I've come to a conclusion about level design philosophy that's probably elementary knowledge for someone, say, studying game design in college, but it just congealed for me during my stint at TimeGate. Even when building a level that only provides the player with a strictly linear path, the designer should build the path through the place, not build the place around the path. It's about contrivance and cohesiveness.

I think that there's a natural inclination when laying out a linear shooter level to sketch an 'interesting,' abstract path first, then rationalize it by building out the appropriate geometry around it. In my experience, this tends to lead to spaces that feel very contrived and 'gamey.' Places built around a path are disconnected from a sense of purpose-- where is this curved hallway supposed to lead? Why do these storerooms feed into one another like a string of pearls? Why would they make people in this facility go up a series of ramps and catwalks to exit this room? Why is the layout of this place so convoluted?

I believe that the superior approach is to build a place first--a cohesive, functional space, with a purpose--then define a path through it by strategically restricting the player's movement. If it's a factory setting, build a small complex of storerooms, packing floors and shipping bays in an open structure that could simply be a place of its own, then start blocking off hallways, locking doors, collapsing staircases, and so forth to remove all means of egress that conflict with your chosen gameplay path through the space.

Hereby, the overall space inherently makes sense, while still allowing the designer to have a strong hand in leading the player. No part of the built space, and therefore valuable time, need be wasted-- the player can still be given controlled access to each room; or if a room isn't visited, it is at least visible, understood by the player as a part of the place he's exploring, showing him that there's more to the gameworld than the little path he's running along.



Justification 3

Full Throttle
PC / 1995 / Developer & Publisher: Lucasarts Entertainment Company LLC.

In a good game, you can tell a lot by the way the player is introduced to his in-game character. When we take control of Full Throttle's Ben, we find him punching his way out from the inside of a garbage dumpster.

Full Throttle was a point-and-click that didn't pull any of its punches-- bad things happened, people died, and sometimes the solution to the puzzle was just to kick the damn door down. The gameworld was oppressive, dust-choked, and generally unfriendly; the supporting cast ranged from simply duplicitous to outright homicidal. But the game used its terse characterization to make me genuinely care about the sympathetic characters of Ben, Maureen, and old man Corley, from the initial rush of the opening sequence, to the tragic turning point at the end of the first act, to the devastatingly bittersweet ending sequence. Full Throttle told a melancholy tale of a handful of people-- not video game characters, but what felt like real people-- thrown together by fate, irrevocably changed, only to be scattered to the winds again as the sun set over the desert highway. The game had levity, sure, but it also had real gravitas, where almost no other game has.

Full Throttle deserves praise for standing out from the rest of the Lucasarts point-and-clicks. Unlike Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, or Monkey Island, Full Throttle manages to be funny without being silly, and to tell a meaningful, human story through the conventions of the genre without ever taking itself over-seriously. It's an incredible balancing act, and in my opinion just about the pinnacle of what a 2D point-and-click could aspire to. I feel lucky to have played a masterpiece like this during my formative years.



Justification 2

Sam & Max Hit the Road
PC / 1993 / Developer & Publisher: Lucasarts Entertainment Company LLC.

Point-and-click adventure games were my gateway into modern PC gaming, and Hit the Road is my all-time favorite of the genre. Point-and-clicks are largely linear, designer-dictated, and often frustrating. At their best, they make the player feel clever for figuring out their puzzles; at their worst, the player is banging his head against an illogical impediment for days, with no hope but random trial and error to progress. I think that what Hit the Road and the other funny adventures from the period teach is this: make failing fun. Even when I wasn't making progress in Hit the Road, even when I was repeatedly failing as I tried to unlock the next location, the game was constantly feeding me rewards for my input, by way of Sam & Max's humorous remarks. Even when my clicking didn't reward me with tangible progress, I still received something enjoyable-- a funny little quip, a clever description, some non sequitur piece of dialogue I hadn't heard before. The game rewarded the player simply for playing, not just for succeeding.

Hit the Road's tone is something hard to encapsulate simply-- maybe "screwball noir?" It had edge to it and a down-to-earth vibe while dealing with bigfoot, molemen, and celebrity-lookalike vegetables. It boasted hints of reckless nihilism, what with the opening sequence involving a damsel in distress being left to rot, a mad scientist being decapitated, and a time bomb being tossed into a passenger bus, all by a cartoon dog and rabbit. It was the perfect strange, hilarious, out-there world for my 13-year-old self. It didn't talk down to me, and it kept me in stitches from start to finish.

I think Hit the Road is the game I've replayed the most in my life, probably about a dozen times through. I'm glad that the Freelance Police have been resurrected by way of their new episodic releases, and I'm proud to know some of the fine people at Telltale who bring the games to life. I wish I could go back in time and tell my 13-year-old self that one day I'd get the chance to shake Steve Purcell's hand and tell him how much I've appreciated his work over the years. I'm sure I would've been floored.



Justification 1

Through a link on Gamasutra, I ended up reading the blog of Stuart Roch, a producer at Treyarch. In one post, he wrote up his 10 favorite games of all time , along with a short statement on why each was important to him. On that note, I felt like it might be useful to justify the games I've listed in the "Favorite Games" field of my profile over there. I'm going to split each of mine into a separate post, in the arbitrary order that I initially listed them.

PC / 1993 / Developer: Bullfrog / Publisher: Electronic Arts

Up front, I'll admit the possibility that my esteem for games from this time period might be elevated by nostalgia to some degree; on the other hand, I've played all of these games since their original release, and still, objectively I think, hold them in high regard.

The world of Syndicate is a cyberpunk dystopia. The player is a high-ranking executive in a multinational corporation, tasked with remotely controlling a squad of cybernetically-enhanced field agents to wreak havoc in cities across the world, gaining control of each territory in turn. The goal is complete world domination, the method wanton destruction.

I like the setting, but what I think really stuck with me was the game's structure, and the amount of control the player had over the gameworld. From the outset, the player is presented with the whole globe, and then given the power to conquer it however he chooses. The globe is divided into territories, each of which is represented by a discrete playable space; this playable space is comprised of an open-structure city, into which the player's agents are inserted. The player must then complete specific objectives within each level, by observing the area's physical layout and NPC behavior, formulating a strategy, and executing it using a small but focused set of affordances. The player decides in which order to approach the levels, and must then himself decide how to accomplish the goals in each level, pushing the game's progression forward along the path he's chosen.

It's human-scale tactical conflict in a series of open-structure levels, which generally describes my favorite type of game to this day. That in Syndicate the
order of the level progression is also dictated by the player is an added bonus. The rest of what makes the game great are the specifics of the action and the artifice that I won't go into, but for 1993, I'd say that everything about Syndicate was far ahead of its time.

For me personally, leading up a modern-day spiritual successor to Syndicate would be my dream project. It's a game experience which has never been duplicated to this day, and which I believe has enormous potential to be translated into the contemporary game sphere. If only.




A little bit of cool news: Residential Evil got written up by Gamespy today (at the bottom of this page.) It's nice to get some recognition, especially for the first finished map I ever publicly released. Now both of my F.E.A.R. maps have gotten mentioned on Gamespy, which I hope means they've been played by a lot more people than they would have otherwise. If only I could let those people know that my work will be in TimeGate's next release, but it hasn't even been announced yet. C'est la vie.

To anyone who's downloaded Residential Evil or BENEATH: hope you dig'em!




Sometimes it's fun to think of things in terms of controller mappings. I'm using some device or performing some activity-- how could I map this interface or action onto a standard (or non-standard) game console controller?

One recent example that translated very intuitively was mapping the iPod's interface onto an Xbox 360 controller. I was thinking, what if a character carried an iPod with them ingame, and could use it to choose selections from their custom soundtrack playlists on the fly?

Upon selecting the iPod from his inventory, the player would be presented onscreen with the familiar iPod interface.

Luckily, the 360 controller has a layout and array of buttons that translate perfectly to the iPod's interface.

1) Rotating the left analog stick on the 360 controller maps to sliding your thumb around the touch-sensitive input ring on the iPod. Rotating the stick clockwise and counterclockwise navigates menus and changes volume and other settings, as sliding your thumb clockwise and counterclockwise does on the iPod input ring.

2) Clicking in the left analog stick ("L3") maps to clicking the button at the center of the input ring on the iPod, to confirm selections.

3) The four face buttons on the 360 controller map to clicking the four input symbols on the face of the iPod input ring. Y maps to Menu, X maps to Back, B maps to Forward, and A maps to Play/Pause.

I think it works out particularly simply and nicely. I'm not sure if this exact thing has been done in a game before-- I think that in Mark Ecko's Gettin' Up: Contents Under Pressure and in Saints Row the player character has an iPod and can use it to choose the in-game music track. Were they presented in such a way as to map the player's direct input onto the iPod interface itself? I could find out, but suffice it to say I came up with this mapping in a vacuum.

I find this to be a nice design exercise, especially with increased complexity (for instance, attempting to map classic mouse-driven PC games onto a console interface, or dreaming up a port of a current game from one system to another with a completely different interface.) Try it sometime.



Group 2

I think my last post deserves a little more time.

When I attended this year's GDC, I made sure to see Clint Hocking's presentation, "Exploration: From Systems to Spaces to Self." At present, he's one of the guys most publicly engaged with progressive single-player narrative game theory, emergent systems, and the whole Looking Glass legacy. His talk was, well, an exploration of the ways that players explore games, and thereby explore their own character through their in-game actions.

One example in his talk was the game Spider-Man 2. As I understood it, he argued that while the game hands the player the palette of Spider-Man's physical abilities to explore the physical space of New York City, the player is given no tools to explore the character of what makes Spider-Man a hero instead of just "an asshole in red tights." He noted the backstory of Spider-Man: that when Peter Parker initially gained his super powers, he just used them to win wrestling matches, until the day that he witnessed a robbery and didn't bother using his powers to stop it. That robber went on to kill Parker's beloved Uncle Ben, teaching Parker that "with great power comes great responsibility." The lesson is imparted by a loved one's being lost forever due to Parker's own decisions, his own inaction. From that point forward, Parker would be motivated to use his powers to prevent further tragedies.

The player of Spider-Man 2 has experienced no such personal tragedy, and has no motivation to much more than dicking around with Spider-Man's powers, beating up random criminals and returning errant balloons to gain points. It's the "what" of Spider-Man without the "why."

As I understood his presentation, Hocking went on to consider how one might build the intended characterizations and emotional responses in the player through the play of the game itself-- if you were going to build a game about Muhammad Ali, how to convey the conflict between his public persona and physical power, and how it would affect the following fights. And presumably, if you were going to build a Spider-Man game, how to convey the sense of responsibility through the play's mechanics and dynamics, though he didn't expand on how that might be done.

Immediately after the presentation ended, I began talking it over with a couple colleagues of mine. The stance I took was that, for the player to be legitimately invested in the theme of responsibility, the events that imparted the message would have to be personally meaningful to the individual player. They couldn't be concretely authored by the designer-- if Uncle Ben were going to be killed every single time you played this theoretical Spider-Man game, the event would be just as inevitable, and therefore just as meaningless, as if it happened in a cutscene. To truly affect the player, the designer can make his presence felt no further than creating and to some degree encouraging the possibility of Uncle Ben dying due to the player's own inaction.

Perhaps in this theoretical Spider-Man game, there are constants: the player is Peter Parker, post-bite, with his powers. He lives at the home of his Uncle Ben and Aunt Mae, and must return there frequently to sleep, eat, etc., and meanwhile become attached to his Aunt and Uncle through their interactions at the house. Among other things in the world, there are Robber NPCs with the goalset to rob other NPCs or banks, armored cars, etc. The Robber NPC type might also kill innocent civilians.

Now with just this base set of actors, we have the very barest possibility of the player witnessing a robber rob someone, fail to stop him, and that robber going on to kill the player's Uncle Ben. The possibility is there but extremely slight; only the rarest player would cease being an asshole in red tights through this series of events.

This is where tracking metrics come in. For one, Robber NPCs might tend to be much more likely to perform their robbery action when the player is nearby. Furthermore, perhaps each spawned Robber NPC maintains a record of whether or not he has entered the line of sight of the player while he's performing his robbery action, and from what distance and for how long. The Robber also records whether or not the player has deployed an attack at him at any point during or following the robbery action. Hereby, the system can fairly well confirm whether the player has duly witnessed a particular Robber perform his robbery action. The system can also record whether the player attempted to stop the Robber after witnessing his robbery action.

When it's confirmed that the player has witnessed a robbery and intentionally let the Robber go, that particular Robber NPC has a high probability of receiving the goal to kill the player's Uncle Ben. This wouldn't have to be as transparent as it seems-- the Robber wouldn't necessarily make a bee line for the player's house and shoot his uncle for no reason. When the Robber receives the goal to kill Uncle Ben, Uncle Ben might receive the goal to go into town to buy something, causing the Robber and Uncle Ben to meet in a plausible location for the act to occur.

Hereby, the game would set the possibilities in motion for a figure the player had grown attached to being lost through the player's own inaction, motivated by the dynamic events ingame instead of a pre-plotted series of scripted events. The metrics and goal systems would greatly raise the probability of the intended sequence of events occuring, but they would only occur when the player's actions spurred them to do so.

This would also bring up the interesting possibility of the game finding a player that had come to the table with the lesson of personal responsibility already learned, and acted with great diligence from square one without being prompted so by the events of the game. A player who stopped every robbery he witnessed would never lose his Uncle Ben because, for the purposes of the game's theme, he wouldn't need to. He would already be acting like Spider-Man.

I guess in large part the point of this post is to argue that worlds and narrative driven by dynamic AI actors needn't entirely preclude the idea of designer-intended events or story arcs, and could in fact make the authored elements more meaningful when received through the player's decisions and actions.