Category Archives: Concepts

Unpacking Mass Effect 3’s Forgotten Multiplayer Mode

Intro

For all the hours I’ve spent playing it, I have a hard time explaining precisely why I love Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes so much.  In 2021 especially, half-baked multiplayer tacked on to a single-player game feels like a relic of a previous generation, one of those features you forget as time goes on.  Does anyone remember the multiplayer mode for Tomb Raider (2013)?  So it’s strange that, years after launch, Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes are not only something I remember quite fondly, but something I return to regularly with friends.  Even playing today, I feel something compelling about them that Gears of War, it’s closest gameplay competitor, lacks.  And I don’t think this comes mostly from the simple pleasure of well-designed combat (though that is certainly a factor), or because I get to spend more time in a universe I love with friends (though, again, that is a factor).  And there are many, many more factors that should have prevented it from being enjoyable at all.  For starters, it is, charitably, a technical mess.  The 3rd game especially, based on early Origin netcode, is filled with inconveniently placed loading screens in menus as it accesses online features.  It often requires port forwarding to be able to reliably join games, which are filled with frequent disconnects and crashes.  Mass Effect 3 is relatively technically solid otherwise, but the netcode makes the experience of getting into the game a hassle nearly every time.  The metagame is also mired in troubling design decisions.  As a free add-on to a $60 game that requires server costs, the game has an incredibly slow grind for better and more varied gear, characters, and stat upgrades.  These can only be acquired through various forms of random loot boxes, with no way to directly purchase items or characters a player wants with real money or in-game cash.  And this is one of the famously slow grinds that helped define the negative reputation of the first loot boxes in the early 2010s.  I sunk well over 100 hours into the mode and I still never approached completion of the progression system, or even a relatively high level of power.  Going even further, the game itself is a single game mode: ten waves of increasingly difficult enemies, with three of those waves being objective based.  There are a few, incredibly simple objectives to accomplish, and the different enemy types become predictable after a few hours in the game.  So, with all of this working against it, how could the game possibly appeal for 100 hours without getting boring?  I believe the answer isn’t a single magic bullet, but instead a series of smart design decisions that add variety to each match, despite their samey format.  First, it translates the complex combat loadouts from the single player into the multiplayer, adding more creative abilities that would have been too complicated to balance in the single player.  Next, it implements enemy variety masterfully, with clearly readable and unique enemies.  And finally, it polishes these elements with sound and visual design that make it feel incredible to play and experiment.  The end result is a strangely cohesive experience that pushes players into exploring the game’s systems, making each match feel unique.

The last time I played with some friends

Loadouts

One of the core challenges of Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes is the lack of gametype variety.  As previously mentioned, you’re locked into one game mode, on a set series of static maps, with a few objective-based rounds to mix it up.  This means that, generally, the player is accomplishing the exact same goals every game.  So, variety is first injected through the tools the players take into each mission.  Initially, this means the weapons the player has to choose from.  There are multiple categories of weapons, each with their own strengths, and the player will probably be fairly familiar with them from other shooters.  Shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, these are things the player already intuitively understands.  Fortunately, Mass Effect isn’t afraid to take advantage of its sci-fi setting, putting more conventional modern military-themed weapons alongside more creative alien weapons like the particle beam.  Its setting frees it to create weapons that feel genuinely unique.  The player isn’t choosing between two assault rifles with a 0.2 second difference in reload time, they’re picking between a marksman rifle and a rifle

that shoots lightning.  This makes the decision on which weapons to pick more complicated, which is further increased by the weapon weight system.  Taking fewer or lighter weapons decreases the recharge time of the player abilities, creating a tradeoff between weapon effectiveness and ability effectiveness.  These tradeoffs make it genuinely interesting to decide on loadouts, and unlocking new weapons can entirely change up your playstyle.  Compare that to Rainbow Six Siege, which, while each match plays out in wildly different ways, has rarely encouraged me to change up my loadouts for a character once I’ve settled on one.  But the unique weapons are only a part of what makes loadout creation in Mass Effect interesting.  Much like the single-player game, it’s the characters that really make the experience shine.

The various character classes of Mass Effect’s multiplayer are where its real value lies.  You aren’t just picking another version of a human soldier with a weird gadget, you’re switching between hulking krogan vanguards and a tiny volus biotic god.  While many classes share similar abilities, the way those abilities play off each other makes each class combination feel unique, and presents an entirely new playstyle.  Switching between them is fairly easy, and the player isn’t penalized with hours of required grinding for doing so.  So, players will be switching up their entire playstyle on a game-

to-game basis.  Even playing on the same map against the same enemies, no game will feel the same.  I’ll talk about this particular class in more detail later, but the Human Vanguard class, for example, is a hyper aggressive melee tank, that charges enemies and drops high-damage AOE melee attacks.  A well-played vanguard basically never uses cover, and is always charging around the map.  This experience is radically different from playing the salarian engineer, my go-to for high level platinum difficulty runs.  This class is much squishier than the vanguard, and has to constantly use cover and longer-ranged weapons.  However, his tech abilities have low enough recharge times that the player can set off tech combos on enemies consistently, making him ideal for burning down top-tier enemies at higher difficulties.  While he’s nowhere near as aggressive as the vanguard, he can maintain map control in a way that the vanguard, with its high-risk, high-reward play, simply can’t.  Not all classes play as wildly different as these two, but with over 30 classes, there are a lot of experiences to pick from.  This encourages players to talk to their friends about their favorite builds, partially to optimize their own, but also to discover new playstyles from new classes.  The social element continues to enhance this throughout the experience.  Get a new class in a loot box that you don’t know how to play?  Maybe a friend already has it, and the two of you can swap strategies.  I’ve made a few online friends from these multiplayer lobbies, despite the horrific netcode and lack of text chat, and I think this encouraged conversation is a huge part of why.

The Game Field

All the loadout and class variety in the world wouldn’t mean that much if the maps and enemies weren’t designed to make them interesting.  And, fortunately, Mass Effect’s maps and enemies do just that.  The maps are the more standard of the two, so I’ll start with that.  They’re mostly unremarkable, with a few unique environmental quirks in the third game that really stood out.  And while I don’t have the level design background to say how the levels do this, they do push the player into consistently risky situations.  Even on the highest difficulties, players must be moving constantly, and rarely get to hunker down and camp for more than a minute at a time.  Players must regularly shift their position and strategy, engaging enemies at different ranges.  Andromeda even took advantage of that game’s new moveset to add greater verticality to the maps, but in a post-Titanfall world, feels much less impressive than it could have been.  The maps are mostly there to set the stage for the real stars, the enemies.

The “mail slot” medal unlocks from these guys

While it’s Mass Effect’s character variety that adds the most depth to the multiplayer, it’s the enemy design that really makes the multiplayer click.  Each game has the player picking from one of four enemy factions: Cerberus, Geth, Reaper, and Collector.  While they do mirror each other at the high levels (foot soldier, tougher foot soldier, sniper, tanky enemy, smaller enemy with an instakill), the specifics are where they really shine.  Each faction, and even specific enemies, are weak to specific weapon and ammo types, encouraging the player to mix up which weapons and effects they play with.  Going into a game against the synthetic Geth?  Better bring disruptor ammo for its bonus damage against shields and synthetics.  Hell, maybe play an engineer, with some abilities to control enemy synthetics!  Fighting Reapers?  Probably best to bring something with fire to burn down those husks and armoreds.  Furthering this, each enemy beyond the basic grunt has at least some interesting mechanic to engage with.  Sometimes that’s through creative use of weak points, like the slot on the Cerberus Guardian’s shield for easy headshots, or knocking off chunks of armor on reapers.  Or it could be actually unique mechanics, such as the cluster grenades dropped by the Geth Bomber to further discourage camping.  While this is a horde mode, most enemies are not faceless, each one has a specific role, and the higher the difficulty, the more you have to play to their weaknesses.  

Like all good forms of variety in design, these enemies add depth exponentially, making all other decisions more interesting.  Unique enemies abilities make the maps have even more of an impact on player positioning and rotation.  Some areas of a map may be great for fighting one enemy type but not another, encouraging the player to shift where they’re hunkering down as new enemies appear.  Enemies with different weaknesses encourage mixing up your loadout even more to play into that.  And with how many unique consumables the game throws at you, players aren’t encouraged to horde useful ones; they’re getting more than they can use after every round.  The enemies are the glue that makes all the individual components stick together, and this is highlighted by comparing the game to something like Digital Extreme’s Warframe. 

Warframe is a great game in its own right, and one that I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into with friends and on my own.  It has map and loadout variety that puts Mass Effect to shame, and it should, it’s a full, games-as-service game!  But each match of Warframe…kinda feels the same to me, outside of the more unique raids and events.  This is, in part, because the enemies feel very similar, so the player has no real reason to switch to anything but their main character and weapons.  Mass Effect, meanwhile, uses the enemies to force the player to engage with the variety in its other systems if they want to progress.  And this all comes to a head in the game’s Platinum difficulty.

Platinum difficulty Mass Effect runs are the most genuinely terrifying co-op content I’ve ever played in an action game.  Instead of picking from one of four enemy types, platinum difficulty throws all of them at you at once.  The toughest enemies from each faction all appear at once, in a grueling fight that tests the player on every aspect of the game’s systems.  Here, the player can’t take the anti-geth character on the geth mission, they have to prepare loadouts that are dynamic enough to tackle nearly all of them.  They have to coordinate with teammates to make sure they have all potential enemies covered, and that no one is too specialized.  With enough grinding and optimization, these interesting decisions can be mitigated or even ignored outright, but until the player reaches that point, platinum is a treat.  Players have to stay together, have to be constantly communicating, calling out enemies, and coordinating ability cooldowns.  If Mass Effect’s design was not this solid, platinum would become a slog of grinding and finding the most overpowered characters to exploit it.  But, because each system plays off one another in all their various incarnations, it ends up being the best version of the game, and by far the most interesting.

A Brief Love Letter to The “Manguard”

Mass Effect’s multiplayer would have been tactically interesting with just the elements I’ve discussed before, but it’s the sound design, VFX, and other “game feel” aspects that really give it the final push.  Starting with Mass Effect 2, BioWare really started putting effort into its sound design, making the SFX of the player’s biotic abilities especially punchy, bass-heavy, and satisfying.  Mass Effect 3 itered on this wonderfully, but that is most apparent in the previously mentioned “Manguard” class.  A community nickname for the human vanguard class, the Manguard has by far the most aggressive playstyle in the game, and the series’ improved game feel and SFX design really helps sell it.  Available from the start, the vanguard is a high-risk, high-reward character that zips

around the battlefield dealing catastrophic damage.  Play with a well-played vanguard on your team on the lower difficulties, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a single kill.  When specialized correctly, the vanguard opens with a charge attack, which instantly refills their shields and deals massive, single-target damage.  They then follow this up with a nova attack, an area of effect attack that deals so much damage it would be overpowered if it didn’t also drop the vanguard’s shields, leaving them vulnerable to a counter-attack if they don’t immediately follow it up with another charge, refilling their shields.  The result is an experience that constantly feels on the edge of catastrophic failure, even as it rakes in the kills.  And this is cemented in my memory because of the incredible sound and visual design for the vanguard’s charge and nova abilities.  Each one feels like a power trip diluted into a few seconds of audio, so much that it’s almost distractingly exciting.  Manguards may not be viable at gold difficulty, and especially not at platinum, but the experience of playing on silver is something I’ve genuinely never experienced in another game.

Conclusion

For a game starting with so much against it, including its own tech stack, Mass Effect’s multiplayer ended up being a surprisingly polished experience.  Design-wise, it achieved a level of elegance that tacked-on multiplayer has, to my knowledge, never achieved.  It pulled from the series’ design strengths to make the experience of playing a 10-round horde mode wildly compelling, even beyond other games in the same space with an actual multiplayer focus and a much bigger budget.  It did get a proper sequel in the form of Andromeda’s multiplayer release, but marred as that game was by its own technical failings, it never got the same community as the third game.  And, given the recent announcement that 3’s multiplayer will not be included in the upcoming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition release, it looks like the game and its model are probably only going to last the few more years that EA bothers to pay for their server costs.  But, while I am disappointed that I won’t get to see more iteration on this idea, I’ve found revisiting 3 and Andromeda to be a fascinating dive into what makes multiplayer games really work, and how to make each round of play feel like a genuinely unique experience.

Toolkit Upgrade: How Below Zero Carries Subnautica’s Design Philosophy Forward

Intro

By the time it left early access in 2018, Subnautica had a lot going for it. Despite being in the already tired genre of early access survival-craft-em-up, it was committed to a design philosophy that kept it feeling fresh, emphasizing mystery in all its components.  I wrote a pretty glowing piece on it shortly after launch, and in it, I mentioned being excited for the potentially Lovecraftian direction of the sequel.  While I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t go in that direction, the game we did get – which is currently near the end of its own early access life cycle – ended up being fascinating nonetheless.  On the surface, it feels like Subnautica 2.0, an upgraded version of the systems and ideas of the original, but with more polish.  It absolutely does do that, brilliantly at times, and I would be more than happy to write another piece in the style of my first one, looking at each component and how it contributes to the intended experience.  But I found the most interesting parts of uncovering Below Zero’s many mysteries to be in its comparisons to its predecessor, both in how it improves, and what was sacrificed to attain that improvement.  Before I dive in deeper, I do want to clarify that this is not the case of a sequel that sacrificed vision for polish and mass appeal; Below Zero is still confidently its own game.  However, there is a slight difference in tone that I think is telling for the future of this design philosophy.  Because, while I love Subnautica and Below Zero, its exploration and mystery-focused philosophy is really what I am interested in.  In the time since Subnautica, we’ve seen the release of The Outer Wilds, another phenomenal exploration-based game in a similar vein.  This gives me some hope that this design philosophy will be adapted beyond just Subnautica, and makes Below Zero’s higher budget attempt feel like a trial run for pumping more money and time into this genre.  Fortunately, this first attempt is a very successful one.  Below Zero upgrades the toolkit of the original Subnautica substantially, and uses those upgraded tools to create levels more complex and polished than anything in the first game. However, along the way, it sacrifices some of the mystery that made the first game’s systems so compelling to explore. Nonetheless, it stands as an example of how to apply Subnautica’s design philosophy to an experience more in line with contemporary, higher-budget design philosophies, without sacrificing its soul.


The Upgraded Toolkit

Below Zero’s first chunk of upgrades to its predecessor deal with tightening and polishing the core gameplay loop, to the point where it’s probably the best it’s ever been.  Minerals in general feel more carefully balanced and useful, with fewer single-use items or poorly explained resources.  On my first playthrough, even in early access, I never once had to go to the wiki to figure out where mineral X or blueprint fragment Y was, something I often had to do for some of the many scattered fragments of the cyclops in the base game.  Navigation is generally made more interesting as well, strangely through its weather condition system.  The first game always had the Aroura on the horizon, a crashed space ship that helped players orient themselves in the mapless game world.  Below Zero has multiple above-water landmarks, which do help at times, but during harsh weather conditions, the player’s visibility can be so limited that landmarks become impossible to see.  This adds an extra layer of tension, but also probably contributed to the decision to place physical maps in Below Zero’s world.  These aren’t comprehensive and don’t show the player’s location, but they do help the player orient themselves, and more interestingly, point to locations the player knows nothing about.  A mysterious marker for “Omega Labs” can entice the player to go exploring, as well as help them find out-of-the-way locations that they might otherwise miss.  So, improvements are less interesting in patching old problems than they are in adding mystery and tension to even more aspects of the game.  

Unfortunately, they didn’t do much to address perhaps the most tedious aspect of the series, inventory management.  Nearly all survival games have this problem, but it’s especially difficult for Subnautica, where the player has piles and piles of varied and important resources.  In my piece on the previous game, I cited my difficulties moving bases as the apex of that problem, but something I found interesting in Below Zero was that I never tried to move bases or build forward outposts, because the first game had trained me that this was too much of a hassle to be worth it.  It would take a decent amount of inertia to get me to overcome those trained instincts, and that will be a recurring theme in this piece.  It does seem like the team was aware of the issue, as exemplified by the Quantum Locker item.  All quantum lockers, ostensibly, share the same inventory, so you can deploy one near your base, toss some emergency food in it, and carry another locker with you if you ever run out.  Due to some early access bugs, I was never able to get this to work, but the idea is solid.  However, the storage space of the quantum locker is so limited, it’s closer to an emergency backup than a core feature.  So, unfortunately, I ended up installing inventory mods to increase the storage size of the wall-mounted lockers in the game.  Once I did this, I felt the pacing of the game dramatically improve.  No longer was I shuffling items between different, awkwardly-placed lockers with weird and ever-changing organizational systems.  Instead, I just opened the locker, and grabbed what I wanted.  I feel like many survival games could benefit from a “one giant locker” item, but I hope future titles try to address this issue in other ways.  Because, ultimately, inventory management has very little to do with the core of the Subnautica experience.  I could see the game working well with a Resident Evil-style inventory system, where the player’s personal inventory is incredibly limited, but they can find boxes that share the same inventory with infinite space.  Maybe the seatruck could be emphasized as a primary storage mechanism.  There are no doubt dozens of strategies to make the inventory system thematically interesting, or at least less intrusive, and it’s easy to propose ideas without implementing and testing them.  However, this is my biggest sore spot with the series so far, because I have to spend so much of my time on an activity that is ultimately meaningless.

Fortunately, the seatruck had more success in its improvements to the original game.  I’ll be blunt: piloting the cyclops in the first game…sucked.  Navigating it never felt natural, the camera system was janky and awkward, I kept getting stuck on terrain, and the monster attacks felt more like annoyances than actual threats.  And the seatruck is not without its own jank.  This is most apparent in the interactions with the Moonpool, a building that docks and charges the player’s vehicles.  When the seatruck docks to it, its attached modules detach and float idly nearby.  When undocking, the player has to back the seatruck into those modules – a process that has cost me more than one newly-constructed piece – or get out of the ship and manually drag the modules over.  Neither system feels natural, and this is the most “early access feeling” part of the game.  It felt like the game needed an expanded Moonpool to let you swap out modules on the fly, which would have improved utility in general.  Still, once you’re in the seatruck, the experience gets much better.  With modules to allow for storage and fabrication, a dock for the prawn suit, and even an aquarium, it does function as a portable mini-base.  It even includes a teleportation module, which allows instant teleportation back to the seatruck from any distance.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find this module until reading the wiki after completing the game, so I can’t attest to its usefulness personally.  Overall, the seatruck feels like a much more customizable and useful version of the cyclops and seamoth.  While playing the first game, I regularly wanted to try a cyclops-only playthrough, eschewing a more established base, but it never worked reliably.  The seatruck makes that feel actually possible, and is unlocked much earlier in the game.  There is still some jank to be fixed, but the seatruck makes the experience of navigating Below Zero, especially the endgame, much more engaging.

Finally, Below Zero features an updated enemy roster, which is a general improvement on the first game’s.  The most noticeable difference in early-game enemies is the greater variety of enemies.  Below Zero has around the same number of creatures as the first game, but those enemies feel much more unique.  In the base game, stalkers, sandfish, and other enemies felt more or less the same, with some slight differences in attack pattern.  They were rarely a threat once the player got their seaglide, and were pretty easy to ignore.  Fortunately, Below Zero spends most of its time developing these mid-sized enemies, and making them interesting.  Brutesharks and Squidsharks attack the player directly, while Brinewings fire freezing projectiles at them and other fauna.  Spike traps will grab the player from a distance, with the faster and larger Cryptosuchus charging head on in pairs.  And independent of combat, Sea Monkeys will grab the player’s equipped tools, and even trade items with the player later on.  This makes the early and mid game much more interesting for the player, because these enemies require different strategies to work around.  Unfortunately, the primary leviathan creature does not fare as well.  The first game had the terrifying reaper leviathan, a creature with a distinctive movement pattern and roar that still makes me sweat even after multiple playthroughs.  But Below Zero’s Chelicerate…doesn’t really stack up.  It’s just as mechanically dangerous, but it’s goofier design and more common presence in highly trafficked areas make it feel both more mundane and more unsettling.  In the first game, the roar of a reaper leviathan meant it had seen you and was closing in.  It was a giant flashing sign in 10-foot-tall letters saying, “GET OUT OF HERE NOW.”  But because the Chelicerate hunts nearby fauna and other creatures have a similar roar, the player is almost constantly hearing creature roars in the Thermal Spires, Purple Vents, and Lilly zones.  The end result is a sense of constant, mid-level stress, at least in my case, and that makes exploring those zones exhausting.  If the Chelicerate spawns were slightly reduced, and the roar frequency reduced, I think they would be much more engaging creatures.  Ultimately, while the new enemy roster has its problems, the enemies become a much more active part of the game, all the way through the endgame.

The Performance Impact: How The Tools Are Used

While the upgraded toolkit might have been a mixed bag, the improvements to level design have been almost universally positive, and it all starts with the performance.  That’s a strange place to start on level design, but the technical limitations of the first game severely hampered what the designers could actually do with the world.  In Below Zero…those issues are gone.  Completely.  While the first game was full of egregious framerate hitches, stuttering, and pop-in, Below Zero has none of that, and it feels like the level designers have been set free.  Without looking at the code, I can’t tell what tricks they pulled to fix this; the only noticeable one is a slightly lower draw distance and more aggressive fog.  But, from a player’s perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any tradeoffs, just improvement.  Because the increased performance lets them significantly increase the density of assets and create more vertical maps that the series feels like it was made for.  The opening zone, the Twisty Bridges, is perhaps the single best example of this new design.  Starting as a shallow, cozy area for the player to explore, but with crevices that go down hundreds of meters.  In fact, some great mid-late-game upgrades are found by diving down to the lower area of the biome.  This introduces the player to one of the core appeals of Subnautica right away: finding a safe area to get established in, but being teased with further depths.  And, it introduces the player to this loop even more effectively than the first game did.  Without crafting the Rebreather, the player can only descend a hundred meters before severely hampering their oxygen supply.  And, before getting the seatruck as a portable source of oxygen,

even having enough oxygen to get to 100 meters is unlikely.  This means the player spends more time pushing the limits of their oxygen in the early game, diving just deep enough to grab this new upgrade or that new material.  The game rewards this with expanded environmental interaction systems; for example, the oxygen plants that replace the role of brain coral in the first game.  Brain coral required the player to sit and wait for it to produce oxygen, while O2 plants just require a simple click, with a longer recharge time.  This lets the player keep their momentum while diving deeper and deeper, maybe deeper than they should be.

These levels are not just deep crevices, however.  They’re fully fledged cave networks.  Exploring around the Lilypad Islands, for example, might have the player start in an area of open water, then duck into a crevice to grab some materials, then entering a small cave network, all within the same area.  This makes discoveries and dramatic changes in the environment much more common.  In the base game, the player spent the majority of their time in open water, with the sea above them.  This made for some great moments of terror when the player was hundreds of meters deep, looked up to the surface of the ocean, and saw nothing but blackness.  Below Zero keeps those moments, but the player spends much more time in cave networks or mostly covered areas that provide cover from the more threatening predators.  And this is where the performance impact becomes so noticeable, because these zones simply could not have existed in the first game.  The closest Subnautica came was the Mushroom Forest zone, which was an infamously performance-heavy area with the worst pop-in in the game causing collisions as items appeared right in front of the player.  So, I feel like I can’t overstate the value of these optimizations, because they allowed for the complex and winding levels that really made me fall in love with Below Zero.  For example, the previously mentioned Lilypad Islands is Below Zero’s take on the  Underwater Islands zone from the first game, a visually gorgeous but otherwise mostly forgettable zone.  The Lilypad Islands, however, are much more tense, filled with cave networks, and giant, decaying lily pads that would have brought the previous game to its knees.  The end result is a game world that is much more in line with the themes of the game, where mystery and discovery are an even greater part of the core game loop.

Interestingly, however, Below Zero also contains some of the most traditionally linear level design in the series.  Many of the experiences feel more tightly controlled and designed, especially on land and near the endgame.  This begins with the structure of the critical path, which is a lot more clearly defined.  In the first game, you weren’t even aware that there *was* a critical path; you had just crash landed on this planet and needed to survive.  The fact that Subnautica had a story at all was sort of a surprise to the player.  Below Zero opens with a very clear narrative goal: find out what happened to your character’s sister.  This gives the player a more specific focus to follow, and while it does follow the first game’s rule of multiple, concurrent narratives, it’s communicated a lot more clearly to the player.  This has its advantages and disadvantages, and I personally prefer the first game’s approach because of how naturalistic your gradual immersion in the story feels.  However, from a purely gameplay approach, a clearer critical path does help players get over the early game learning curve.  This does not mean that the story is all directed; the player still has multiple leads to follow up on, new areas to explore, a whole on-land segment to tackle, and just new zones to find.  If anything, Below Zero’s structure feels more open-ended, especially towards the endgame.  This chart showing the depth of the first game’s zone highlights that, while the early and mid game had many zones spanning the available depth ranges, the last few zones all followed a strict, linear progression, basically

Depth chat for Subnautica

preventing exploration.  Below Zero’s endgame does contain two linear zones, and I’ll expand on that shortly, but it otherwise feels like a much more explorable world.  There is something interesting to be found in nearly every zone at nearly every stage of the game, even the starting zone.  Further cementing this is the continuing usefulness of the seatruck.  In the first game, you had a clear progression path from seaglide, to seamoth, to cyclops, with each vehicle being useful in specific situations or at specific depths.  This meant that, functionally, your seamoth was useless in the endgame, and the cyclops was always the best choice.  The seamoth couldn’t even be upgraded to go as deep as the cyclops.  However, in Below Zero, the seatruck is the first vehicle the player builds, and it is used until the last moments of the endgame.  Which, unfortunately, are where the level design kind of falls apart.

Depth Chart for Below Zero

Now the game is technically still a few months out from its full 1.0 release, so it is possible that these zones will be reworked, but the final zones of Below Zero – the Crystal Caves and Fabricator Caverns – are once again the weakest.  I previously criticized the linearity of the first game’s ending levels, how they were essentially tunnels to the next story beat.  Below Zero takes that to its extreme.  While I can’t find any maps of the caves to prove this, these zones felt incredibly linear, with a single point of interest in each zone.  Even the Lost River, Inactive Lava Zone, and Lava Lakes from the first game still had points of interest to find, hidden side areas and caches to explore, and more unique assets such as the lava castle and two alien bases.  Below Zero’s zones are much shorter, and lack these.  The only unique discovery in these zones, other than the two plot-required points of interest, is Kyanite, a resource required for advanced fabrication that only exists in these caves, and a small alien cache.  Strangely, however…I still prefer Below Zero’s endgame, because it is so much shorter.  I think these kinds of levels are a necessary endpoint for the fantasy Subnautica is presenting, about Diving Too Deep into the mysterious oceans.  Both games may have struggled in the execution, but the existence of these lower levels makes the game more imposing, knowing that some eldritch horror lurks further down.  And while, systemically, these might not click as well, emotionally, the experience of the caves is much better.

    “Proceed with caution. A leviathan class creature is near.”

That is the message that plays when entering the crystal caves.  And it nearly got me to turn around and leave.  But I kept going deeper, at least partially because I wanted to get the jump scare over with, and see whatever new horror the developer had cooked up.  I tried to keep close to the walls, keeping the openings to other caves in my field of vision.  Then, a few dozen meters below, I saw it.  Slithering through the water with dozens of tiny arms clicking back and forth, and a pulsing, bioluminescent underbody.  I panicked, and tried to turn around, but it was too late, the creature had already grabbed my seatruck, and was crushing it.  I Alt-F4ed out of the game.

Subnautica’s leviathan creatures inspire a level of pure terror in me that not many games, even dedicated horror games, can match.  I don’t know if I was all that afraid of the ocean before I played Subnautica, but after playing it, I most certainly am.  And while I take issue with the design of the game’s last two areas,  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the most effective horror experiences in the medium.  Part of what makes the endgame zones more tolerable is that it doesn’t feel like the game even wants you to explore them.  There are so few easy hiding places or options to retreat, that the player basically has to be on alert every second, always watching and listening for these shadow leviathans.  Mechanically, at least, these experiences can be smoothed over.  Once you realize that the leviathan’s grab attack takes two full hits to kill your ship, they become a lot less of a threat.  Mechanically.  But emotionally…I cannot be at ease when they’re nearby, even if I know they’re not a threat.  So, the majority of the endgame wasn’t a challenge in system mastery, but a challenge of courage.  I knew that the optional strategy was to let the leviathan grab you, then trigger your ship’s electric defense system, letting you escape unscathed.  Evaluating the threat from the numerical perspective of DPS and health pools, it wouldn’t have even been a consideration.  But the terror of a giant sea creature attack made it just as intense as if I were playing a permadeath run.  Still, this terror can turn into exhaustion when repeated too much.  Because of some unclear signposting, I thought I needed to get to the end of the final zone much earlier than I actually did, and made the treacherous, terror-inducing trip to the bottom only to be greeted with a message from the game that “you should come back here later”.  And then, faced with the requirement to swim all the way back to the surface, I felt more exhaustion than dread and terror.  Fortunately, if you are playing optimally, you only need to make that trip once, whereas the base game required numerous trips.  This continues the trend of these endgame zones being better because they’re shorter, and for future takes on this idea, I do think that’s the approach they should take, if they’re not willing to completely overhaul it.  A short, flashy conclusion to an entire game’s worth of building dread.  So, when given a choice between shorter or more complicated, it’s fortunate that the on land sections of Below Zero essentially do both.

In stark contrast to its underwater endgame zones, Below Zero’s on land sections are refreshingly terror-free.  This makes them some of Below Zero’s most interesting levels because of how they adopt the Subnautica formula to an environment without that extra Z axis.  Some are more straightforward replacements: oxygen is replaced by cold, with warmth-refilling plants, the seatruck is replaced by the snowfox, there are mid-sized predators that can mostly be avoided with your vehicle, and larger ones that require stealth.  However, each aspect has its own flair to it.  The ice worm keeps that leviathan-sized spectacle, but with a more formalized stealth system to deal with them.  Noise and elevation all matter when avoiding it, and the player is even given a gadget, called the Thumper, to simulate movement and distract the ice worm.  In contrast to the straightforward shadow leviathan encounters, I felt like I could actually plan around the ice worms, and use different tools if I got stuck.  The problem was, I almost never got stuck.  As cool of an the Thumper is, I never felt the need to use it, and I never got killed by the ice worm or any other hostile fauna.  The cold system fares a bit better, and it did actually kill me a few times when I forgot to bring heat-refilling items.  Harsh weather conditions can really amplify its effectiveness, and make a totally mundane environment feel as hostile as a leviathan.  So, it feels like a bit of a messy first pass that needs more tuning, but for a first pass on a new system in the back half of an already pretty solid game, it’s a damn impressive one.  

However, I basically ignored the surface completely until the endgame, and I think this clashes with one of Subnautica’s core approaches to design: giving the player so many different paths to take.  The designers specifically cite a desire to have multiple narrative threads running concurrently, and this works wonderfully for encouraging exploration, but can make it possible to ignore some systems until the endgame.  Because it surrenders so much agency to the player, the player’s actions are much less predictable, more subject to random whims and habits.  For example, I personally didn’t go to the surface because the first game had trained me that on land segments were brief expeditions to grab new technology or plot elements, then return to the ocean.  I felt at home under water in this game because 99% of it was already happening under water.  Add to this the harshness of the cold weather conditions, and the surface can seem like a hostile but also insignificant place, a roaring blizzard to make you feel more comfortable when you return to the water.  The game does have a few earlier tasks pushing you in that direction, but because of how removed it feels from the base game, the player has to overcome a lot of inertia to go there.  This, absolutely, has its disadvantages, but I think it comes with the upside of making the surface feel like a sort of forbidden fruit and final arena.  By the time the player actually does get there, it’s been built up enough to be intriguing as all hell.  It allows the game to drop some of its strongest narrative beats, which are made all the more effective by how long you’ve waited to get there.

Speaking of which, Subnautica has a story now.

A Proper Narrative: How The Tools Are Contextualized

This is it, the part of the game that makes Below Zero a test run, and the core of the game’s structural question: can you apply Subnautica to something with a traditional narrative?  Characters, 3 acts, inciting incidents, all that.  Like I mentioned previously, the first game did have a story, which was actually a surprise for most players expecting an empty survival game.  The existence of a greater narrative at all was one of the first mysteries the player uncovers, and as much as I *love* that trick, it’s not a trick that can work twice.  If they released Below Zero with seemingly no story until hour 5, players would be expecting it.  So, I understand why they decided to go a different route, and it’s clear they cared very deeply about getting it right.  When their first pass on the story didn’t work, they scrapped it entirely, writing an entirely new story pretty late into the early access process at considerable expense.  So it’s with that in mind that I say that Below Zero has too much narrative for a Subnautica game.  I really enjoy the game’s core story, I even like its core characters, and compared to just about any other game, the narrative to other content ratio is pretty low.  But it’s not low enough to keep that lonely feeling that the first game delivered on so well.  In Subnautica, you were *incredibly* isolated, perhaps the only sentient being on the planet, and no one knew

you were there.  In Below Zero, there are Altera settlements, satellites in orbit, old, abandoned structures, years of history, and even at least two sentient beings active in the same sector as you.  The first game had a few old settlements, but they were decaying, from dead explorers, implying that you might meet the same fate.  Here, one of those characters from the first game is alive and well, holed up in a base you can visit at any time.  It makes the exploration feel just a bit less satisfying, because you often feel like you’re not really discovering anything, just seeing other people’s work.  This carries over into the approach to text logs as well.  In the first game, I scanned every object and read every scrap of flavor text, just wanting to learn more about this world and its ecosystem.  In Below Zero, it feels like far too much narrative content.  I’m listening to audio logs of the workplace drama for some dystopian future space company, not learning hidden secrets about alien races.  Sifting through pages and pages of contrite fathers who miss their daughters, little workplace romances, and complaining about equipment regulation.  This is coupled with an AI companion that starts conversations about history, philosophy, and personal experiences, all while the player is swimming around the overworld.  Again, none of these are bad – I actually really like the conversations between AL-AN and the player – it just feels misplaced.  If there were fewer audio and text logs, maybe one or two fewer bases, and less frequent dialog, then I think Below Zero could have captured the same feeling of isolation that the first game had, while keeping its narrative ambitions.  As it stands, though, the first game just delivers on this narrative mystery better than its predecessor.

So, Below Zero is not as good at narrative mystery as the first game.  But so what?  Sequels are allowed to go in radically different directions, explore different experiences.  Aliens doesn’t feel terrifying in the same way Alien does, but that doesn’t make it a bad film.  So, acknowledging the differences between the two, what kind of

experience *is* Below Zero trying to deliver?  Well, one that follows many of the same rules as the first one.  Those multiple narrative threads I mentioned earlier are still present, with threads of finding out what happened to Robin’s sister, learning about Altrea’s bases, the precursor AI, and the sub-stories of each of the ruined sites, to name a few.  And some of those narrative threads are quite good in their own right.  I’ve got a particular fondness for the AI storyline, because, while I think the conversations are misplaced and too frequent, they are interesting conversations.  Robin is fiercely opinionated, especially for a first-person protagonist, a role usually filed by characters who can’t speak at all or speak sparingly and inoffensively.  There’s even a bit of tension when Robin defiantly states sweeping philosophical beliefs that the player might disagree with.  The first game’s writing was more functional than good in its own right.  It was there to create texture and tone and hint at larger mysteries.  Below Zero might lose some of that tone, but the actual quality of the writing itself has improved, and I have to commend how well they did integrate it, even if they often fell flat.  Because there is one piece of narrative design that makes me really hope for the future of this franchise and this design philosophy.

Deep in a cave at the northern end of the ice fields, the player stumbles upon the frozen leviathan chamber.  While it has an initial moment of shock – the creature is *massive*, after all – it quickly fades towards a different tone.  It’s eerie, quiet, cozy, like a good Resident Evil safe room.  The massive leviathan is almost fully encased in ice, with scattered lab equipment thrown around the cavern.  Safe Cave, one of my favorite tracks on the soundtrack, kicks in, reinforcing the mood that, while everything is calm now, something big happened here.  So the player gets to spend time playing detective, scanning every item, looking at the destruction and piecing together how it happened, and, of course, approaching and scanning the creature itself.  They learn some very important information about a main story thread, and then quietly leave.  

This, to me, is the promise of Below Zero.  It’s a narrative moment rendered at a scale and budget that most smaller studios probably wouldn’t be able to pull off in a feature-rich open world game like this one.  It has audio logs, text, and other conventional forms of narrative, but primarily entices the player with exploration and extrapolation.  It’s one of my favorite moments in the medium, and I don’t think it could have happened in any other game, including Subnautica the first.  It takes the strengths of the first game – narrative mystery, player-directed intrigue – and merges them with the strengths of the second – polish, character focus, and narrative clarity.  So, while I have spent a lot of this essay criticizing the narrative implementation in Below Zero, moments like these remove my worries that these two styles of design are incompatible.  It’s not impossible, it just takes experimentation and iteration, like everything else in this medium.  And it shows that, with enough of both, this formula can create great experiences.  Unknown Worlds hasn’t announced what their next project will be, but given all the ideas they had for Below Zero, a proper Subnautica 2 doesn’t seem unlikely.  I’m hoping that they can take what they learned from Below Zero, and carry it forward into a proper successor, one that delivers on its narrative ambitions.  But, for now, the game we have is an exciting look at what’s to come, and a compelling experience in its own right, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

My Favorites of 2020

Hi everyone! I used to do these on Facebook every year, but I deleted that, so I’m moving the post here. And I get to post some pretty pictures with it.

Less than half of these actually came out in 2020, but 1) I saw like no new movies this year and 2) I need an excuse to talk about Outer Wilds.

With that out of the way…

Game

Favorite: Outer Wilds – Mobius
Outer Wilds has my favorite exploration in the medium. The entire game is about uncovering secrets and sticking your nose into every part of this intricate solar system. It wants you to think about its physically accurate gravity simulation, to use it to solve weird problems, and connect with the people in its worlds. It’s packed to bursting with humanity, with characters who are passionate artists, explorers, engineers, and scientists, and don’t see any contradiction between those. Nothing else like this exists. Unfortunately, because it’s so exploration-based, I can’t really replay it, since I already know all its secrets. So, Outer Wilds II or whatever they do next is now at the top of my list for anticipated games.

Runner Up: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM
Probably my favorite RPG ever made. Its writing has a heft, depth, and naturalistic tone that feels almost out of place in a video game. Game writing is just not this complex and, honestly, good. It dances between leftist politics, absurdist humor, self-destruction, and weird moments of camaraderie, and it does all this effortlessly. Some of my favorite moments in the medium happen one after another in this game, sometimes in random side quests. Its character building systems are fun to experiment with, to see how the people of the world react. My favorite systemic discovery was how a character with a maxed out empathy skill will start taking mental damage if they witness people hurting that they cannot help. That is simply brilliant. It definitively proves that when the cruft and hammy writing of most CRPGs is cleared away, the genre can do things that no other can.

Honorable Mentions
Max Payne 1, for it’s infinitely replayable slo-mo shoot dodges.
Half-Life: Alyx, for validating my purchase of a VR headset.
Hades, for being drop-dead gorgeous and damn near perfect in every category.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for bringing an even greater sense of heart and community (and Spider-Cat) to the franchise.
Cyberpunk 2077, for having incredibly complex and human sci-fi writing, when it wasn’t trying to melt my PC.


Film

Favorite: Knives Out – dir. Rian Johnson
This came out in 2019 but I saw it in early 2020, and it was just so well produced; everything seemed to fit together so elegantly. Fun as hell, but knows when to take itself seriously.

Runner Up: Palm Springs – dir. Max Barbakow
The best quarantine movie. I love Groundhog’s Day-style films in all their forms, but this this film just has so much fun with it, it stands out. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are clearly having the time of their lives in these roles.

Honorable Mentions
Bill & Ted’s 3: Fun, wholesome, just more Bill and Ted’s. Rare to see this much heart in a contemporary film.
Birds of Prey: Reminded me that superhero films can actually be fun. Margot Robbie absolutely kills it, I was smiling like an idiot from beginning to end. Some of the violence feels a little out of place, I guess they have to make it totally okay for the protagonists to beat the shit out of Black Mask. And, to its credit, it is very fun to watch the protagonists beat the shit out of Black Mask.
Kara no Kyokai: ufotable’s most visually striking works, at least that I’ve seen. Explores mental health through the lens of magical realism (and just straight up magic). Soundtrack is eerie as hell.

Book

Favorite: Exhalation – Ted Chiang
Some of my all-time favorite sci-fi writing. Each story takes a high concept sci-fi idea, and explores it thoroughly, both in the implications of the technology itself, and how people would react to it. My favorite was “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a story told in the style of One Thousand and One Nights about a form of time travel that is more consistent with our actual understanding of time. It uses that to tell a story about a man who deeply regrets many choices he’s made in his life, and can use time travel to understand them better. A high watermark of the short story collection, but by no means the only one with that technical and emotional depth.

Runner Up: A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor – Hank Green
Further digging into capitalist hyperproductivity, social media, and how we build narratives when social media dominates our communication.

TV

Favorite: Fate/Zero – ufotable
I did not expect to have any anime on this list, but here we are. Fate/Zero rules. It uses anime’s seemingly inherent hyperreality and melodrama to talk about issues that would feel trite in another style. Fundamentally a story about screwed up people trying to make the world less screwed up (or, often, more screwed up), and losing themselves along the way. It can veer towards misery porn at times, but is never nihilistic. It doesn’t confuse darkness for depth, it has moments of levity, but also moments of profound, joyful acceptance. It looks some genuinely nasty shit in the face, and doesn’t flinch.

Runner Up: Lovecraft Country – HBO
This show has problems. After around the 6th episode, its “racism is the real monster” twist endings start getting really predictable. It depicts some genuinely messed up violence against queer folks (which the creator has acknowledged). And the quality drops off hard in the back half. But there are genuinely incredible moments throughout, and so, so many stories to be told about pulp fiction being reclaimed by creators and characters of color. It wasn’t the cosmic horror I wanted (which was kind of promised by the title), but it’s clearly made out of love for pulp sci-fi, and has its own take on how those genres can evolve.

Honorable Mentions
Halt and Catch Fire, getting into anime, Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans for its brilliant political writing, finally watching Cowboy Bebop, and Mob Psycho 100’s endless charm.

Endtroducing..... - Wikipedia

Album
Favorite: Endtroducing… – DJ Shadow
I’ve listened to this album more than any other this year, by far. Predominantly while playing Max Payne late at night, but it works incredibly well as background music that, much like a good Brian Eno album, is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” It’s got a very loose, dreamlike feel to it, with motifs that are repeated across songs that form more of an emotional state than a coherent narrative. The Number Song is a great place to start.

Runner Up: Inside Mood EP – Inside Mood (2020)
Cheating again because my brother worked on this one, but I’ve looped these tracks so many times. It’s got a wonderful blend of various jazz styles, and the production as a whole has gotten damn good. Vocal effects, distorted instruments, ambient background sounds, it all comes together to a sizzling and stylistic whole.


Honorable Mentions

Mouth Dreams – Neil Cicierega
The World Within – Moderator
Rescue – Major Tom : It’s not an album so it technically doesn’t count, but Rescue is a song that just taps in to so many genres and styles I really like. Echoey, ethereal vocals, emphasis on storytelling, and an emotional core that hits waaaay too close to home. It’s a damn solid debut…from my other brother, Tom. My brothers are really talented; sue me.

Well, that’s about it! For some reason, I had a lot more time this year to read/watch/play stuff. Weird!

AI Dungeon and Narrative Newness

If you grew up playing games in the late 90s and early 2000s like me, then congratulations, we have been overwhelmingly spoiled about how quickly games can evolve. During that time period, when developers were finally starting to get a handle on early 3D tech, each year brought *wildly* new experiences from AAA studios. Games at the time would look radically different from games even five years earlier. So, if you were a gaming enthusiast, or even just had a passing interest in the medium, you were in for radically new experiences pretty much every year.

The 2010s have…not been like that. Games from this generation look and play pretty similarly to games from last generation. There are still incredible games being released every year, and the indie scene is more vibrant and creative than it’s ever been, but we aren’t getting too many of these technologically innovative, genre-defining, titles on a year-by-year basis. And, to a certain extent, that’s okay. It’s not like every year we’re seeing formally and technically revolutionary works of film or literature, certainly in the consumer sphere. Once a medium reaches a certain level of technological maturity, technological creativity is less enticing. You already have the tools to do most of what you want.

But with games, a medium that is perhaps the most closely linked with new technology, it does feel slightly disappointing. While I’ll probably be playing new Bioware games until EA eventually shuts down the studio, I’m not looking for Mass Effect 5, I’m looking for an experience that evokes what it felt like to play Mass Effect for the first time. Figuring out 1699009-masseffectwhat Mass Effect did well is pretty straightforward; figuring out how to recreate the experience of playing it for the first time is much more difficult. It relies on some level of technological and design-focused novelty.

So that’s what makes AI Dungeon 2, my favorite game of this year, so strange. Like Mass Effect 1, it’s a fairly janky experience, but in all other areas, from writing to visuals to tone, it is absolutely nothing like Mass Effect. But the novelty of its approach to narrative evoked how I felt playing Mass Effect for the first time. But, unlike Mass Effect, AI Dungeon…truly is unlike anything else I’ve ever played. It’s like playing Zork with a dying computer. It’s like playing D&D drunk with your friends. It’s like going to an improve comedy show that is heavy on audience participation. It’s…well, it’s like playing Mass Effect for the first time. All of these experiences gesture in the direction of AI Dungeon, but don’t fully capture it, because the game is so unique that it eludes comparison. And that, more than anything the game does in its own right, is what makes it so exciting to me. I am so excited, not just for this game itself, but for the genres of games that could be built around it. For the bits of its tech other genres could steal. Like playing season one of The Walking Dead, playing this made me imagine what others could do with this template. But as excited as I am for the future, I have loved my time just with what we have now.

So. Playing AI Dungeon made me feel like I was playing Mass Effect for the first time because it defined a new (or, at least, new to me) style of interactive narrative. What is that style? The style is the honestly unparalleled possibility space of the system. AI Dungeon’s machine learning model will respond uniquely to almost all player input, creating an experience that, for the player, is functionally infinite. Repetition does happen, but there are always new system states for the player to explore.  As such, this is the closest a game has ever gotten to the “go anywhere, do anything” promise, but it’s worth acknowledging that that promise is often fickle. Sometimes, everything will click and the system responds perfectly to what the player writes. However, it’s very easy to break. Repeating lines, loops, crashes, or the system just not getting what you want it to do. For example, in a recent run my friends and I did, we were under attack from the CIA, so we called Bernie Sanders, who we had just made prdungeons-and-dragons_resize_mdesident, and asked him to abolish the CIA so the attacks would stop. We had to repeat the request multiple times with limited responses, and even after, the game didn’t understand in a systemic sense what the CIA was and that it was abolished. The narrative was mostly in our head. And this is where AI Dungeon actually does have a sort of progression curve, though it’s very different from those in other games. Instead of learning how the systems work and learning to conquer them, you’re learning how to work with the AI to generate the best stories. You learn what types of phrases to avoid, what types of requests the system is more comfortable with, and when to bail because it looks like you’re headed into a loop. These skills make AI Dungeon less a game in the traditional sense, with explicit win and lose states, but rather a collaborative storytelling platform. Your collaborators can include other human players, but the AI is your primary storytelling companion. And that’s pretty unusual for games. I keep pulling from comparisons outside the world of games, because video games are really bad at this type of loose storytelling. In the majority of games, everything has to be pre-programmed, so players never learn to think this creatively, they learn to figure out what the designer wants them to do. A system can only have so many states, right? So, in terms of pure storytelling structure, AI Dungeon isn’t much like Mass Effect at all, with its finite system states and limited reactivity. The experience I’ve had that’s closest to AI Dungeon is doing an improv comedy set with a partner without any prep time. You can’t pause the story and talk about where you want to go next, you’re both just flying by the seat of your pants, trying to signal to the other what to do, but mostly replying with, “Yes, and” to everything they say. As a result, AI Dungeon doesn’t really have win and lose states. You can die and get a game over screen, but that’s pretty rare and easily reversible. The game isn’t about winning, it’s about telling great stories. And that’s an approach to creativity I would love to see more of.

Going into a new decade, it’s tempting to wish for dozens of games using AI Dungeon’s model. But, right now, it simply isn’t profitable. It its current form, the game costs around $10,000 per day to run servers for. No one is going to be making money off that any time soon. But I would love to see games try this more expressive storytelling, because new technical improvements that primarily benefit storytelling are pretty rare in this medium, especially in the last two generations. The potential for new permutations is quite literally endless.

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 to 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

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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

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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

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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,

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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.

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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.

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The Mirror’s Edge Legacy

Introduction

When Mirror’s Edge released in 2008, the term “first person platforming” was met with, to put it mildly, a great deal of skepticism. Many foundational first-person shooters featured bits of platforming, chief among them Quake and Half-Life, but those sections were almost universally reviled by the time of Mirror’s Edge’s release. It made sense at the time as a way of adding a bit of variety to improve the pacing of these largely linear, single-player experiences. But the awkward controls and janky physics of those titles made those sections incredibly tedious to complete, and are to this day brought up as the worst parts of both of those titles. 3D platforming had become almost exclusively the domain of third-person titles, with old series like Mario still reigning supreme. And as far as first-person games went, movement was incredibly standardized, nothing like the bunnyhopping days of Quake. 2007, the year before Mirror’s Edge’s, saw the release of three shooter classics that codified the rules of first-person games: Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and Bioshock. These three games were each wildly innovative in their own way, helping define what many consider one of the greatest years in gaming history. But despite answering the question of “How do you make a first-person shooter” with their own, unique answers, each answered the question of “How do you move in a first-person game” in a fairly similar way. Halo 3 is perhaps the most unique among them, continuing the series’ emphasis on lower-gravity, longer jumps, and at least some strategic value to bunnyhopping. But, largely, each of the games asked the player to move around a 3D space slowly, with a sprint button to speed up the process, and maybe a “vault over object” button if you were lucky. Cut to a decade later Halo 5 has jetpacks, Call of Duty has wall running, and Titanfall 2 has jetpacks AND wall running. Even Destiny, perhaps the biggest FPS in the current market, has movement that encourages jumping and ups the speed and importance of movement as a defensive option. I wouldn’t call any of these games platformers, but they all answer that question of “how do you move in a first-person game” with much more variety and much more complexity. So, what changed in the decade since? Well, I would argue, Mirror’s Edge came out, and developers finally started learning from it.

Mirror’s Edge released in 2008 to relatively little fanfare. It sold poorly, reviewed just above alright, and didn’t get a sequel until eight years later. Mirror’s Edge, commercially, failed, but it is still talked about today despite this. I believe that this is largely because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only dedicated first-person platformer ever released by a AAA studio. Since its release, a handful of indie games have tried similar experiments (Clustertruck, Deadcore, Refunct, Valley, A Story About My Uncle), and a smaller handful of AAA titles have been inspired by its movement system (Titanfall, Dying Light, Brink), but there has never been an attempt at first-person platforming as purely focused on the technical challenge of the platforming itself as Mirror’s Edge and its sequel. This makes it an incredibly useful reference point for developers experimenting with movement mechanics in first-person games. But, in all the borrowing, remixing and reinterpreting of Mirror’s Edge over the almost decade since its release, I believe that many developers have missed something core to the formula that made the game work, either intentionally to better fit its ideas to the game they were designing, or unintentionally as they simply failed to understand the game itself. And with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst both failing to recapture the strengths of the original and also doing poorly commercially, I doubt we’ll see another focused attempt at a first-person platformer for some time. With that in mind, I think it’s valuable to examine exactly what Mirror’s Edge did, why it worked, where it didn’t, and how other games have interpreted its bold and focused answer to a question that other developers are now answering with more regularity: “How do you move in a first-person game?”

Mirror’s Edge

One of the most commendable, and probably most damning, elements of Mirror’s Edge is its purity of design. In 2017, AAA games with purity of anything are nearly impossible to come by, so this alone makes it unique. Mirror’s Edge is a series of 10 chapters, each a continuous series of obstacle courses. It lasts about six hours on your first playthrough, though I recently completed it in three and I’m not even very good at the game. Its extra modes are a time trial mode that cuts up the 10 chapters into quick levels that can be replayed in 1-3 minutes, and a speedrun version of those 10 same chapters. It had one DLC pack that added a series of extra levels with a new visual aesthetic, and that’s about it. Mirror’s Edge does not have a sprawling open world filled with collectables, it has thirty runner bags hidden throughout the entire game. It doesn’t have a giant features list of multiplayer, single-player, and co-op, it has a linear, single-player campaign. It isn’t packed with new modes and options and torrents of DLC, expansions, and seasons passes, it just has one experimental pack. This dedication to its one, core idea is beyond refreshing in a year when even something as pure as demon killing in Doom comes with a multiplayer modes, a snapmap map creation feature, hundreds of collectables, optional challenges, and the list goes on and on and on. This isn’t to say that variety is bad, or that games shouldn’t try to experiment with their mechanics, but gaming in 2017 has gone far past that point. In contrast, Mirror’s Edge’s ability to know what the engaging core of its game is, and then focus on it, makes it so much easier to play and to think about. However, like I mentioned earlier, it means that you can beat the entire game in three hours. And must of the gaming community is not exactly receptive to a “quality over quantity” argument. Games with that short a runtime get crucified on forums and subreddits. So while I love that Mirror’s Edge is exactly as long as it needs to be and not a single hour longer, it contributed to why it didn’t sell well. And, it also lead to the inclusion of the game’s single worst feature: combat. Everything I’m about to gush about that makes the game flow and feel tight is completely broken during these stilted, awkward combat sections where the player spams an attack button to try to punch armed guards to unconsciousness. No one liked it, the developers didn’t even like it, they just included it because the game was too short without it, and it is the game’s greatest flaw. But, if you load up Mirror’s Edge today, set it to easy mode to make the combat as brief as you can, you’re in for an experience unlike any other. You’re going to experience Mirror’s Edge as a first-person platformer, and little else.

Mirror’s Edge is striking from the first moment you turn it on, welcoming the player with a bold visual aesthetic. Nothing before or since has really captured those same ideas, with its vision of a clean future symbolizing the control of an authoritarian government, contrasted against its grounded setting. Because the game uses almost entirely precomputed lighting and unmoving objects, it still looks gorgeous to this day. Couple 20170722133517_1.jpgthat fidelity with a strong visual aesthetic and accompanying political message and Mirror’s Edge feels fiercely contemporary. I’ll talk more about why Catalyst’s sci-fi aesthetic does not fit the design of the first game, but Mirror’s Edge did not feel like a fantasy, nor a stock reimagining of Orwell’s 1984, it feels like something that could happen today. It takes the idea of an authoritarian post-9/11 surveillance state and makes it real and uncomfortably plausible. Keeping the game locked to the first-person perspective made the player feel present in this world, and its commitment to keeping this perspective further enhanced its grounded feel, only cutting to third person in the beginning as the player assumes control of Faith, and the end as the player relinquishes it. The design of the parkour movement added even more to the feel that this was a game that interpreted realism as an actual imperative to design their game around, not a visual aesthetic that necessitated more grime, blood, and forced moral ambiguity. In Mirror’s Edge, huge falls will kill you. If you think you couldn’t make a jump in real life, you probably couldn’t make it in game. Faith isn’t a superhero, she’s just really good at parkour. The animations reinforce this, placing a great deal of emphasis on Faith’s limbs and body positioning as she moves through an environment. This realism lead to a level of mechanical transference that the other games I’m going to discuss simply didn’t. Playing Mirror’s Edge made me see real-world environments as spaces that I could parkour through, if only I had the skill. It encouraged me, in the real world, to try to climb or jump off of things, because Mirror’s Edge had conditioned me to look at spaces like that. Catalyst, Dying Light, Titanfall and Refunct, did not encourage that, because they weren’t as focused on realism as Mirror’s Edge. And it was through understanding this commitment to reality that I found what I believe to be the goal of Mirror’s Edge: to create a grounded, first-person platformer with tight levels that want you to traverse an environment quickly and stylishly, but also allowing you to slow down and think about environments as puzzle spaces. And from this foundational philosophy came the complexity of the game’s mechanics.

I know Dark Souls comparisons have long since passed the threshold of overuse, but while replaying Mirror’s Edge, I constantly found myself making comparisons. Mirror’s Edge requires a commitment to animations that no other game in this piece does. Jumps, rolls, landings and climbing cannot easily be canceled, and are required to play out animations before they allow the player to start their next move. This adds a strategic importance to every decision the player makes, discouraging sloppy play, but also adding a weight and heft to the animations. In general, movement in games isn’t supposed to be a challenge, it’s supposed to feel smooth and effortless. But in Mirror’s Edge, movement isn’t a way for the player to get from point A to point B, it is the core objective of the game itself. This means that conventional approaches to movement won’t often mix well with a game that emphasizes it in this way. For most games, the designer wants the 288236.jpgplayer to feel like they’ve mastered movement as soon as possible, but for Mirror’s Edge to match the arc of a traditional video game, it has to have a gradual sense of mastery, not an instant one. It does this, in part, through its animations. By preventing the player from easily canceling their moves, it requires the player to think more carefully about each move they make, making them engage with systems they might have otherwise ignored. And this is exactly how Dark Souls works, requiring commitment to every input, and punishing sloppy play (though Dark Souls is significantly more punishing than Mirror’s Edge). The result of applying this philosophy to movement, instead of combat, is that it turns movement into a technical challenge, not an easy means of traversal.

However, high-level play in Mirror’s Edge could hardly be described as cautious and stilted, if anything, it looks effortless and flowing. Flow is a concept and a term with a strong relationship to Mirror’s Edge; it’s even name-dropped in the opening cinematic. And I think it’s the only game I’ve looked at that fully commits to getting the player to the flow state. But it’s important to distinguish between flow, the mental state, and flow, the aesthetic. Flow the aesthetic, at least as far as movement is concerned, is a general, uninterrupted traversal. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is probably the best example on this list of that purely as an aesthetic, but the original commits to it as a mental state. That state is one when the challenge is high, but the player’s skill is just as high, and they match every challenge as they are presented with it, not effortlessly, but with focus. Mirror’s Edge commits to this by creating a robust set of mechanics that are constantly testing the player’s timing and coordination. Precise button inputs at the correct time are highly valued, and different moves are strung together to create a sequence of balanced challenges. This is where the level designers had to work carefully to chain different paths together, and balance the difficulty of each obstacle to avoid spikes. This must have taken a great deal of effort, but the result is a game that begs for speedrunning, because once it gets going, it makes the player not way to stop.

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However, sometimes it does stop. Be it for narrative pacing, trying to squeeze more hours of their limited amount of levels, or because the designers genuinely find it interesting, the game does have many sections where the player is asked to stop moving quickly. Combat is obviously one of those, but the more successful lulls in the pacing comes from the more puzzle-focused sections. Now, arguably the entire game is a puzzle of exactly which obstacles to travers and in what order, but some sections in the game feel much closer to a traditional puzzle game. In these, the player is asked to give up some of their momentum and really engage with the mechanics at a low level. This puts the player into a planning phase where they figure out a sequence of moves that might work, then try to execute them perfectly. The game wants the player to look for unique solutions, to think of how the mechanics might be used differently, or to see the space they are presented not as a real-world place, but as a series of game pieces. This seems completely out of sync with a game about flow the aesthetic and flow the mental state, but somehow, it works incredibly well. It does help even out the pacing, as previously mentioned, but it also expands the possibility space of the mechanics. If the player is always moving at top speed, they don’t have time to slow down and think about the implications of the mechanics. Giving them these slower sections helps them master more complicated ideas in the faster sections. That is part of the brilliance of these puzzles: once the player knows the solution, they can fly through them just as fast as any other section of the game. They’re almost like invisible tutorial sections, letting the player figure out a specific move or series of moves so that they can recognize sections later in the game that use the same idea. These sections, however, only work in a game that treats movement as something interesting in and of itself, not as a means to an end. And its sequel, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, largely does recreate these sections, but does so with much more compromises.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

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Catalyst is a sequel (prequel, reboot, whatever) that I never thought I’d get. Released eight years after the original, it makes me genuinely wonder how this game even got made. Sequels to poorly-selling eight-year-old IPs just do not happen in this industry. So, no matter how much I’m going to tear into Catalyst in the paragraphs to follow, I am still incredibly glad that it exists, and the majority of my complaints about it come from it being a sequel to Mirror’s Edge. Because, unfortunately, Catalyst fell victim to the same style of Ubisoft open world that claimed a sizable chunk of AAA titles in the past few years. In contrast to the original Mirror’s Edge,’s grounded, mechanically-focused approach with careful level design, Catalyst is a sci-fi open world game that treats its platforming more as a cool navigational gimmick to move quickly than a mechanic set in and of itself. And while there is a lot to unpack in the subtle differences between Catalyst and its predecessor, I think the genre change is a good representation of the misunderstandings Catalyst has about what Mirror’s Edge is. Because Mirror’s Edge is not sci-fi. It isn’t set in the future, it’s set in the near-future, and that may seem like a semantic distinction, but I think it’s core to what made Mirror’s Edge work. Catalyst is filled with gadgets, sleek, future buildings, and cyberpunk corporations conspiring to spy on every citizen. The original was thoroughly grounded in the realities of a post-9/11 surveillance state. It felt uncomfortably plausible, like you could see it happening in a city you knew. The city it was set in wasn’t even named, it was just referred to as “the city”, allowing the player to project any city the might be familiar with onto its clean-but-not-too-clean surface. Catalyst, however, is wildly creative with its setting, using vibrant sci-fi architecture where the strong blacks and whites of the original are filled with bold, primary colors. Mirror’s Edge had a very limited color palette, even famously so. But Catalyst is a bustling sci-fi metropolis, filled with strange and varied buildings. Part of it feels like the art team spent so long working on the Battlefield games that they used Catalyst to run wild. And, while I disagree with this particular choice for the Mirror’s Edge series, I want to stress that this is a gorgeous artistic decision. It makes navigating through the game exciting just to see what you can discover next. The overworld feels, in a word, slick. Everything is polished to a mirror (heh) sheen, guiding lines are smooth and flowing, and Faith’s feet make little squeaking noises as she sprints across various surfaces. And, in a similar way, the movement feels great to control. Animations that had long delays in the original now finish instantly, jumps feel tighter and are accompanied by beautifully polished animations and sound design. Out of all the games I’m going to talk about, Mirror’s Edge included, movement feels the best to control in Catalyst. But, to create a game that is outwardly more welcoming to the player, a great deal had to be sacrificed. And here is where Catalyst’s problems begin to emerge.

Perhaps the best example of what separates the tone, mechanics and setting of Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst are two moments I happened to play back-to-back while recently replaying them. The first happens in the original Mirror’s Edge, which begins in a sequence where Faith is being chased by a pack of cops, and is running out of escape routes. However, glancing up, the player sees two cranes, painted in a shade of red the

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The crane in Mirror’s Edge

game uses to highlight objects the player can run off of. Then it hits them. The game wants them to jump between those two cranes. That’s insane! The player has pulled off some crazy jumps before, but nothing like that! As the player climbs to the top of the first crane, dodging gunfire along the way, Merc, the player’s “man in the chair” over an earpiece, warns Faith not to do what he thinks she’s going to. But the player reaches the top of the first crane, holds their breath, then makes the leap. The barely make it, skidding down the side, as Merc shouts in disbelief over the earpiece. The player’s heart is thumping, and the charge towards the nearest rooftop, leaving the cops behind them in disbelief. I finished this sequence, switched over to Catalyst for a bit, and chained a leap over a giant chasm between buildings with a grappling hook ride up dozens of feet in the air, landing with an easy roll to continue moving. I can’t remember much more than that. If the crane jump happened in Catalyst, they wouldn’t even draw attention to it, since actions like it happen so often that it wouldn’t be memorable. Catalyst does draw attention to how crazy of a jump the player is making at one point, where they are walking a tightrope between two huge skyscrapers, gazing down at the vast expanse beneath them. It’s like something out of an action movie. The player could never imagine doing that in the real world.

So Catalyst has a problem with not being grounded. In the same way its sci-fi aesthetics extend wildly beyond the original’s near-future setting, its scope and scale is much more grand. Mirror’s Edge had, to put it charitably, a forgettable story, but it mostly took a backseat to the platforming challenges anyways. Catalyst has cutscenes. Well-animated, voiced and scored cutscenes. Yet the story is a totally forgettable hero’s journey where Faith needs to learn to accept that she’s really a superhero who needs to fight the evil corporations. The original wasn’t entirely realistic, it ends with Faith

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kicking the big bad out of a helicopter on top of a skyscraper, but the story doesn’t end with her taking down the entire government, it ends with her saving her sister. And, well, Catalyst technically ends the same way, but it makes a much bigger deal out of its revolutionary aspirations. Now, this shift in genre and scope could still be true to the original and be a great game in its own right, but this lack of grounding unfortunately applies to two more areas: the level design, and, most disappointingly, the mechanics.

I mentioned earlier that Catalyst has the best feeling mechanics out of any of these games, and that definitely is valuable in its own right, but it sacrifices a lot to get that better feeling. I’ll be going into more detail about the level design shortly, but I think it might be where a lot of these changes stemmed from. Open worlds, specifically Ubisoft-style open worlds, aren’t a great fit for complex movement mechanics, because the player spends so much time just getting from objective to objective that additional complexity added to the movement system adds work and tedium. If new movement mechanics are included, they need to justify their existence by making traversal easier, not harder. The original Mirror’s Edge has traversal that is, by nature, more difficult than the majority of games, but that’s where it draws its depth from. Catalyst still does this to some extent, but that extent is much lesser than its predecessor. Perhaps the most noticeable change to the movement is that the windows for specific inputs to be entered is much more generous. Where the original might have given the player a one-second window to hit the roll button before hitting the ground, Catalyst would give the player two or three. This, on the surface, seems like it would make traversal easier all around, but I think it might end up making it more difficult. Because the window for input is more generous, the player doesn’t learn the exact timing through muscle memory, which often leads to them playing sloppily, because the game never trained them not to. This can result in the player missing a lot of jumps, rolls and wall runs, because they haven’t been trailed properly to use them. But in addition to occasionally making its systems more unreliable, this change also removes some of the depth and satisfaction from them. Some of the improvements are objectively better than the previous game, with more polish and responsiveness, and I don’t want to undersell that, but the added control sacrificed some of the depth. Now, it would be easy to equate inconvenience with challenge and call it a day, but I think the satisfaction that came uniquely from Mirror’s Edge was a sense of technical challenge that kept you grounded in the movements of Faith as a physical human being, not a video game avatar. When some of that difficulty is removed, the satisfaction inherent to the game’s mechanics is lessened. And, to enhance the problem, the game has an upgrade system that gives the player stat bonuses to running, and unlocks some of the most valuable skills. I’ll touch on this more in the Dying Light section, but, in an open world, if you give the player the option of upgrading to a better mechanic, then you have to design most of your world around the player decided not to unlock it. This means that, because, for example, the quickturn is not given to the player by default, that areas can’t be designed with it specifically in mind, and thus using it makes the environments feel too easy. The result is a mechanics set not suited for anywhere near the amount of depth of the original, and while it does feel better in parts, it overall feels less robust, less satisfying, and less carefully designed. Unfortunately, these mechanical failings are enhanced by the open world the game is set in, and for all the benefits of having an open world game where moving is satisfying on its own, the style and design of the open world does not quite live up to this promise.

The most noticeable impact of the open world in Mirror’s Edge’s design is the longer load times. This is a simple technical reality that will be completely obsolete when Catalyst is as old as its predecessor, but is incredibly frustrating now. Time trials, speed runs, and other trial-and-error sections of the original would often lead to the player falling to their death, causing the game to reload the level, but because the game was just reloading a single level, it didn’t take that long. On modern hardware, the delay is almost unnoticeable. But Catalyst has to reload a chunk of an open world every time the player dies and, even on an SSD with, still takes a decent amount of time to load. This makes every death and mistake even more frustrating, and drives the player away from retrying old levels. Ten years from now, advanced hardware will almost certainly remove this problem, and I really wonder what Catalyst will play like with the removal of those load times, but for now, it stands as a major reason I so often return to the original over Catalyst. And this feeling of compromise and frustration carries into other aspects of the design, namely, the tightness of the design. Mirror’s Edge was a very pure game about very specific challenges. It had exactly one thing it wanted the player to do (I suppose two, if you count the optional runner bag collectables), and that was it. Catalyst gives the player a world filled of instanced challenges, collectables, and story missions, and designs the world so you can more easily get between those objectives. Each of those individual activities is fun in its own right, but it feels hampered by the open world. Obstacle courses aren’t as tightly designed because they have to serve as both that instanced obstacle course, and an easily traversable section of an open world. This would be okay if the game encouraged you to find interesting routes between points, letting the player gain a slow sense of mastery over the world and use those paths more efficiently, but the the racing start and stop points all seem arbitrary, so that mastery never forms.

Additionally, two mechanics designed for ease of use in a traditional open world game kill any familiarity the player might gain with the world: objective pathing and fast travel. Much has been written about how fast travel can prevent the player from engaging with the world in open world games, and it’s doubly true for Catalyst. Fast travel skips the traversal so the player can go to other areas and solve traversal challenges. It’s skipping the core gameplay. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about why people play a Mirror’s Edge game in the first place. If they want to skip moving from place to place, then they aren’t engaged enough with the mechanics as is. But it also creates a loop of play where the player is fast-traveling between different instanced objectives, so they never get a chance to just be in the world and explore it organically. With this approach, creating a pack of levels instead of an open world would have been much more valuable. And secondly, the game implements an objective pathing system similar to the Clairvoyance spell in Skyrim or the breadcrumbs in Dead Space, having a wispy red line show the player the exact path to take to their next objective. It prevents the player from figuring out where to go or how to navigate the environment. Sure, the player can figure out more interesting ways, but it is usually best to just follow the line. This can be disabled entirely, but without it, the environments are difficult to read and it is incredibly easy to get very, very lost (Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit did a video on this subject in more detail, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re interested in open world design). The world Catalyst creates is simply not designed for you to engage with it as a platforming game. Yes, the original let you press a button and be instantly pointed towards your next objective, but it only showed the player the direction, not how to get there. Finally, the last example of how Catalyst flirts with solid design but isn’t able to commit is how it handles collectables. These have, sadly, become a staple of open-world design, and Catalyst mostly implements them poorly. The most common collectable is an item that requires you to walk up to it, stop moving, press an interact key, watch a couple of seconds of an animation, then return to whatever you were doing. It is totally antithetical to the momentum of a Mirror’s Edge game, killing any sense of flow that the game usually works so hard to preserve. Most of their collectables are like this, but one of them, the gridleaks, actually work very well. Gridleaks are glowing orbs that appear in the world for some sci-fi reason, but are scattered so broadly that they end up serving as little challenges in their own right. Some of them, the player can just run right through on their path to the next objective, but others are tucked away on a seemingly unreachable surface, goading the player into figuring out how to get there. They don’t break the flow, they fit in with the running, and they encourage clever thinking about the mechanics. And it’s the fact that the game still manages to capture some of the puzzle solving of the original that keeps my opinion of it positive, despite all the criticism I’ve been levying against it. It has these wonderful gridNode challenges to unlock new fast travel points, which are basically puzzle sections from the original, but as soon as you finish them, there don’t seem to be any puzzles left except for a few collectables. Some of the designers at DICE clearly know how to make a good Mirror’s Edge level, and some of them clearly know how to create good Mirror’s Edge mechanics and animations, but the greatness in those aspects is so often trumped by an open world design that commits to convenience over challenge.

Dying Light

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But what would happen if a team approach those mechanics solely as auxiliary to the main game, and designed its platforming with that in mind? Well, Dying Light is a great example, an open world game with so many features thrown in that “kitchen sink” barely covers it. It treats its platforming not as a challenge in its own right, but as a cool navigational gimmick for avoiding zombies. Loosening rules and easier movement felt like a compromise in Catalyst, but in Dying Light, they feel appropriate, because the player isn’t just focused on the movement. The movement in Dying Light just feels good to control, and a lot of that comes from the easier traversal. By the end of the game, the player can climb unrealistically high walls, jump from insane heights, and vault over a horde of zombies. I wouldn’t want to play the game just as a parkour game, but it works well as a fun way to get from place to place, so much so that I miss it in other open world games. When using the Ubisoft open world design philosophy, even a little bit of depth to the movement makes the hours of traversal so much more fun. It even turns the obligatory tower climbing sections in every one of those games fun! It doesn’t integrate perfectly into combat, which usually ends up with the player just spamming the attack button, but it doesn’t really have to. It does allow for some great moments of jump-kicking zombies in the face, but it doesn’t really deliver on the idea of the combat that Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst hinted at. Those games attempted to make a melee combat system about chaining combat moves into parkour moves, but never really delivered on it. The easiest strategy was to just run up and spam attack. Dying Light’s dropkick move at least tries to do this, but doesn’t get very close. The movement works as a way to manage the horde, not to be explored deeply. So, here is a game that is clearly inspired by Mirror’s Edge and benefited from including some if its ideas. The developers asked themselves how first-person platforming and parkour could improve their game, and they found out that including it as a side option worked fairly well. But what are the limits of taking the ideas from Mirror’s Edge and applying them to a game where platforming isn’t the focus?

At the start of the game, there aren’t many problems. The controls feel tight and grounded, the player character struggles and is overwhelmed by intimidating challenges, they even have a scene where he jumps off a crane and freaks out about it. But, while Mirror’s Edge takes about 6 hours to complete, and Catalyst takes 8-13, Dying Light can last anywhere from 16-40. And twenty hours of running around an open world with platforming not being the focus can start to get tedious. After a certain point, I just want to get to my next objective. So, the game offers stat upgrades, some of them interesting, some of them just pure numerical increases. On the interesting side, the game gives you c8tdcmxh96plgmkmg2yta roll move to let you jump from higher buildings, it even gives quickturns, a move that added a great deal of depth to Mirror’s Edge. This has a similar problem to Catalyst where, in an open world where you can unlock different abilities, the designers have to assume you haven’t unlocked them. However, they work well as ways to increase the skill ceiling on movement, while not breaking the system. But some of the upgrades are just raw stat boosts. Run faster, jump higher, survive higher falls. The problem with this is that it takes the system from a grounded and tight one and turns it into an unrealistic and floaty one. If I was designing Dying Light and absolutely had to include linear stat upgrades, I would start the player out with mechanics that were a significant amount clunkier than the starting state it shipped with, then have them reach that point at about the mid game, getting only a bit better by the end game. But the actual game starts out at about a Mirror’s Edge 1 level of control then jacks it up to a Catalyst level, then keeps going. By the end of the game you’re zipping across rooftops with a goddamn grappling hook, surviving every fall, flying over every obstacle. It feels great, but it also feels mind-numbingly easy. To their credit, the developers put a lot of work into making this system feel good, with extra bits of polish to animations and sounds, but at the end of the day the core mechanics themselves feel broken by this stat upgrade. At this point, the player feels less like a physical human being with limbs that have weight and and organic positioning, and feels more like a box that zips from place. It does create flow in the aesthetic sense, but never approaches flow, the mental state. It is firmly camped in the “control” mental state, with the player rarely being challenged. The game wants you to relax while moving, to feel good, but not really engaged. And that’s okay, as a design decision from their own open world game, but it does make me wish for a game that really did commit to skill-based movement, that took its AAA budget and applied it to a system as tightly- designed as the original Mirror’s Edge, and did tried to integrate combat well. Well, fortunately, that game exists.

Titanfall

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Titanfall and its sequel feels like the games Mirror’s Edge was destine to inspire. First-person shooters are no strangers to skill-based movement, with early examples going as far back as Quake. So, when a developer comes up with a new design for first-person movement, it’s only natural that a that an FPS would try to adapt it (I’m not talking about Brink). Titanfall does this wonderfully, succeeding in its attempts to create a first-person shooter that wants to emulate the crazy-fast movement of old FPS titles, with parkour and jetpacks to improve map versatility and for defensive movement. From the get-go, it is easily the fastest-moving game I’ve talked about so far, letting the player get up to a frankly ridiculous speeds if they chain enough wall runs together. Titanfall emphasises momentum in a way even Catalyst really doesn’t, with the player’s starting speed being the equivalent of a sprint in a normal FPS, and their top speed being the equivalent of maybe the original Doom? However, the player is hard pressed to stay at this top speed for long, so they’re encouraged to plot routes through the map to give them this high speed when they need it. However, because of this speed, mixed with affordances for aiming with a gamepad, aiming in Titanfall is incredibly difficult, and usually requires slowing down and aiming down sights to hit and target farther than a few feet away. This means that there is a constant back and forth between moving fast defensively, and slowing down to line up a few shots. A fast moving player may be able to avoid death for a decent chunk of time, but they won’t be racking up any kills while they’re doing it. However, this movement system isn’t perfect, and often times a player who is just better at aiming can take you down no matter how fast you’re going. Also, while gaining a lot of momentum is incredibly satisfying and strategically valuable, when the levels don’t give the player a clear path to their objective, they can spend the time awkwardly hopping around. Titanfall 2, fortunately, addresses this problem, with the addition of grappling hooks and slide jumps. The grappling hook is an optional ability for some reason, and with how much it adds to the game I am genuinely amazed it wasn’t made standard for all loadouts. It has a strategic depth that the grappling hook in Dying Light simply did not. While that game’s grappling hook mostly existed to skip over parkour segments, Titanfall 2’s exists to speed movement up even more. When used correctly, it becomes another way for the player to create paths through the level, letting them make up some lost momentum or quickly navigate open spaces. Slide jumping also greatly improves this, though is a bit more difficult to master. It requires the player to jump, press the crouch button right before they hit the ground, then jump again before their slide animation completes. I think. I haven’t quite gotten it down yet. Regardless, the process makes the player harder to hit and move faster while crossing open environments, raises the skill ceiling, and allows players good enough to reach it a constant boost to speed.

Unlike Dying Light, Titanfall feels a bit closer to the purity of the original Mirror’s Edge. The combat and the movement are designed around each other, and that really shows in the way it handles upgrade. While Dying Light and Catalyst had stat upgrades to their movement systems, Titanfall’s stays mostly the same, the only exception being an ability

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that lets the player shoot while sprinting. The designers at Respawn created a tight, skill-based and expansive movement system, then kept it the way it was, allowing for a purity of design that is admittedly rare in AAA circles. Of course, it has a cacophony of guns, gun upgrades, combat upgrades, titan upgrades, and cosmetics, but movement wise, it is fairly pure. It isn’t the core of the game, combat is still the most important part, but unlike Dying Light, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Titanfall could not exist without its parkour mechanics and still be identifiably Titanfall. Dying Light probably could.

Unfortunately, Titanfall got a great deal of bad press for being part of the 2014 anti-hype cycle, and its sequel sold poorly for a number of reasons, including being sandwiched right in between the launch of the annual Battlefields and Call of Duties. But its influence is still strongly felt. Halo, Destiny, and Call of Duty all have implemented some form of movement that borders on parkour, with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 even featuring a parkour obstacle course mode. This mode could not have existed in earlier Call of Duty games, and the fact that it does speaks volumes about how much movement in FPS games has changed since 2008. Titanfall is probably still the most visible inheritor of Mirror’s Edge’s ideas about first-person movement mechanics, but that influence has seeped into other games, and is now firmly established. Despite selling poorly, the game’s design philosophy has a foothold in AAA design. But what about the indie scene?

Refunct

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Refunct is a game that clearly would not exist without Mirror’s Edge, but also has a wildly different goal. Rather than being a skill-based parkour game, it’s a relaxing platformer about moving at a brisk pace from platform to platform. Its goal to be a relaxing game is apparent from the moment you open it, with chill electronica playing in the background and a hazy, abstract visual aesthetic. If anything, it feels like the developer is putting their own spin on the Pure Time Trials DLC maps that released for the original Mirror’s Edge. I’ve gone on and on about how Mirror’s Edge being grounded was so important to its design working, but the Pure Time Trials DLC shows that the formula is able to be bent a bit before it completely loses its punch. Refunct is an exploration of an abstract take on grounded mechanics, like the DLC, and uses its laser-focus to rebuild those mechanics around its goal to be relaxing. It does this by altering Mirror’s Edge’s low-level puzzle solving loop, one borrowed from more conventional platformers. Where that mode wanted you to carefully consider each moment, Refunct wants to to keep moving at a brisk but not blinding pace. This means that the fast parkour sections and the puzzle solving sections don’t feel like two separate modes like they did in Mirror’s Edge, it’s a single state of gameplay. The puzzles in Refunct are never complicated enough to have the player seriously considering the implications of the mechanics, they more exist to let the player have a quick moment to say, “Oh, that was interesting.” It lacks some of the more complex mechanics of Mirror’s Edge like the wall run or quickturn, which would have added more complexity than Refunct really needed. It does have a wall jump, but it’s used in situations that don’t require perfect timing. Where Mirror’s Edge wants the player to consider the exact timing of each move, Refunct simply wants the player to know what the correct move to enter is. And while this removes some of feelings of viscerality that Mirror’s Edge was so successful in implimenting, it, again, works with the goal of being calm. The player isn’t getting stuck, or trying the same jump over and over, they just keep moving from objective to objective. That’s not to say there are no pauses to the game, sometimes it’s not great at telegraphing its next objective and I’m left missing Mirror’s Edge “Press Alt to Look at Next Objective” button. However, it mostly keeps the pace at a comfortable level. Refunct’s only failing, if you can call it that, comes from its budget. It’s a $3 game made by a solo developer that can be easily beaten in twenty minutes your first time (the speedrunning achievements have you pushing four minutes). This means that it lacks the polish of the AAA games I’ve been discussing so far. While all other games on this list have emphasized the physical body of the player character, Refunct does not have one, removing a great deal of the physicality associated with this genre. Some mechanics feel very artificial, like you have entered a trigger box, the game stops your momentum, moves you up a few units, and deposits you at the precise location it was programmed to. Of course, all games work like this, but without the sound and animation polish that comes with being a AAA title, Refunct is unable to replicate this. Still, as a game to relax to with an interesting spin on movement, Refunct is an interesting and valuable experiment, and one that would not have existed without Mirror’s Edge.

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Conclusion

Despite its own series struggling to find a foothold in the industry, it’s clear that Mirror’s Edge has influenced designers from all different genres. From AAA FPS games to open worlds to indie passion projects, its emphasis on skill-based movement, physicality and flow have lead to what I believe is a much healthier market of first-person games. First-person games just have more complex movement than they did in 2008, be that a result of callbacks to the movement of early FPSes or a reinterpretation of Mirror’s Edge’s ideas. Movement is a part of every first-person game, and when designers are encouraged to experiment with the assumptions that define it, we get games with different focuses, different goals, and different possibility spaces than we would have when these actions were standardized. Mirror’s Edge, unfortunately, never got a true sequel or spiritual successor that carried the torch on its ideas of a more realistic approach to that movement. However, while I wish such a game had been made, I would much rather see a healthier market of games inspired by Mirror’s Edge, but not constrained to it, than a market flooded with Mirror’s Edge clones. I’m glad that developers can apply these ideas to entirely different genres and be confident enough to stray from the genre-defining work. 2007, the year before Mirror’s Edge’s release, saw the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a brilliant game in its own right that inspired an incredible amount of stagnation in FPS market, crippling innovation because of how wildly innovative it was. Designers emulating Modern Warfare rarely deviated substantially from its formula. It took a much longer time for Mirror’s Edge’s influence to be felt, but now that it has, it exists as a jumping off point, not a template to be copied. And, as a fan of first-person game across genres, this makes me hopeful for the future.

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Revisiting Soma: Another Kind of Adventure Game

Ten years ago, Frictional Games made their first foyer into the horror genre when they released Penumbra: Overture; they’ve been iterating and refining that formula ever since.  The Penumbra series didn’t break any sales records, but it carved out a comfortable niche for the company of first-person horror games heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (their in-house engine, the HPL Engine, is even named after him).  But the company achieved widespread fame in 2010 after the release of the Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Even though it was little more than a polished iteration on the Penumbra series, it was released at just the right time to become an internet sensation, leading to the creation of YouTube videos reacting to its many jump scare, and helping kickstart the Let’s Play genre.  But when I played Amnesia in 2010, and the Penumbra games soon after, the jump scares that had made them so popular weren’t what drew me to the series.  Instead, I was drawn in by, well, everything else.  The Amnesia and Penumbra games are dripping with originality, atmosphere and mastery of design.  Yes, their horror is effective and well-crafted, especially considering the budgets they were produced with, but they are packed with genuinely good writing coupled with carefully-considered puzzle design.  With the exception of Penumbra: Overture, their very first game, Frictional’s games do not have combat, which would ordinarily invite cries of having “not enough mechanics” from the self-proclaimed hardcore gamers who deem any game that doesn’t meet a minimum quota of murder a “walking simulator”.  But Frictional’s games avoid this criticism by basically being 3D adventure games.  With a precious few exceptions, I’ve never been able to get into adventure games, however, so it took Frictional’s meticulous design sensibilities to get me to even play the games.  I loved their approach to puzzle design in Penumbra and Amnesia, but in 2015, they released Soma, a game that championed their design philosophy with even greater confidence, even boldly rejecting the jump scare horror mechanics that made Amnesia a bestseller.  I genuinely loved the Amnesia and Penumbra games, but Soma has become one of my all-time favorites because of how it approaches the idea of an adventure game, seeing its puzzles not as arbitrary problems to be solved, but as extensions of the setting.

Soma’s basic plot is too deviously complicated to give a quick summary of, but, in short, the player spends most of the game navigating a decaying, underwater research station.  They restore power to different areas, reroute around cave-ins, fix electrical problems, and, of course, avoid being killed by the horrific creatures that roam the station.  Soma’s excellent writing and voice acting would normally make it the kind of game that I play for the story, and use guide to get through any of the trickier puzzles.  However, I found those puzzles to be some of the most engaging parts of the game, largely because of how they were framed.  I struggled to explain what distinguished Soma’s puzzles from that of other adventure games, which is largely what prevented me from writing about the game in the past, until Frictional posted an article about this exact design idea in an excellent blog post.  It doesn’t talk about puzzles directly, it instead talks about narrative choices, but I think the fact that they frame their gameplay decisions as such is part of what makes their approach to puzzles so much more engaging.  Narrative choices in most games, much like puzzles in classic adventure games, are very removed from the game’s core mechanics and verbs.  In Mass Effect, if the player is going to make a decision, they are pulled out of the game’s normal controls and into a conversation system, which gives them a list of options to pick from.  Given how difficult simulating conversation has proven, this is probably necessary, but it does make the choices feel very explicit and very, to borrow Frictional’s term, digital.  Analog choices, as they define them, are choices that use the game’s existing mechanics set instead.  They use the example of Spec Ops: The Line’s approach to choices, which eschew the menu-based choices of dialog trees in favor of using the game’s existing mechanics, namely, shooting.  Applying this philosophy to narrative choice is incredibly valuable, but Frictional also applies this philosophy to every mechanical and puzzle decision the player makes.  The puzzle equivalent of the “press button to make decision” narrative choice is something like the puzzle panels in The Witness, where the player clicks on a panel in the world, and their controls are rebound to those of the specific puzzle they are solving (though the game’s best puzzles subvert this).  Soma, however, never changes the player’s controls.  They are always given the same set of verbs and controls to solve every problem the game presents them with.  Frictional builds out these basic first-person controls with a physics and control system that feels fresh even when played today, despite being pioneered almost a decade ago in Penumbra.  If a player wants to turn a wheel, they click and hold on it, then rotate their mouse in a circle, mimicking the player character’s physical actions.  If they want to open a door, they click and pull back on the mouse.  Complex physics interactions aren’t treated as a novelty, they’re simply how the player interacts with the world.  Pulling out electrical cables, throwing switches, moving components around, all become a natural part of the player’s toolkit.  The result is a world that the player models complexly, where every item could be potentially useful and could interact with others in interesting ways.

This combination of dozens of small interactions lets the player engage with the world in a way that feels satisfying on a very low level.  The puzzles themselves are rarely complicated, which would ordinarily make the game feel rote and boring, but because of the physicality and complexity of every interaction, I found incredibly engaging.  Oddly enough, the activity it reminded me of most was building a desktop PC.  While PC construction occasionally requires nightmarish Google trips into arcane manuals and ancient forums, I usually know exactly what I need to do, and I just need to find out exactly how to do it.  Traditional adventure games go for an “Aha!” moment, where you figure out the solution with a great deal of work, and execute easily, but Soma, Amnesia and Penumbra rarely obscure the solution, and instead present the player with the mechanically satisfying task of executing it.  Difficulty and challenge aren’t really important to these games the same way they are to the vast majority of other video games.  In a previous piece, I grouped Soma under this genre of “will and wits” that I had invented, with an emphasis on a very procedural form of procedural problem solving in a poorly-maintained environment.  However, as I’ve been replaying both Soma and Near Death (another game I group in that genre), I’ve noticed that while both games have failstates, they don’t dictate the majority of the player’s actions.  Usually, the player is processing an environment, looking for objects to solve problems, and then solving them, with little in between.  This creates a satisfying loop of activity that the designer can subvert when necessary to keep the player on their toes, aware of their environment in a more detailed way than most games ask for.  Doom might ask you to be aware of the positions and projectiles of a dozen or so demons, but Near Death and Soma ask you to be aware of all the objects, switches, lights, and loose panels in a room.  It takes the awareness that games often demand and shrinks the scope.  Soma is probably one of the most influential games for me as a designer (hell, I even made a HTML pretty heavily based on it), because it shows how to encourage players to engage with spaces on a scale that feels both more manageable and more intricate.  Games still struggle with making systems other than combat interesting, complex and marketable, but I think Frictional Games and its contemporaries have carved out a design niche where we can engage with spaces more cerebrally, and create problems that require procedural, logical thinking, grounded in the setting, instead of arbitrary challenges for their own sake.

Soma 1

Critical Rebellion, Critical Revolution: An Exploration of the Group Dynamics of GamerGate and the Gaming Community

Note: This was my senior thesis, which I finished in May of 2016.  As such, some of the references to more contemporary events may be outdated.  I just never got around to posting this.

Introduction: Division

In early 2012, I joined an online community of gamers after playing a few rounds of an online game, Guns of Icarus ​with them. The group was made up of thirty to forty people, and, following my joining the group, many of us would hang out nearly every night using a voice chat program called TeamSpeak. For around an hour or two a day, we would log into TeamSpeak, play some games, talk about our lives, and generally just laugh, relax, and enjoy ourselves. The group started as a fairly casual coalition of online friends, none of whom knew each other outside of this space, but eventually grew into a tight-­knit group of friends. As the hours I spent on TeamSpeak increased, I grew closer with more of the members of the server. Over the course of three and a half years, I friended many of the members on Facebook, swapped real phone numbers with them, and became closer to what might regularly be called “real friends”. The group became incredibly important to me. I met one of the members at an In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles, since we both happened to be passing through at the time. One member was the best man in two of the other member’s weddings. We stopped using our in­game handles and started referring to each other by our first names. In short, this TeamSpeak became my core friend group.

As of today, April 2nd, I have not logged onto their server in four months. I occasionally talk to one of the members over Facebook, but our conversations rarely go beyond, “So what games are you playing these days?” As far as I know, most of the core members still spend time on the server, but I have all but left that community. The reason for that is complicated, but it began in late 2014 after the cultural event of GamerGate, a ­social media harassment campaign against women and minorities in games. This has been the single most divisive event in the history of the gaming medium, with a very clear line drawn between those who support and oppose GamerGate. GamerGators, as they call themselves, are not an organized group; they congregate on forums and message boards such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, and for about half a year, made it their goal to harass women and minorities with an overwhelming amount of highly­specific death and rape threats. The movement forced multiple women to leave the industry as a result of the harassment, forced four women to leave their homes when their address and personal information was released, and has polarized the community to a degree never before seen in the medium’s history. GamerGators see themselves as fighting against the corrupting influence of social justice in games media. They believe that developers, journalists and gamers themselves are being forced into accepting progressive politics, when, in their minds, these issues are simply not a problem. GamerGate has made it very difficult for me to say to others that I love games. It has divided the community so thoroughly that any discussion I find online can quickly devolve into a virtual shouting match. And it found its way into my community, on TeamSpeak. I rarely discussed political issues with my TeamSpeak friends, but after GamerGate, the topic came up much more frequently, and the arguments became much more vicious. There were three women in my TeamSpeak community before GamerGate, already an alarmingly low number. All three of them have now left. There used to be a diversity of beliefs and political views in the community. Now, all of the members who opposed GamerGate, myself included, are gone. However, these discourses and fierce opinions did not come out of nowhere; they had been growing for years before GamerGate began. The GamerGate movement was a response to the growing cultural and social criticism of a medium that had, for most of its lifetime, faced almost none of either, and the mundane events that started it served as a scapegoat and a catalyst to allow the gaming community to release years of pent up anxieties about the changing world and market that games now face.

Section I: A Climate of Distrust

Long before the prime movers of GamerGate were even well­-know, others were setting the stage for its arrival. Games writer Katherine Cross linked the origins of the movement to events that happened long before the foundation of the internet communities that would eventually start it, such as lawyers and politicians attempts to ban and censor games in the 1990s. Like with all new mediums, games were, at first, viewed as a corrupting influence, and many attempts at adult content were met with great hostility. The earliest major attempt to censor games came as a result of the controversy surrounding the 1992 game, Mortal Kombat​, a fighting game which featured graphic violence through their now infamous use of fatality finishing moves, in which, in a particularly gruesome example, the winning character would rip off the head of the losing one, with his spinal cord dangling underneath. Such violence was pixelated and almost parody by today’s standards, but still made a large impact.

The controversial fatality in Mortal Kombat​, 1992

Games were, and in many cases, still are, viewed as a child’s toy, something aimed at a younger demographic that should not be presenting such content. Graphic violence, nudity, drug use, and other traditionally adult themes were not seen as acceptable subjects by the general public. As a result, the game was banned in many countries, and lead to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a self-regulatory organization that issued rating similar to the MPAA, in order to prevent government censorship. Additional attempts at censorship followed in the early 2000s, as politicians and lawyers such as Jack Thompson attempted to legally censor and ban such games on the grounds of obscenity laws. Thompson’s major target was the often controversial Grand Theft Auto series, which, in its third installment, gave the player free reign over a city where they could, infamously, hire a sex worker, then kill her to steal their money back. Such activities were optional, player-selected actions allowed but not encouraged by the system, but its presence in a medium still struggling to shake off the label of child’s toy was enough to cause a stir. Though Thompson was never successful or even really taken seriously (he was subsequently disbarred for unrelated allegations of professional misconduct), the threat of him and the lawyers and politicians like him created a climate of fear among gamers. While no game has ever been banned in the United States, American gamers still felt that their medium was under siege, and they were not entirely mistaken in this regard. Video games never faced any true threat in a real court, they did face a great deal of scrutiny in the court of public opinion. Today, over 50% of American adults play video games ​(Remo, 2008), and the stigma against the medium has mostly subsided, but in the early 2000s, it was at its strongest. The medium was, in the public eye, thought to have no artistic merit, and the men, women, boys and girls who played video games are often viewed as immature, emotionally stunted, and wasting their time. Each of these factors resulted in a generation of gamers who grew up feeling that their medium of choice was under attack, and that they would constantly need to defend it. For many gamers, this was an opportunity to teach others about the greatness and potential of the medium, but for others, this lead to the belief that those outside the gaming subculture did not understand it, and that the only reaction towards games from non­-gamers would be ones of condemnation, belittlement, and censorship.

As a result, gaming grew up with very little serious outside critique. While other mediums emerged with a great deal of serious cultural and social criticism, gaming ended up devoid of much of it. By the late 1990s, games were roughly sixty years old; by this point in the history of cinema, film had long since reached the mainstream, garnering cultural acceptance and criticism, and having produced many of what we now consider the medium’s masterpieces. But because of gaming’s evolution as a subculture, it did not receive much of the same criticism that film did, and, largely as a result, did not grow in these areas anywhere near as much as it could have. Rather than social or artistic critiques, the criticism games did receive was usually in the form of technical analysis. The game industry was born out of the software industry, and as a result, games were often viewed more as boxed products than works of art. Early games journalism discussed games in this manner as well, asking questions like, “Did the game run well?” “Do the gameplay systems work?” “Does it look alright?” rather than “What are the core themes brought up by the work?”. This is not to say that great games that embraced the artistry of the medium did not exist, however. The 1970s saw the creation of early text-­based adventure games, such as Infocom’s Zork. These essentially functioned as playable novels, later earning them the moniker of “interactive fiction”. This later evolved into graphic adventure games, such as Roberta Williams’s famous King’s Quest​ series. These titles were popular and well-­received, and the adventure game genre they created was very lucrative for much of gaming’s history. While most games focused on with system mastery, quick reflexes, and pattern memorization, adventure games focused on mood, themes, story, characters, and complex, if convoluted, puzzles. Gaming journalists of the time praised these works, but often missed the artistry and craftsmanship of the work.

This disconnect between the emerging potential of the medium and the planned, product ­review style of the journalism is largely a result of early games journalism not really being journalism. Hobbyist, enthusiast magazines were common enough on their own, but the majority of games content written before the explosion of online journalism was almost entirely the trifecta of product­-based journalism: previews, reviews and interviews. Many of these outlets were owned by the publishers of the games they were reviewing, such as Nintendo Power, Official Xbox Magazine, and Official Playstation Magazine. This created an enormous conflict of interest for the magazine’s writers, mostly crippling the institution for decades. As games increased in popularity, much of this writing was able to shift towards independently ­owned outlets, but these publications still had very strong ties to the publishers and developers they were covering. The market for games content required exclusive content and preview issues, which would be much less plentiful for publications that were more critical of these games. As a result, independent games journalism was largely viewed as an extension of the marketing for a big ­budget release. Gamers wanted to read this content, and enough of them paid for it to sustain the system as it was, but this lead to many of them developing a hesitance towards the integrity of the publications they were reading from. Many gamers had at least a suspicion that there was too much corruption in journalism, even well into the late 2000s when the internet allowed independent publications to become more profitable. These suspicions were justified in 2007, when GameSpot editor Jeff Gerstmann was infamously fired from his position for giving a game, Kane & Lynch​, a low score (Plunkett 2012). GameSpot had a marketing deal with the publishers of the game, Square Enix, and after Gerstmann’s low score, the company demanded that he be fired. This became the most visible example of corruption in the industry, one that is still referenced today. It is perhaps the biggest contributor to the belief among gamers that the games press was not acting within even the loosest journalistic standards, creating an air of distrust that undoubtedly set the stage for GamerGate.

Section II: Anita Sarkeesian & Feminist Frequency

Criticism, as a whole, was something that the gaming community was very skeptical of. Growing up in a climate where the rest of the world seemed to want to censor and ban games, and the gaming press was beholden to publishers, gamers held a strong distrust of criticism of their games both from outside and within the medium. So, the idea of serious social criticism of games was not something gamers were likely to react positively to. But it was into this climate that Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic with a focus on geek culture, entered to create her series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games​. The series began with a Kickstarter campaign on May 17, 2012, with a modest goal of $6,000 to create five videos critiquing the depiction of women in video games. While she had created feminist content in the past, Sarkeesian had largely gone unnoticed by the gaming community as a whole. She had attracted a modest following, but was by no means popular. Academics and advocacy groups had been making feminist critiques of games for years, such as Women Against Pornography’s criticisms of the 1982 game Custer’s Revenge​, which allowed players to rape a captive Native American woman (Dworkin). But focused, and more importantly, popular, critiques, were almost nonexistent. The average gamer had most likely not heard much feminist criticism of games beyond an easily ­refutable claim of, “All video games are sexist and turn people into women­-hating, basement­-dwelling sociopaths.” So, as games critic Ian Danskin explains in his series on GamerGate, Sarkeesian’s points were not new, and, in the larger context of feminist thought, they were certainly not radical, they were new and radical to an average gamer who had never heard a feminist critique that they could not easily ignore. However, Sarkeesian was not a high-­profile media critic who suddenly decided to turn her eye towards video games, she was a self­-proclaimed geek who was critiquing a medium she loved but felt excluded from. She wasn’t writing in academic journals or on popular websites, she was posting videos to her small YouTube channel. By all accounts, she should have gone unnoticed; her campaign should have reached its goal, she would have made her videos, and not many people outside of her existing fan base would have seen them. But that is not what happened.

From a casual observer’s perspective, Sarkeesian’s campaign seemed to be going much better than expected. She reached her requested $6,000 by the end of the day, and twenty­-two days in, was at $48,000, 600% of the original funding goal. However, with a few weeks remaining in the campaign and all of her funding and stretch goals far surpassed, Sarkeesian posted an update to the campaign website detailing a loosely organized harassment campaign against her as a result of her project. She linked to thousands of angry Tweets and YouTube comments, filled with hate speech and personal attacks, showed that her Wikipedia page had been vandalized with pornography and racial slurs, and posted traffic showing that her website had been taken down by a DDoS attack (Sarkeesian, 2012). This was overwhelming and unexpected, but it was nothing compared to the harassment that followed her post. Several news sites began picking up the story of the harassment against her and the campaign, leading to a huge influx of backers that saw the campaign close at $158,922 (Sarkeesian, 2012), over twenty-­four times the campaign’s initial goal. However, it also brought in an even larger influx of harassment. This cycle has continued in the years since her campaign beginning, where Sarkeesian will post references to threats and attacks against her, news sites will pick up the story, and even greater harassment will follow. Her attacks are filled with angry, violent death and rape threats, include content that is unquestionably misogynistic, and are unrelenting.

Tweets directed towards Sarkeesian

To this day, Sarkeesian receives multiple threats daily. Her personal information has been hacked and posted on forums and other websites (a process referred to as “doxxing”), leading to highly-­specific death threats that Sarkeesian now forwards to the FBI as part of an ongoing investigation (Crecente). Some of her harassers created a video game where players could beat up a picture of her face (Sterling). Others sent a bomb threat to the Game Developers Conference if they gave her an award, which the conference later did in spite of the threat (Totilo). The harassment against Sarkeesian is so broad and far reaching that it would be impossible to document all of it, but suffice it to say that this campaign was unlike anything seen in gaming before.

Perhaps the biggest question asked in the wake of this harassment was simply, “Why?” Sarkeesian was a largely unknown personality, and it was unlikely that her critiques would be heard by many outside her existing community of fans. She was not the first feminist to critique games, not the loudest and not the most radical. So, “why her, and why now” (Danskin)? In a vacuum, this question is nearly unanswerable, but in the context of the larger history of gaming, it starts to make a great deal more sense. With a history as problematic as that of gaming’s, this seems bound to happen at some point. Here was a medium with an almost nonexistent history of strong, literary criticism, one where women as a demographic were considered unwelcome, even as they remained present as both developers and players throughout its history. Here was a medium that had faced the stigma of being a toy for children, and, as a result, had largely been ignored by cultural critics, leaving it with the critical base of actual children’s toys. Gaming had not been thoroughly examined by brilliant media scholars the same way film had, and thus generations of gamers grew up without ever having to apply the skills of literary analysis and media literacy that they learned in high school and college to the games they spent so much time with. Games, in short, went unchallenged and uncriticized, evaluated as apolitical, boxed products. The only criticism the medium faced was from outside of its borders, by uninformed reactionaries whose critiques were so baseless that they could be ignored. Gamers learned about games in an environment with weak, ignorable criticism, so, in their minds, any criticism towards games would continue to fall under that banner.

But the gaming landscape was not going to stay that way. Improvements in technology and distribution, the enormous growth of markets, and the increasing age of the average gamer meant that gaming was, at some point, going to have to face criticism as a real art form. And it was wholly unprepared for this. Gamers reacted to cultural criticism that would have been considered healthy in other mediums with a ferocity rarely seen outside its own medium. Critiques of trends in their medium were seen as attacks on the medium as a whole. This is why so many of Anita Sarkeesian’s critics say, unironically that she “wants to destroy games” or “ban all games”; they refuse to understand the difference between criticizing and banning, because the only critiques they had experienced towards games in the past were calls for censorship and banning. Sarkeesian was not unaware of this predisposition, and it is why, in the description of the series itself, she states, that “that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects” (Sarkeesian). Gaming was a powder keg, ready to explode at any moment due to the messy combination of a history devoid of criticism and the growing demands for that criticism to finally be recognized. However, Sarkeesian’s videos and the horrific response they received were not what finally set it off. If anything, it only helped to further prepare the industry for something bigger.

After the first few months of Sarkeesian’s videos and Kickstarter, lines began to be drawn. Sexism and representation of women were now talked about issues in the gaming space. Sarkeesian received an Ambassador Award at the Game Developer’s Choice award (Makuch, 2014). The gaming community was now actively discussing these issues, when before they had been mostly silent. But this only served to further intensify the divides in the culture. The worst parts of the gaming community now knew that their critics were inside of the community, as well as outside. This lead to further polarization of the community, with fierce debates breaking out wherever Sarkeesian, sexism or feminism were mentioned. In many ways, it set the stage. GamerGate most likely could not have happened the way it did without Sarkeesian bringing these issues to the forefront. If the gaming community had not already been discussing these issues, and if they had not already begun to polarize, those events might have played out very differently. But gaming culture was already deeply flawed before Sarkeesian’s work further divided it, and the next time the issue of social justice was brought to the forefront, the response was more organized, more focused, and much, much, worse.

Section III: A History of GamerGate

Like Anita Sarkeesian, game developer Zoe Quinn was not a particularly well­-known figure in the game world. Her most famous work, a game called Depression Quest, was first released in February of 2013 with initially little fanfare. Depression Quest is a work of interactive fiction, meaning that players spend their time reading passages of text and making decisions about what the protagonist should do next. The narrative reacts to the player’s choices, though not always in the ways they might expect. The game puts the player in the shoes of an

A screenshot of Depression Quest

undefined man in his mid-­20s who is struggling with depression and mental illness. As the game progresses, players are given choices based on how depressed their characters are, and are asked to role­play as the character, making decisions they think he might make. The game has almost no discernable feminist content, and focuses almost entirely on the mental illness and how to deal with it. Regardless, Quinn was faced with a wave of harassment in response to the game when she entered it into Steam Greenlight, a program that allows lesser-­known developers to publish their games on Steam, the world’s largest PC gaming distribution platform. The harassment centered around the idea that, as Quinn eloquently summarized, “women can’t be depressed what a cunt”. The harassment came primarily from a site called Wizardchan, which describes itself, quite seriously, as “an anonymous community for male virgins” (Wallace). Quinn publically talked about the harassment, the distress it caused her, and how she believed internet culture as a whole as, in part, responsible for this kind of behavior. Her comments and the story of her harassment appeared on a few news sites, but did not traffic very highly, leaving her with a bit of fame, but nothing significant. By and large, the internet should not have cared on August 16th, 2014 when Zoe Quinn’s ex­-boyfriend posted a 9000­-word attack against her, but, for some reason, it did.

By all accounts, Eron Gjoni’s blog, The Zoe Post, should have gone ignored. It was the self-­indulgent ramblings of a heartbroken ex, littered posting of personal information, gross hyperbole, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance. In it, Gjoni goes into disturbingly personal detail about his allegations that Quinn had cheated on him with five different men at different parts of their relationship. He provides screenshots of personal text and facebook chat logs with Quinn, convoluted timelines, and personal pictures. The writing is dramatic, to say the least, which each section of the post carrying a title such as, “Whereof One Cannot Speak, Thereof One Must Be Silent” (Gjoni). Again, most of this seems forgettable; allegations of the unmarried infidelity of a small-­time game developer. This certainly does not seem like something that could serve as the starting point for a huge sub­cultural movement. However, at one section in the post, Gjoni alleges that Quinn had an affair with Nathan Grayson, a contributor at gaming website Kotaku. With the timeline he provided, Gjoni also alleged that Grayson wrote a piece about Quinn’s game, Depression Quest, during this time. Long after the post blew up, Gjoni later called this “a typo” (Gjoni). Further investigation, mostly a series of quick google searches, revealed that Grayson did write about Quinn, but it had nothing to do with Depression Quest, and instead was him reporting on a game jam that Quinn and others had organized. This article was written before Quinn and Grayson’s affair and barely received any views. This is all that The Zoe Post, despite all of its flaws, claims; something that, again, should have gone unnoticed.

Initial reactions to The Zoe Post were fast, explosive, and chaotic. Reddit, Twitter, 4chan, and other social networking sites and message boards exploded with links to the post, usually with sensationalist titles along the lines of, “GAME DEV SLEEPS WITH JOURNALIST FOR POSITIVE COVERAGE!!!!!!!”. A handful of YouTubers created long, meandering videos, such as the now­-removed video by Internetaristocrat, titled “Five Guys: The Quinnspiracy”. The reaction, obviously, was accompanied by a torrent of misogyny and hate speech, but before this solidified, many members of the gaming community saw only the headline, namely, “sex for positive coverage”, and were not immediately opposed to the concept. In the early days and hours following the post, the lack of information meant that many people outside of the explicitly misogynistic were angry at Quinn. The general low quality and expectation of corruption in games journalism meant that even reasonable onlookers could see just a headline and not underlying sexism that had created it. At the time, the backlash was chaotic and unorganized, but Quinn was hit with a wave of harassment that far exceeded that which she had received earlier for Depression Quest. In less than two weeks “[on] August 27, actor Adam Baldwin became the first person to use a hashtag for the movement (#GamerGate) when he linked to two videos attacking Quinn” (Chess & Shaw, 2015, p208), comparing it to the infamous Watergate scandal. For whatever reason, the community settled on its name. #GamerGate was, officially, created.

In the days following the post and the initial reaction, GamerGate quickly began to radicalize. As members of the games press began to examine the narratives of the posters, and fact-­check the post itself, the holes in the story quickly emerged. As soon as it became obviously apparent that the worst of the allegations could not possibly be true, any rational foundation for the movement had collapsed, and the growing community surrounding GamerGate began to produce more and more ridiculous theories. After a few weeks of radicalizing and establishing, GamerGate mostly settled around a narrative that Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, all of the staff of Kotaku, Polygon, and other social justice-­focused games sites, were engaged in “a conspiracy to destroy video games and the video game industry” (Chess & Shaw, 2015, p210). This conspiracy, so the narrative went, was designed to “infect” the industry and the medium with social justice, and any attempts to make the industry more inclusive were the actions of others trying to force their politics on others. That fact that the majority of their targets just happened to be women or people of color was purely a coincidence. “Targets” was not an accidental word, supporters of GamerGate deliberately used militaristic language, most apparently in their “CENTRAL OPERATIONS ARCHIVE”, which is linked in the references section. They named each effort with militaristic, revolutionary titles such as “#OperationVoxPopuli” and “Combined Arms”. A great deal of these operations were attacks of specific targets in the gaming community, almost exclusively women. Their primary targets were Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, though that list quickly expanded. After their personal information, including home addresses, were posted, Quinn and Sarkeesian fled their homes after highly-­specific death threats and pictures of their houses were posted. Both of them still receive such threats at the time of writing. This continued to intensify, destroying any notions that the movement would eventually burn out, and was eventually picked up by mainstream news media, including the New York Times, who wrote an investigative piece on the issue that many hoped would serve as a nail in the coffin of GamerGate, but seemed to be nothing of the sort. As the general public became more aware of GamerGate, the movement radicalized further, insisting that any site that had written negatively about them was colluding with other Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), as they derogatorily referred to them. The message kept increasing in severity, but somehow they still had enough members to continue it.

GamerGate, the harassment group, has largely not gone away. But “GamerGate, the cultural event is over” (Danskin). It is difficult to find an exact end date, but the end began when late­-night television host Stephen Colbert invited Anita Sarkeesian onto his show and publicly skewered GamerGate. That public mockery essentially meant the end of a larger involvement in GamerGate by more average gamers. They still held the same belief, but found participating in GamerGate itself to be too publically humiliating. And so, while the division in the gaming community is stronger than ever, the overwhelming, targeted harassment has died down significantly. This is not to say it has stopped; many of the women deal with harassment and threats daily, but the cultural event itself has slowed to a stop. It still regularly flares up, when a developer publishes a game with particularly egregious representation of women or people of color, many outlets will respond, and many former­-GamerGators will respond more loudly. Gaming sites and communities are heavily defined by which “side” they are on, and neutrality has become an increasingly difficult position to take. GamerGate may be over, but its effects are stronger than ever, and the gaming community has become increasingly radicalized and divided as a result.

Section IV: Why and How?

While the context of gaming’s history and the world’s changing approach to social issues did provide a perfect setting for GamerGate to happen, it still does not explain the immediacy, ferocity, and focus with which the event started and continued. GamerGate, while its goals were scattered, did not feel like a purely random grouping of people, it seemed to have at least some direction. The core of this direction is, surprisingly, not very difficult to find. In the weeks after the harassment campaign against her began, Zoe Quinn investigated chat rooms and message boards run by the higher-­ups in the GamerGate community, and what she found was more disturbing than even the ferocious public face of GamerGate would imply. While it is difficult to find an exact beginning to GamerGate, the earliest and most often pointed­ to source is this one from the website 4chan:

TLDR Zoe Quinn, a rabid feminist SJW GAMUR GIRL who made a shitty non­game called Depression Quest, just got outed for BRIBING THE MEDIA INTO LIKING HER SHITTY NON­GAME WITH HER VAGINA BY cheating on her boyfriend with 5 other guys, including Kotaku staff members who defended her online and reviewed her game and HER MARRIED BOSS. She is a manipulative liar and a sociopath. (Archive.is)

This post demonstrates the clear misogyny and disregard for facts that became emblematic of the movement, but further investigation in private IRC chatrooms revealed more sinister motives. The chatlogs Quinn posted were filled with some of the following messages from higher­-ups in the 4chan and GamerGate community:

Aug 18 20.10.06 i couldnt care less about vidya , i just want to see zoe receive her comeuppance

Aug 21 17.23.31 The problem is that making it about Zoe sleeping around amounts to a personal attack which, while funny and something she totally deserves, will hurt our chances of pushing the other point …

Aug 21 17.23.38 ./v should be focused on the implications of gaming journalism … Aug 21 17.23.47 Because SJWs will cherry­pick the /b/ shit posting and say “See? It’s sexist MRAs!”

Aug 21 17.48.06 I’m debating whether or not we should just attack zoe …

Aug 21 17.48.29 push her… push her further….. further, until eventually she an heroes …

Aug 21 17.48.51 … What makes you think she has the balls to kill herself? Aug 21 17.48.57 I kind of want to just make her life irrepairably horrible …

Aug 21 17.49.45 The more you try to attack her directly, the more she gets to play the victim card and make a bunch of friends who will support her because, since she has a vagina, any attack is misgony

Aug 21 17.49.48 ./v should be in charge of the gaming journalism aspect of it. /pol should be in charge of the feminism aspect, and /b should be in charge of harassing her into killing herself (Futrelle)

While GamerGate reached far beyond these chatrooms and message boards, these were the ones who ran the movement, set the tone, and, from there, organized the events. There are not contained opinions, either. For example, 4chan’s /pol/, or politically incorrect board, is run by a self-­identifying white supremacist, holocaust denier (Outlaw10), a move that makes even GamerGate’s most ardent supporters uncomfortable. This highlights an important distinction between two groups of GamerGate, namely, the extremists, and the more moderate members that they surrounded themselves. The extremists are the ones who actually want Quinn and her allies to commit suicide, who are white supremacists, and who actually could not care less about the state of games journalism, and only want to use it as an excuse to force women, minorities, LGBTQ people, etc. out of the medium. The average GamerGater, however, was not like this. They genuinely believed in the cause of “ethics in games journalism”, even if the leaders of the movement did not. The leaders played on fears that these average GamerGators had about the emerging presence of feminism, social justice advocacy, and progressive politics in the medium, and packaged it with an issue that actually is a problem in the industry to make it more palatable. “Ethics in games journalism” eventually became a joke for this very reason, as GamerGators would claim that their attacks and arguments were not about harassment, but ethics, with a justification so flimsy that GamerGate’s opponents mocked them for it. “No really guys, it’s not about excluding women, it’s about ethics in games journalism” is, to this day, a running joke in the anti-­GamerGate community.

However GamerGate would not have reached the intensity that it did if “ethics in games journalism” was not an actual issue. The most recognizable ethical violation is the previously mentioned firing of Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot for his low score of Kane & Lynch​,but there are many, many others. Games critic Leigh Alexander helpfully documented a great deal of them in her piece, “List of ethical concerns in video games (partial)”, which serves as a searing and continually relevant critique of the games press. In spite of this, Alexander was one of GamerGate’s main targets after she wrote the piece, “’Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.”, explaining that the traditional stereotype of a gamer is no longer the only audience in gaming. Ethical concerns in games journalism are massive, widespread, and completely valid, and it is precisely for this reason that “ethics in games journalism” worked so well as a frame narrative for GamerGate. While many of the average GamerGaters did honestly believe that they were fighting for ethics in games journalism, the narratives fed to them by the higher­-ups was tinged with sexism, and the targets of GamerGate were almost exclusively women and people of color. This specific type of online phenomenon is distinctly new, but the group psychology behind it, however, is most certainly not.

The study of group formation, one of the core aspects of social psychology, asks questions about why people form groups the way they do, why different people join different groups, and how different groups function. The website Fractal Sauna explores these ideas and tries to categorize different reasons why people join groups and the different kinds of groups themselves. Many of the points provided are very relevant to GamerGate and the way its various groups formed. Fractal Sauna lists one of the reason people join groups as, “Cognitive: needs to understand the environment: The theory of social comparison says we clarify our minds by comparing our world­views with others in similar situations” (Fractal Sauna, 2013). In this method of group formation, people join groups to help understand the world by finding like­-minded people and comparing and contrasting ideas. However, the site warns of “groupthink”, where there is strong pressure towards unity of thinking inside the group” (Fractal Sauna, 2013). These ideas are very apparent in GamerGate’s formation. The gaming community as a whole had, by the time GamerGate happened, developed a mindset of a group under siege, worried about outside influences trying to tear them down. This lead to the creation of a worldview that was hostile towards outside criticism, or indeed criticism of any kind, and created a cognitive need for validation among the community, a need that was filled by members of GamerGate when the group began to form. The allure of a group that provided that validation, that helped members frame their insecurities towards the changing social climate as an attacking force, could allow them to look past the disdainful actions of other parts of the group. Many of the more moderate GamerGaters argued that there was nothing they could do about the group’s harassment and more radical ideas, and argued that those outside of GamerGate were refusing to listen to them because of the actions of these radicals. This belief created a tone of complacency towards harassment, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in their community, where otherwise, these same people might not have tolerated it.

Fractal Sauna also offers a useful framework that could help in understanding GamerGate’s progression as a group. The site references psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman’s outline of these stages, namely:

Forming: People are confused, goals and leadership are unclear, if there is a leader there’s strong dependence on that leader

Storming: Conflicts arise, different opinions, rebellion, leaders and goals are challenged, unclear roles and norms

Norming: Conflicts are being handled, norms and roles are established, people start to support each others and learn how to work in openly manner

Performing: Beneficial structures of human relating are forming, division of work is optimized, roles are flexible.

Adjourning: Tasks are finished, goals are achieved (or not), people move on to new challenges, celebrations and remembrance. (Fractal Sauna, 2013).

Each stage traces fairly cleanly to GamerGate’s progression. The early days of the movement were filled with confusion and lack of central focus, allowing the acts of extreme harassment to go unchecked as the group was not centralized. The Storming phase did address these issues in some ways, such as some GamerGaters condemning harassment, setting new goals and trying to make their movement more socially acceptable, but the lack of organization and formal structure of the movement made this difficult, and many of these problems continued. By the time the Norming and Performing stages were reached, the movement was so divided, publically disliked, and fragmented, that it was hard to consolidate as a single movement, as they had only a hashtag and a loose set of beliefs to gather around. Finally, the Adjourning stage was reached, sometime around when Anita Sarkeesian was invited onto the Colbert report and GamerGaters were publically mocked. To a certain extent, this phase is ongoing, as the movement, while much smaller in size, is still planning and acting. For example, on March 30th of 2016, Nintendo employee Alison Rapp was fired after a months-­long, GamerGate-­related harassment campaign against her. While the majority of GamerGate members stopped participating in the movement and entered the Adjourning phase in in late 2014, many of the group’s more radical members are continuing their campaign as vocally as ever.

Section V: Conclusion

With the field of social psychology continually working to understand how group formation has changed with the ubiquity of the internet, GamerGate serves as fascinating case study. It touches on topics such as group formation and cultural conflict, that are essential to social psychology, but provides an understanding of how they are have both changed and stayed the same over the internet. However, what I find most important about GamerGate personally was its ability to massively shift the dynamics of an entire culture. The culture surrounding video games was always problematic, but GamerGate brought those problems so strongly into the forefront that these topics cannot be discussed in the gaming world without an explosion of controversy. And what makes this intensification of previously dormant beliefs so important to me is that it affected me personally; it caused me to leave a friend group. The world of video games is a difficult one to love, and I have had much more difficulty loving it since GamerGate began over a year and a half ago. It has made discussion that would be commonplace in other media become polarizing, uncomfortable, and difficult. It has forced groups to pick sides, and allows for very little mixing of worldviews and room for compromise. These phenomena have been documented before; it has happened to an untold number of groups throughout history, but GamerGate affected my group, my medium, and my friends, and that makes it all the more relevant to me. As I said before, the cultural event may be over, but the damage has been done.

GamerGate did a great deal to weaken my faith in the gaming community, but, despite the movement’s intentions, brought forward aspects of the community that I do value. The emergence of a fiercely anti­-criticism group lead to other members of the community listening to voices with powerful forms of criticism. It forced those who care about games to focus more on issues of social justice, and to keep demanding that we look at games with more criticism. GamerGate’s actions amplified the voices of those on both sides of the issue, but that amplification of GamerGate’s opponents lead to many of them simply being heard in the first place. Much of the community now makes a great effort to listen to writers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ. In short, by creating an environment where criticism as a concept was under vicious attack, GamerGate brought out defenders and advocates, thinkers and critics. In his video on Anita Sarkeesian, Ian Danskin says that, in what he thinks was accidental, Sarkeesian’s harassers would inadvertently create the next week’s Sarkeesian talking points, making harassment that had previously been ignored become the focus of discussion. In spite of all of the damage it did to the gaming community, GamerGate may have accidentally strengthened the critical community surrounding games. The group dynamics of GamerGate and the gaming community are complex, twisted, and often, deeply flawed. But their actions may have brought forward some of the very things they were trying to destroy.

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