarly, and possibly even more strangely, in the Mass Effect games (for example) we wander around the Citadel and just overhear everyone talking about their private lives even if we don’t engage them in conversation! Is Shepard just a dreadful snoop whose Spectre training involves the ability to hear everyone talking about their multi-species child-custody legal cases? Does everyone on the Citadel simply assume that everyone already knows their secrets, or do they not care about sharing their secrets, or are they hoping that someone will hear them loudly and without subtlety saying “It would be really useful if someone could help us out…” and a paragon (or renegade) will come to their aid?

petrov

NPCs, it seems, have no issue with airing their dirty laundry in public, and speaking whatever’s on their mind to the first person who comes along. However, they do seem to sometimes have some “privacy” when it comes to their homes – various games (Elder Scrolls is particularly indicative here) do allow the player to enter the homes of NPCs, who normally respond in a logical way. Which is to say: attacking the player! Or at least being disgusted, shocked, asking you to leave, and so forth. We also find that NPCs have a range of items in their homes, and in many games, one can encounter the various relations of an NPC; think back to all the promises that Skyrim made about quests being adapted if one killed particular NPCs and then other NPCs would take over their quests, or of unique dialogue when one half of a couple was killed and the other half would pass a comment on it. Although this didn’t always work out, it still highlighted that desire to give some private life, but it’s a very particular kind of private life. We can therefore perhaps distinguish between the idea of the physical private life – the homestead, the bed, possessions, house, family, relationships – and the psychological or inner private life – opinions, fears, concerns, questions, worries, agendas, objectives, wishes, desires.

hoose

The latter is far, far rarer than the other, but has been gaining rapid prominence in recent years. Perhaps the most obvious example is Dwarf Fortress, where characters of all sorts have incredibly detailed sets of personality traits, which both serve to illustrate and flesh-out the passing interactions of the game, and to also directly affect how one NPC talks to another. In many cases players have identified sets of personality traits which are desirable and dangerous, and what kinds of personality traits are risky when present alongside others; and, equally, which personality traits are the most valuable. These characters do have internal private lives, which – much like the external private lives above – are reflected directly in the gameplay, and one can immediately observe the effects these have. The famous “tantrum spiral” – where one problem with one dwarf sets off another, and another, in large part due to both the external relationships and the internal personalities of the dwarves in question – is fundamentally based, in part, upon this system. This is a model we now see being used elsewhere, in games like RimWorld and all others which assign NPCs various “personalities”, “traits”, “skills” and the like. These are generally described in a flavour text sense as being to do with their internal private lives, but are designed to have particular effects on the practical mechanics of gameplay. These NPCs do have internal private lives, although they are on show whenever a particular constellation of gameplay elements comes together to make them matter. What, I wonder, what a truly private private life look like in a game? Something that only emerges if the player gets sufficiently close to an NPC? Or something that informs their actions, but the player is not explicitly told?

dorf

This idea that NPCs might have private motivations which remain private and non-explicit is quite clearly shown in the Soulsborne games. In the original Dark Souls, for example, the player can encounter a number of NPCs who will move at various points in the game, including “Solaire”, the fan-favourite knight who seeks his own personal “sun” (father figure) and risks a descent into madness; “Siegmeyer”, a less-than-effective adventurer who seeks to explore as much of the world as he can; “Rhea”, a priestess on a pilgrimage into the same lands the player is busy exploring; and many others. These often follow a pattern: the player will talk to them, and from time to time engage with them, but then disappear from their first location, and reappear elsewhere on the map (if the player can find them). The triggers for encouraging these NPCs to move are often quite obscure, and are challenging for a new player to identify on a first playthrough (and it is equally challenging to guess, in most cases, where they might appear next). These NPCs possess their own storylines which play out alongside the player’s, but if the player doesn’t “find” the NPC each time they move, and get the next bit of the story, the player can easily complete the game and leave most of the NPC stories entirely unfinished (getting the “good” ending for Solaire’s story, and the “hollowed” ending for Rhea’s story, are particularly challenging and require significant long-term planning). This system gives Dark Souls an amazing feeling of being a world which isn’t simply built around the player, and doesn’t just place NPCs so that they might be encountered by the player who can solve their woes. The NPCs all have their own agendas, their own internal private lives, which sometimes intersect with the player’s path but sometimes don’t. Few have external relationships with others, and none of them have homes; but they all have their own (sometimes quite idiosyncratic) motivations that determine their actions. This feeling of simply being part of a world with other ongoing quests you might not be party to is very distinct to the game, and offers a feeling of worldbuilding and immersion orders of magnitude stronger than the alternative.

dsia

As such, I don’t think the claim that NPCs have no private lives is entirely true. Many NPCs have external private lives of possessions and relationships with others (something of a contradiction in terms, but the mere existence of that is indicative, I think, of how games require clear mechanics, connections, systems, and so forth). Many other NPCs – almost entirely within very modern games, and other with procedurally-generated games – have internal private lives, their own sets of motivations that affect how they behave within the game world. These are most often visible in an emergent sense: they do not have a fixed relationship with NPC X, but if they encounter a particular kind of monster, for instance, they will fight all the more fiercely due to their hatred of that monster; or they will have a greater ability to gain knowledge from books than other NPCs due to their educational level, but only if books are encountered; and so on and so forth. The latter seems to offer a more compelling model for the private lives of NPCs, allowing NPCs to act how real humans act: somewhat unpredictability but somewhat predictability, acting in certain ways in certain situations, rather than only performing actions according to a set of relationships that do not shift, and representing their private lives through their relationships and their possessions rather than any deeper motivations. This is of course the model that Ultima Ratio Regum is taking, giving NPCs their own motivations but making those visible not through text and descriptions, but rather only through their behaviours, their actions, what they say, and so forth. Figuring out the motivations of important NPCs (including hidden motivations) will be one of the many essential purposes of the speech system. Such a technique allows for NPCs to have meaningful private lives, thoughts as well as deeds, but to make those thoughts visible and meaningful to the player. As ever, what the player sees and experiences is what truly matters; an NPC with a private motivation the player can never see, or even get a sense of, is effectively the same as an NPC with no such inner thoughts.

Entirely unrelated to the rest of this post, I’m sure lots of you are aware that Jupiter Hell, the long-awaited sequel to the superlative D**mRL, is currently on Kickstarter. Now, I’m not associated with the project, I have no financial incentives to promote it, blah blah – but DRL remains a tremendously distinctive roguelike, Kornel and Darren and the others on that team all working together on a project is a very exciting prospect, and my general interests in the promotion of the roguelike genre mean that I’d really like this to succeed, and produce another excellent SF RL on the heels of Cogmind. So, if you enjoyed DRL or like the sound of a fancy-graphics classic-FPS-inspired roguelike made by someone who has (to put it mildly) demonstrated his ability to build a great roguelike or two, I would encourage you to have a look.

jh2

Bloodborne, PCG, and the Unknowable

A Hunter is a Hunter, even in a blog entry…

Regular readers of my blog may remember a comment I made a while back about a game I’ve been deeply anxious to play for some time. This was Hidetaka Miyazaki’s new masterpiece (or so the reviews told me) – BloodborneI know I’m rather behind the times here, but these days I have so many obligations of various forms that finding the massive chunk of time required to really delve into a “Souls” game is not an easy task. A couple of months ago I had a week off work ill, and this seemed like the ideal time to get started. I didn’t finish it in those five days, and didn’t even start the Old Hunters expansion, but I got through a good 80% of the main game in that period. In the weeks following I added in a couple of hours each evening every three or four days, completing all the main game content; I then tackled the Old Hunters DLC over the next few months. Having now \completed pretty much everything that can be completed in one playthrough, I thought it was time to write up some thoughts, a lot of which are very relevant indeed to the study of PCG systems, and indeed to the kind of game that URR is turning into.

This isn’t a review – briefly, I thought it was another absolute masterpiece of storytelling, level design and gameplay mechanics that combined to form a worthy (spiritual) sequel to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, although it was not of course without its minor flaws – as this entry is instead a look at a rather surprising aspect of the game, seemingly out of place in a series known for its intricate handmade placement of every single element. Which is to say that Bloodborne (many spoilers ahead!), for those who don’t know…

…is full of procedurally-generated regions, known as “Chalice Dungeons”. Not all are PCG, but those which are not use the same tiles, building blocks, enemies, items, and so forth, as those which are. One gains access to these part-way through the storyline (I think I gained access for the first time quite a bit later than intended due to the path I took, since I defeated the Bloodstarved Beast after I’d entered the Nightmare Frontier) and they basically place a selection of rooms and corridors across several floors, chuck a boss at the end of each floor, and fill them up with enemies of various types and items that cannot be found in the main game, or sometimes items that can, but are very rare. A number are fixed, but the overwhelming majority – which is to say, an effectively infinite number – are procedurally generated. In these dungeons one can also locate a small number of “lore” fragments that cannot be accessed in the main game. There are also a number of items required to unlock harder Chalice Dungeons, which only spawn within earlier Chalice Dungeons, thereby encouraging the player to progress logically through them rather than leaping immediately to the ones at the end (although if, like me, you come to Chalice Dungeons quite late, the earliest dungeons can seem bizarrely simple compared to the horrors you are facing elsewhere). Although in principle one might think this concept – infinite Soulsborne! – is quite promising, I find the Chalice Dungeons to come with a particular set of issues that are worth examining, specifically with regard to the particular kinds of PCG they deploy, and the stark contrasts between this PCG and the rest of the Bloodborne world. It is these tensions I want to unpick in this piece, as I think Bloodborne makes for a fascinating example of how PCG intersects with other elements of game design, and should always be seen in context rather than as simply a number of possibilities or a length of time it extends the anticipated gameplay.

chal1

Meaning and the Unknown.

“Soulsborne” games have always, for me and I know for many players, hinged on two things – the fascination of not knowing what bizarre thing is around the corner, and knowing that whatever is around the corner is guaranteed to have some deeper meaning. This applies whether it’s a massive skyline-dominating structure or simply the kind of clothing on a corpse. If we look at the first of those factors and ignore the “meaning” component for a moment, it seems somewhat logical to attempt to extend a Souls game into PCG. These are games that already thrive on the player’s exploration and discovery of the unknown, whether spaces, lore, or gameplay mechanics. Having also gone even further and given Bloodborne an overall literary inspiration that emphasizes the unknown (more on this later), going the whole way and adding an element of constant and guaranteed unpredictability to parts of the game world might seem like the obvious third component. One might think that adding a PCG element to a game of this sort would enable the designers to consistently and constantly recreate that feeling of exploring the unknown, and of not knowing what’s around each corner. Integrating this with the narrative and game mechanics (which Bloodborne does try to do) appears extremely sensible. However, this didn’t, I feel, work as expected.

The Uninteresting Unknown

The first problem is that the “unknown” within Chalice Dungeons simply doesn’t seem to be that interesting. There is not a particularly massive set of possible rooms (as far as I could tell after some, but not a truly exhaustive, amount of investigation) and few of the rooms are especially fascinating; there are lots of standard corridors, lots of areas that just have some pillars and some enemies, and so forth. I encountered a couple of gigantic “special” rooms, which are much more exciting, but by that point the Chalice dungeons as a whole had (sadly) already failed to hold my interest. There was no point that I felt I was going to turn the corner and discover something truly exciting or important to the lore. Although I naturally adore the difficulty level of these games, the worldbuilding and lore are probably the main thing I play Souls games for. Bloodborne also seems fond of producing dead-ends that contain minimal loot of any real value, which is surprisingly infuriating. I was actually surprised at how annoying I found this – maybe I’ve become used to PCG games either a) not generating dead-ends, b) generating dead-ends of value, or c) generating dead-ends but having an auto-explore system. The lack of any of these made these dead-ends aggravating and actually discouraged me from exploring. I found myself basically sprinting through every single Chalice dungeon I played and trying to find the boss door, remember the location of the door, find the lever that opens the boss door, pull the lever, and then sprint back to where I started as rapidly as possible in order to progress to the next floor. In a similar vein, the game didn’t always place something in a location where, if the level had been hand-made, something would definitely be. I recall a massive room with a balcony that ran all the way around the upper level; if memory serves, I explored the full upper balcony, and found not a single connection, despite wasting close to a minute running around the thing, subconsciously thinking “this would never be pointless in a normal Souls game”, which is to say, one that is entirely handmade.

The Lack of Meaning

The second problem is the lack of meaning, as well as the lack of interest. The only things I could find in the Chalice Dungeons with any actual lore significance were the bosses and a very small number of items (several of which I’d already found outside the Chalice dungeons), and that was it. As far as I could tell the placement of nothing mattered, and the enemies seemed to have been selected to populate the dungeon I was in largely at random; there was none of the thematic consistency in enemy selection I expected (and got) from the rest of the game. I didn’t feel at any time as if I was exploring a region that was in any way connected to the rest of the game. Even areas of the main game you have to effectively fast-travel or teleport to, like Cainhurst Castle or the Nightmare Frontier or the Nightmare of Mensis or whatever, all still felt without doubt as if they were part of the same fictional world. This just felt like a level in a computer game, which is a feeling the Souls games have always been amazing at avoiding, but the Chalice dungeons just really brought me out of immersion in the world and reminded me that I was playing a game, and that this area had just been procedurally generated a moment before I set foot in it and had no longer, deeper, lasting meaning.

cain

Handmade PCG Worlds

These two elements combined to leave me completely cold when it came to the Chalice dungeons. However, the more I analyzed my own feelings on this matter, I realized that I was inevitably coming from a very particular perspective. I have, in essence, spent several years of my life attempting to create PCG systems which don’t look like PCG when you look at them; or, to put it another way, to create PCG systems which are always interesting to explore (because they appear as if handmade) and always seem to have meaning to them (because they are connected to the wider generated world). I’m therefore probably coming to Bloodborne, more than perhaps almost anyone else on the planet, from a perspective of making PCG systems designed to be a) endlessly interesting and b) to have the kind of deeper meaning and world-connectedness we expect from everything in a Souls game. Looking back, this probably made me a tad more negative than I would otherwise be, having become to used to my own work and then being sharply reminded that not all PCG systems are like this – a contrast, of course, made more extreme because the hand-made parts of Souls games are like that, and is precisely those feelings in Souls games I’m so keen to recreate in URR. This aspect isn’t a severe criticism, of course – From Software have never really done any PCG stuff before and it isn’t the core of the game, whereas I’ve been coding and thinking about little else for several years, so there is naturally going to be a little bit of disparity when it comes to the quality of meaningful PCG systems – but I still couldn’t escape such a perspective. I have come to expect such a high quality of game design from them (Dark Souls II being a freakish aberration) that finding an area that failed on both the things I look for in Souls, i.e. meaning and the interesting unknown, was an unpleasant surprise.

marp

Too Many Bosses Spoil the Dungeon

Another strange factor in the Chalice dungeons were the bosses. There were two issues here: ease, and volume. By the first, I mean that every boss I fought in the Chalice dungeons was extremely simple. Now, I know that later bosses can include some of the toughest bosses from the main game, but the first six Chalice bosses were either a) bosses I hadn’t encountered in the main game, and were trivial, or b) bosses I had encountered in the main game, and were trivial. In the main game bosses are almost always this very important moment in the player’s progression, a substantial challenge and something to be seriously strategized over. This is certainly true in Bloodborne, with quite a few notoriously challenging bosses thrown into the mix to trip up the first-time player. However, by giving me such easy bosses, they barely even felt like bosses at all, and more like a couple of slightly-tougher-than-normal enemies. This was exacerbated by the volume of bosses – each Chalice dungeon has three, and that again served to make them feel very unimportant in the grand scheme of things because I went so rapidly from one to the other, whilst one can go hours and hours without encountering a single boss in the main game. In fact, the same can even be said of the lanterns! For those who don’t know, rather than “bonfires” as checkpoints in the Souls games, the equivalent in Bloodborne are “lanterns”. In the main game these are deeply rare and deeply precious things (as they were in DS1 and I’m told they are in DS3), but in the dungeons you run into half a dozen in every single Chalice dungeon. This, again, had the exact same feeling of trivializing everything I encountered, because I had become so used to the sense of victory and relief upon finding a rare lantern that finding tons all over the place made the Chalice dungeons, once more, not really feel like a part of the game, but this poorly-thought tacked-on addition where everything was quicker, simpler, and lacking in any of the importance, consequence or weight of the main game.

pthu

Cosmic Horror and the Unknown

Now here’s the really interesting thing. Although Bloodborne presents itself a primarily Gothic horror, as the game progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a deeper layer of Lovecraftian/”cosmic” horror. There are hints to this in the earlier parts of the game – the odd mention of “the Great Ones”, some rather unsettling statues in the lower level of the Cathedral where the player fights Vicar Amelia, a few references to madness and knowledge (classic cosmic horror themes!), and so forth – but for the most part the boss encounter with “Rom, the Vacuous Spider” at the bottom of the lake, and the subsequent appearance of all the Amygdala creatures in the Cathedral Ward, signals a very explicit pivot to the player’s ability to now see that which was hidden previously in the game. The game ceases to be only a Gothic horror – although it is still Gothic in a broader sense as a way of delivering a complex, twisting and expansive narrative – and immediately shows its true colours and lets the player glimpse some of the cosmic horror hidden beneath the surface, whilst still naturally keeping a lot of questions and secrets – since a) this is a Souls game, and b) Lovecraftian horror hinges on secrets/mysteries/never saying too much.

amgy

Now, naturally reading a novel is also about “the unknown”, as is experiencing a food one has never hitherto experienced, or going to a previously-unvisited country, and (to a greater or lesser extent) all of life’s pleasures are, in one way or another, about experiencing the unknown. All of this is true, and there are certainly philosophies out there (Nietzsche, Deleuze, Malaby, Taleb, etc) who deal extensively and usefully with the place of the unknown and the unpredictable in human life in various ways (see also, naturally, my upcoming first academic book). However, both PCG and cosmic horror have a particular emphasis upon the unknown, for the construction of their core gameplay challenge or their core narrative conceit, respectively. Bloodborne didn’t only bring PCG to the table for the first time in a Soulsborne game, but it was (pretty much) the first time that a cosmic horror element was also introduced. At this point it’s worth taking a closer look at cosmic horror and exploring its relationship to PCG in Bloodborne a little more, and why Bloodborne (sadly) falls down at integrating the two.

Cosmic in this sense, of course, doesn’t refer to the mechanical orbits of planets and moons we now know they inscribe; cosmic instead refers to something more like the feeling we get upon considering astronomical distances. We can be told the distance between two stars, just as we can be told in a cosmic horror novel about a particular eldritch creature, but just as human brains aren’t really equipped to truly understand what a billion billion kilometres actually means, in exactly the same way we aren’t really equipped to grasp the creatures we are interacting with – they are simply beyond our comprehension, no matter how much about them we are told and shown. However, since these creatures are not real (one hopes…) and the author cannot rely on genuine cosmic horror to evoke the appropriate feeling in the reader, this sense of being beyond human comprehension is instead depicted by limiting the amount of information given about these dread abominations, the idea being that the characters are unable to perceive or understand certain aspects, and therefore those aspects are not related to the reader.

acb

Cosmic horror has been visually depicted surprisingly rarely – I think part of the reason is that no matter what we see on the screen, it can never evoke the direct horror described in cosmic horror stories, because we don’t know of anything immediately physically present that could actually, in the real world, evoke the same feeling of nausea in us as cosmic distances. Bloodborne gets around this, partly by showing relatively little, partly by leaving a reasonable amount unanswered, and partly by leaving the player to put the pieces together and try to understand the true horror of the situation – as the imagination, of course, is far more powerful than any kind of graphical fidelity in this kind of situation.

How does this connect to the Chalice dungeons? Two ways, I think:

1) Firstly: you can see everything. There are no mysterious eldritch horrors there; you find motsly enemies that you’ve already encountered in the main game, and none of the new enemies or items particularly evoke any real sense of mystery. So much of the “story” of the main game is unspoken and has to be pieced together, but in the Chalice Dungeons one never gets a sense of any of those secrets lurking behind every wall and every enemy. They are very physical, complete, singular, monolithic, and – since you teleport into the entrance of each one and back out at the end – feel very far apart from the rest of the world. The dream and nightmare lands of the main world avoids this through a range of clever tricks (which are an essay in their own right), but sadly, the Chalice Dungeons don’t (or, rather, can’t) use these same methods to add mystery.

chaldul

2) Secondly, the problem is that nothing in the Chalice Dungeons (in sharp contrast to the main game world) has anything of the mysterious weight that so much in the main game world has. This kind of mysterious weight – of things deeply ancient, deeply unknown, of things we only know fragments about – is central to cosmic horror, and nothing more than a quick look at how rituals, books, and artefacts are talked about in Lovecraft and his successors will illustrate this point. Nothing in the Chalice Dungeons feels truly old, and the combination of teleporting into these dungeons, the knowledge that many are PCG’d, the lack of narratively-relevant placement of items, and the repetition of bosses, makes them feel passing and surface, rather than deep and eldritch. 

Finally, let us compare the Chalice dungeons to some other “infinite dungeons” – here I think the Abyss and Pandemonium in superlative roguelike Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup are the most useful points of comparison (and, for the reader wishing to explore other versions of the same idea, require them to master only one roguelike instead of several!). For those unaware, the Abyss is an infinitely-sized dungeon spread over five floors, each of which becomes more twisting and bizarre as one descends. Pandemonium, meanwhile, is an infinite set of floors, some of which are special and contain hand-made elements alongside their PCG elements, whilst the others are fully procedurally generated. The Abyss succeeds so well as an infinite dungeon area for several reasons. Firstly, it has a far higher range of variations than the Chalice Dungeons, with a mixture of totally PCG and fixed elements, and the interactions between these (and the generative system more broadly) can create a huge range of options, keeping things fresh for a long time even when played by experienced players. Secondly, the fact it constantly shifts takes the lack of “solidity” that one can sometimes feel about somewhere you know has been generated, and rather than this working again the feeling of this being a meaningful place, DCSS turns it into an advantage – it feels believable that somewhere constantly changing and shifting would be infinite and size, and the parts that do not shift come to feel more important when they stand out from the part that don’t. Pandemonium, similarly, lets the player explore an area which feels it has weight, whilst also being effectively infinite. It does this through (again) a greater number of component parts, and the randomness of when one will encounter one of the powerful “Pandemonium Lords” who wander the domain and have their own private fiefdoms (giving a narrative sense of Pan being a place of flux, and change, and activity behind the scenes that the player doesn’t see). I think we should also say something of difficulty: it is easy to come to Chalice Dungeons over-levelled, and have this influence your experience, whereas it is hard to reach the Abyss truly over-levelled (as many of the enemies are dangerous or non-trivial for all except the most incredible character builds), and almost impossible to reach Pan over-levelled (again, except for the world’s best DCSS players who know how to build their characters in such a way as to survive Pan with high confidence). For the average or even high-skilled player, reaching these areas when truly over-levelled will never happen, and thus you will almost never get the experience of simply rushing through them, which consequently makes them feel all the more transient. (And, of course, in permadeath games, all decisions and explorations always have more weight anyway).

abyss

Problems of the Chalice Dungeons

So what does all this mean? Well, I deeply appreciate Bloodborne’s attempt at interesting PCG content, and certainly well-implemented PCG in a “Soulsborne” game could have been something totally spectacular, but it just didn’t work out in the slightest for me (though that in no way impinged upon my enjoyment of an otherwise astonishing game). Once I’d done a few Chalice dungeons (and checked on the Wiki that they were non-essential) I have only returned with a friend, not for their “own” sake (although we might do a Roguelike Radio episode on them one day!).

Ultimately, there are five issues here. Firstly, the components of the Chalice dungeon generators simply don’t seem that interesting, and lack the feeling of excitement at turning the next corner I expect from a Soulsborne game. Secondly, those same components tend to lack any actual meaning or importance within the game world, and are chucked together (broadly speaking) at random. Thirdly, from my own perspective, this attempt at procedural generation in a game notorious for its stunning hand-made worlds resonated poorly in light of my own current endeavours to “fake” a world with handmade detail, via PCG. This is an unavoidable bias, and one that I think needs acknowledging, but even if I wasn’t making URR I would certainly have felt the same way overall, though perhaps somewhat less acutely. Fourthly, the endless flow of bosses and lanterns in the Chalice dungeons served to further “trivialize” them because they stood in such sharp contrast to the rest of the game world. Fifthly, the generally mundane and passing nature of the Chalice Dungeons stand in sharp and unfortunate contrast to the rest of the game with its complexity, intrigue, and narrative weight. Although a brave attempt at adding something new, and I do think with some work this could be a very promising path for a future game, their implementation in Bloodborne makes them feel very weak compared to the rest of the game, and sheds some interesting light on how the technical elements of PCG (and the dungeons’ component parts), and the context of the narrative and lore of the rest of the game, fundamentally intertwine.

cha

Bloodborne Micro-Review

As I say, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the game. Bloodborne might actually be as impressive a piece of world as the original Dark Souls – extremely tight central mechanics, constant surprises and discoveries and points of amazement, a million strategies to pursue, an almost absurdly detailed world conveyed through dialogue, description, aesthetics and atmosphere (so, who else spotted that the oil lamps in the Fishing Hamlet are lit by the slugs/phantasms they’ve dredged up, for instance?), and an amazing dialogue with a range of literary traditions (as opposed to the predominantly mythological in Dark Souls). It, like Dark Souls, is a world that feels so real it can be hard to leave. I have no idea why I do this, and I’ve probably lost a good two or three hours of my life in total, just running around the “Hub” areas of these games doing absolutely nothing because I didn’t want to leave these stunningly drawn, detailed and resonant worlds. Bloodborne has done this to me again, and I confess to wasting a worrying amount of time just being in it without actually doing anything especially useful. Bloodborne’s an astounding game, but the Chalice Dungeons – although the concept does have potential – are certainly its weakest part, and stand out all the more from the incredible strength of the rest of the game. To anyone who has not yet played Bloodborne, I recommend it in the strongest possible terms. However, if you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you have an interest in PCG. As such, I would just suggest that you don’t expect too much from the game’s procedural elements, but rather immerse yourself instead in the wonders to be found outside the Chalice Dungeons, as you will not be disappointed.

Darkest Dungeon, Bloodborne, and the Acquisition of Game Knowledge

Today we bring you two announcements!

Firstly, weekly blog entries are now resuming. I’m coming to the end of this intense period of work and I’m now making a push towards resuming development on 0.8 either next week or the week after next, and I’ll be trying to release 0.8 some time in January. Thanks to everyone for your patience with this delay; I assure you I’ve disliked it as much as you all have, but it is now coming to an end and URR will be slowly ramping back up in the very near future, starting next week or the week after with a blog post that’ll take stock of where 0.8 is and what little needs to be done – basically just finishing speech – before finally getting it released. Things are about to return to normal!

Secondly, this week we have a guest blog entry from Dr Madelon Hoedt, which examines the game mechanics and narratives surrounding “knowledge” in two games – Darkest Dungeon, and Bloodborne – both of which are relevant, or have been previously talked about, here on this blog. I’ve wanted to add guest entries for a while to help me get through this period, and to help me keep weekly updates coming when I do return to URR coding in the next couple of weeks, and I’m really excited to show you all this piece. Hope you enjoy, do leave any comments or thoughts below, and I’ll see you all next week!

So, without further ado:

What We Need, Are More Eyes…

Although reviews of big open world games are rife, little has been written about the process of world building and how players experience these environments. Whether connected to story or mechanics, the feeling of “being in a place” is one of the key attractions of this type of game. This “place” can be fantastical or founded in technology, it can be exotic or barren, but the experience is ultimately about wanting to be there, wanting to find out about who lives there and to hear their stories. There will be items to find and locations to visit. Developers want players to interact and to explore, to learn about the world they have created for them. They want them to know that place. Yet what if the game takes the player down a darker path? What if the world is hostile and its inhabitants do not want them to be there? What if the themes of the game inform both narrative and gameplay mechanics, creating an experience where exploration is still necessary, but not without risk? What if knowing about the world they are in could kill the player in an instant?

Unknown Forces

This perception of knowledge as dangerous is of course not exclusive to games; rather, it is a key trope in much horror fiction. The work of H.P. Lovecraft, in particular, is famous for the use of this theme and often features protagonists who stumble across forbidden insights that change them forever. Lovecraft himself has described his intentions in the writing of his fiction, most notably in the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature from 1927. Alongside a discussion of the weird tales produced by the writers of his time, Lovecraft sheds some light on what he considers the ingredients for the ideal supernatural tale, stories that are often set in a universe where knowledge, or the lack thereof, holds a central position. The essay opens with the now famous quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In many of Lovecraft’s stories, it is the lack of information that functions as the catalyst for the horror, but elsewhere, this relationship with knowledge changes: “…though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings round all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained.” As science and technology advanced, more of the world’s mysteries have been investigated and dissected, their inner workings laid bare for society to scrutinize. Yet this process of exploration and explanation was, as Lovecraft argues, not always enlightening: the universe still held (and holds) its fair share of mysteries, and even those ideas and inventions that can now explain and offer new knowledge cannot be truly understood. Ultimately, Lovecraft draws attention to the tension between what we, as humans, do and do not know, stating that “…men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars.” What we do not know can still hurt us, and there is a risk in finding out.

fuzz1

Our Venerable House

Lovecraft’s oeuvre has often been used as inspiration for videogames, with varying degrees of success. Although design elements based on the author’s stories (read: anything with tentacles) can be found everywhere, very few games have managed to incorporate the deeper themes of Lovecraft’s writing. Two recent titles that have attempted to implement the concepts of the terrifying unknown and the dangers of knowledge are Bloodborne (From Software, 2015) and Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook Studio, 2016). Both are arguably horror games and in their take on the genre, they rely on atmosphere and gameplay rather than overt storytelling to convey their themes. Relevant for the current discussion, the games, in good Lovecraftian fashion, use the notion of dangerous knowledge and place it at the core of their experience. In each game, information is a necessity, but also a dangerous commodity, yet obtaining knowledge is inescapable as both titles use exploration as a core element of their gameplay. The worlds of each game invite players in, but those who enter are quickly punished for their curiosity, and each title uses a specific feature of their gameplay to further drive this point home. For Darkest Dungeon, this mechanic is Stress; for Bloodborne, it is Insight.

fuzz2

Your Resolve Is Being Tested

The core gameplay of Darkest Dungeon is that of a procedurally generated roguelike. At the start of the game, players arrive by stagecoach into the Hamlet, which will be their base throughout their journey. After assembling a party of heroes, players can venture away from the town and into the Ruins, the Warrens, the Weald, to descend into the depths of the world in order to slay monsters and discover what happened to the family who lived in the house above the moor. In their quest, the heroes will be affected and become afflicted by their journey and the horrors they witness within the dungeons they explore. A descent into madness is the most likely path for each of them. In the game, the Stress mechanic charts this degeneration: as the characters venture out of the Hamlet to explore the nearby dungeons, they accumulate stress, which functions as additional statistic alongside the usual stats for health and attack power. When the stress reaches the value of 100, the resolve of the hero is tested, with an outcome that is either positive or negative. The character may become virtuous, resulting in higher stats, the ability to randomly heal, and to offer buffs to the other members in their party. In the case of a negative outcome, the hero is afflicted: they will disobey the commands of the player, hurt themselves or other party members, and refuse heals and buffs. Most notably, their affliction will raise the stress of the other characters as the mental state of one hero affects the outlook of those they come into contact with.

The accumulation of stress is triggered by certain game events. Some of these may be obvious: the stress level of the party rises when they first enter a dungeon or when they are attacked by enemies. In turn, it can rise through the special attacks and critical strikes performed by certain foes. Of interest for the current discussion is that stress also rises during exploration: the movement through any of the dungeons affects the heroes, as well as the amount of light they have at their disposal, which is a resource directly controlled by the player. Similarly, certain items (known in the game as ‘curios’) may trigger a stress event as the heroes explore each location. It is primarily curios associated with knowledge that affect the level of stress in the heroes. A bookshelf, a stack of books, an occult scrawling, a pile of scrolls, and more, it is these that offer insights that cause stress to those who choose to peruse the knowledge held within.

Unlike the damage gained by combat, however, the amount of stress does not diminish upon returning to the Hamlet. Although ways of relieving stress are available in the town, the effects of the encounters the ongoing exploration of the town’s environs linger, even after the heroes leave the dark depths behind. The things they have seen continue to weigh on their mind. Their afflictions will stay with them and continue to influence their actions, even when the stress is reduced. The knowledge they have gained has changed them forever, and will stay with them until the hero dies. Although exploration in Darkest Dungeon still offers its own reward, if only because the player is forced to leave the Hamlet if they wish to play the game, stepping outside the town and discovering the unknown becomes a perilous act for both the characters and the player.

Bloodborne™_20150331200752

Great One’s Wisdom

Although the gameplay and narrative of Bloodborne are arguably more complex than those of Darkest Dungeon, the use of mechanics in order to flesh out the themes of the game is present in here, too, yet there are a number of differences. The Stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon largely affects the game in a negative way, imposing a variety of burdens on the players as heroes fail to obey commands and harm others. Although characters may become virtuous, this bonus does not outweigh the impact of afflictions and or the stress relief required upon returning to the Hamlet. In the case of Bloodborne, the function of Insight is more complex. Rather than a statistic, Insight acts a resource, much like the blood echoes in From Software’s game, which allow players to buy items or level up. Indeed, Insight can be used as a currency to buy certain items; in addition, players can spend it in order to connect with other players. The level of Insight players have builds steadily as they progress through the main game as the resource is gained from a variety of game events, and is awarded for entering new areas, encountering and defeating bosses and interacting with certain NPCs. Lastly, it can be acquired through the use of two items, Madman’s Knowledge and Great One’s Wisdom, which grant the player one and five Insight, respectively.

Yet it is not just a resource in how it affects the experience of the player, instead hinting at a context that is closely tied to the lore of the game. Indeed, the official strategy guide for Bloodborne states that “Insight is an inhuman knowledge and represents your awareness of the nightmare’s effects.” Initially, these effects are positive. In the Hunter’s Dream, the safe haven within the game, players gain access to a shop, which allows them to buy items using Insight. In addition, the figure of the Doll comes to life and players can now interact with her, allowing them to level up. Beyond this point, however, the game changes in more unexpected ways. Certain enemy types change appearance and become stronger, whereas in other locations, previously invisible (or non-existent?) enemies now appear. Although not all are hostile, some of these are more menacing as players with 30 or more Insight are able to see giant, alien creatures clinging to buildings in areas they previously thought of as safe. At the final stage, when players gain more than 50 Insight, they start experiencing what the guide refers to as “auditory hallucinations”. The music in the Hunter’s Dream changes and a baby’s crying voice can be heard in many of the world’s locations. Yet the game remains ambiguous as to the implications of this, and as the guide states, “your character may experience visual and auditory hallucinations at high levels of Insight. Or perhaps they are not hallucinations at all…” Gaining Insight offers players a hidden knowledge about the world of Bloodborne, allowing them to see the unseeable and know the unknowable.

This level of knowledge does not just affect how to the players experience the game world, but it profoundly changes their character, as well. Beyond appearances, Insight also influences the player’s stats, in particular in relation to Beasthood and Frenzy, both of which give information about the state of mind of the player character. The first, Beasthood, offers certain abilities to the player: using specific items in conjunction with their level of Beasthood, players can temporarily become stronger whilst lowering their defence. The stat does have a wider implication, however, indicating the proximity of the player character to being a beast, something base and inhuman. Indeed, many of the enemies encountered in the game appear in varying stages of becoming a beast, having lost their sense of reason and humanity. The more Insight the player has, the lower their stat for Beasthood, as it is an understanding of the world that separates man from beast. By contrast, the Frenzy statistic is tied directly to knowledge and its dangers. Being exposed to certain information, to enemies and environments that are perhaps beyond human comprehension, the player’s Frenzy meter rises until full, upon which they are dealt a large amount of damage. As the guide explains, “those who delve into the arcane fall all-too-easily into madness”, and this is reflected in this stat’s relationship to Insight: if their amount of Insight, and thus the player’s and awareness of the world, is high, their resistance to Frenzy, to the madness brought on by forbidden knowledge, is significantly lowered. If we describe Insight as the player’s knowledge of Bloodborne’s hostile environment, learning about the world makes them cultured, more man than beast, whilst at the same time driving them closer to the frenzy of complete insanity.

Bloodborne™_20150421143444

Madman’s Knowledge

In the case of both Darkest Dungeon and Bloodborne, the lore of the world points towards the dangers of gaining knowledge and the risks of what the player might learn about the world. Through the implementation of Stress and Insight, this idea is expanded on, shaping the player’s experience of the game world. Rather than being told about these risks, players are able to experience them for themselves: we wish to know the world and explore it, but we are hurt in the process. As we play, we realise that something is out there, a something which is unknown, which cannot be known, but which can certainly harm us. Lovecraft manages to capture this feeling and argues that “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

It is a knowledge which is available, which we should not wish for, but which we covet all the same, and ultimately, it is knowledge which we cannot escape as the lure of exploration is too great, the world we find ourselves in too enticing to be left alone. Perhaps the item description of Madman’s Knowledge from Bloodborne is most telling here: “Skull of a madman touched by the wisdom of the Great Ones. Making contact with eldritch wisdom is a blessing, for even if it drives one mad, it allows one to serve a grander purpose, for posterity.” Or indeed, as Darkest Dungeon reminds the player, “there can be no bravery without madness.”

———

Dr Madelon Hoedt is a part-time lecturer at the Faculty for Creative Industries of the University of South Wales, teaching on the “Computer Game Design” and “Theatre and Drama” courses. Her research focuses on performance and (pervasive) games, in particular examples of the Gothic and the horror genre.

Thoughts on Gametrailers and Game Trailers

Something a little different this fortnight. I don’t ordinarily talk much about what we might call the politics of the games industry, or games media, which is largely because I have very little to do with those aspects of the world of games, and particularly the triple-A games that (broadly speaking) dominate both. However, as I’m sure many of you are aware, gametrailers.com was abruptly shut down a little while ago. There have been many good analyses written about what caused this, and I’m not going to repeat any of the (no doubt astute) observations about the current state of games media they propose (and if I was going to, I would have been a little more speedy in uploading this entry). Instead, this closure – one that isn’t, I think, especially surprising, in the era of the Youtube and Twitch gaming celebrity – sent me onto a trail of reflection about my own history with the site, and what feels to me like a very distinctive moment in the history of games, and specifically the history of game trailers as a sub-genre of media in their own right. It’s a strange case where I find myself unable to say – was this just me, or did everyone around my age have this phase? – and that’s what I effectively want to ask here. We have a range of age demographics reading this blog, so I expect I’ll have people who fan out at least ten years on either side of my age, and as such I’m interested to read everyone’s reflections on the rise (and fall?) of trailers as a crucial part of online gaming culture and discussion.

gt

In a certain period, between the time of Half-Life 2 and Halo 3, I remember a stratospheric growth of Gametrailers as a website, and also the importance assigned to game trailers as a concept; with them all in one place, there was genuine interest in specific new trailers for new releases, and substantial analysis of what was shown in these trailers. This was the case even if those trailers were tiny and just a little bit different from what had come before; Gametrailers being the very regular, careful, formalised site it was, helped to generate this feeling that trailers were very important substantial things in gaming by themselves, rather than transient adverts for a future product. It also, of course, put everything in one place, and enabled a very easy transition from one to the next. I remember myself watching those trailers over and over, and – looking back as the mid-twenties academic, upon the mid-teens gameplayer I then was – I realize now that this was at least in large part because of the name of the website, and the concept that game trailers – not necessarily reviews, or commentary, or information, although those were all present – were, by themselves, noteworthy enough to post and display and think about. The mere fact that such a website existed seemed to imbue all game trailers with a degree of importance that went far beyond the noteworthiness one might ordinarily expect. These were events in their own right, and although obviously not as substantial as the actual release of the game itself, I do remember a rapid growth of discussion and commentary that came out of this, exploring what could be seen on trailers, what it meant for the games in question when they would eventually be released, and so on and so forth.

gt2

The final trailer that had this effect on me was the Halo 3 announcement trailer, if I remember correctly. My recollection is that this was actually something of an event in its own right, not just for those who were fans of Halo, but within game trailers as an entire sub-genre of media; it had a countdown if I recall, the countdown was highly visible, the trailer was quite “big-budget”, and it all added up to an event that was a meaningful percentage of the final product in terms of importance and visibility. However, in the present day, it seems as if the trailer for a new game isn’t the incredible excitement it was in that era. Am I incorrect? It’s very possible that it’s just my shift away from a segment of the gaming world that puts a lot of importance upon these kinds of “reveal”, but nevertheless, when I survey Twitter or gaming news sites or my friends who are very interested in triple-A games, it never feels as if trailers are something deeply fascinating any more. I can’t think of any major trailer reveals that have had the same kind of impact in the last few days; without doubt, the initial trailers for games like Mass Effect Andromeda have been noteworthy, but without the central hub of Gametrailers, they feel as if they matter only to the community they’re aimed at, rather than to gaming as a whole. Am I right in saying this was a particular historical epoch? And if so, what actually created it?

halo

Although this entry is another “throwing out ideas and seeing if they stick” post of the sort I’ve done several of in the last few months, I think I can still present a few hypotheses about what made Gametrailers so successful in that era. I’ve already recounted some of what made it so successful per se – the elevation of the trailer into something more important than it had ever been before, the creation of a user interface specifically designed for trailers, all trailers being located on a single website, and so forth. I think there are two other elements: for one, the era I’m talking about here was largely before the massive explosion of independent games, and therefore the majority of game interest was in triple-A games. These games tended to have major high-production-value trailers, and these trailers therefore tended to therefore accrue a lot of interest themselves. I think these elements each reinforced the other, creating a world where the trailers for these kinds of games became especially important, and where the number of high-popularity trailers was somewhat smaller than it was today (this was also, of course, before the recent explosion of games on Steam, Steam Greenlight, Steam Workshop, etc, etc). These elements came together, I suspect, to focus more community attention upon trailers, and therefore upon the website that curated them. Secondly, this was obviously an era before Youtube and Twitch. We couldn’t have access to all of our “manufactured” game video content on a single website (Youtube), and we didn’t have access to a massive amount of player-created content on two websites (Youtube and Twitch);. Although the latter tends not to include trailers, they have nevertheless surely shifted the overall attention of gamers towards these websites and away from smaller organisations who had a very specific and much smaller remit – as in the case of game trailers. Perhaps there are other elements too – what do you think? – but I think in this very initial analysis we can already start to see some of the broader elements within the games industry that came together to implicitly support the emergence of a website like Gametrailers, alongside what Gametrailers itself obviously did in order to make itself a success.

gt3

With the departure of Gametrailers, that era – or at least my personal subjective appreciation of that era – really feels like it has come to an end, with trailers now distributed through a range of sources and origins and websites, rather than being centralised on a website where you couldn’t only find the newest trailer for the game you were interested in, but also readily transition into looking at trailers for other games, with an ease and simplicity that, I think, even Youtube hasn’t actually fully matched (within the niche genre of game trailers, that is). I think there is something substantial here we can unpick about a particular moment in games, and although in this entry I’ve only been able to put out some initial thoughts, I’m confident we can identify some important developments and changes in the games industry in the emergence, lifespan, decline, and subsequent disappearance, of Gametrailers as a website and the very specific service that it offered. Has the presentation of triple-A games, especially to those who are not their initial audience, actually shifted as much as it feels it has to me?

There’s definitely more we can draw out of the study of trailers, I think, as they do so much to shape our expectations and assumptions around games, being effectively the most central kind of media that circulates before a game’s release. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – what were your experiences with Gametrailers? What do you think made it so successful in that era? And for those who do follow the triple-A world these days, have the social and community behaviours around trailers changed all that much, or have they largely just shifted onto other websites?

And at some point… I should really make a URR trailer.

Comments and Replies

Lastly and briefly: my apologies for being slow on replies to blog comments in the past few weeks. I try to reply to every single comment ever posted on this blog (except those which are the clearly the end of a conversation thread, of course), but my current busyness levels have made it tricky to prioritise keeping up with this obligation; however, I’ve just gone through all the comments from the last few blog entries, so if you left a comment there, a reply should now be in place…

Mining and Resource Scarcity

What do Mass Effect, Minecraft and EVE Online have in common? Well, Mass Effect and Minecraft both have magic (effectively); Mass Effect and EVE involve space-based combat; and Minecraft and EVE Online both gain regular acknowledgement outside the dedicated gaming press due to their social aspects and the dense and fascinating metagame. What all three have in common, however, is that they each possess a mechanic built around mining – obviously this is utterly central to Minecraft and one mechanic of many in the other two, but is nevertheless a surprising similarity when one ponders this a moment. We have a third person shooter/RPG, a sandbox game and a global MMO, yet all contain mining. I’ve excluded Dwarf Fortress from this first list, not because mining doesn’t play a part, but because in all the above games you are one character (or at least one account) – you are the one personally doing the mining, even if it is conducted via a ship-based proxy. You are the one controlling the Normandy’s resource-extraction effects, hacking away with your pickaxe in a voxel world, or floating in space whilst your ship’s mining lasers tease away precious minerals from unclaimed asteroids. In games where you cannot delegate the mining to a part of your computer-controlled allies (as in DF) and you have to actively mine yourself, what is the appeal of mining? Why is it there? Does it serve a gameplay function, a thematic one, or some combination of the two? In addition to these three there are hundreds if not thousands of other games with some mechanic involving mining – how did this banal activity become such an apparently ubiquitous part of the modern gaming experience? I believe there are four reasons for this – the first three definitely matter, but it is the fourth which is likely the most essential, which is to say that mining is a method of distributing resources to the player at specific temporal intervals, either entirely, partially or barely controlled by player action and player skill, and to ensure a distribution of resources either according to the stage of the game you’re at, or according to the time invested. But first, let us consider the three lesser functions that mining serves, and in doing so try to shed some light on why something so mundane has somehow become so very ubiquitous.

1) Mining as an easy way for players to feel achievement.

Mining gives players a very basic piece of positive feedback. You see the areas you’ve mined out, or the planets you’ve cleared, or the resources you’ve accrued. Your player character will in turn be better off than when you began the mining activity as a result of the increased resources or money now available to them. Even if absolutely no skill or thought beyond a few mouse clicks or holding down the “mine” button was required (e.g. Minecraft), that can still make you feel like you’ve progressed, moved forward in the game, and placed your character in a superior financial/resource position to where they started the day. This, obviously, is a somewhat lazy way to generate a feeling of achievement; surely achievement should only be felt when you’ve actually overcome a challenge or completed a segment of the game (y’know, when you’ve achieved something) rather than just engaging in an activity which takes nothing except time to complete? Mining may provide you with positive feedback, but it’s positive feedback developed from grinding, not from any real achievement. Nevertheless, I think this is undoubtedly one core appeal of mining; it’s a kind of gradual, iterative, step-by-step progress, one that often requires little engagement, and one which allows the player to settle into a rhythm of simplistic actions and easy rewards.

Mining3

2) Mining as an uninteresting way to pad out the game.

This aspect pretty much describes itself. There is a reason why lots of Minecraft players don’t bother with mining and just give themselves infinite quantities of every resource – the interest for them lies in what you can build with the resources, rather than having to actually acquire the resources themselves. Mining adds an unnecessary extension to a game. Consider the Mass Effect variation – many players, myself included, find exploring the in-game galaxy inherently enjoyable (I loved the Mako-wandering from ME1), without having to search for resources or items. Although you “need” to mine in order to afford upgrades for your ship and your crew, a moment’s thought will show that the designers could simply make every item in the game cheaper – and scale it to those resources gathered in missions, not via mining – and thereby remove the mining component altogether. It serves absolutely no real purpose other than extending the amount of (grinding) work required to improve your team (and nominally encouraging you to look at some of the pretty planets, but again – this should be interesting in its own right). The aspects of mining from the first point, that it is slow and steady and regular, can thereby be used to extend playtime with minimal effort as well as very easliy inculcating in the player a feeling of progress.

Mining

3) Mining as a narrative or thematic tool in the fictional universe.

Whilst I feel very negatively about those first two purposes, I think this one is more forgivable, particularly in the EVE Online context, which is the example I’ll explore here. The ability to mine doesn’t really do anything for the Mass Effect narrative – how and why exactly is the Normandy, a warship, equipped for mining?! – but it does apply to Minecraft in EVE. In Minecraft, of course, mining is integral to the fictional universe, but the EVE online example is richer and deeper. Much of EVE’s literature describes the idea that the entire game world is connected, that there are no free resources, that everything comes from somewhere and goes somewhere else, and therefore some chunk of ore mined by Player #17573 will later be used in a ship by Player #88215 in Corporation #2490 against another ship mined by another player for another corporation, and so forth. Equally, many EVE Online trailers and advertisements play upon variations of “frontier” and survivalist themes – the ability to find your own place to live, carve out your own survival using the natural resources available to you, make and break alliances as you see fit, and be self-sufficient (or team up with others who are then collectively self-sufficient). Mining both emphasizes the interconnectivity of EVE’s universe and the relevance of all actions (however small) to the overall metagame, and plays into the underlying themes of self-reliance, hypercapitalism, and carving out (literally and metaphorically) a place for yourself in the universe. Mining can, therefore, function thematically rather than mechanically/temporally… but it’s much less common.

Mining2

4) Mining as a game mechanic for managing resource quantity.

Most fundamentally, however, mining is simply a method for resource control, and although we see that in Mass Effect, it is most visible in Minecraft and EVE. In these games mining functions specifically as a method for managing how many resources the player has access to at any given time. In Minecraft, when played in the “survivalist” way it was arguably “meant” to be played, at least when originally released and before the massive growth of the Minecraft community, the player’s acquisition and use of resources is central to the game. Many of these survival game mechanics become entirely irrelevant if/when the player has access to infinite resources (e.g. if playing Minecraft solely to build interesting things), and so the gradual slow progress of mining serves to create difficult and interesting player decisions about what spend these resources on, and when, and how much time they spend acquiring and using resources, and when the player should take greater risks for greater resources (near lava, near monsters), and so on and so forth. In EVE this is even clearer, where mining directly affects how many resources are in flow around the game world, and thereby by slowing this progress but allowing players (and corporations) to improve and optimise that progress through purchasing better mining equipment and committing more to the practice. Equally, by placing more valuable resources in riskier areas, mining becomes a core part of the strategic gameplay, and enables a lot of risk/reward decisions and the ability for battles to be started and initiated on the back of attacking mining fleets, whilst also giving corporations a strong incentive to capture and defend “nullsec” areas of the game world, where there is no NPC police force, but the mining resources are the richest. In both of these cases mining is first and foremost a way to ensure the player has enough resources to act but few enough that interesting decisions are made; to offer risk-reward considerations for resource acquisition and spending; and to manage how much the player has access to, since no matter how skilled a player is, mining still takes time.

dwarmin

Final Thoughts

These, I think, are the four most central reasons for the massive volume of mining mechanics we see in contemporary games: offering a sense of achievement, somewhat arbitrarily lengthening what might otherwise be a shorter game, presenting a central part of the thematic elements of a game world, and managing the resources the player has access to (this last one has a particularly strong showing in “survival” games). There are, of course, other less common reasons to include mining in games. It can be a totally optional kind of background simulationist mechanic, as in games like NetHack, or it can be a game mechanic that has little to do with resources but everything to do with spatial manoeuvring in the game world, as in Spelunky (and some of the old home computer games that exist further back in its genealogy (Boulder Dash, etc). In all of these cases they have managed to take what seems like a very boring activity and add some extra meaning to it that makes it useful or meaningful to add into a game; naturally the mining in EVE is not quite as thrilling as a close space battle, of course, but its wider strategic-economic significance imbues it with a lot of meaning and a centrality to many game mechanics. In the same kind of way, mining in Mass Effect is not thrilling but does progress the player’s character(s) and gives information about the worlds they visit that flesh out the worldbuilding elements; mining in Minecraft serves a whole range of purposes, being naturally integral to the game, and transforms mining into something that, if not thrilling, at least offers the players something whilst their pixel pickaxe hacks away.

Nevertheless, as I’ve tried to argue here, I don’t think all of these mechanics are inherently desirable. There are far more interesting ways to achieve many of the outcomes listed here, and those methods would often be less time-consuming, more exciting for the player, and require less time investment and less time spent doing, effectively, nothing – it’s not for nothing that EVE miners have multiple accounts and rarely pay attention to the account that’s doing all the mining, as that remains an inevitably unexciting element of gameplay when in the moment, even if that unexciting gameplay contributes to the massively exciting emergent gameplay that takes part in the rest of the in-game universe. I think we should hope to see a reduction in mining mechanics and a growth in more interesting ways to achieve the same goals (or, indeed, to omit some goals, such as the arbitrary lengthening), but the systems can be so effective at achieving these four objectives that it’s hard to see designers abandoning them any time soon. Unpicking what makes something as dull as mining has become so central to games, however, helps us to see how game mechanics can be drawn from real-world sources and put to a massive number of purposes beyond what we might associate with them in the real world, and the kinds of motivations developers are using when they undertake this kind of transformation.

Next Time

I’m posting this entry in the middle of the week; as noted before, I’m on something of a break at the moment from blogging and developing simply due to the work load and pressure I’m under in my job at the moment, so since this blog post was around ten days from the last one, the next one will also have that kind of time gap. As I’ve said before, I hope to resume normality some time in November, and I’m still on track for that. We should also have a guest entry or two coming soon. Thanks again to you all for being so understanding – I really appreciate all the kind messages I’ve got here, by email, on Reddit, etc. URR will resume soon, and 0.8 will be out, and with that we’ll be past the 50% mark on development. Stay tuned, everyone…