How Basic is Basic Gaming Literacy?

I’d like to start this entry with an anecdote, which outlines the basic issue I’m pondering far more effectively than an abstract discussion. A few years ago I found myself in the position of trying to teach someone who had never played a single video game in their life – and had extremely limited experience of board or card games – the very basics of video games. I chose Castle Crashers as an introductory game. I’m sure some of you will think that was a great choice for the reasons I did (fun, witty and amusing, easy to get into, not very challenging on the standard difficulty, simple mechanics), although I’m sure there are reasons why it would be a bad game compared to some others (if you had to choose a “first game”, which would you choose, and why?). Nevertheless: that was the one I went with, and even though something very strange happened, I remain fairly confident that it was a good choice.

So, maybe half an hour later and some way into the game, I noticed that my friend’s character was nearly dead. I said something along the lines of “You’re nearly dead, be careful, and I’ll finish off the enemies”, and they replied with “How can you tell?”. That surprised me just a little, but then I realized: ok, they haven’t connected the health bars at the top of the screen with their character’s status. Perfectly reasonable for a total video game novice. I said something like “Your health is at the top of the screen”, and they replied: “Ah, you mean that blue bar?”.

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Here is a screenshot of Castle Crashers. As you can see, each player has a health bar and a magic bar.

Now, hold on! Stop there, and just think. You just read that previous sentence, and that all made sense to you, didn’t it? You didn’t need to ask “which is which?”. You glanced at the screenshot, and it was obvious from the get-go that the red bar will naturally be health, and the blue bar – since this is a game of swords and sorcery – must, therefore, be magic. Were it something like Deus Ex, for example, you’d have probably thought that bar was something like “Energy”, right? Nobody needs to be told that the red is health and the blue is magic… and yet my friend didn’t know this.

Now, the friend in question is no idiot: far from it. But when this happened, I wasn’t even sure what to say for a few moments, and it almost felt as if I’d been bodily removed from the situation: it was as if we’d been reading a book, and I’d said “hey, look at this scene where the heroes go to the shop”, and they’d said “which scene?” and I’d said “this scene”, and pointed to the appropriate paragraph, and they’d said “ah, you mean the scene where Bob steps into the shower”. It was, for a brief moment, just inconceivable; I even briefly entertained the notion that they were joking. Again, I must stress: I wasn’t trying to be rude at the time when I think I then uttered a puzzled “No, it’s the red bar…”, and I’m not trying to insult this person here recounting the story; I’m trying to focus on the shock of this comment, and the fact that this person’s comment about the blue bar was entirely honest, and innocent, and just thought the blue bar must be their bar of health since (presumably, though I don’t recall exactly) it must have been very low. Naturally, had there also been a green bar, we as experienced game-players would instantly know that has to be a “Stamina” bar (what else could be a green bar be?!), but perhaps that would have been mistaken for the health bar instead (an example of a classical three-bar system would be Oblivion, as shown below, where the nature of each bar seems “obvious” to us even if we’ve never played the game).

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In a manner of speaking, this event has been a major influence on my entire academic research agenda. It got me thinking about so much: how much gaming literacy do we take for granted? Why do we take these for granted? How have we all learned these assumptions? How can someone learn them for the first time, and can these even be learned without being explicitly told?

In trying to answer these questions I first came to think about the different sources of cultural assumptions in games. There are some aspects of games which speak of other games, and only other games, and never speak of books or films. By this I mean: once we’ve seen dragons in cinema, and read about dragons in literature, we can reasonably know what a dragon looks like in a game, and come to some fair conclusions about what kind of powers and abilities that dragon might possess. By contrast, nothing in literature or cinema prepares us for the health bar. Shakespeare never said that Mercutio and Tybalt wisely checked their health bars during their duel and adjusted their tactics accordingly; Michael never checked the DPS of his pistol before executing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant in the original Godfather. Health bars are only in games, so you have to play games and use health bars in order to learn how to use health bars in games… as it were. These things are reciprocally defined through one’s use of them and one’s knowledge of that they are, and both the embodied everyday experience of use, and the knowledge of certain norms and standards and games, mutually inform one another.

I feel now it is impossible for me (or any other gamer) to unlearn the ability to “read” a game based on these “obvious” assumptions, every bit as much as it seems impossible for me to forget how to read the English language. We can vaguely understand what it might be like to be illiterate by glancing at a language we do not understand (and ideally one with a script which is completely alien to us, so Arabic or Mandarin rather than French or German, speaking as a native English speaker with no other language knowledge), but that doesn’t really do it: we (as literate people) still have a model in our heads of how one reads, and we can try to pick out the gaps in symbols and identify words and phrases, we might be able to identify common words, or important terms via their capitalization or placement in a sentence, and so on and so forth (something that, one assumes, an illiterate person would not be able to do, regardless of what language or script is placed in front of them). I can look at a language I know nothing of and still draw some vague conclusions about how it might be read or structured, even if I couldn’t decipher a single word of it.

Increasingly, I also find myself thinking of these questions in terms of eSports. Many in the competitive and professional gaming world are keen to see eSports expanding onto “mainstream” TV rather than or alongside Twitch, but there’s definitely a literacy issue here. Someone who has never seen Tennis, for instance, can watch a match of Tennis and, within perhaps a minute, have a reasonable appreciation of the rules – hit the ball back and forth, don’t miss it, don’t let it bounce twice, don’t hit the net. By contrast, consider someone inexperienced watching a MOBA game. I own several thousand games, have played most of them, and have been playing since I was a toddler, but I’ve never actually played a MOBA myself, and when I watch one, I can barely make any sense of what’s taking place on screen. This question of game literacy strikes me as a crucial barrier to the growth of eSports into this kind of domain, and although systems like “spectator modes” do much to ease the transition for the inexperienced spectator, they certainly don’t go far enough. But how else might we raise the game literacy of the average spectator, without making such games simpler? Is that even possible? Watching some eSports games (like Counter-Strike) are relatively clear even if one misses the tactical nuance, but MOBA games are profoundly visually indecipherable. Game literacy strikes me as a fascinating topic as a whole, but in eSports, in some ways it reaches both its most extreme form (given the complexity of some games), and in some ways its most politically important form, as concerned as many eSports actors are with the expansion of the medium.

To answer the initial question in the title of this entry, I think there are two elements of game literacy that demand our attention. Firstly, the question of basic game literacy in the sense of the colours of bars and other questions of that sort; absolute, almost unquestioned, almost axiomatic norms that pass across multiple games, multiple genres, multiple eras, and which have reached a point of being taken-for-granted by most players and designers that they are never even considered. How do people learn those absolute basics, and how does the assumption that everyone knows those basics shape the experiences of new players? The other aspect, however, is a question of how much game literacy is required to understand the entirety (or at least enough to appreciate it) of one game, rather than concepts and ideas that cut across multiple games. This is surely an integral part of game broadcast as a whole, but has found a new importance with the push in eSports toward “mainstream” television, and in many ways is question is harder to answer. How would one convey the information about a MOBA to someone who doesn’t play? Can enough information even be conveyed? Will viewers hang around for long enough to get that information? There’s a growing body of academic work on game literacy, and it’s a fascinating domain; in some ways, however, I think the absolute foundations of this question (for all games, for one game) are where we want to start, understanding the precise processes by which this kind of information is acquired and learned – or, possibly, not.

Westworld and Immersive Games

HBO’s new Westworld series is absolutely essential viewing for anyone with an interest in games. It’s a great mystery, a great thriller, and great science-fiction, but it’s also fundamentally an exploration of games. On one level it is obviously an exploration of immersive or pervasive games – games that expand past traditional boundaries to engage with the “real world”, or physical spaces, or blur the line between the game and the non-game – but the series is also rife with observations about why people play games, the power of games to affect one’s “real” life, the blurring of the lines between games and life, the roles of secrets and knowledge and expectations in games (which is naturally very appropriate to my game design interests), and the how game worlds can be made more believable (or can fail to achieve that). In this post I’d like to look at some of these elements, and argue that Westworld offers a number of interesting reflections on the present and future state of games. Several other writers have already noted Westworld/video game similarities and argued that Westworld represents a bad video game, and I recognise I will inevitably retread a little bit of common ground here (this, of course, is what happens when I tend not to consume media until it has been out for some time). Nevertheless, five points stood out strongly to me that I felt were worth a (or another) look, and whereas other critics have tended to focus on the “game mechanics” of Westworld (and how lifeless its NPCs and narratives are), I’m more interested in ideas of play present in Westworld, and what it says about how and why we consume games. This entry will contain minimal plot spoilers (except the fifth point, but there are warnings in place in those paragraphs), but there will be a few mentions of particular scenes, and in some cases descriptions of the characters in those scenes, because they are particularly relevant to drawing out the most interesting points for discussion. I’ve made sure to give away the smallest possible amount of information, however, because – as with many shows of this ilk – spoilers are pretty destructive to the overall story.

Secrets and Knowledge

To begin with, there is some interesting discussion about secrets and knowledge in game worlds in Westworld that seems to have been largely overlooked. Several characters as the series goes on discuss the idea that there might be many “secrets” in the game world to be found, and that the surface game world is only for a lesser, or newer, players. One character is compelled to find something which he believes to be a deeper game hidden within the main game, that the main game is designed to hide; one might identify a similar concept in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where a game-wide mystery has been present for decades without anyone having ever solved the clues to identify it, and the puzzle itself has been designed with a particular set of values and concepts in mind. Another Westworld character hypothesises that when the game starts, they are placed in a relatively “safe” town in the middle of Westworld, but the further out from this core a player gets, the more exciting, and scary, and “dangerous”, the narratives become. In particular, they believe it is possible to take part in a civil-war-esque “hidden” narrative and to lead a military force, but they’ve never before been able to hit the right triggers to get themselves into that plot. A “better” player should therefore strike out from where they start and seek out these other stories and their secrets, whilst newer players remain in the centre.

I won’t spoil what relevance – if any – these conversations have and whether any/all of these “secrets” are actually out there, or whether it’s a big urban myth that nevertheless shapes the experiences of Westworld attendees, but the mere existence of such conversations is a smart little wink towards the early video game era of secrets and the passing-down of myths between players and competitors. Games like Fez have been famously designed with this concept in mind: the potential for rumours about game secrets to spread between players, and therefore the attendant possibility for fake stories. Anyone from a gaming generation that, I think, I was born at the end of, will recognise the ability for stories and secrets about games to spread between friends and cause people to seek out these obscure hidden meanings. In Westworld it is tremendously exciting to see this concept blown up to a large scale, where the secrets might be hidden anywhere across hundreds of square miles, dispersed cryptic clues, and questions about whether the secrets even exist in the first place. With a world so detailed and with such (broadly speaking) lifelike NPCs, and the impossibility of ever seeing anything more than a small percentage of what the park has to offer in a single visit, it’s not hard to imagine why these kinds of myths and rumours would spread. Westworld draws our attention back to a kind of gameplay and a kind of game-led social behaviour perhaps in decline as the internet immediately solves any and all game mysteries, by offering a world so complex and life-like that nobody can really know for sure that everything has been found.

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Acting, Theatre and Games

Secondly, there’s some interesting reflections on the relationships between theatre and games, and the excitement of dealing directly with actors in a kind of interactive drama. Illustrative of this is an absolutely fantastic moment where one of the guests is being shown around the outside of the park by a woman he clearly finds (or is meant to find?) sexually attractive; but he is unable to tell whether she is a host or a human. They briefly discuss the fact that he is unable to tell, during which she expresses her amusement at that fact, and the whole scene develops a wonderful frisson between the two. If she is a host, it’s amusing; but if she is a human, the game she plays with him becomes all the more exciting, and – given what the viewer has already learned about the ability to play out one’s desires within the park – erotic. It’s the same kind of game-like eroticism found in a masquerade, or in sexual roleplay: the excitement of the uncertainty of whether the person you’re pursuing is truly who they seem, or is who you think they are, or whether they are acting or behaving in a certain way just for you, and the excitement of you both implicitly/tacitly agreeing to “play the game” for as long as it lasts.

It’s the same kind of thrill (in a non-erotic context) that one gets from immersive performance when talking to actors who are directly talking to you, but holding character when doing so; you find yourself (or at least, I find myself) suddenly desperately eager to learn about who these people are in real life. When your only encounter with them might be during a performance, and you are unlikely to ever see them again, I find myself all the more interested in the lives of these people who have only ever interacted with you whilst portraying a character. Westworld plays on this well, especially as several plot points develop later in the series, and there are a number of contexts where you can tell the human players are uncertain how they “can” or “should” act when the “actors” (the androids) remain in character, but the guests know that the park is only a park. Several mention the truth to the androids, who can never quite work out what they mean by the “outside world” and so forth, and remain entirely in character. Although naturally the androids express bemusement because they are programmed to, the effect is the same as immersive theatre – an actor who remains in character no matter what, even with a guest or viewer trying to break them out of it. It’s a really interesting reflection on playing games with “real people” (or in Westworld, those who act as real people) and the kind of experience players have talking to someone who won’t break character no matter what actually happens, and I hope we see more of these ambiguities in the second season.

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Maintaining the Illusion

Thirdly, Westworld does some interesting things when it comes to maintaining the illusion of a seamless game world. Naturally video games have become better and better at this in recent years, with characters who behave in often more believable ways, with more complex and more varied actions reducing the sense that you’re watching a predictable machine, just as graphics technology inches towards photo-realism and the creation of deeper stories and worldbuilding make game worlds seem ever more real and grounded (see my recent piece on Bloodborne). However, in Westworld, in a game where the possibility space is so vast and the NPCs have a range of potential actions and decisions immeasurably wider than any NPC in a current video game, Westworld’s designers have had to find ways to ensure that the illusion is maintained, but also that players can never find themselves in situations that a) cannot be escaped or b) will cause them genuine harm, whilst still c) ensuring thrill and excitement and d) the feeling of danger. This is never a focus of the series, but from a game design perspective, it’s quite interesting to look at what Westworld does in this area, and how they handle the balance between these three conflicting desires.

For example, there are a few moments where the guests, in the real world, would be in danger. In some instances this is just a case of shooting a gun: the hosts cannot actually harm the guests, and thus a guest with a loaded gun can potentially just wade into a crowd of enemies and gun them down, without worrying about consequences. To counter this, in some cases the hosts try to disarm the guests rather than shooting them back, which leads to some of the trickier situations – one which stands out involved a guest bound with rope, and apparently about to be branded with a red-hot brand, as a result of being seen as a traitor or deserter. However, at the final moment another host intervenes to save the guest, who was genuinely unable to save themselves, and in the resulting mayhem the guest then finally manages to struggle to a knife and free themselves. In another situation, one guest is about to hurt another guest with a knife, and at the final second a host lunges forward, exerts their full mechanical force on the arm of the first guest, and pulls the knife down into the nearby table where it can do no harm. The agency for escaping these impossible-to-escape moments comes from outside the players themselves, who (especially in the first case) are clearly meant to be feel genuine (“genuine”) helplessness for this portion of the game/narrative. Westworld (the park) has been apparently designed to ensure that seemingly risky or scary situations can be developed – and indeed many guests are clearly scared or worried when hosts do certain things – whilst making sure the guest can never find themselves in an impossible situation.

It’s a very interesting balance, and one that strikes me as having the potential for interesting situations in video games, because it plays with the idea of trust – “have the game designers planned this?”, and “was this intended?”. I can think of very few games that have generated this feeling in me, but the few times it has happened, and I’ve been genuinely unsure whether or not something is meant to happen and whether or not I’ve done something that might have just ruined my chances of success, it has always been a very compelling and very exciting moment – the ability of the game to genuinely surprise you. Naturally in a far-future world with intelligent androids this feeling would no doubt be slightly easier to generate than in present video games, but Westworld nevertheless highlights the importance of surprise and the unexpected to the game experience. It makes people question – even if only for a second – if this was meant to happen, if there’s a way out of this situation, and so forth. I’d love to see more games playing with these kinds of ideas; whilst alternate reality games have certainly used similar ideas, these still remain a niche genre at most, whilst mainstream games seek to never introduce this kind of reflective uncertainty.

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Games and the Outside World

Fourthly, Westworld examines the motivations that people have for playing games in the first place, and particularly coming to a violent place like Westworld when the real world (which we never see on screen) is apparently a place of plenty, and safety, and security. At one point a guest finds himself falling for one of the hosts (the android NPCs), and tries to get them out of the park. Exasperated by the guests talking about the outside world (the nature of which they do not understand), this host snaps in anger, saying: “You both keep assuming that I want out, whatever that is. If it’s such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamouring to get in here?”. It’s a great question that several characters answer in various ways, describing that they were only able to “find themselves” in a world where there is the sense of genuine risk; they came there for the thrill, for the excitement, for the illusion of something “real”, and so forth. The idea of a very safe society resulting in the desire for risk is a theme that others have covered in science fiction in the past, perhaps most obviously in Iain M Bank’s Culture series, but Westworld also offers some reflections on these questions, where numerous characters discuss their outside lives and their motivations for coming to this park.

Equally, there’s some discussion of the similarity between the hosts (i.e. the NPCs) and the guests (i.e. the players). For example, one character states: “Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next”. In some ways, this is perhaps both the most startling critique of the hosts – basically admitting that they are dull, uninteresting, and still deeply constrained no matter how much free will they seem to have – and of the guests, and implicitly, of the viewer watching this on television or their computers. It’s an impressive call for people to make more of their lives and do break out of their normal loops and do something “real” – the precise feeling people come to Westworld for – and yet they admit the park only offers the most simplistic narrative loops for the guests to engage with! In some ways it seems difficult to know what to make of this statement – or, rather, what the solution is. It’s a damning critique of games and their players, but one which does seem to have a solution, which is the fifth and final point I’d like to look at here…

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Games and the Weight of Decisions

Alongside these other four points, Westworld also offers interesting reflections on how the weight of decisions affects the experience of gameplay. However, before going into this in detail, I should give a warning: this final section, inevitably, has some major spoilers, and that’s unavoidable due to the topic. If you want to skip it, avoid this text and the accompanying picture, and head down to the next heading below, “The Westworld Game”, where you’ll find my concluding thoughts which will be back to the same level of spoiler-free-ness as the rest of this post. If not, however…

Westworld, as noted above, portrays a game/theme park where the possibility of any genuine harm to the guests has been completely eliminated. We see that guests can be hit and fought, or might be restrained or locked up for periods, and can even be put in situations that appear inescapable but always have some secret solution, but there is never any possibility for genuine harm to come to the players. However, for some players, this isn’t enough – the ability to “do anything” (kill, plunder, abuse, explore) is made less compelling when nothing comes with any substantial repercussions, and reduces the park from an immersive experience to a spectacle players just drift through. This is best illustrated in one episode when a complex scripted event (a bank heist) is playing out, and two guests just wander into it, and – impervious to the bullets of the hosts – just shoot everyone. The Westworld controllers overseeing the game are shown expressing clear annoyance that their story had been spoiled (both for themselves, and all the other guests?) by these two guests who had abused their god-mode invincibility to upset the game’s functioning. Although many come to Westworld to find meaning, therefore, many find no deeper meaning beyond amusement, entertainment and debauchery, allowing them to do things they cannot do in the world record, but not to do those things and have them truly matter.

However, at the end of the series, it appears that the limitations on the hosts have been lifted, and they are now able to cause genuine harm. One of the main characters of the series expressed throughout several episodes his resentment of the “surface game” – where nothing truly matters and nobody can be truly harmed – and is searching for something called “the maze”, which he believes is a deeper level of the game where people can, perhaps, be truly harmed, or partake in activities with real meaning. Upon finding that the maze is not what he thought, he is even more disillusioned with the game, and finds it even more irrelevant than ever. However, in the final scene of the series, he is shot in the arm by a host, and is genuinely shot – he loses blood, and staggers backwards, and then a smile spreads upon his face: the game has finally become real, and the game finally matters, and finally means something. Naturally games don’t have to come with the risk of physical harm to be truly meaningful, but Westworld does engage with questions around the greater meaning of games, and the importance of impact to one’s actions to the enjoyment of a game (whether within the game, as with games where one cannot reload, or outside of the game, as with wagering money on gameplay). I’ll be extremely interested to see how this plays out in the second season of the series, and whether they continue to consider the ways that games gain meaning and how experiences of play are changed by having something “at stake”. Can deeper meaning be found in play with something being at stake? Many professional gamblers would certainly tell you an emphatic “yes”, as would most professional gamers, or those who compete for high-scores as I do, or speedruns, or particularly elusive achievements. It remains to be seen, however, how the rest of Westworld guests will take to this transformed, and newly-meaningful, game…

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The Westworld Game

Westworld is not, first and foremost, an exploration of games. There are many other thematic elements that are undoubtedly foregrounded more in the series; inevitably, though, as a game designer/scholar, it’s hard for me not to focus on the game elements to the series. To date, many of the other critiques of Westworld from a video games perspective have tended to focus on whether it’s actually a particularly “good” game, primarily in terms of the lives and behaviours of its NPCs and how it engages (or fails to engage) the player with the narratives being offered. These are valuable critiques, but I think there’s a number of other points I’ve outlined in this entry which are perhaps more interesting engagements with Westworld’s depiction of games and play. Westworld plays on the interest of game players in tricks and secrets; the relationship between acting and play, especially in theatre and immersive games; how the relationship between agency, safety and excitement can be managed in a game space; the relationship between games and the outside world, and the motivations of players; and the “weight” of decisions in games and the importance of meaningful decisions, and meaningful consequences, in play that is deeper than a merely surface game. All of these highlight that a little bit of time spent unpicking some of the series’ secondary narrative threads yields some genuinely intriguing insights, and ones which show a series intellectual engagement with the nature, and value, of games and gameplay. I’ll certainly be watching the second season when it comes around, and I very much hope they continue to build on the game themes here when the writers come to decide on what comes next. In the mean time, for those of you who haven’t seen it, I would certainly recommend it: and do let me know in the comments below what you thought of the series and its game-like elements (with appropriate spoiler warnings if necessary).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Perfect Dark Retrospective

A few years ago Perfect Dark was re-released on Xbox Live Arcade. Whilst it was generally met with a positive reception as an impressive modernization of a classic game, especially since the new engine was built ground-up to be as close a copy of the old engine as possible, several reviewers claimed the game’s level design didn’t hold up well compared to its modern successors. Gamespot suggested the levels are riddled with “locked doors, unused rooms, and dead ends”; Eurogamer argued that “games are now so much better at telling you where you should go next and what you should do when you get there”; Gametrailers criticized the lack of “waypoint markers or maps”; Joystiq suggests that “without a blinking arrow navigating you to your next objective, the gameplay can feel aimless”; CVG says the level design is “adrift of the clear and responsive standards we’re now used to”; while Cheat Code Central, with impressive hyperbolae, suggest that “the modern gamer will find it borderline unplayable.”

All these criticisms boil down into a core statement – that the actual navigation and traversal of the physical space of these maps is unnecessarily challenging. They posit players asking “Where do I go?” whilst fumbling around the apparently obtuse level design. This piece is going to look at this claim, consider the level design of Perfect Dark in depth, the more-modern level design of some other shooters, and then consider whether these criticisms are valid, or merely a sign of the times in an age of shooters that, perhaps, demand rather less of their players. I’ll also be looking in detail at two levels and a third set of levels that illustrate some of the things I like the most about the singleplayer campaign in Perfect Dark, and that many reviewers have tended to miss in favour of criticizing some of the weaker levels in the set. Perfect Dark has seventeen main levels of the campaign. I’m going to focus on the idea that the levels are full of pointless, unused or dead-end areas, and then also talk about one other level which displays a surprisingly effective emotional effect that, many many years later, games like Mass Effect 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood would repeat.

Area 51: Infiltration / Rescue / Escape

Towards the middle of the game are three levels within Perfect Dark’s conception of Area 51. InfiltrationThese three levels all take place on different parts of a single huge map (as does a bonus mission unlocked when you complete the game, but I won’t cover that one here) and the first level cleverly sets up the ending of the third level. In the first level, Infiltration, you come across the door on the right before you’ve actually managed to enter the underground Infiltration2portions of Area 51. A new player might think this door is the way in; you can enter, kill a few guards, but as shown in the picture to the left, you cannot go any further (the guard who has decided to strategically insert himself into the doorway is not an essential part of the level design here). The door on the left of this picture is locked, and one might initially think this supports Gamespot’s assertion that the levels are riddled with “locked doors, unused rooms, and dead ends” which make it harder and harder to figure out where to go. Whilst this is the dead end, it is only a dead end on this level. It is in fact an important door in the overall Area 51 map, of which this is only a portion, and as we’ll see you can return to it later.

TechnicianBefore returning to this door, you’ll run into this technician manning an interceptor drone. Ordinarily you need to kill him to acquire a keycard for the lift that takes you down into Area 51 (the real entrance, not the locked one we’ve just talked about), but you can actually choose to knock him out instead. On some difficulties you have to do this quickly in the mission otherwise he’ll launch the interceptor he’s standing next to and move down into an area of the game which, later, you have to blow up with explosives. Either way – if you knock him out, you get the keycard anyway and there’s no apparent difference until the next level.

Rescue1The second level in the set is Rescue. When you start, you quickly reach this corridor; the door this guard protects is locked. However, if you left the technician alive on the previous level, you can use the X-Ray Visor you have for this mission (for an unrelated objective) to look through the door, and sure enough, the technician you kindly saved will be standing behind the Rescue2door. After a few moments he will open the door, be terrified by your presence and run away, but his work is done – he opened the door. Once through you find yourself on the upper level of the hangar you were in on the previous level, but this time the lift you arrived in doesn’t transport you between two hangars but instead takes you nearer the surface into an area you would only normally visit in the bonus mission unlocked at theRescue5 end of the campaign. On a pedestal in this room you’ll find a Phoenix, a very powerful weapon you don’t normally get until the final few levels. This is an interesting method of placing secrets that FPS games, even those with distinct levels, don’t ordinarily do – your seemingly-trivial side actions on one level have an effect on the next level to unlock a door, or keep an NPC alive, or allow you to use a vehicle (both of those also happen in the game). They are entirely unessential to completing the game. I think this may also be another example of the “dead ends” that Gamespot so disliked, but actually points towards a different issue – that the game expects the player to explore and experiment (and, given the era, to presumably discuss with other players online) to figure out how to open some of these doors. There are far fewer doors in the game that truly “go nowhere” than that article implies; many can be opened by an obscure sequence or link to another part of the map that might be visited on a related mission, or in many cases, a higher difficulty. Towards the end of the level you may come across this locked door, another apparent “dead end”, but it is actually anything but…

Escape1

The third level, Escape, returns highlights the inter-connectivity of this level. Just like the first two you visit some new areas of the complex and some of the ones you’ve already been to as well, helping the player build up their mental image of the entire area. At the end of the level you are given two options – to let your ally sacrifice himself so you can escape, or you can help him escape and try and find your own way out. The default is the former; many players are unlikely to even realize the latter is an option (again perhaps contributing to the impression that the level is full of pointless doors?). However, if you offer to let your ally escape and find your own way out, the way in you took in the earlier two missions is locked, so another route must be found.

Escape2At this point much of the level unlocks (but not the way “backwards”) and you can make your way to the other side of the complex. Whilst guards continue to spawn you will find your way to the door shown above, but this time, it’s unlocked. You pass over a bridge and come to the room on the left, which you won’t have visited before. The door just shown in the right of the Escape3picture leads back to where you met your ally the mission before, whilst the blood-splattered door ahead (blood splatter optional) leads into this room. Seem familiar? This is the other side of the locked door from all the way back in Infiltration! You open the door and you’re back outside, and the moment you step over the threshold, the mission ends, and you’ve gone full circle through the entire Area 51 map, even though it took three different missions to do it.

Whilst some FPS games have you circle back around in order to explore a new area, few have you do this between levels. Indeed, most modern FPS prefer to have a linear path not just between levels but within levels themselves; games like the Legend of Zelda or Dark Souls may emphasize the opening up of new shortcuts and the like, but it’s rare for an FPS to do the same. Whilst many players will not even figure out that this ending exists, once you do it the entire map comes together rather suddenly in one’s head – you haven’t just been going deeper and deeper into the complex, but rather moving around the complex, and coming back out through the locked door you might have visited in Infiltration is a great moment the first time it happens.

In the picture below you can see the parts of the overall Area 51 map (thanks to memoryhacking.com for the background image; the three coloured outlines are my additions) that are used in each part of the level. Rescue overlaps with Infiltration, Escape overlaps with Rescue, and Infiltration in turn has a little overlap with Rescue. When you choose the “hidden” ending in Escape, much of the Rescue part also unlocks, but that’s only for the “final run” to escape Area 51 on the hoverbike.

Aremap

Thus, in the entire three levels – despite their complexity – there is not a single door that is not used at some point. Once the player understands that locked doors are not just those doors you get in other games that are textures rather than objects (a la Half-Life 2) but do always lead onto some other part of the level (though I confess there are one or two minor exceptions, but only one or two in the entire game), it becomes apparent that these doors are actually things the player is meant to remember and keep track of. Locked door this time? Well, if the next level takes place on the same map (or parts of it), perhaps it will be open this time? Or maybe there’s some secret sequence that will unlock it and give me access to a secret? Once you realize this, finding a locked door is actually quite an interesting moment as you try to figure out how best it may be opened. I think the criticism over dead-ends shows a lack of appreciation of both the complexity of some of the maps, and (as I’ll talk about next) the fact that some parts of some maps are only unlocked on higher difficulties, or if you perform a particular (sometimes quite obscure) action within the mission.

Deep Sea: Nullify Threat

On higher difficulty levels these days we rarely see FPS games that put forward more objectives. You still go to the same places on the same levels and do the same things, but it’s just “harder” – enemies have more health, more accuracy, better weapons, fire faster, smarter AI, etc. However, Perfect Dark often has areas of its levels which either require a particular difficulty setting or a particular trigger to access. An amazing example of this is the Deep Sea level. During this mission you have to “disable a megaweapon” on a sunken alien vessel, but depending on which difficulty you play on, you will visit three totally different maps and disable the weapon in three totally different ways. If you never do all three difficulty levels you will never even see some parts of this level (and even if you DO play it on the highest difficulty, some parts of the level can only be sighted using the see-through-walls scope on one of the weapons, and cannot be physically accessed). This takes both the non-linearity and the emphasis on new areas and new objectives for higher difficulties to a higher point than any other mission.

Deep2On Agent difficulty you find your way through a series of corridors into the room on the right, illuminated by a pulsing green light. In this first example you wait until your ally catches up with you (which can take a while as he loves wasting time on the path there) and wait until he disables the weapon by using the console. Although you only see this area on Agent, it’s a surprisingly atmospheric room (and hints towards just how many rooms in the later Timesplitters series would have pulsing lights).

Deep4On Secret Agent the same teleporter takes you instead to a balcony overlooking this room which you quickly descend towards down a spiraling corridor. Whereas the first appears to be a control room, this appears to be perhaps the firing mechanism of the weapon itself? The second beam feeding into the middle has to me always evoked the little ignition fire on a flamethrower; as something small that triggers the far greater weapon. Although you’re now clearly near the core or the firing mechanism of the weapon itself, your ally is still required to disable it.

Deep5Having seen the control room and the firing mechanism of the weapon on the other two difficulties, on the Perfect Agent difficulty you pass through a series of rooms that seem to form the power supply of the weapon. In these you have to destroy these glowing pillars, before then doing something very interesting. You’ve been equipped with a weapon that can see Deep6through walls and you have to use it in order to shoot out the final few pillars which cannot be accessed or seen ordinarily. That these final components cannot be easily reached – combined with the fact that stopping the megaweapon on this difficulty needs destruction instead of a technical fix, reinforces the sense that you’re crawling around the least accessible parts of the ship; its engineering decks, engines, fuel reserves, power supplies, and so forth. The fact you visit a different part of the ship on each difficulty makes this one of my favorite levels in the game – the “higher difficulty areas” are larger than any other level, more varied, and although nothing explicit is said the aesthetics of the three areas seem to suggest the three different “components” of the weapon I’ve described here. I also (this will be a common theme for regular readers) also really appreciate the effort put in to what could easily be termed “optional content” – a lot of players will never see some of these areas, but they still took the time to put them in, and it really rewards you for attempting the higher difficulty levels.

Carrington Institute: Defence

This is the last level I want to look at. It takes place directly after Deep Sea and I think the setting of this level is interesting (the other two levels having illustrated my thoughts on the level design of Perfect Dark). Until you reach this point in the game, the “Carrington Institute” is your home-base or your hub, akin to Firelink in Dark Souls, the Normandy in Mass Effect or Monteriggioni in Assassin’s Creed 2. You can leave the campaign at any time to come back here and wander around, explore the institute, talk to any of the staff, do a bunch of tests (which range from the challenging and enjoyable like the firing range to the… less challenging and less enjoyable like a lot of the equipment tasks), read up on information on the plot, weapons, locations, vehicles and whatever else, and generally take a break. Back when I played on the N64 I found it surprisingly easy to just wander around here and take a break from the missions themselves; it becomes a place of easy relaxation and safety.

Car1bWhich is why (much like Mass Effect & Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood would do a decade later) it’s so very, very clever when one of the later missions has you defending the institute and rescuing the hostages who are these people you’ve been chatting with and helping out up to this point. In these two screenshots, the folks in green are your friends, the blue/black guards the invaders holding them Car2bhostage; you have to leap into the offices and gun down both the hostage takers within a second or two before they take out your friends. It’s a very effective technique; whilst I enjoy a lot of other missions, this one has always felt to me the most urgent and the most “real”, somehow, as your enemy invades the place you’ve been comfortable wandering around and calling home between missions. It’s a surprisingly effective technique, and whilst I don’t know if Perfect Dark was the first game to ever give you a hub which is later explicitly attacked, it is certainly chronologically the first I know of. Whilst this isn’t strictly a level design observation, when one plays the Defence mission one then realizes that, actually, the Institute has been designed to offer an interesting singleplayer mission as well as being a believable hub for the rest of the game.

Changing FPS Standards?

Now, let’s look at a comment from Eurogamer.

Perfect Dark’s not afraid to throw dead ends at you seemingly for the hell of it, or repeat textures so much in its huge maps that you can get a little dizzy.

I think we have covered the first half of that comment – that these locked doors are either for other levels using the same map, or for higher difficulties on the same map – but let’s consider the repeating of textures. This, alas, is somewhere Perfect Dark does fall down, but at the same time it tries (sometimes) to negate the most negative effects of the copy-paste level construction that raises its head in a few places. Several levels can be confusing until you come to know them. For all I praised the interesting design and the secrets of the Area 51 levels above, when you first play them (especially during Rescue) it can be hard to orient yourself inside in the endless sequence of similar pristine corridors. However, the game does offer something to help – there’s a range of different door shapes only used in a small number of places. Whether these were specifically placed to help people orient themselves is, perhaps, besides the point – once you come to recognize the various types of doors, the similar-looking corridors stop blurring into one another. Whilst I cannot confirm this, why have so many different types of door otherwise? Why go to the effort of having different sizes, different textures, different animations, some with/without glass, if this variation didn’t serve some purpose to help the player orient themselves?

Ders

Since (as we’ve covered) the levels are rarely straight lines, this makes the need for the player to get their orientation even more important. If the levels were just straight lines like The Library in Halo CE, for example, dull or repeating textures are never an issue since you never get turned around. The Perfect Dark levels are rarely straight lines, make no mistake, but as above they do at least try a lot of other things to signpost your way which just require a little more attention. For example, DataDyne : Research (the second mission) could be seen as a maze of similar corridors and identical doors, and as a young teenager playing the game on the N64 I found it unclear at times how to progress. However, the game subtly points you in the right direction; the mission briefing mentions you need to head towards Sector 4, the “highest” sector, and sure enough you start seeing doors with Sector X markings on them, helping you mark your progress through the level. If you didn’t read the briefings, though, perhaps you wouldn’t assign much significance to these visual markers?

Doors

Equally, consider the level Pelagic II. Even now I sometimes get confused on this level, but they at least tried to help the player find their way around by changing the colours of the lighting on each floor; the lowest floor is blue, the first floor (where you start) is red, then yellow and green at the top. Once you figure this out it aids you greatly in figuring out which part of the ship you’re in.

Pel

Every level that suffers from this problem does try to do something to alleviate it and help the player get their bearings, but it’s debatable how much use the Pelagic II’s different colours are when, even though there are four colours, there are a dozen identical corridors in each colour. In this regard, I believe the second half of the criticism many reviewers isolated – the reuse of textures – is a legitimate one on some levels of the game, even if some of these tried their best to cancel it out. To alleviate this problem a designer has two possible solutions – either make levels much more distinct throughout (like many PD levels are) so that you can easily distinguish between the different regions of the level, or make the levels so linear that you cannot possibly go wrong. 

The sad truth, I think, is that contemporary FPS games have done both. They’ve sacrificed the complexity and many-layered levels in order to make things clearer, but they’ve also sacrificed the subtle things that point you in the right direction. The path forward is obvious, but that no longer matters when there’s only one path you could take anyway! You could preserve the complex levels whilst adding more signs and symbols where you need them, or lose the complex levels and not have to do any more effort in laying out the path, but many modern FPS games seem to have done both. In their Perfect Dark review, Joystiq acknowledged that:

“Love it or hate it, modern games have us weaned on hour-long tutorials and overzealous narrators who explain every detail to us ad nauseam. So, when you jump into an older game like Perfect Dark, you’ll be surprised at how self-sufficient you’re asked to be. “

And I think this says it all. It came with some downsides – getting lost on the Pelagic II research ship is an infuriating experience that everyone should experience at least once in their lives – but at the same time we’ve sacrificed the completeness of Area 51 and the many “hidden” areas of the sunken alien vessel in Deep Sea. Modern FPS games have perhaps gone too far by taking both solutions to the issue when only one solution was really needed, along with other structural questions – what counts as a “mission”, for example? – that are questions for another day. Ultimately, if you want an FPS world that has more of an exploration focus than most these days do, give that XBLA version a download – you won’t be patronized by the game, you can explore some of the surprisingly “complete” and convincing levels the game has to offer which often really do feel like part of a cohesive world, and you certainly won’t be disappointed.