New Responsibilities: How Insomniac’s Spider-Man Evolves the Mythos

Intro

I realize that this is not a unique sentiment, but I was very into Spider-Man as a kid.  I devoured the giant Essential Spider-Man books, fervently watched and rewatched each of the animated series, and bought every Spider-Man branded knicknack I could get my hands on. And this is an obsession I’ve mostly stuck with as I’ve grown older, because new Spider-Man content is always being released. When I got tired of the original Amazing Spider-Man run, I aged into watching the Sam Rami Movies. When those got…umm…bad…Amazing Spider-Man had gotten good again, and I read J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.’s Volume 2, along with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man. By high school and college, there was a new crop of Marc Webb Spider-Man movies of varying quality for me to dig into. And now there’s Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) (wow, that’s a mouthful), something I’ve sunk a frankly excessive number of hours into since it’s launch back in September. So, when Stan Lee died a few weeks ago, I had a lot to think about in terms of how his most popular character has been such a consistent companion for me since childhood. Because, when playing Insomniac’s Spider-Man (I’m just going to call it that for the sake of convenience), I found myself consistently saying, “Wow, this is really good Spider-Man writing”, without having a solid definition for what good Spider-Man writing was. Still, having spent close to two decades with the character, I think my gut feeling is probably a good place to startFortunately, Insomniac’s Spider-Man is not only an accurate recreation of what I internally think of as Spider-Man, but a genuine expansion on the literary value of the character. Because, despite his pulpy roots as an adolescent power fantasy (and it very much still is that), Spider-Man has an inherently literary

Marvel's Spider-Man_20180924005337

quality that sets him apart from most other superheroes. In short, I have read/watched/played a lot of bad Spider-Man media, but even the worst ones, such as Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, cannot help but tap into the fundamental human truths that Spider-Man represents. Still, it takes a lot of effort to write Spider-Man in a way that that doesn’t just reference the literary value of the character, but actually expands upon it, and I think Insomniac’s Spider-Man has done that. Yes, its web swinging feels incredible, its combat is systemically deep, thematically appropriate, and flashy as hell, and yes its soundtrack feels as epic as any superhero score should, but I think the writing in the game is what really makes it stand out as a piece of Spider-Man media. So, in this piece, I want to dig into how Insomniac Games’ writes Spider-Man, explore a few other works that write Spider-Man similarly, and try to get to the heart of what makes good Spider-Man writing so compelling in the first place. In short, this is an an attempt at publicly defending the ungodly amount of time and money I’ve spent on this franchise.

Tone

Let’s start with tone, because this is something a lot of bad Spider-Man adaptations get very wrong. Compared to other superheroes, Spider-Man’s tone is a bit more complex, because there are many different takes on the character that writers can lean into. To list a few, there’s Spider-Man the low-budget engineer, Spider-Man the human being with real life obligations, Spider-Man the wise-cracking crime fighter, Spider-Man the dorky high school kid, and Spider-Man the high-budget scientist. Other writers have carved out their own side of Spider-Man, such as Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2’s take on Peter Parker as an earnest high school teacher, or Spider-Man as a monstorous spider, operating on animal instinct. So, while many Spider-Man stories feel formulaic, they have a lot of possible options to choose from when writing the character itself. However, despite these varied sides of the character, most good Spider-Man stories follow a very particular tone that carefully balances seriousness and levity. Go to far towards the levity and you get a kind of PG-Deadpool, mostly written for animated kid’s shows. Go too far towards the serious and you get…well, everything written in the 90s. Going too far in either direction breaks the character, and good Spider-Man writers know how to balance both. As far as humor goes, something a lot of writers don’t seem to get is that Spider-Man is not Deadpool. Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films fall into this trap the most. That Spider-Man is making quips non-stop, and they feel distinctly mean-spirited in a spider-man-001way that most other Spider-Man writing doesn’t. Because, Spider-Man is a dork. He’s making bad jokes at criminals because he genuinely finds them funny; it’s not done out of malice. Fortunately, Insomniac’s Spider-Man follows this mold. In a very important distinction, Spider-Man is cracking jokes to himself, not to the people he’s beating up. And, also in keeping with other good Spider-Man writing, these joke are horrible. I cringe at at least half of them! My favorite one takes place during the Turf Wars DLC where Spider-Man, quietly talking to himself, comes up with a punny name for a variant of enemy tank, laughs at his joke, then repeats it louder for the bad guys to hear. And they make fun of him for it! Bad guys making fun of Spider-Man for his bad jokes is a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man’s humor.

However, the game is not all light-hearted, and knows when to hit some serious beats. It’s main plot centers around honest-to-god terrorists invading the city, and a militarized police force sent in to combat them. These are much more explicitly political issues than most Spider-Man writing usually deals with, as most of the franchise’s writers’ attempts to engage with explicitly political issues are goodhearted, but often sloppy. Insomniac’s Spider-Man, meanwhile, seems to avoid commenting on the issues directly. It says that terrorism is bad and scary, that the militarized police force is bad an overextends its reach, but the NYPD are paragons of virtue. This is a…troubling narrative, and flies in the face of Spider-Man’s history being consistently at odds with the NYPD. In this game, he is functionally a special forces freelancer; the game even opens with him going on a SWAT raid. Avoiding discussion of politics when your enemies are dudes in wacky costumes is one thing, but refusing to acknowledge the political messages when engaging with real-world organizations with sweeping systemic problems is quite another. The game wants to stick to its simple message that egomaniacal plutocrats are screwing over honest, hard-working New Yorkers, and I can respect that. But by uncritically including the NYPD in its “us”, I think it inadvertently steps over a political line it wasn’t intending to cross.

However, the rest of the game’s more serious beats are much more competently executed. The general setting of the story pulls heavily from Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2, leaning into the “Spider-Man as a real human being with real life obligations” side of the character. Peter’s juggling paying rent and managing relationships with crime fighting and an actual career in science. This is pretty commonly stated as the aspect of Spider-Man that makes him compelling as a character, and I absolutely agree. Spider-Man was created to appeal to teenagers reading comic books, and shares many of the troubles and experiences that they do. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne own skyscrapers and mansions, but Peter Parker gets evicted from his apartment in the first few hours of the game. This is, from a writing perspective, what makes the character so malleable and consistently interesting. The character’s foundation involves him struggling with real-world issues, and this is something most superheroes just don’t do. Spider-Man may be just as much of a power fantasy as Batman or Captain America, but it’s not just a power fantasy, because it’s contrasted against conventional character writing. I think this dichotomy is highlighted in the game’s best scene, where Peter swings and wall crawls through the city while talking to Mary Jane after a dinner that may have been a date, but neither of them are quite sure. It’s not really clear, and that’s the dramatic linchpin of the scene. Both of them are trying to figure out exactly what they’re doing with their relationship, and are Annotation 2018-12-11 211012both really bad at communicating. If this scene were written in a non-superhero film, it might have Peter pacing around his apartment, but, “someone paces around their apartment while texting” is not exactly the most cinematic of setups. But, when that awkward pacing is up the side of a building instead of in an apartment, that gets a lot more cinematically interesting. It allows the animators to exaggerate smaller gestures into more obviously readable ones. Want to show Peter getting uncomfortable? Just have him awkwardly swing to another building. This contrast of the grounded and real with the dramatic and exaggerated is a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man as a character, because it sends the message that even superpowers cannot save you from reality. And that is strangely comforting.

Characters


Aunt May

Like most good Spider-Man writing, this game is centered around just a few core characters, in this case, Mary Jane, Aunt May, and Doc Ock. Each of these relationships is written wonderfully, reaching the core of the character from the comics, while adding additional depth. Peter’s relationship with Aunt May is, I think, the most transformative. There have been a few interesting takes on Aunt May in the past, though most of them fairly limited. In the original run of Amazing, she really only existed as someone to worry about Peter, and for the occasional story where she found out he was Spider-Man. She cared about Peter, and Peter cared about her, but it was never especially deep. The best take on the classic version of the character I have see is in Straczynski and Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man Vol 2. run, where proxy.duckduckgo.comAunt May discovers that Peter is Spider-Man (for what must be the fifth time), and they spend a few issues talking about it, processing it, working to establish a new relationship with that knowledge in mind. It felt incredibly realistic in the tone of its writing, contrasting the bombastic web-swinging art on the cover of the comic, with the twenty-odd pages of two people just talking about trust and family. Aunt May’s is still the strong old woman who has had to deal with a lot of pain in her life, but they lean into that depth a lot more than previous writers had. Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man iterates on this approach, with Ben and May being written as an old hippie couple. Where the May in Amazing Spider-Man felt fragile and troubled, Ultimate’s May is no less troubled, but is fiery where Amazing’s is frail. Amazing’s May would worry about Peter, Ultimate’s May will yell at him when he’s being stupid. I really like this take on the character, as it creates a more explicitly hostile but no less tender relationship between Peter and May. Because, from May’s perspective, Peter has become a flaky and moody teenager since Ben’s dead. It looks to her like he’s spiraling. But, she is also dealing with her own grief over losing her husband, and genuinely feels like she has no idea how to raise this angsty teen on her own. Ultimate’s May is more directly empathetic than Amazing’s; the reader is given the ability to relate more directly to her struggles. I find both takes on the character to be interesting, but neither entirely define where Insomniac went with the character.

The most notable thing about Peter and May’s relationship in Insomniac’s Spider-Man is just how many people I’ve heard comment on how good it is. Aunt May is rarely the focus of the drama in any given Spider-Man story, and in this one, she is still mostly in the background, but the story beats that do happen with her feel more substantial. The player gets a real sense of the history between them, feels Peter’s overwhelming gratitude for what she’s done for him, and just how much the two of them have been through together. This is something that requires writing Peter as a little bit older, when he’s lost the rebellious teenager personality, so the relationship has gotten more mature. But in a really obvious bit of characterization, Aunt tumblr_inline_n2i3kpI03d1rnipfwMay exists as a character outside of Peter. In Amazing and even in Ultimate, it’s never mentioned if she has hobbies or even a job (Note: Ultimate’s May has a job, but I have yet to find out what it actually is). She exists purely in relation to Peter. But in Insomniac’s, she basically runs a homeless shelter on her own, she tries to help out Miles when he’s dealing with the death of his father, and she is close to one of the game’s main antagonists. You start to see Peter’s overworking of himself not as something particular to him, but as a family trait. At one point, Peter says that, after trauma, it helps him to stay busy, and given the amount of trauma Peter and May have had to go through, it makes sense that they always seem to stay busy. So, while May’s relationship with Peter is still important to the story we see, it’s not her only or even her defining characteristic. And this a good segue into how the game treats Mary Jane.

Mary Jane

Mary Jane is a…hard character to write well. The early comics never really gave her any defining characteristics other than, “She’s hot.” Which, aside from being a deeply problematic way to write one of the main characters in your canon, is also a really difficult starting point for new writers. Other major characteristics include “she has red hair” and “she likes Peter,” which doesn’t really help you much. So, pretty much any author that tries to write Mary Jane in any other than voyeuristic (which is, frustratingly, the route that most writers seem to take) certainly has their work cut out for them. One advantage of this is that

Annotation 2018-12-12 170410

Pictured: A very normal way to draw fifteen-year-olds

writers can pretty much do whatever they want with the character. Ultimate writes Mary Jane as a childhood friend of Peter’s who is actually kind of a geek (though still uncomfortably sexualized for a FREAKING FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD). She, again, has actual interests and personal problems going on outside Peter. When Peter acts like a stupid fifteen-year-old boy and claims to be entailed to her affections, she shuts that shit down. But…ultimately (heh) the take on the character only goes so far. Her main hobby is sewing Peter’s many costumes. She is still, consistently, drawn to be gawked at by the presumably straight dudes reading the comic. There’s some more depth there, but it has its limits. It does include the one bit of depth Mary Jane’s character did have from the early Amazing comics, which is her abusive father, but…it feels kind of trite. The writers don’t really have anything to say about abusive homes, it doesn’t feel authentic to people’s lived experience, and it mostly just serves as an easy source of drama.

This is an area where some Amazing runs actually surpass Ultimate in character writing, because it does eventually have some actual depth for Mary Jane. Over the early 2000s of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2’s run, Mary Jane is slowly transformed into an interesting character. Straczynski and Romita Jr. create a backstory tries to explain why she was written as such a shallow character, and how she can grow from it. In what is mostly a retcon, they cast her shallow and carefree aspects the early comics as a defense mechanism for her broken home life, to deny the shitty reality she had to go home to. And…okay, that’s not a bad take on the character. It explains her earlier actions, and lets them transition the character her into a more interesting one as she learns to process her past trauma and start to grow past it. Throughout the early 2000s, Mary Jane takes her modeling career (which only ever existed so MJ ASMv2the artists had more excuses to draw more “HOT MJ” panels), and have her try to transition into acting. She struggles with being typecast as a model in early movies, but eventually transitions to a successful stage acting career, and there are a few legitimately insightful scenes where she talks about how she acts by channeling past experiences. So, basically, Mary Jane becomes a method actor. This leads to some genuinely good character beats between her and Peter as well, as their struggling marriage is approached with some actual depth, genuinely exploring how a regular human being would feel if they were married to a superhero. She feels unimportant, like she can’t be involved in the most important beats of Peter’s life, and she is always worried that there is something he’s hiding from her. These are realistic approaches to fantastical problems, and I found them immensely personally understandable. So, despite the many missteps previous writers have taken with the character, there were a few solid examples that Insomniac had to pull from to start writing their own Mary Jane.

They ignored all of them. And the game is much better for it. Mary Jane in Insomniac’s Spider-Man is pretty distinct from all previous incarnations of the character. I suppose in visual design she resembles Kirsten Dunst’s mostly forgettable portrayal of the character, but the resemblance ends there. They don’t pull from Amazing’s characterization of her messy family history (aside from a single throwaway line), her acting career, or her modeling career. They don’t pull from Ultimate’s characterization of her as a geeky childhood friend. They basically just write a new character, have her date Peter, and give her red hair. And even though there are some aspects of previous Mary Jane iterations I found interesting, I think this was the right decision. Their new character is an investigative reporter, she’s working on the same cases Peter is, she’s not just there to be saved by Peter (though that does still happen). This is strange, considering game director Bryan Intihar said that, they created Mary Jane by Mary Jane“deciding what we wanted from Peter and his journey. Mary Jane’s role came as a result of that, to balance everything out.”[1] If that was their goal, they definitely failed at it, because Mary Jane seems to exist as an independent actor in the world. Yes, she works with Peter, but she’s doing her own thing most of the time. Their relationship is played very straight, just a realistic, messy, twenty-something relationship. Oh, and the game never obviously objectifies her, something which…I don’t think any Spider-Man media has done before? She’s still Hollywood-attractive, and there’s still sexual tension between her and Peter, but it’s, again, played realistically. She does not exist for the presumably straight dudes playing the game to gawk at. So, when the game takes their relationship seriously it’s easy for the player to get invested in the back-and-forth of their relationship.

Black Cat

This isn’t to say that the game is entirely sexless. Black Cat is in it, after all. And, the way the game wrote Black Cat was ultimately what convinced me to write this piece, because, I think a good rule for Spider-Man writing is, if they know how to write Black Cat, they know how to write Spider-Man. Black Cat is a (not at all Catwoman-inspired) antihero who Spider-Man alternatively fights and flirts with. They date for a bit, they hook up, she steals something, Spider-Man chases her, she gets away, repeat. This is a fun dynamic to write, because it has clear rules and conflict: Black Cat will always go back to her life of crime, and Spider-Man will always try to get her to go straight. This means the end of any Black Cat story will already be known to the reader, so good Black Cat writing is just about having fun along the way. Unfortunately, most writers interpret “having fun” as drawing multiple, incredibly detailed panels of Black Cat looking hot. And having her shamelessly flirt with Spider-Man. Black CatThe best Spider-Man writers will use this as an opportunity to just write some fun superhero banter. My personal favorite take on the character an arc in Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 where the two of them team up to take down some big bad. They are crawling through the air vents preparing to attack some henchmen, but instead, they get distracted and have sex. While still in the vents. Which is probably the best superfriends-with-benefits writing I’ve ever read. The problem with the character, however, is that even the best writers fall into the trappings of the bad ones. So, with Insomniac’s Spider-Man being a video game, I was worried that this would be taken to another level of creepy pandering. If Black Cat flirts consistently with Spider-Man in the comics, then in the games, where the player is Spider-Man, this could get borderline masturbatory. Fortunately, they don’t do that, and just have fun with it. Banter between Spider-Man and Black Cat is consistently hilarious, with Cat taunting Spider-Man and him reacting as uncomfortably as you would expect. There’s a consistent back and forth (I refuse to write cat and mouse) between the two of them, and they consistently reference their years of history together. They know each other; they’ve been through this before. It’s a great example of the game taking something that worked in the comics, and removing much of its less effective aspects.

Doc Ock

How the game writes Doc Ock, however, is an example of taking something that never worked in the comics and turning in into something that absolutely does. One of the biggest problems with Spider-Man writing is that his villains are usually pretty boring. Doc Ock is perhaps the greatest example of this. Best I can tell, he has only been written well once. ONCE. One of the best-known Spider-Man villains and his only interesting story arc is in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2. In the comics, he is just an angry science dude with a bad haircut who makes some robot arms. They have him try to marry Aunt May one time. That’s about the only interesting thing he’s ever done. So, the Insomniac writers looked to that one time he was written well. In Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock is a sympathetic scientist who takes on a mentor role to Peter before being turned evil by his robot arms. And, okay, that’s an interesting start, certainly more than his comic iterations. But Insomniac takes that foundation and goes much further with it. Where Spider-Man 2 didn’t have the time to develop the mentor relationship, Insomniac can spend the majority of the game developing it. So, as Doc Ock slowly slides towards super-villainy, it can be both more believable and emotionally complex for the player. While his transition to super-villain is definitely too abrupt, the complexity behind the shift remains intact. Peter treats him as a father figure, and that doesn’t feel trite, because the player spends most of the game working with Octavius and feeling sympathetic for him. While the wholesale murder of an entire city is a slightly extreme reaction, the player can, at the very least, understand why Octavius is doing it. And that is because of the real villain of the game, Norman Osborne.

Norman Osborne

I said earlier that Spider-Man villains are boring, but Norman Osborne is one of the few exceptions to that. He is Spider-Man’s most famous villain, and as a result, has been adapted several times. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man might be the best known, and went for a fairly goofy take on the character despite the film’s cinematic leanings. But the basic idea of a genius billionaire who experiments on himself and goes “insane” is still present. Other adaptations lean pretty hard into the “insanity”, which is lazy and problematic for a dozen reasons, and simplifies what could be a complicated take on real mental health issues into an excuse to make him act weird. Ultimate Spider-Man’s take on the character is probably the most tonally consistent, and it exchanges the mental health metaphors for an addiction/alcoholism one. Despite being an egomaniacal sadist (and not the hot kind), Ultimate’s Norman is a relatively mentally stable person. He’s not coded as having dissociative identity disorder, and while he does hear voices, they’re portrayed as the side effects of the drugs he’s taking, rather than an inborn mental health issue. That Norman is addicted to Oz, his genetic engineering goop that drives most of the superpowers in the comic. This isn’t exactly a progressive take on the subject matter, but it is, at the very least, less regressive. Ahh, my standards for comic book writing.

Insomniac’s Norman, however…never actually becomes the Green Goblin in this game, though they tease the hell out of it. He’s deep into genetic research, trying to cure a genetic disease lifted from, of all things, the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies. His son Harry is dying from the disease, and most of Norman’s foyers into more gobliney science seem to be driven by that. The game even ends with a tease that Harry’s disease and Norman’s attempts proxy.duckduckgo.comto cure him have turned Harry into the goblin. Either way, the game is setting up a hell of a sequel. But Norman himself is an interesting character, even without his goblin-focused pursuits. Going off of the pre-release media, a lot of fans, myself included, thought they were setting up Norman as a sort of Donald Trump analog. And, even with the final product, that isn’t too far off. While it’s The Kingpin of Crime’s Fisk Tower that defiantly occupies Trump Tower’s Fifth Avenue local in the game’s New York City, Norman is the more obvious Trump stand-in. His general character design, mannerisms, and speech patterns at least gesture in the direction of our current president, but it’s his role as both a sleazy New York CEO and the mayor of the city (a conflict of interest that is barely even acknowledged in the game) are the most explicit comparisons. While the game doesn’t lean too hard on the comparison, writing a Trump analog who is so villainous that his awarding of lucrative city business deals to his own company is his least damning trait is a fair critique. So, the comparison feels present, but not heavy-handed; Norman has Trump-like elements, but is not just Trump with a name change. At least Norman never turns to the camera and says “Make New York Great Again”.

 

Structure

So, the game has all the written elements for a great Spider-Man movie, or maybe limited series. How do they turn that into a video game? Well, the obvious elements, like web-swinging and combat, have already been deconstructed and explored by a lot of really smart critics, so I want to focus on something I haven’t seen talked about as much: the game’s structure. Spider-Man is an open world game, closer to Assassin’s Creed than Skyrim, and this tends to make thematically-relevant pacing difficult. Usually, the story of Ubisoft-style open-world games doesn’t meaningfully address the order the player is doing things. Assassin’s Creed used its computer simulation framing device to state that, in the game’s actual alternate history, Ezio and Altaïr probably were not living these events out in the exact order that the player did. And this works for the type of gaming Ubisoft was trying to make, but not so

Two Suits

This shot is *so* on the nose, but I still love it

much for Spider-Man. Fortunately, the developers use this open world framework to tap into some fundamentally Spider-Man characteristics. Essentially, Spider-Man is always stretched for time. He’s always late to everything, every part of his life is always just about to fall apart, and he never has time to just relax for a little. The structuring of the Ubisoft open world game, then, fits this perfectly. I’ve complained before about open world titles spattering activity icons all over the player’s map, because they feel like a list of chores, but in a Spider-Man game, that is exactly how they should feel. Spider-Man has so much to do and not enough time to do it. So, constantly having to jump from activity to activity feels perfectly in-character. There is a point, probably near the end of the game depending on the player, where they have completed nearly everything in the game, and then genuinely can just swing around the city and relax. That does feel out of character, but since the game can’t generate infinite content, it’s a character break I’m willing to accept.

Additionally, the plot structuring of the game fits into this format as well. Unlike most open-world games, Spider-Man takes place over just a few, concretely-defined days, starting with Peter waking up and ending with him finding a place to sleep. Before the main plot even really kicks into gear, we see a full day of Peter’s life, taking place over a few hours of gameplay. The player takes down the Kingpin, goes to work, meets up with Aunt May, has an awkward encounter with Mary Jane, and stops random crimes throughout the city. This feels like a day in the life of Spider-Man, and the rushed pace makes the player feel like they are experiencing that day the way Spider-Man would. Each of the individual beats work well on their own, but this structuring makes the experiencing of each individual beat stronger. When Spider-Man says he’s overwhelmed and rushed, the player feels that, because they are overwhelmed and rushed. This is something unique I think games can add to the Spider-Man canon, to expand upon the characterization of a well-trodden aspect of a character that has been adapted dozens of times. One beat I particularly like in the game is when, after completing a few story missions in a row, Spider-Man will say something along the lines of, “Okay, that was a lot, but I’ve been neglecting the city, time to relax and go on patrol.” Functionally, it is the game telling the player to take a break from the story and do side missions. I love when open world games do this, but this particular example accomplishes that same functional purpose while communicating something important about Spider-Man to the player: he can never really focus too much on any one aspect of his life.

Conclusion

This, I think, is the most valuable literary contribution of Spider-Man. In all its mediums, the franchise has tried to explore the idea of a super hero that is overwhelmed with real-life obligations, just like everyone who reads his comics, watches his movies, and plays his games. This is the very personal value I have gotten from the franchise, and why I have found it so compelling for so long. Because despite being about a dude in spider-themed spandex who punches a wide variety of people in other animal-themed spandex, Spider-Man feels profoundly grounded. The comics, films, and now games are consistently committed to exploring this on-the-ground take of a character’s life, to see what being overwhelmed with conflicting obligations does to a person, and how they can deal with it. One of the weaknesses of serialized content is that the state of the world rarely significantly changes over its many installments, but this is a strength for Spider-Man. One of the rules of his character is that he will never solve his problems; he will never figure out a perfect life balance. His relationship with MJ will always have issues. Aunt May will always be worrying about him. He will always struggle to pay rent. There will always be super-powered dudes in equally ridiculous-looking spandex trying to punch him real hard in the face. This does mean that any particularly dramatic arc will most likely be reversed (Aunt May will not die, Peter and MJ will never break up for good, Peter will never quit being Spider-Man). But it also means that the character and the audience spend their time sitting with that inevitability. When discussing the themes of Spider-Man, the phrase that so often comes up is, “With great power must also come great responsibility,” and this is a wonderful lesson. But I think an often-neglected thematic contribution of Spider-Man is the capital-T-Truth that you will never have enough time to fulfill all of your responsibilities perfectly. And that can be okay. There have been a lot of Spider-Man games released in the past four decades. Some of them have been fun; most of them have been crap. The best of them have really captured the physical feeling of swinging around New York City. But, until this point, none of them have captured this particular aspect of Spider-Man, and this game has not only captured it, but contributed to it; evolved it. I think that’s pretty cool.

1502261_10200672270002904_1950398972_o

The Mystery Generation Engine: Subnautica and Systemic Wanderlust

Introduction

My favorite thing about Subnautica (2018) is that it is full of mysteries, from the backstory of the watery planet you crash land on, to the unique mechanics sets you discover, to the unmapped and objective marker-free world.  But the biggest mystery in Subnautica for me personally has been figuring out exactly how it evokes and maintains its sense of wonder. This has been my biggest barrier to writing about Subnautica, despite having played it for almost two years now.  *Something* about Subnautica makes me play and experience it differently from other games, even other games in its same survival-crafting-Minecraftlike genre. I’ve played many games with a mystery-focused plot, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know the answer to the mystery.  I’ve played many games with fascinating systems to dig into, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know how they work. When recently starting my third playthrough of Subnautica, I was surprised to find that the sense of mystery was still present, even though I knew all the secrets of the game’s lore and the intricate details of its systems.  But what made that feeling linger? On a metatextual level, I enjoy that Subnautica had one last mystery for me to solve, and I hope that, through this essay, I can do that, because exploring Subnautica’s various mysteries has been one of my most engaging gaming experiences of the past two years.

Before I continue, I do want to give a spoiler warning of sorts.  Being a game all about mystery, Subnautica’s experience is cheapened, though not ruined, if you lose the experience of discovering it for yourself.  Even seeing screenshots of late game areas or learning about late-game craftables can take away from the exhilaration of seeing something for yourself for the first time.  I avoided wiki pages, trailers, and even other reviews of the game until I had finished it, simply because that particular rush of discovery is Subnautica’s emotional core.  If you have no intention of playing Subnautiuca, and due to the intense thalassophobia it evokes, I can absolutely understand that, feel free to read on. But if anything I’ve said piques your interest, I highly recommend you pick it up on your digital platform of choice and enjoy some of the most wonder-provoking experiences gaming has to offer.  So, with that out of the way, let’s dive in! (That is the last ocean-related pun I’ll make in this essay, I promise).

 

Systemic Mystery

The opening of Subnautica is an abrupt one.  The player violently crashes on the surface of a planet; they’re confused, the don’t have much narrative context, and they’re surrounded by a world that feels truly alien.  So, the first type of mystery they uncover is not a narrative one, but a systemic one. The player is given a set of survival systems that they’ve probably encountered in other games before: find food, find water.  The early

264710_screenshots_20160504154731_1.jpg

I destroyed at least three of these by bad driving alone

bits of this are fairly straightforward as the player gets acquainted with their environment, gets comfortable with the game’s elegantly designed underwater control scheme, and starts to dip their toes into the game’s crafting system to synthesize food and water.  From here, the game reveals its complexity slowly, and ramps it up just as the player is getting comfortable. The game has three primary systems for the player to deal with: crafting blueprints, oxygen management, and environmental interaction. Each of these are emphasized to different degrees throughout the game.  The opening strongly emphasizes oxygen management and moderately emphasizes crafting blueprints, but doesn’t emphasize environmental interaction much. The mid game is all about crafting blueprints, with a moderate emphasis on oxygen management and environmental interaction. Meanwhile, the end game almost entirely foregos oxygen management (and, in fact, all survival elements), with a slight emphasis on crafting blueprints, and an intense, maybe too intense, emphasis on environmental interaction.  So, how do each of these systems pique the player’s curiosity?

Let’s start with oxygen management.  This system exists to some extent in other games, but Subnautica emphasizes it much more than other titles on the market, so new players will probably be less immediately comfortable with it.  The player starts with 45 seconds of oxygen, refillable by swimming to the surface or entering a player base or ship, but it is later upgraded to 75 by the mid-game, and can be optionally upgraded to 225 by the end game.  But simply changing these numbers has a massive impact on how the player interacts with the system. In the early game, it prevents them from spending too much time under water, and since the majority of the game world is set under water, it makes any interaction with the ocean floor feel risky.  Exploring a wreck, gathering resources, and hunting fish all feel more tense when the player can only do it for 10 more seconds before swimming to the surface. It also leads to moments where the player sees something new and exciting, but has to quickly duck back to the surface for some oxygen before they can explore it, increasing their anticipation for when they return.  However, as later game areas become more complex, this system would start to get cumbersome, so the devs wisely deemphasized it with greater and greater player oxygen capacities asproxy.duckduckgo.com.jpg the game continues, and portable oxygen reserves in the form of vehicles. It helps add to the pacing and tension of early environments in the early game, and then quietly exits when it is no longer necessary.

Importantly, the player’s ability to upgrade their way out of the system is done organically, through the game’s tech tree.  Subnautica’s tech tree is the mechanical system that perhaps contributes the most to its systemic exploration, because it consistently creates moments of anticipation.  The player unlocks new blueprints by finding a hunk of wrecked technology and scanning it, but they usually need 2-4 wrecks to unlock each blueprint, and those wrecks are scattered throughout the game world.  The use of the blueprinted item is teased in item descriptions, giving the player some delayed gratification when they finally craft it. The blueprints themselves will often reference resources the player has not found yet, creating a rush of excitement when they finally find the final resource in a complicated blueprint.  The result is a system that absolutely follows the tech tree conventions of traditional crafting system, but is done diegetically, which can prevent the player from being aware of how gamey its systems are. And this diegetic reframing of classically abstracted game elements is one of Subnautica’s greatest strengths. The blueprint system is just a crafting tech tree, the crashed lifepod signal locations are just map markers, the cyclops’ scanner is just a minimap.  But because of how the game frames these elements, the player mentally models them as more complex than they often are. Games critic Joseph Anderson said that, “It seems like the devs wanted you to feel that, if you took your helmet off, those HUD markers would disappear”. That extra layer of authenticity takes what would be mundane features and uses them to enhance the player’s explorative excitement. Exploration feels more real when the player believes the tools with which they explore are real as well.

That isn’t to say there is no added depth to the systems, or that it is all smoke and mirrors.  The map marker system might just be a standard HUD map marker, but the player can craft buoys to place their own markers.  The crafting system may just be a gated tech tree, but the player can choose which branches of the tree to explore, ignoring some entirely.  Part of what has made my repeat playthroughs so exciting is that I get to dig into systems I had missed on previous playthroughs. The majority of the blueprints the player finds are optional, cool things they can dig into if they want to, not hard, mechanical requirements the game is forcing on them.  And the simple fact that these blueprints aren’t revealed from the start adds so much to the thrill of discovering them.

This principle is carried over into environmental interaction just as strongly, though it is one of Subnautica’s less refined systems.  Early game environments are genuinely interesting to explore, with new features such as oxygen-restoring brain coral, or hidden predators that rush the player.  They make the environment feel dynamic and fully realized in a way most survival games simply do not. Each object in the world can be scanned by the player, and most likely plays into some greater system.  Stalkers grab hunks of metal, dropping a tooth the player can use for crafting, and hoarding the metal hunks in their nest. Sea treaders kick up large resource deposits as they walk along the Envi.jpgocean floor. Some rocks have strange, organic objects attached to them that cause them to float, and the player can take those objects and use them to make any other physics-enabled object float.  Unfortunately, in the late game areas, this environmental interaction seems to decrease. These areas are much larger and less finely detailed. An area that might take a player ten minutes to fully explore, scan, and loot in the early game might be cruised over in a matter of seconds in the late game. This is partially because of how much the player’s speed has increased by the end game, but it does also seem like a deliberate choice on the part of the designers.  Many of the late game environments do look genuinely impressive, but feel systemically more empty.

 

Exploitative Mystery

While some of the late game environments might be lacking in detail, exploring Subnautica’s world and uncovering its secrets is its greatest pleasure.  In keeping with its commitment to diegetic user interfaces, there is no map screen in game. And, after playing the game through three times, I am convinced that this is the single most important creative decision the designers made.  It encourages the player to interact with the world directly, in three full dimensions, not via a map screen. Over-emphasis on minimaps is a trap many contemporary games fall into, and an interesting thought experiment to highlight this is 1998’s Metal Gear Solid.  Metal Gear Solid is a soft 3D remake of its predecessor, the 2D game Metal Gear (1987). What makes this interesting for our purposes is that, if you removed the 3D viewport from Metal Gear Solid, and just looked at the game’s soliton radar minimap, it would play almost identically to the 2D MGS.jpgMetal Gear.  This is forgivable for Metal Gear Solid, an early 3D game, but many contemporary games can still be played surprisingly well just by looking at this minimap. Because 2D maps are more easily readable than 3D environments, this can encourage the player to just look at their minimap, pulling them out of the 3D world.  To avoid this problem, Subnautica does away with the map entirely. This means the player has to get more familiar with the landscape itself, and navigate it accordingly. The player’s vision can’t be drawn to a mini map in the corner, it has to be figuring out how the environment itself works. Additionally, because Subnautica is set underwater, traditional 2D maps might not work as well, since the player has to navigate complex, vertically-oriented cave structures.  The combination of complex environments that emphasize 3D navigation and the lack of any sort of mapping system to mitigate that complexity makes navigation in Subnautica a very intentional and involved process, which is surprisingly unusual in contemporary games. The player puts effort into navigating winding caves, avoiding ambushing predators, and ducking back to the surface or their vehicle for oxygen. I’ve said this before, but making traversal engaging is perhaps the most important factor for making open world games interesting over their long runtimes, and Subnautica does this by consistently forcing the player to interact with it in ways they aren’t used to.

This mapless system dovetails well with the utterly alien quality of the world itself, both in visuals and in systems.  By playthrough three, I know the environment well enough that this effect has faded a bit, but during my first two playthroughs, I was completely enthralled with the environments.  The were gorgeous and strange, filled with bioluminescent and oddly shaped organic matter, packed with strange sounds from off in the distance, like the groan of a far-off whale-like creature or the cackling of a nearby predator.  This further encourages the player to explore, by scanning everything in sight, finding out where those sounds are coming from, and learning what each of those creatures do. While the beginning of the game leaves the player confused and in awe, by

Subnautica DYNAMIC MAP! | Subnautica Mods #1 - Map Mod ...

This is a map mod that exists and I hate it

the end, they genuinely feel like a scientist and explorer.  They know what every sound means, how every predator hunts, which of the plants are useful, and which of the fish are difficult to catch. The fact that the starting area alone is packed with this much mystery encourages them to explore further. Maybe they’ve gotten comfortable in the Safe Shallows zone, but soon their radio picks up messages from crashed survivors, drawing them further away from their comfort zone and helping them find new blueprints.  This is further enhanced by the game’s one major landmark: the Aurora itself. From the moment the player gains control, they see the wreck of the Aurora far off in the distance, knowing that they will be able to explore it at some point. It’s a tease for something later, building up that anticipation. I think this accomplishes what is perhaps the most important part of exploration-focused games: making the player feel that there is something out there worth finding.  This was one of my issues with 2017’s Breath of the Wild, where the mechanics of exploration themselves were executed to near perfection, with new ways of exploring environments by climbing or gliding or shield surfing. But, after a few hours, I started feeling that there wasn’t anything worth finding. Nearly every discovery would lead to a korok seed or shrine, which made it eventually feel closer to checking things off of a list rather than genuinely following my own wanderlust.  But Subnautica wants to create a feeling of braving the unknown, and in order to do that, it has to have something out there that is genuinely unknown. Even by the end game, it continues to do this wonderfully.

This is not to say that the player can explore freely with no limits.  Early on especially, the player is limited by easy access to food and water.  Furthermore, the depth of certain areas might not allow for exploration with the amount of oxygen the player has, or they might hit the hard limit of crush depth.  Crush depth is one of the only linear upgrades in the game, where the player’s vehicles cannot descend below a certain depth without breaking. The player needs to craft expensive depth modules to allow them to go deeper.  I initially wasn’t a fan of this more artificial upgrade system, but I think it does work well to gate the player from certain areas and build anticipation for reaching them. Some of my favorite moments in Subnautica include stumbling upon new areas that I didn’t know existed, even on later playthroughs, and knowing that I couldn’t go there just yet because of limits.  These are accompanied by these dramatic, terror-inspiring drop offs. Usually, this particular track on the soundtrack kicks in right as the player is staring down the drop off, Original Inhabitants, filled with unsettling choral tones.  I’ll be

NemoDropoff.jpg

Finding Nemo (2003) really does this best

completely honest, this moment TERRIFIES me.  During my most recent playthrough, I tried to play the game in VR, but staring over the edge of one of these underwater cliffs was the moment, I said, “Screw it”, and switched back to the non-VR version.  Subnautica is brilliant at capturing both the beauty and the terror of the ocean, and as someone who is absolutely petrified by any large body of water, these are moments where that terror hits its peak.

 

But eventually, the player crafts the resources to go back and explore these areas, and the terror must be confronted.  I love the setup phase for these expeditions, as you have to pack up food and resources, top off your batteries and ship fuel, then set sail into the unknown.  And these later game areas really do feel different from the earlier ones. The intense god rays streaming down from the surface and friendly, bioluminescent creatures from the starting zones give way to pitch black environments with more predators, more pressure, and less oxygen.  You interact with these environments differently, staying close to your ship in case a predator swims by. The Blood Kelp Zone and Grand Reef are my personal favorites, and evoke the very specific kind of terror of looking back up towards the surface of the ocean and seeing only blackness.  At this point in the game, interactions with the game’s leviathan-class predators becomes more common. And goddamn, are they terrifying. The Reaper Leviathan is the first leviathan-

264710_20181113195704_1.png

Yeah, I lost that ship

class predator the player is likely to encounter, probably the ones swimming around the Aurora crash zone. In pictures, they look kind of goofy, but in game, few creatures can evoke its specific brand of shear panic.  It’s first encountered far off in the distance, where the player might just barely see its silhouette or catch a brief glimpse of it. For me, this is the most terrifying part. Wondering if you actually saw a reaper, or if it was just a trick of the light, wondering if it’s headed in your direction, if you have time to get away…this is Subnautica’s horror at its finest. Actual interaction with the Reapers is fairly simple.  If you get too close, they’ll make chase and attack your seamoth, and if you’re unlucky enough to be caught outside of your ship with it finds you, well, that’s game over. So, not the most mechanically interesting enemy in gaming, but absolutely one of the more emotionally interesting ones. End-game areas are filled with Reapers and the even more deadly Ghost Leviathan. Avoiding them is an absolute treat when playing in the Seamoth, but unfortunately, it becomes less interesting by the true endgame, which…is definitely Subnautica’s weakest moment.

2018-11-14_00002.jpgThe late game begins when the player crafts the Cyclops submarine.  The actual process of doing this is incredibly exciting, and finally gathering all the parts to construct it feels like a towering achievement within the hostile game world.  Boarding the sub, realizing you have complete control over this massive vehicle, can use it to go to depths you could never reach before, is legitimately exhilarating. But the player’s actual experience of the sub is…mixed, to say the least.  Firstly, it is *incredibly* easy to get the sub stuck on the environment. It has four exterior cameras that help with this navigation, but moving around the safe shallows where most players set up their base is a good way to get it permanently stuck.  Additionally, the sub is primarily used to navigate the extended underground zones of the Lost River and various lava-filled zones. These environments are entered through winding caves that are easy to navigate when the player is swimming alone or zipping along in their tiny seamoth, but with something the size of the cyclops, it never feels quite right.  I absolutely understand what they were trying to do with the cyclops experience, it just feels untested and unfinished in a way other aspects of the game really don’t. It feels like it needed a few more months of dev time to smooth out the cyclops movement, maybe decrease its size or increase the size of the cave entrances in the Lost River, maybe improve the FOV from the cyclops window…there are a lot of potential solutions, but they clearly didn’t have the time or budget to iterate on them.  The end result is an experience with a lot of good ideas, most of them poorly executed. The idea of distracting large predators by firing out a decoy is a unique idea that delivers on the premise of the game, but the large predators are so non-threatening that it’s rarely worth the hassle. The predator attacks are genuinely terrifying, with the player safely inside their ship, but hearing the giant beast outside. But, after the player realizes that they can just run away, they become more annoying than tense.  The sonar system is a legitimately fascinating idea for how to explore dark environments. But it drains 1% of the ship’s energy per tick, meaning it is better used as an occasional aid than a viable navigational alternative. There are a lot of ideas to love about the cyclops mechanics, but the whole of the experiences feels much messier than the rest of the game.

To close this section out, I want to pose one more criticism of the game’s exploration systems, and propose a potential solution.  I don’t usually do this, because inventing mechanics on my own is cheap when I don’t have to do the work of actually implementing, testing and iterating on them, but I think exploring the possibility space the mechanic proposes can lead to some interesting insights.  So, the game’s lack of a Map ROom.jpgmap is something I praised earlier in this section. But, near the end game, it becomes incredibly cumbersome. Trying to find a specific resource or blueprint fragment is engaging when there are just a few zones to search, but less so when you need this one item to progress and you have no idea where to find it.  This means that, by the end game, I usually end up caving and looking up a map or wiki entry, rather than spend hours scanning every environment for something I might have missed. So, how could it be improved? Well, the game already has a system I think this could be built on top of, the scanner room. This is unlocked fairly late in the game, right around the time the player would start to feel the slog of the game’s lack of map.  By this point, the player has started to expand into a space that is larger than they can reasonably keep a mental map of, especially with the lack of distant landmarks other than the Aurora. So, I’d propose turning that scanning room into a map room, that the player can only access from the scanner room itself. Their scanning room maps some of the area after a few minutes, and they can build portable scanners to place in other areas of the map to increase that radius.  Existing buoys would also show up as the map expanded. Maybe they could use the cyclops to generate mapping data as well. I think this works because it keeps the early game feeling of the unknown, but by the mid-to-late game when the player is probably looking up maps on the wiki already, it makes mapping and exploration an active progress. The player would have to go out of their way to do this, it wouldn’t happen automatically. I think that’s consistent with the feel the game is going for, helps remove some late-game frustration, and actually adds more exciting actions.

 

Narrative Mystery

Even without my proposed mapping system, Subnautica already evokes a greater sense of wonder and discovery than most games on the market.  And, fortunately, the game’s loose frame narrative only expands on this idea. The premise of the game is fairly narratively simple, and I think that works to the game’s advantage.  The player is flying on a ship to an uncharted world, their ship crashes for some reason, and they need to survive. That premise does expand slightly as the player explores the Aurora, but not by much.  What you see is what you get. At first, this might seem to be missing an early opportunity for more mystery. Hit the player with a narrative hook early on so they have something to stew on. But I think this would detract from the initial emotional experience of the crash.  The player is supposed to feel frantic, scrambling to survive. proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpgAdding more narrative beats would dilute that experience. And, additionally, it means that the player doesn’t go in *expecting* a story. Most survival games on the market barely have a narrative at all, and Subnautica’s opening is about as complex as they get.  There is an implied narrative beat of reaching the Aurora in the future, but nothing explicitly story-focused. From here, the story is eased onto the player, giving them the audio logs of other survivors, which at first seem almost narratively empty; just glorified quest markers. But then the player starts realizing that all of the life pods have been destroyed.  Maybe they don’t put it together on their own that something is hunting these characters, but some of them might. But, this is still light enough that the player isn’t expecting a larger story. Even reaching the Aurora and disabling the ship’s reactor doesn’t provide much of a narrative resolution, it just makes the area nearby safer. The player is being driven by systemic and explorative mystery, and the last bit of narrative possibility has been removed from their mind.  But, after finding the Aurora, the player gets a message with a rendezvous point for survivors. Confused, they’ll head to the coordinates, and this is where the narrative finally reveals itself.

The rendezvous coordinates are on dry land, which seems to have appeared out of nowhere.  It’s kind of hard to express how much of a shock this is. In any other game, finding a normal island would be a fairly mundane experience, but in Subnautica, a game set entirely underwater with no land in sight, this is a shock.  That beat of intense surprise and wonder is something Subnautica pulls off multiple times throughout its runtime, and it is incredibly impressive to me that it can continue to do this even when proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpgthe player is already expecting it; most games can’t even manage to do this once.  This puts the player into a specific mindset that Subnautica evokes intensely during just a few narrative beats: investigative wonder. The player’s scanner becomes their primary means of interacting with the environment, learning bits and pieces for each blueprint or hidden audio log.  During these sections, the game becomes less of a survival game, and more of an adventure game, which dovetails Subnautica’s mystery genre effortlessly. Having popups with links to in-game descriptions of items is not uncommon in contemporary games, but Subnautica is one of the few that has me to actually read them.  These entries provide actually valuable information, and stoke the player’s curiosity on just what they imply. And, in a genre-appropriate touch, almost every entry ends with the phrase “Further analysis needed”.

The remainder of the game switches back and forth between exploration mode, base building/crafting mode, and these intense moments of adventure game-like discovery.  It doesn’t overload the player with these info dumps, it spaces them out to make them feel unique. Discovering the first bit of alien technology also evokes this feeling wonderfully, because, going into the game, the player didn’t even know there would be any technologically-advanced aliens.  Digging into the apocalyptic plague that forms the crux of the game’s lore also fits Subnautica’s existing genres, making the player feel like a scientist as they scan, research and synthesize a cure. The last narrative shock moment in the game is the reveal of the immense sea emperor leviathan, a moment that genuinely shocked and terrified me even on the non-VR version of the game.  This introduces the game’s first honest-to-god character well into the third act of its story. If a proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpggame is going to have characters at all, they’re usually introduced early in the first act, but here Subnautica is, adding them in right before the endgame. And while the final story missions of the game are…basically a glorified fetch quest, the narrative does conclude in a satisfying way.  Building a rocket to leave the planet is as time-consuming an undertaking as it needs to be to feel momentus, and the sequence of saying goodbye to the planet (and the adorable cuddlefish pet), dropping a time capsule for another player to find, and going through the launch sequence feels final and satisfying in a way few endings from systems-focused games ever are. The narrative may not be the foundation of Subnautica, but the restraint with which its beats are delivered to the player and the subtlety with which they are conveyed make it stand out.

 

Conclusion

TV and Film director J.J. Abrams is famous for his concept of “mystery box” storytelling, and his ideas for how crafting that mystery box can draw audiences in, even over long form, serialized content.  The problem with his approach is that, most of the time, revealing what’s in the box ruins the story. I loved Lost during its original run, but I have never gone back to rewatch it.  The mystery is gone. I know all the answers. Yet, after three playthroughs of Subnautica, I can still return to it and feel almost the same sense of mystery I did the first time.  The game’s systems make the player experience the world in a way that keeps that mystery present, by always teasing them with more to explore. With over 70 hours invested in this game, there are still entire areas I have not explore to the fullest, still narrative possibilities and text logs I haven’t discovered yet.  But it’s not just that there is more of the text that I have not seen, it’s that the methods of engaging with the text themself evoke the same experience that its static narrative beats try to. Subnautica doesn’t work because it contains a mystery, it works because its systems, narrative, and environment create the experience of uncovering one.  In the same way that John Wick can show a stylish gunfight, but Superhot is a stylish gunfight generation engine, Subnautica is a mystery generation engine. The team at Unknown Worlds is currently working on a standalone expansion for Subnautica, titled Below Zero. And while I’ve tried to avoid any of their pre-release media, I have caught a few screenshots of frozen oceans and eldritch deep-sea creatures.  Perhaps Subnautica’s mystery generation engine is set to do a take on H.P. Lovecraft next, perhaps not. But, regardless, the team has proven themselves adept at evoking wonder and curiosity in all elements of their game, and I look forward to seeing what they adapt their formula to next.

2018-02-01_00002.jpg

DM-LaserTag Devlog

DM-LaserTag was my first map for Unreal Tournament, where I tried to capture the style of all the low-budget laser tag arenas I went to as a kid. It’s packed with glowing surfaces, weird, misplaced cover, and entirely too much neon.
Unreal Tournament is one of the few games still carrying the arena shooter torch, so it was a perfect fit for this idea. This was my first time creating a complete 3D shooter, instead of a tech demo, so I got to practice some of my favorite design ideas.
The core design concept was an easily readable map that dishes out its complexity slowly over time instead of all at once. The map is structured around a large, rectangular room with a hexagonal pit in the center that leads to the second floor, making it easy for the player to understand the basic layout and figure out where they are quickly, which is necessary for a game moving at UT’s speed. Adding teleporters to the mix further necessitates the player to be able to quickly get a sense of where they are. The bottom floor put this philosophy to the test, as I tried to recreate the mazes that many laser tag arenas contain. Doing this while sticking to the easy readability philosophy was difficult, so I split the map into four sections, and color-coded all the assets in each area accordingly. This means that, even when the player is jumping across the map at crazy speeds, they can quickly see the dominant color in a scene and figure out where they are.
With that navigation established, I could proceed to add more complexity and discoveries for the player to find. Hidden secrets are one of my favorite parts of older shooters like Doom and Quake, and I’ve scattered a few throughout my map to keep it from feeling too samey, and to keep the player constantly wondering at what’s there.

Derelict 54 Devlog

Intro

I started kicking around the idea for Derelict 54 probably during the development of Terminal 2.  I made Terminal 2 for a class that required it be in HTML, and even though I didn’t have any substantive experience with 3D engines at the time, I wanted to see how the concept would translate to 3D on the budget I had to work with (namely, $0).  At first glance, Derelict does not seem like a straight port of Terminal 2 (aside from my habit of using arbitrary numbers in game titles). Its closest inspirations are Frictional Games’ Soma and Orthogonal Games’ Near Death, games that use computer terminals sparingly, if at all. The first section is a hallway with a simple keycard puzzle.  But the aspect of Terminal 2 I wanted to expand on the most wasn’t, well, the terminal, it was the tone. This is a bit obvious since I even use the same track as background music in both games: the main theme from Soma. So, the core inspiration was more aesthetic than literal; I wanted to take the feeling that Terminal 2 evoked through text, and translate that into the immediacy of a 3D world that the player interacts with from the first-person perspective.

Visuals

I’ll get to the actual mechanics in a bit, but probably the most important part of creating that tone was the non-interactive bits: the sound design, the environment design, the lighting, etc.  I really like how the music sets up this tone, and its importance to establishing that tone is why I could never release this on Steam: I’d have to remove it. So, weirdly, I ended up crafting the visuals around the tone that music created, instead of Capturethe other way around.  I knew there was a space station. I knew it was mostly abandoned. And…that was pretty much it. So, I pulled up one of Epic’s free Unreal Engine packs, Sci-Fi Bunk, where I pulled nearly all of my assets from. The tone of Sci-Fi Bunk was laser-focused, despite not having any actual lore.  It’s cozy but lonely. I wanted Derelict to feel a bit more imposing than that, so I borrowed the orange tones of the lighting but spent a great deal of time tweaking it to be just a bit darker and slightly more blue. Lighting and color in general are absolutely not my area of expertise, so I don’t quite have the language to explain why I made these decisions, it just “looked better”.

Mechanics

That first hallway was mostly where I figured out most of the tone of the game, but when I reached the end of it and created the first keycard puzzle, I realized that I still didn’t have any real mechanics for the game.  Like, keycard puzzles are all well and good, but they’re not exactly new gameplay. So, while building the next room, I started to figure out how I wanted to convey the tone I established while building the first hallway

near_death_01-1024x576.jpg

I literally cannot stop writing about Near Death

mechanically.  I ended up taking an idea I briefly used in Terminal 2, powering up unpowered systems, and expanding upon that. I can’t completely explain why, but the act of restoring power to unpowered sections of stations is deeply satisfying to me.  And yes, I realize that this is a stupidly specific thing to enjoy. But that is part of why Near Death was so compelling to me, because it’s entirely about fixing up old buildings to complete objectives. To explain why I enjoy this, I have to tangent a bit into, like, the fundamental nature of designing non-combat gameplay.

There’s an episode of Errant Signal that describes this in way more detail than I could, but basically, games are really good at simulating things that are spatial, and combat is a really simple spatial thing to simulate.  Problem is, when you move outside the realm of combat and platforming…there aren’t a ton of ways to simulate things. So, a lot of indie, combat-free games run into this problem where they’re either simulating really complicated spreadsheet things, like Cities Skylines, or they aren’t really simulating much at all, like Dear Esther.  Now, I love Cities Skylines and Dear Esther, but they both have a pretty limited possibility space, at least in my opinion, for future games to expand on. As great as it is, you probably aren’t going to replay Gone Home over and over toe experience its rich mechanics. But Near Death, Soma, and other games like it, do find a way to do non-combat spatial simulation.  I write more about the tone of this in my post on the genre I’ve named Will and Wits, but the core idea of some of its gameplay is basically struggling against the very space you exist in: fixing breaking systems, avoiding hostile ones, and generally trying to use your brain to stay alive.  Near Death has this wonderful gameplay loop where you get to a building cold and low on resources, and its power is out, so you have to spend more resources to keep yourself alive. But, after some work, you can get the power back on, and the space goes from feeling hostile to feeling cozy.

I adapted this idea into Derelict by making the player’s primary goal to get enough power to open the final door on the ship.  They do this by finding repair kits scattered throughout the ship and using them to fix broken power stations. They can then redirect that power to the doors they want to enter using the power screen in the game’s hub room.  This leads to a lot of backtracking, something that is often derided in game spaces, but I personally enjoy, and gets the player familiar with the space. They feel like an engineer, patching up a dying ship. In fact, the only real survival system I added to the game was a result of trying to communicate the slow hostility of the environment, and that’s the oxygen meter.  When the player starts the game, they have an oxygen readout at the top of their screen which slowly ticks down to zero. They can replenish it by collecting oxygen tanks scattered throughout the environment. Thing is, the player’s

Capture3

I may have gone a bit overboard on the sparks

oxygen will basically never hit 0. In earlier builds of the game, the oxygen ticked down pretty fast, which made playtesters scramble from objective to objective.  But this wasn’t really the tone I was trying to create, so I decreased the oxygen to a point where, unless the player just stands in one place for a few minutes, it will never reasonably hit 0. I’ve never had a playtester die from hitting 0 oxygen. So, the oxygen system doesn’t really serve much of a mechanical purpose, technically, but the player doesn’t know that. It’s deadly enough that it does create some tension, but slow enough that they player feels okay lingering in areas.  The tension is ambient, not intense. So, the end result of these systems, hopefully, puts the player into the headspace of an engineer working under time pressure.

Story

It was around this point in development that I realized I didn’t actually have a reason for the player to be on the ship.  Honestly, I still don’t, and if you actually put some thought into it, it doesn’t really make much sense. So, the player’s there to rescue the crew?  But the crew is (mostly) evacuated. Did they get stranded on it? Are they one of the crew? No answer really works. And, honestly, I’m okay with it.  The point is that the player is trying to escape the environment; they don’t really have a purpose beyond that. The protagonist is so loosely defined that it’s just not important.  But, I needed some sort of story, so I tried adapting what I made in Terminal 2, but with one major change: an actual ending. I had to stop halfway through my expected story for Terminal 2 because I just ran out of time before the assignment was due.  So, for Derelict, I wanted something a bit more complete. Weirdly, I came up with the ending first, and built the rest of the story around that. I had a specific moment in mind, where the player walks to the airlock to leave the ship, and looks at the door to the engine room, knowing that the person they’ve slowly come to know is locked on the other side, and that they have to leave her there.  That specific moment of just a few seconds was what the entire experience was crafted around. Every system and narrative element had to be tuned around that.

So, I took the idea from Terminal 2 of this absent mechanic communicating with the player in a way they couldn’t respond to, and iterated on it.  This was partially by

Capture5

The site of one of my at least ten blatant thefts of sound assets from Ridley Scott’s Alien

necessity, I didn’t want to implement a branching dialog system, and I like the idea of that one-sided communication for thematic reasons anyways.  So, this lead to me designing the HUD to support these messages, but also forced me to do something I’m really bad at: writing dialog. I cannot write good dialog to save my life.  Everything I write just sounds awkward and clunky. So, I tried to minimize it, revise what I did write a lot, and keep things brief and to the point. Problem was, when I came back to revise some of it, I realized the player didn’t really have a connection to Conrad.  She spoke like…twice? And, yeah, that makes the ending gut-punch difficult to pull off. There needed to be a relationship for that to work. So, I started finding more moments to add in bits of dialog, one at each major checkpoint. I tried to add more personality to the dialog, because that’s also something I’m not great at, and I changed up the ending a bit to add more emotion to the gut-punch.  In earlier builds, Conrad was pretty much dead by the time the player arrived. She had been exposed to radiation, and had made the decision to permanently lock the door to the room she was in, removing any possibility of escape. That works fine, but I wanted the player to be complicit in her ultimate fate somehow. So, I mixed up the ending so that the player would have to unknowingly push the button that doomed Conrad, and she would have to mislead them into doing so.  Even though the actual gameplay is the same, the end result is the player feeling at least somewhat responsible for Conrad’s death, even though there really was no other option. I kept the moment quiet, because I like it when games give the player space to think and feel through the implications of their actions without comment. And the player then gets to leave the ship, hopefully, with a sense of uncertainty.

Virtual Reality

That was pretty much where I left Derelict when I finished the 1.0 build, but I recently revisited it with the idea of porting it to VR.  I had been itching to make a VR game ever since I got my Vive, but hadn’t found a good project. Derelict ended up working wonderfully.  Originally, it was going to be a quick and dirty port, slapping a VR controller on and calling it a day; a logical transition taking the game idea from HTML, to 3D, to VR.  But, the more time I spent with the game in VR, the more changes I wanted to make. Let’s start with the basics. Just swapping out a regular monitor for a VR headset already changes the way the player interacts with the space.  They feel more present, obviously, and gives me even greater returns on the tone I was trying to create. But then you add in motion controllers, and things get a little more complicated. This took a lot of work from a technical perspective, mostly because the Unreal VR blueprint, while wonderfully made, is still fairly new and thus poorly documented.  So, figuring out how to do things like stop the player from teleporting through doors was a big concern. But once I had that in place, I noticed that the levels felt barren and empty, especially compared to the tightly-packed, detail-focused level design stylings of contemporary AAA games. So, I shrunk the entire station by about 25%, which did end up solving the problem as best I could without adding a ton of new assets.  I was still limited by the assets that Epic had made for free and the few I contracted from a friend (they keycard

Capture2

Thanks, Chris, for the beautiful repair kit models

and the repair kit), but by this point I had found the Sci-Fi hallway demo, which gave me many more assets to work with. I added better texturing to the walls and floors, I had actual static meshes to use, examples of better post-processing effects, it was great! And, to make it even better, these changes made the first-person version of the game work even better, because it encouraged me to design with a closer attention to detail.  However, there was one bit of design in VR that was fundamentally different from the first-person version, and that was the HUD.

HUDs aren’t really a thing in VR.  Or, rather, they are, but no one has figured out a way to do it that isn’t incredibly clunky.  So, if you want to communicate information in a similar style to a HUD, the best option so far is the wrist watch communicator thing that a lot of games, such as Rec Room, use.  Basically, you look at your arm, and a little screen pops up, showing you information that would be on a HUD. This only works for information that isn’t urgent, so you couldn’t put something like a health bar on there.  Fortunately, Derelict didn’t have any information that needed to be communicated that quickly, so I was free to offload basically the entire HUD onto the player’s arm communicator. Whenever the player gets a message from Conrad, picks up a useful item, or needs to see a tutorial prompt, their controller vibrates and beeps, and they can open up the screen to see the message.  Now, I could have done the same thing with the power management screen, which, in the flat version of the game, pops up on the HUD, but I was interested to try out 3D HUDs, so I moved that into the world itself. Instead of an extra page on the player’s wrist communicator, the power screen is an actual actor in the game world,

Capture1.PNG

I probably should have hired an artist for this one

interacted with using motion controllers. While the screen does look a little awkward and out of place, since it’s basically just a cube with buttons, I think it adds more to the immersion by removing what could have been yet another HUD element.

Final Notes

So, what started as a HTML puzzle game ended up as a VR adventure game fully designed to work with motion controllers.  And even though those two games are pretty far removed from each other, they still share a lot of formal similarities. Even the dialog itself is still delivered in much the same way, with the player reading from a dark screen.  In the latest version of the game, that screen is attached to a motion controller on the player’s arm, but it’s still fundamentally the same idea. I’m not sure how I can further iterate on the idea from here without just expanding the budget and hiring actual artists, but I’m happy with having followed this thread of design through to what I think is a nice endpoint.

Capture4

A Little Closer to the Horizon, Please: Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Introduction

It’s no secret that Horizon Zero Dawn’s time in the spotlight was cut unfortunately short by releasing three days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Two exploration-based open world games coming out within three days of each other would be enough of a marketing nightmare on its own, but when one of those games is a critically adored, GOTY-sweeping entry in one gaming’s best-known franchises, I’m amazed Horizon actually broke even.  But while torrents of pieces analyzing every facet of Breath of the Wild have been released and continue to get released, Horizon seems to have gone relatively unanalyzed for a game of its scope and creativity.  I picked it up hoping to find a hidden gem, but what I found was more of a great blueprint for a hidden gem, that seemed to need a few more redesigns.  Still, I think the successes and failures of Horizon make it one of the most interesting games released last year, and the questions it asks about how to make a AAA open world game are especially important in such a static genre.  So, how does Horizon shake up the open-world formula?  What fundamental assumptions about open world setting and story design does it challenge?  And can it turn any of those ideas into engaging systems

Story & Setting

Horizon’s writing is probably its most interesting, back-of-the-box, selling point feature.  So it’s a shame that, most of the time the player is actually engaging with it, it’s awkward, bland, or frustrating.  “Awkward” is really the best word I can think of to describe the dialog, from Aloy’s teenaged attempts to land a sick burn, to the conversations with Sylens that are basically just them being angry at each other over voice chat, to the strange attempts at stiff, fantasy genre speech that most characters talk

Dialog

Even in action-adventure games, you can’t escape the dialog wheel

in.  It’s telling that I looked up the “Skip Dialog” button about twenty minutes into the game; most of the time when the game is talking at you, you’ll be bored.  During the majority of the cutscenes, I found myself groaning with the same frequency I do at most AAA titles, because the characters speak so stiffly.  I’m fairly certain that this is a problem with the script, because they’ve hired some fairly talented actors to play the parts.  The closest comparison I can find is, appropriately, Dontnod’s 2015 Life is Strange.  Voice actor/writer Ashly Burch voices lead characters in both of these games (Aloy in HZD and Chloe in LiS), and appropriately demonstrates the feel of a talented actor with a wooden script, and how that gets translated from page to game.  The writing in Horizon feels very similar, with actors struggling to emote around clunky dialog.  Part of the awkwardness in Life is Strange’s script comes from it being translated from French, and Guerrilla Games is a Dutch company, so I suppose that could have contributed to a similar feel.  However, the game’s lead writer was John Gonzalez, best known for writing for Fallout New Vegas, one of the most fully-realized settings in the history of the medium.  So, the cause of the clunky dialog is still a mystery to me.

However, the problems with the script extend beyond the dialog; the major plot points regularly fail to land as well.  The game opens with an impeccably directed sequence (like nearly all of its cutscenes) showing Aloy dealing with her outcast status, training, growing up, and preparing to face the world.  It introduces Rost, Aloy’s adoptive father (a character so forgettable I just had to Google his name), swiftly kills him off to give Aloy a personal stake in fighting the big bad.  Aloy wins membership in the tribe that has treated her as an outcast for her entire life, then goes off on her great adventure.  This plot is formulaic enough that it should at least function as an easy setup, but the wooden delivery and awkward structure make each point land less than gracefully.  Rost, for example, is barely mentioned for the rest of the game, and because we never really see Aloy enjoying her time with him, he doesn’t work as an effective motivation.  And Aloy’s drive to find out who her mother is never quite lines up with the player’s interest in the world (though they did try, and I’ll expand on that later).  This results in the player sort of floating from plot event to plot event, not really invested in any of it.  The Nora themselves are perhaps the best example of this, because, as an elevator pitch, they work brilliantly.  Aloy grows up shunned by them for reasons she cannot understand, and Nora.jpgfights for their acceptance not because she actually wants it, but because she wants to know why they treat her so horribly.  Once she gains access to the community’s secrets, she discovers that they are misinterpreting the will of a dying AI, treating it as a religious faith, and that Aloy’s exile was a result of this misinterpretation.  As Aloy explores the world, she learns more about how mistaken the Nora are, and returns to them with knowledge that makes her an almost mythic figure, all while dealing with the emotional confusion of being revered by the people who once shunned her.  Did you get excited reading that?  Because I got excited writing it.  That sounds like an incredible story!  I’d love to play that game!  But that does not feel like the game I got to play.  Almost everything with the Nora is brought up in a beautifully-rendered cutscene, then forgotten as Aloy goes and fights some boring apocalypse cult.  You’ve fought a billion like them in every video game ever made.  And given how forgettable that plotline is, most of your direct experience with the story is just hanging out with Aloy.  And, umm.  Okay, let’s talk about Aloy.

I really wanted to like Aloy.  She’s voiced by Ashly Burch, which already gives her a few dozen points in her favor, she’s got a (theoretically) interesting backstory as a social outcast, and is kind of a badass on top of it.  But, in execution, her character is just…bland.  I can’t really come up with any of her personality traits other than “determined” and “impulsive”, which are the traits of approximately every video game protagonist since like 2004.  She doesn’t really seem to enjoy what she’s doing beyond an occasional satisfied smile, and mostly seems kind of annoyed with people, which makes sense for a social outcast, but isn’t expanded upon in a meaningful enough wya to make it a worthwhile tradeoff.  But Aloy’s biggest weakness as a character comes from an element that could have easily been her biggest strength: her motivation.  I absolutely understand what they were trying to do; Aloy’s journey to find her mother (cloned genetic progenitor, whatever, she’s functionally her mom) gives her a personal stake in exploring the ruins of the old world.  In interviews, lead writer John Gonzalez talked about how, without this personal motivation, Horizon is just a detective story, but the best detective stories are “Ones that the detective really needs to solve”.  Thus, he gave Aloy a driving personal reason to dig deeper.  However, as a player, I found myself thoroughly uninterested in Aloy’s journey of self because of the weak setup, and more interested in the world itself.  So, I was interested in finding out more about the world, but Aloy is only interested in the bits that relate specifically to her birth.  She doesn’t seem excited about uncovering some bit of world-defining lore, when the player is on the edge of their seat.  She’s looting the stories of the dead world looking for scraps about her mother, and tossing aside everything else.  And in her approach to the lore of the world, I really began to understand Aloy, because it lead me to ask a seemingly unrelated question that, in actuality, tells us a lot about Aloy: What point does Sylens serve in the story?  This one threw me for a loop until I started combing over the plot summary and looking at his actions.  He basically does Character_9.jpgeverything interesting in the story.  He does the archeological digging, uncovers ancient secrets, pieces together where to go next, and scours the world looking for new dig sites.  He even kicks off the primary events of the story by awakening HADES.  Basically, he figures everything out so that all Aloy needs to do is kill the people between her and Sylens’ next objective.  And this is where I began to understand Aloy.  Like so many video game protagonists, she is good at killing, and little else.  I get that, by the nature of this being a AAA action-adventure game, she has to be good at killing, but that’s really the only thing she’s good at.  But Sylens highlights what she could have been.  An archeologist who knows her way around weapons, like Nathan Drake or (more appropriately, given her personality) the rebooted Laura Croft.  If Aloy had done everything that Sylens did, there could have been an even tighter connection between setting and story.  Sylens’ motivations of curiosity about the old world and a driving desire to explore its mysteries are so much more compatible with what the player wants to do (namely, explore) that it seems like a perfect match, in stark contrast to Aloy’s motivation of “Who’s my mom, who I guess happens to be related to the setting?”  So, while playing as a character more like Sylens wouldn’t have had that same personal connection to the mystery, it would have at least made the player feel like their interest in every scrap of the old world wasn’t out of character.  Giving Aloy even a bit of that archeological predisposition could have done so much to improve this.

So, the dialogue is bad, the low-level plot is bad, and the main character feels underutilized, which just leaves the setting.  Fortunately, the setting is Horizon’s greatest strength, and when executed correctly, is genuinely breathtaking.  This is first apparent in the game’s visual design, a strange hybrid of ancient and modern styles.  Characters have headdresses made of bullet casings, fur clothes with metal flourishes, and ancient makeup and war paint in the shape of circuit boards.  This, coupled with the game’s impressive graphical fidelity, makes it consistently gorgeous to look at, and conveys many of the game’s themes with much more subtlety and effectiveness than any of its story beats.  The environments of the world reflect this as well, with sprawling, beautiful landscapes littered with the corpses of derelict machines, and the centuries-old ruins of ancient cities.  It delivers on one of my favorite promises of the post-post-apocalypse genre (or whatever it’s called): showing a new world flourish in the carcass of the old, no longer concerned with the squabbles, culture and events of their long-dead ancestors.  Similar works in this genre include Nier: Automata, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West,

22680-enslaved-odyssey-to-the-west-1920x1080-game-wallpaper-1.jpg

Seriously, more people need to play Enslaved

the later of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  These two games are less backwards-looking than most works in the post-apocalypse genre, and I wish Horizon had committed to that more.  Because, by the end of the game, there are really no mysteries left to uncover; the game has already answered everything.  The only real question remaining is posted in an after-credits sequel hook where Sylens reveals that someone or something woke HADES up, which wasn’t appropriately set up beforehand (it seemed like HADES had been awake forever and Sylens just stumbled upon him while being an archaeology nerd).  And while I think the ending’s lack of mystery does harm the game as a whole, I want to acknowledge the sense of wonder the game does successfully create at its beginning.  As Aloy crosses from the safety of her tribe’s sacred land into the outer world at the end of Act 1, the player is burning with so many questions about the nature of the game’s world and presented with a world full of answers.  That moment is one of my highlights of the entire game, and even though that mystery is diluted by the ending, it sets up the open world beautifully.While poking around the world, the player will stumble on some of the game’s best bits of world building.  These include audio and text logs that describe the workings of the old world without giving away too much, giving the player small anecdotes instead of comprehensive answers.  This is reminiscent of Croteam’s The Talos Principle, which never outright states the cause of the apocalypse, and instead describes people living their lives under the shadow of it.  As a result, the player feels like an archeologist of their own world, uncovering bits of 21st-century technology and lore that are new and mysterious to Aloy, but not to the player.  And this touches on perhaps my favorite theme in the story, that of the tribes of the new world misinterpreting the ideas of the old world.  It serves as an interesting twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous, often-quoted line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This concept is most often used when the audience cannot understand the technology, making it seem magical, but in Horizon, we see this from the opposite perspective.  During the first act,

latest.png

The Womb of the Mountain/Magical Broken Computer

Aloy presents herself to what the tribe calls “The Goddess”, and ancient structure inside the mountain that they built their capital around.  This takes the shape of a metal door, which emanates a red light and scans Aloy, saying, “Identity not verified, data corruption”.  The player knows that this is obviously a computer, that it’s using some sort of scan to verify her identity, and that there’s a busted hard drive somewhere in the facility that’s making it throw an error.  But the leaders of the Nora treat it as a prophecy, speaking of the corruption as a mythical force that Aloy must conquer.  The player is given both perspectives, the technological and the magical, and is able to understand both simultaneously.  Aloy’s problem of fixing a broken computer is turned into a mythic quest simply because the Nora think its magic.  *That* is a brilliant use of Horizon’s genre, and one that feels fairly unique to Horizon itself.

Exploration & Combat

So how does the player uncover these setting details?  Outside of the main plot, the setting is primarily communicated through the design of the world itself.  While the late game may suffer from the kind of bloat that seems emblematic of post-Assassin’s Creed open world titles, during early-to-mid game, the size and scope feels just right, and allows for measured exploration.  While, at the end of the game, I was fast-traveling from campfire to campfire, during the first few zones, I *loved* the open world.  I was searching every corner looking for new enemies to fight, hidden areas to poke around in, and loot to find.  The game lets you do something that so few contemporary open world Horizon Zero Dawn™_20180116181436.jpggames actually do: stumble upon something mysterious.  The first Cauldron level I did was one of my favorite experiences in the entire game, because I was just wandering the open world when I found it.  No one directed me there, I wasn’t given a quest to “Clear Cauldron 1 of X”, I just found it.  While I was exploring it, I was burning with curiosity about what could be behind every new corner, and the game delivered on it.  That was the discovery the game should have focused on, because it put you in the headspace of discovering an ancient, abandoned world.  Unfortunately, by the late game, that mystery had begun to dissipate, and I was just Clearing Cauldron 6 of X.  As the world grew in size, it felt less important to explore all of it.  I already knew what I would find because icons for them were plastered all over my map.  When I arrived at new zones, it wasn’t introduced with a cutscene or any exposition about what made it unique, I just kind of ran through it while following my objective marker.  I tried to turn off as many of those markers as I could, and let myself get distracted as much as possible, but the game was just not built for it past its first two zones.  The world was better when it was smaller.

I have one more anecdote that I think highlights the best and worst of Horizon’s open world, as it was almost one of my favorite moments in the game.  I was exploring near one of the game’s northern areas, and I saw that I was nearly at the edge of the map.  Curious to see what the edge of the world looked like, I headed north until I found a snowy mountain range.  I tried to sneak my way past a few enemies, but made a bad call and blew my cover, resulting in enemy attacks barreling down on me from all directions.  Instead of running away, I made the split-second decision to charge the mountain, and climbed it while dodging fire and just barely keeping my health bar topped off.  With no healing items to spare, I reached the top, only to be greeted by…a cutscene introducing a giant, flying boss.  Here, when just exploring the open world, I had stumbled onto a unique boss encounter totally undirected.  It took nearly every bit of ropecaster ammo I had, but I was able to take it down, and Aloy dropped a quick voice hint about seeing what it was guarding.  I moved past the machine’s corpse, and saw a series of platforming challenges (ladders, ledges, etc.), that seemed to lead to a nearby cave.  I climbed about halfway up the ridge, and…I got stuck.  I could not, for the life of me, find the next place to climb.  I retraced my steps, tried jumping on every bit of environment that looked even remotely climbable, and even turned on the game’s objective hints.  Nothing.  After about half an hour of trying, I gave up, and googled a video guide.  And, this is where my excitement turned to frustration.  Right at the point I had stopped, in my world, there was an empty ledge, with no apparent way up, but in the world of the YouTube video I was watching, there was a ladder neatly placed right there.  Apparently, that ladder only appears when you have unlocked that area’s relevant quest.  Now, I understand that, in an open world game, you need to gate off certain areas that are mission-specific.  But to have that gate be an arbitrary ladder halfway up the path to that

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20180123231751.jpg

Why?

objective, with no indication to the player that they can’t reach the area?  Not even an “I should come back later” voice line from Aloy?  If they had simply forgotten to gate off the area, I would have understood, but the removal of this ladder implies that some designer on the team saw the problem, and deliberately implemented this disappearing ladder as a solution to solve the problem.  That, I do not understand.  Maybe remove the first stepping stone up the mountain, instead of one in the middle?  Gate the area off entirely?  I can think of dozens of equally cheap design solutions, none of which would have lead to this problem.  And while this is a single issue, I think it’s emblematic of how Horizon only half commits to making its world explorable.  It gets far, far closer than most games, but isn’t able to go far enough.  Which, I suppose, is a good summary of my opinion on the game as a whole.

Before concluding, I do want to briefly touch on the game’s combat.  Again, I enjoyed it much more at the beginning of the game than at the end, and I think that has more to do with encounter design than player skill or numerical advantages.  A great deal of the campaign involves fighting human enemies, which features a largely uninteresting opening of shallow stealth that transitions irrevocably into shallow combat as soon as you are spotted.  You’ve done this before in most AAA action-adventure titles.  Combat against machine enemies, meanwhile is much more interesting, especially because of the various traps the game offers.  The game does have one combat setup that works brilliantly, and that is when the game lets the player really step into the shoes of a hunter and plan their attack. While most of the campaign missions don’t allow for this kind of play, those that do demonstrate a style of combat that simply cannot be found in other games.  Checking enemy movement patterns, scanning for their weaknesses, dropping tripcaster lines, and setting up the perfect trap is a rich tactical treat, especially on the harder difficulties.  However, open combat is less tactically engaging, primarily because of the difficulty of deploying the traps mid-combat.  Even with a great deal of handling images.duckduckgo.commods on my tripcaster, I found keeping track of enemies while setting them up is incredibly difficult, and often for little reward, at least on Hard mode.  This is made worse by how clunky avoiding enemy attacks is even when not trying to place traps.  The player’s primary means of avoiding damage is a dodge roll that never seemed to reliably be able to avoid damage.  This is used in the face of enemy attacks that are difficult to predict, because of the visually busy design of the enemies, the raw number of enemies the player will be fighting at any given time, and the fact that the player’s focus is often narrowed on weak points, making them miss subtle movements of the enemies.  Additionally, enemies often attack in multi-hit combos that would put a Bloodborne boss to shame.  Often times, I would see a telegraph, dodge away from the enemy, and still get him by later attacks in a combo, even if I spammed the upgraded dodge roll.  Because this makes trap deployment difficult, I ended up using traps less, turning combat into a fairly standard third-person shooter.  The ropecaster can do a lot to alleviate this problem, but if ever a game was calling out for some sort of Shadow of the Colossus-style enemy climbing while searching for weak points, this was it.  Still, when the level designers give you a suite of tactical options, Horizon’s combat truly embraces its setting in a way that most other AAA titles simply can’t, and does feel genuinely unique and interesting to engage with.  I just wish that same amount of depth could have been applied to open combat as well.

Conclusion

I feel like I came off a lot more negative towards this game than I intended, so I want to open the conclusion with a reframing of my opinion on the game: I think Horizon Zero Dawn is an incremental improvement on the AAA action-adventure game that greatly raises the bar for what we can expect from the admittedly stale genre.  The quality of the cinematic and art direction alone is astonishing, and the idea that these games can explore more creative settings and have gameplay inspired by them is one that the industry is in desperate need of adopting.  If every AAA open world title was as creative and risky as Horizon Zero Dawn was, I probably wouldn’t be suffering from genre fatigue.  Still, there are tradeoffs to taking risks when making a game this expensive: you’re working with ideas that haven’t been iterated on and polished over multiple sequels.  So, whenever Horizon Zero Dawn 2 comes out, I will be looking forward to seeing how Guerilla takes this first game, which was promising but messy, and polishes it up.

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20180114172539

The Proto-MMO: RuneScape and Unstructured, Massively Multiplayer Play

The website of Jagex Ltd. says that I first logged into its seminal MMO Runescape over twelve years ago, on September 11th, 2005.  It also says that I’ve spent 827 hours playing the game since then, a number that does embarrass me, but not enough to stop me from playing it.  See, Runescape doesn’t have any of the qualities of the games I spend most of my time playing.  While most of the games populating my most played list of 2017 have gone all respectable, with coherent and gorgeous art direction, game systems that engage and challenge, and well-crafted narratives that finally made me stop feeling insecure

Screenshot (19)

God, how is that even possible?

about dedicating my professional life to games instead of literature or film or whatever, Runescape is…basically a clicker game with a prettier coat of paint.  So, I have a hard time explaining why Runescape is interesting to me other than the patented nostalgia excuse.  But I’ve spent a decent amount of those 827 total hours playing the game in the past few weeks, and I think I’ve come up with a rough idea of why I keep coming back.  My arc with most games is as follows: buy, binge, give up, move on to the next game.  I don’t usually revisit games to complete side content, and I rarely replay them.  However, I engage with Runescape differently.  In Runescape, I might play for a week here and there, then go back to playing other games.  I make a bit of progress, complete a quest, grind some levels, then move on.  So, what about Runescape’s design is different from other MMOs?  How does it structure its expected playtime to encourage a more casual engagement?  And can we still learn something from it when the contemporary MMO is moving closer to “shared world” that “massively multiplayer”?

“Player freedom” has become such an overused industry buzzword in the past decade that I cringe just to mention it, let alone to make it the core of my thesis, but yeah, Runescape offers the least directed experience of any MMO I’ve played (certainly any made since World of WarCraft).  Once the player leaves the tutorial, they are basically given the freedom of a Bethesda RPG.  The game is so good at this that it actually struggles to give new players a clear direction when they start playing, and I think this is a very good problem to have.  WoW popularized this “theme park” style of MMOs that gives the player an exact path to follow through the game, so the player rarely has to decide what to do next.  And while there is some benefit to this system (namely, it’s relaxing as hell), Runescape shows how good it can be when you design for the opposite sensibilities.

Here’s an example of a Runescape play session I had the other day: “Okay, I really want to complete the Recipe for Disaster quest because it’s goddamn funny, but in order to do that, I need to complete the Desert Treasure quest to unlock Ancient Magicks.  And that would be easy, except finishing that quest requires killing this vampire boss who has been giving me a lot of trouble, but it looks like he’s weak to air spells, so I’m going to train my magic level to 60 so I can use this awesome magic staff that will let me hit him with my toughest air spell.  Magic is kind of hard to train, so I’ll pickup some good magic gear and complete a few quests that give magic experience while learning how to use the new magic system.  And then I can complete this quest I’ve wanted to do since I was 13.”

Screenshot (138)

Completing this was literally on my bucket list

This is a chain of events that I planned out on my own, a decent amount of which could have been swapped out for other solutions.  I didn’t need to do any of it to advance in the game, I just wanted to.  Where an average play session for WoW is “I need to do this quest so I can unlock the next quest which unlocks the next quest…” ad nauseam, Runescape’s play sessions are much more dynamic; constructed by players, not developers.  The game allows the player to set goals for themselves and accomplish them however they see fit.

The world itself, fortunately, is designed around this.  As a kid, I loved that I could never know everything about it.  There were entire areas I had never been to and knew very little about, and they carried an air of mystery as a result.  For example, the game has this elven city far off to the west, unlocked by an elaborate series of quests that I was never able to complete.  However, one of my friends *had* completed the questline, and told fantastical and almost certainly exaggerated stories about how amazing the city was.  That story was specific to me, but the game’s world design generates stories like this regularly, and it’s a type of story that other MMOs struggle to generate.  In World of WarCraft, my second massively multiplayer love, I have been everywhere in that world.  Thanks to dungeon finder, flying mounts, and a hefty amount of time spent unlocking the Explorer Achievement, I have seen all of the secrets Azeroth has to offer.  I don’t know if it was always this way, apparently the game was less forthcoming about the details of its world at launch, but contemporary WoW has lost this mystery.  This could be part of what makes going back to WoW less engaging: every corner of that world has already been explored.

Runescape never felt that way.  There was personality packed into every bit of that world, always waiting for me to find it.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t explore the wikis and YouTube videos, I remember spending hours reading about the game and its various locations I never ended up seeing.  Runescape’s world was created specifically to be exploredWoodcutting_Tree, maybe not to the extent that Skyrim was, but closer to that than any post-WoW MMO.  Like Skyrim, Runescape walks a fine line between a present- and absent-feeling designer. I never feel like I am being told what to do, but I do see the designer’s personality packed into every corner of the world, from the tongue-in-cheek dialog of the quests (that borrow more from Shrek than Tolkien), to the flavor text provided when using a herring on a tree (which is, of course, a Monty Python reference).  The designer wasn’t giving me a list of options, they were just responding when I acted out what *I* wanted to do.  They felt more like a dungeon master than a chore-giver, a distinction that a great deal of contemporary games, MMO and otherwise, seem to be missing.

Runescape has many, many problems.  Its combat is still infuriatingly boring, there is still too much grinding, and the control scheme will never feel natural.  However, because it gives the player the choice of how to engage with its world, those problems are much less present than they would be in many other games.  The combat is bad?  Well, the majority of the game’s content is actually non-combat, drawing more from adventure games than action RPGs.  Combat is just something else you can do, not the primary driver of the game’s content.  There’s too much grinding?  If you feel like grinding, you can do that, or you can experiment with more interesting ways to grind, or you can experiences some of the wealth of content that doesn’t involve grinding at all.  The control scheme is bad?  Well…okay, that one you can’t really avoid.  I guess you kind of have to live with that.  Regardless, when the game fails, it fails gracefully and often avoidably.  That’s one of the advantages of not being laser-focused on one path.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be a design philosophy that will be adopted by AAA MMO developers any time soon, but, for students and fans of the medium, it is still wonderfully preserved, just as it was in 2007.

I still kind of prefer Runescape 3 though.

osrs_world_map_nov23_2017

Friends & Fat Loot: Looking at Trick-Or-Treating as a Game Space

Every Halloween since I’ve gotten too old to trick-or-treat, I make a point of taking a walk around my neighborhood.  I obviously can’t participate in the actual acquisition of candy, and I don’t really know any of the other people walking around the streets, but the experience of trick-or-treating, of being in that space, has been one that I’ve valued even when I can’t participate.  Before I really got into game design, I had always chalked this up to nostalgia, and it’s true, there is a good deal of nostalgia involved in it, but what keeps me coming back every year isn’t just that.  Instead, it has a lot to do with how the social space of trick-or-treating works, with how, for a few hours, neighborhoods work differently than they do for the rest of the year.  And since anyone who comes with me on this walk is subjected to my pseudo-intellectual game design babblings about how, no really, this is just like a video game, and I’m running out of friends who will still come with me on this annual walk, I figured I’d try to organize the thoughts a bit and do something productive with them.  In short, trick-or-treating creates a social space that both predates contemporary multiplayer video games, yet is incredibly similar to them, and I think learning about one can help us better understand the other.

First, let’s look at how trick-or-treating actually works, and that starts with the setting.  Most people (who aren’t really into architecture) don’t actively look at and examine individual houses in our neighborhoods.  After we initially enter an area, they fade into the background because we don’t have to interact with them in any way.  Frictional Games has an excellent blog post where they talk about a similar concept in game design, where aspects of a game world that the player doesn’t have to engage with complexly aren’t a part of their mental model, and they eventually are ignored.  However, on Halloween, these houses that we previously removed from our mental model of a space are wonderfully returned to it with creative decorations.  This is also true on Christmas, but I would argue that Halloween’s decorations are more interactive and creative.  While walking around the space, trick-or-treaters are encouraged to marvel at the creations and designs of their neighbors, and they become the subject of discussion in a way that unadorned houses almost never are.  This sets the stage for the transformative effects of the trick-or-treating space by taking the mundane and making it unique, adding a sense of wonder to moving from house to house.  With the stage set, kids gear up and prepare to go out.  They prepare elaborate costumes filled with references they expect their friends to get.  They get bags to carry their candy, maybe flashlights if they’re taking it really seriously.  Then, they enter the space.  Maybe they meet up with their friends beforehand, maybe they start out hitting up the houses on their own block before meeting up.  With the party fully assembled, kids can take advantage of the entirety of the social space, and it is here where the comparisons to game worlds become the strongest.  Kids run from door to door, building up their mountain of candy, but in the process, run into other friends, compliment their costumes and swap locations of the houses with the best candy.  It is a space with a clear objective – get the best/most candy – that encourages kids to help each other in best accomplishing this goal.  And these systems generate stories, stories that I remember even years later.  I have trouble remembering street names in my own neighborhood, but give me a map of the few blocks surrounding my house, and I can show you the places that, ten/fifteen years ago, gave out the full-sized Snickers bar, the one house with the cotton candy machine, and the old train station that was handing out sodas.  It’s a hunt for loot, a hunt that everyone in your elementary school is participating in, and that makes for some great stories.  Throughout the night, conversations will range from costumes to candy locations to the design of various houses’ decorations.  Kids are encouraged to interact, to run into people, and to enjoy themselves while doing it.  And at the end of the night, they return home to count their candy haul, and start the week-long process of gorging themselves.

Just from the way I’ve framed these events, the comparisons to game spaces might already be obvious.  You gear up, get your party together, go looking for loot, talk about how cool the world design is, run into other players, swap tips, run away from some older kids (who I suppose would be higher-level players in this extended metaphor), then go home and check out your loot.  This is the exact same loop as you might get in Destiny or Borderlands.  I spend a lot of time trying to compare real-world spaces to game spaces, and while I often find many points of comparison, trick-or-treating is one of the only examples I can think of where real-world spaces replicate this particular type of game space.  It is explicitly a space that requires an online multiplayer environment for its video game application, and thus has existed for no more than twenty years.  But trick-or-treating has been around for well over eighty years (if my cursory Wikipedia search is to be believed).  That set of social systems has been iterated on and tweaked for decades.  And best I can tell, neither one influenced the other, it’s simply a product of dumping people into a space with these types of goals (get candy/get loot).  This makes trick-or-treating one of the most interesting intersections of game logic and reality, because, even though it predates those types of game spaces by half a century, it gives a glimpse of what a game social space would look like when populated mostly by people who don’t play video games.

Destiny-Loot-Cave-Removed.jpg.optimal.jpg