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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

Walking between buildings in Catalyst

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

DyingLight

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.

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Hacknet and Games as Software

Video games are pieces of software. They are executables that you run on your computer, just like Google Chrome or Spotify or LibreOffice. For such an obvious fact of the medium, not many games do much with this idea. I previously cited Uplink as a game that did acknowledge this idea by treating the game as a program the player runs to connect to a fantasy hacking world. I briefly mentioned in that piece that Hacknet, a game inspired by Uplink, didn’t try to evoke this aesthetic, but after recently playing their excellent Labyrinths DLC, I was happily proven wrong. When I launched the game after installing the DLC, I found it interesting that, instead of opening the game’s executable directly, it opened a Windows command prompt, which then ran the game’s executable. This seemed like a trivial chain of events that I initially wrote off as bad design, but later, I discovered why it was implemented: to force the player to think of the game itself as a piece of software in order to further the hacker fantasy the game was trying to create. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time I have seen a game directly force this acknowledgment, and how it builds up to this event and executes on it is nothing short of masterful.

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Hacknet, like Uplink, styles itself after real-world hacking just enough to give a tech-savvy player a loose sense of verisimilitude. At the game’s lowest level, the player is typing text instructions into a UNIX command line. If the player is familiar with these commands, such as cd, ls, rm, scp, they will enter the game with a wealth of knowledge for navigating its systems already at their disposal. Tricks I learned from using the terminal on my Mac, such as hitting tab to autocomplete a word I was typing, transferred over to the game with a surprisingly consistency. Uplink used a similar trick, but offered additional UI elements that had to be operated outside the command line. Hacknet offers similar, time-saving UI elements, but each one is a shortcut for text commands the player could type out if they wanted. This results in the UI feeling less like, well, a game, and more like an actual UNIX terminal that the player is using. Now, this won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t already know some of the jargon the game is throwing at the player, and a lot of my respect for this game comes from frustration with how poorly films and games usually represent hacking. However, I think it still holds value, even to non-technical players, because it teaches them, at least slightly, real-world computer skills, and doesn’t break the player’s immersion the more they learn about the subject. Additionally, the genuine effort put into making the game feel accurate adds a great deal to its ability to blur the lines between the game and reality, allowing the player to slip into believing its fiction more easily. The base game uses these elements to great effect as the player joins various hacker groups, completes contracts, and improves their hacking arsenal. The player builds up a skillset over the course of the game, and that skillset is put to the test during a beautifully-executed moment where a rival hacker breaks into the player’s system and nearly destroys it, removing all of their acquired graphical aids. The player is forced to revert to only typing text commands to recover their system and take revenge on this rival hacker. This sequence relies entirely on the player’s skill at command line, creating a high-tension moment that similar to the common action game trope of taking away all of the player’s weapons before a climactic encounter (ex. Half-Life 2, Dragon Age: Origins). This is easily the game’s most effective moment, and, like the safe rooms in Resident Evil, serve as a culmination point for all of the game’s systemic and thematic elements. If the rest of Hacknet wasn’t set up to support it, this moment wouldn’t work, but the game’s systems naturally lead to this exact cocktail of emotions.

So, when I picked up Hacknet’s latest DLC, I wasn’t expecting them to be able to top this sequence. It was everything Hacknet was trying to be, how could that be improved upon? The answer the dev team settled on was to take an existing thematic element, namely, the blurry line between reality and the game, and forcefully acknowledge the game’s role as software on the player’s computer. Mid-way through the DLC, the player is hacked by another anonymous hacker, who, again, wipes out the player’s system, forcing a reboot. However, this hacker is more experienced than the one from the main game, and installs a virus that prevents the player’s system from rebooting. So, a friend from the player’s hacking group sends them text instructions on how to remove the virus, which seem fairly straight forward…until the game crashes. Hacknet.exe quits, leaving the player with an actual Windows command prompt, cmd.exe, opened to the folder where the Hacknet game is installed. Everything I have described up until this point was happening fictionally, within Hacknet.exe, but for the next few minutes, the player isn’t engaged with Hacknet.exe at all. These events happen entirely on the player’s operating system, using the same applications they would use outside of the game. Using cmd.exe, and the commands they learned in the game, the player opens the text file sent to them by a fictional character in Hacknet. This opened in Sublime Text, my default text editor, appearing as a text file sent from a real-world friend might. It tells the player to search 2773556-hacknet_screenshot6.pngfor a .dll file hidden inside the Hacknet directory and run a few commands on it. Until they do this, Hacknet.exe will not start; it will only re-open that command prompt. The player has to engage with the game as a piece of software with .txt, .dll and .exe files, and until they can do that, they cannot continue the game. This raises a myriad of metatextual questions about if the player is technically still “playing” Hacknet, as they are carrying out instructions that the game is giving to them, but the game itself is not running. But these feelings are taken even further by how the game contextualizes this hack.

My understanding of real-world hacking is severely limited, but from what I have read, the majority of them don’t do their hacking directly from their local machine. Instead, they run a virtual machine of an OS dedicated specifically to hacking, so that all their illicit activities are separated from their physical computer. The developers of Hacknet seemed aware of this, and explain Hacknet.exe as a hacking dedicated VM, so that the player can imagine themselves running it like a real hacker would. Thus, when the rival hacker attacks their system, the player poking around in their actual OS doesn’t feel like a dissonant removal from the game’s fiction, it feels like someone broke their hacking VM and they need to fix it. With all of the attention the game is drawing to this recontextualization, it should break the player’s immersion by forcing them to examine the game-software distinction that is so often unexamined. But because of the efforts to contextualize each action in the mechanics of real-world hacking, the game’s illusion is maintained. I’m hesitant to bring up the “games can do this but other media can’t!” argument, since it usually doesn’t provide any interesting conclusions, but in this case, the game forces the player to understand it as a piece of software before they continue. Other media cannot make sure its audience understands a thematic point before proceeding, but games can require it. Hacknet does this by expanding the boundaries of its fictional world, and in doing so, bumps into a concept that is decades older than the medium of video games itself.

The concept, called the magic circle, was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens. He described the circle as the dividing line between the world of the game and the world of reality. Inside it, concepts like points, teams, winning and losing are all given a value that, outside of the game, is entirely worthless. Points don’t actually mean anything in the real world, but inside the magic circle, they become the keys to magiccircle01.jpgvictory. Good game designers are consistently using each element of their game to reinforce the magic circle, to avoid breaking the player’s belief in it, the same way writers and filmmakers try to avoid breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief in other media. In Hacknet, I have no earthly idea where the magic circle ends and the real world begins, but I somehow still fully believe in it. Acknowledging that games are pieces of software should completely shatter the magic circle, and I can think of dozens of games where this happened due to graphical glitches, game crashes, or mis-firing quest triggers. Hacknet, by positioning itself so close to reality, preserves its magic circle, while simultaneously calling attention to it. I don’t know if the possibility space of acknowledging games as software is vast, yet unexplored, or small, and Hacknet is using one of its limited applications. Regardless, it is something unique that the medium is capable of, and I’ve found exploring it to be fascinating as both a player and critic.

Thumper, Language, and One Hell of a VR Trip

I’ve actually written a weird amount about rhythm games this year, considering I’ve played like three of them in my entire life.  I talked about how Guitar Hero’s incredibly simple mechanics let the player fantasize about being a rock star, and how Runner2 used multiple, reactive audio tracks to create a sense of flow in gameplay.  But recently, I picked up a virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive, and among a litany of legitimately innovating experiments and half-assed Steam games, I found Thumper, a rhythm game that’s mechanically traditional, but incredibly unique in exactly how it executes on those simpler ideas.  Those details and simple aesthetic choices make an enormous difference in the player’s experience, despite, on a superficial level, resembling Runner2 or Guitar Hero, but when I tried to put those differences into words, I found myself struggling to do so.  Runner2 and Guitar Hero can be wickedly difficult on higher settings, but the average player experience is much more relaxed.  Those games are less about pixel-perfect technical execution and more about creating a musical experience.  Thumper, by contrast, requires hyperawareness…pretty much constantly.  In Guitar Hero, you can make a lot of mistakes and still finish the song with a respectable score.  In fact, hitting every note in a song is a fairly impressive achievement if the player is on an appropriate difficulty level.  In Thumper, if you make two mistakes, it’s game over.  That rule alone is responsible for perhaps the majority of the game’s tension, since the player always feels like they are a split-second away from crashing in an explosive display of lights and distorted audio tracks.  This feeling is further intensified after the player has made their first mistake, but the game does give the player a chance to recover their armor (that absorbs the first hit) if they correctly execute a sequence of obstacles.  Thus, the player doesn’t feel like they’re irreparably damaged an individual run if they just mess up once.  Other attributes of the game contribute to this hostile tone, from the sinister feel of the music to the cosmic horror of the unexplained creatures, shapes, and environments the player faces.  The world of Thumper feels like a perilous journey into a twisted, Lovecraftian hell, and the player is shown that from the game’s highest level to its lowest.

This brings me to what I’ve found the most interesting about Thumper: it’s complete separation from language.  The game has little in the way of on-screen tutorial prompts, so the player develops their own internal lexicon for the game’s features.  This dovetails nicely with the game’s complete focus on the improvise stage of what Extra Credits calls the “plan, practice improvise” types of play.  The game doesn’t ask you to build any high-level strategies at all, in fact, each moment is almost entirely disconnected from the previous one.  All that matters is if you have missed a note.  The game has combo meters and score counters, but the player isn’t forming high-level strategies about how to engage with the scoring system, as the correct response to any given situation is always obvious.  Each obstacle in the game world has exactly one correct response, and the player is given points based on if they perform that correctly or not.  Every one of these moments is almost entirely self-contained, and demands a level of quick reaction that prevents much in the way of planning.  This creates an experience where the player’s focus is entirely on the immediate present; they aren’t even expected to look at the obstacles ahead of them.  Any form of hesitation, of removal of thought from the present, can lead to instant death, training the player quickly to reach a state of laser-focus.  This prevents the player from reaching any sort of linguistic grounding.  Other games might give the player time to plan a strategy cognitively, for example, a player of Rainbow Six Siege might think, “Okay, I’m going to beach this wall, then run around to the other side and shoot the enemies while they are focused on the wall I just breached.”  This extra time for planning gives the player a space to repeatedly think about the game abstractly, coming up with words for specific game pieces or inventing them on their own.  Thumper, by contrast, prevents the player from planning or thinking about the game abstractly and thus prevents them from having the time to develop terms or concepts independent of each individual moment of play.  If you want to think about Thumper at a high level, you need to do it when you’re not playing the game, which makes it very difficult to talk about, because so much of it happens at the lowest possible level.  There are times where I execute moves in the game and do not have any conscious memory of doing so; it’s pure, muscular reaction.  Games rarely get me to think about my physical actions at such a low level, and Thumper does this by asking me to barely think at all.  This is enhanced by the game’s virtual reality support, which removes the player’s peripheral vision and any other stimuli except the game in front of them.  Despite being such a physiological experience, this makes Thumper a strangely immerse one, leading to the player feeling like they are this strange beetle ship, flying down a twisted path at a million miles an hour.  A decent amount has been written about zen in games, most prominently by designer Ian Bogost, and Thumper does approach this, but it feels more similar to the sense of “oneness with the game” that high level players describe when talking about more physiological arcade titles.  Jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow perhaps described this best when explaining why he found the early Atari title, Breakout, so addicting: “Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.”  If Thumper could be reduced to a single sentence, this would be it, and while I’ve struggled with reaching this state with other games, I achieve it effortlessly within seconds of firing up Thumper.  The player isn’t asked to understand the game in any way but the physiological, leaving language behind with the rest of their conscious thoughts.  The final result is the player becoming consciously aware of their sense of self slipping away, replaced by a sensory deprivation VR trip that messily projects them onto an abstract game world.  I am nowhere near good enough to complete Thumper’s final levels, but I can fire up the game, put on my headset, and, within seconds, feel that “whole new plane of being”.  As a designer, that is incredibly difficult to pull off.

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The Fantasy Simulation: How Skyrim’s Open World Creates Moments of Discovery

A while back, I realized that Ubisoft had pretty much killed open world games for me.  Their open world model, pioneered by the Assassin’s Creed series and then copied to death by the majority of AAA open world games released in the years since, was initially appealing, but after playing dozens of games that used its template, its limitations became clear.  Open world games were designed to liberate players from the aggressively linear corridor shooters of the mid-to-late 2000s.  However, with the model that Grand Theft Auto 3 pioneered, and Ubisoft iterated on, it seems that designers traded one form of confinement for another.  Traditionally linear games, such as Half-Life (1998), used a “content muncher” approach to design, that put the player on a narrow path from point A to point B.  Good ones would give the player more options on their way there, as Half-Life itself did, but still stuck to a fixed order of content.  This had its advantages, such as a tight control over pacing and variety, and it by no means was the only philosophy of game design alive at the time, but for a solid few years, it was the default model of AAA games.  Ubisoft seems to have done to open worlds what Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns did to Half-Life: distil its foundations so greatly that much of the nuance that made it great in the first place was lost in the process.  With Ubisoft, that distilled product took the form of checklists, giving the player a list of goals to accomplish, with every possible activity documented from the moment they begin a new game.  This places every decision the player makes in the context of how much of those checklists they want to complete, and in what order they want to do so.  The player is technically given freedom, they are not doing things in the order the developer wants them to, but the feeling of artificiality that comes from reducing the entirety of a digital space to a simple completion percentage can all but ruin W5ZsBDf.pngany sense of freedom the player would have had.  They are not exploring an organic world, they are picking which way they want to increase the completion percentage.  That has lead to a fatigue with open world games, where, despite examples that I’ve found personally compelling for a time (such as Dying Light or Ubisoft’s own Far Cry 3), they eventually reduce to that completion percentage.  Even the newest Grand Theft Auto, with all the artistry and skill put into its world construction, eventually reduced to instanced, scripted missions executed with the same aggressive linearity that its predecessors were created to avoid.  Open worlds promised a digital landscape in which the designer did not always feel present, where the player could have experiences not explicitly designed, delivered, and focus tested by the game’s creators, but Ubisoft and its contemporaries seem to create worlds where the designer feels just as present, only giving the player more tasks to complete and evaluating them as they complete them.

But then there’s Skyrim.  Of course, Skyrim isn’t alone in its design philosophies.  It’s the product of fifteen years of iteration by a single studio, arguably brought to perfection by Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas.  But despite believing that New Vegas is the better game, I have spent more time in Skyrim than any other open world game except perhaps World of WarCraft.  And I’ll be the first to admit that Skyrim is not without its flaws: the writing is frequently terrible, the dialogue is delivered with barely any direction by the same six voice actors, the combat is shallow enough to be mindless, and far too many quests can be summed up with “kill everything in this dungeon and grab the McGuffin at the end”.  But despite these qualities, Skyrim is, without a doubt, my favorite open world in the medium, and I believe that it works so well because it rejects the design philosophies of the Ubisoft open world so thoroughly.  It doesn’t create a reactive fantasy world, in fact its narrative and characters barely respond to player input on a larger scale the way New Vegas does.  Instead, its use of the open world itself, engaged with mechanically, and creates a play aesthetic that better captures the feelings of exploration and discovery than any other game I have played.  The later Assassin’s Creed titles direct you towards every piece of treasure on the map and tell you exactly how to solve its various, instanced activities, but in Skyrim, the designer feels absent.  The player directs their experience through the world independent of abstract game concerns like completion percentage, instead indulging their curiosity as they poke and prod at one of the most effective and (here comes the buzzword) immersive fantasy simulations in the entire medium.

At its highest level, Skyrim, at first, does not seem very different from a Ubisoft game.  The player will begin their session in one of the game’s major cities, open their quest log, look at their huge list of objectives, and figure out which to do next.  This seems fairly similar to a Ubisoft title, where the player does much the same thing: check list, pick objective, go to objective, complete objective, repeat.  However, in addition to breaking the end of the loop later on, Skyrim also breaks the beginning.  This might seem like a minor Quests_(Skyrim)_Interface.pngdifference, but these quest objectives are not given to player from the beginning, they must be discovered by talking to NPCs or triggering scripted events.  In, say, Far Cry 4, the player has barely left the tutorial when the game is slathering notifications all over their screen ordering them to collect twenty deer hides or complete all bomb disarm missions.  This adds to the sense of discovery that the player feels before they’ve even left the city, as these objectives organically emerged from the setting, rather than being non-diegetic, game layer objectives.  Additionally, when the player opens their map to look around the world, it begins as fairly empty, and is filled in gradually as the player either discovered them or is sent there directly.  Contrast this with Ubisoft titles, which start the player with a map filled with objectives.  This makes selecting the mission the player wants easier, but Skyrim’s approach makes the world feel more unexplored, and temps the player with large, empty spaces of the map.  Skyrim does have a fast travel system that could allow the player to jump from point to point, just completing objectives, but a great deal of the time the player spends in Skyrim’s early game is hiking to their next objective.  An NPC might give them a quest halfway across the map, and the player will have to spend half an hour hiking there.  The frequency of these experiences decrease by the late game, when the player has explored most of the world, but this ups the pace for the game’s last few hours, so that by the time the player is tired of half-hour hikes between each objective, they can simply fast travel there.  It’s worth noting that the game does offer an in-game travel system through its carriage system, a version of fast travel that only moves between major cities.  I usually play with fast travel disabled, using only this system, and the simple inclusion of an internally consistent travel system helps the world maintain its sense of scale while still providing that convenience.

After picking an objective and setting out, the player gets into the real meat of the game: exploring the overworld.  While its dungeons are not brilliantly designed and the combat is fairly sloppy, the process of moving between the various dungeons, caves, forts and buildings of the world is the game’s greatest achievement.  The player begins walking in the direction of their objective, often with a great deal of land to cover if they are early in the game.  They could just tape down the analog stick on their controller and go do something else, so to speak, but Skyrim nudges you away from that behavior in a way that many other open world games simply do not.  Along the way to their objective, the player will encounter random wildlife, run across herbs and ore veins to harvest, and even occasionally encounter NPCs in the world who will offer them simple quests.  This is engaging enough, and works for an experience that provides more variety than simply walking, but doesn’t take away from one of the core reasons Skyrim’s world traversal is so enjoyable: it’s a relaxing walk in the woods.  I’m pretty sure that the single most Elemental.pngimportant factor in if I am going to enjoy an open world game or not is if the game makes moving from place to place enjoyable.  This is why I can enjoy the completely Ubisoft-inspired Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, because movement through the world is the core mechanic set of the game.  Skyrim does not have any interesting movement mechanics, but instead puts a great deal of effort into making the player feel like they’re on a relaxing hike, not just moving their character from point A to point B.  The overworld’s sound design is nothing short of masterful, with a brilliant combination of ambient music with rustling trees, softly blowing wind, and idle insects and animals.  That soundscape blends perfectly with the often gorgeous fantasy landscape the player is moving to, regularly creating moments where the player can stop and gawk at the environment.  Skyrim is a screenshot factory for this very reason: the developers wanted to create a world that the player was okay just walking through.  In many ways, these sections remind me of playing Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which took these simple hiking mechanics and made an entire game out of it.  That kind of idle relaxation is a perfect method of mediating the pacing of Skyrim’s long dungeon crawls.  But those dungeon crawls still blend beautifully into the hiking part of Skyrim’s experience.  I thoroughly respect Skyrim’s commitment to avoid instanced activities, and the dungeons just barely skirt the line in this regard, mostly for technical reasons.  For example, in Burnout Paradise (a brilliantly designed open world in other capacities), you drive around the game world until you reach a stoplight, then get teleported to an instanced race starting at that location.  That race plays out just like it would in a traditional racing game, then ends, and returns the player backed to the overworld.  While this has its advantages (many of which Burnout Paradise uses), it creates a very modal game experience, where there is a clear distinction between two stages of play: racing and exploration.  Most open worlds treat their content this way, most famously, Grand Theft Auto with its complex open world but simplistic, removed missions.  The tradeoff, however, is that it makes the game world feel separate from its activities, and makes the activities themselves feel artificially gamey by comparison.  Skyrim, on the other hand, doesn’t distinguish between these modes at all.  There are a few load screens in the way, but the player can start in a city, walk outside into the world (even removing a loading screen if they have the right mods), wander until they find a dungeon or cave, enter that, complete it, and find their way back without changing the state of play.  Skyrim doesn’t distinguish between game activities and open world exploration, in blends the two in a way that creates surprising moments.  While walking to a quest objective, the player can stumble onto a bandit camp or find a dungeon, explore them, then get back on the path to their objective.

That core loop of moving towards an objective, getting distracted, then returning to the path to your objective is another of Skyrim’s greatest strengths.  That direct path to the objective is interrupted by the player’s curiosity more often than not, and, surprisingly, this is done partially by the in-game compass.  I usually believe that games should remove as many non-diegetic UI elements as possible, which is why I always play Skyrim with mods that disable or at least tone down the HUD as much as possible, or replace the in-game map with a parchment one.  Skyrim’s exploration loop invites the player to immerse themselves deeper in a way that a standard “click an objective on your map and follow the dotted line to get there” loop really doesn’t.  Skyrim’s designers put a lot of care into that stage of gameplay, and it really shows.  I mentioned earlier that Skyrim doesn’t scatter objective markers across your map, but rather reveals them as you discover them.  The compass slightly breaks this rule, but in a way that I think encourages exploration.  While walking to your objective, the compass might show a grayed-out icon of a nearby cave, dungeon, house or outpost.  It doesn’t show you its location on the map, just says that one of these locations is nearby and in a certain direction.  This helps keep the player from becoming bored on some of the longer walks, as they might see a dungeon marker along the way and decide to take a break to explore it.  This is incredibly helpful for exploration later in the game, but also breaks up the direct, point a to point b line into a zig-zaggy path between different locations.  This reinforces one of the core design philosophies I believe the game’s designers were aiming for: one of exploration, but exploration with surprising discoveries.  Telling the player where every location on the map is from the get-go removes that sense of discovery, but Skyrim’s travel loop bakes it right into one of the player’s most common activities.  This lets the world feel mysterious, like there are hidden treasures to discover, but not so much that it takes away from the game’s state of flow.  The game won’t tell you that you’ve collected 100% of the treasure in a dungeon, but it will tell you if you’ve completed its primary objective.  The game won’t show you the exact position of every location on the map, but it will show you the general direction if you’re AeXXKky.pngnearby.  In this regard, Skyrim feels like much more of a console or ARPG than a CRPG, for lack of better genre terminology.  It doesn’t want the player to be figuring out written directions and hand-drawn maps like in Morrowind (though it does occasionally offer those as side objectives), it wants the player to be in a state of flow that also incorporates discovery to keep it interesting.  Walking across large distances in digital space can often kill any sense of flow that other parts of the game had built up, but with the balancing act of making the game flow but not flow so much that it’s mindless, the designers create an experience where you never feel completely lost.  The end result is a system that enables and encourages hours of exploration, and doesn’t create moments of frustration where the player might quit the game.  And this experience is topped off with the game’s approach to dungeon design.

Skyrim’s dungeons are certainly not the best designed in the business.  They’re not complex labyrinths with interweaving paths, they don’t have complex puzzles or perfectly managed difficulty curves.  They don’t brilliantly tell a story through environmental design, the way New Vegas’ vaults do.  And they don’t offer a great degree of variety in enemy design like the Souls series.  But Skyrim’s dungeons work incredibly well for what they are trying to be: slight variations on a dungeon diving experience that aren’t meant to last more than twenty minutes.  Mystery is perhaps the dungeons’ greatest asset, as the game doesn’t tell the player what boss or treasure to expect at the end.  Sometimes, with scattered journals and light environmental storytelling, the game will hint at an end boss or magical artifact, but that is the exception.  Each dungeon provides just enough variety for a quick experience that doesn’t distract the player too much, with a guaranteed boss fight and boss chest at the end.  In a similar loop to Diablo (a comparison that Fallout 4 would go on to strengthen), Skyrim gives the player a few distinct stages to each encounter, which it does break from time to time for variety.  There’s the initial discovery, where the player is getting a sense of the environment and enemies of a dungeon.  If the dungeon is going to provide a narrative hook or a side quest, they will usually do it here.  Then, the player starts to explore the dungeon proper, fighting enemies, solving light puzzles, and getting their first taste of some treasure.  The game will often split the dungeons into two sections here, with a loading screen in between.  The second room usually has higher stakes, tougher enemies, and better treasure, building up to the door to the boss room.  These will often be tougher draugr enemies, but will sometimes be dragon priests, powerful necromancers, or other varied NPCs.  Then, the player finds their word wall and boss chest, and leaves with a new ability and some good loot through a hidden door back to the first area.  This loop is quick, not distracting, and still satisfying for the amount of time it takes up, and the repetition actually works fairly well for letting the player know each stage so the designers can break it when they need to.  And when it is broken, if often leaves the player with a sense of excitement that sticking to formula and revealing all the dungeon’s secrets from the beginning never could have.

One of my favorite experiences playing Skyrim since the remaster was released was discovering the Redwater Den, a quest area from the Dawnguard expansion.  I wasn’t on the Dawnguard quest at the time, so my experience was entirely organic, a generated story that felt uniquely personal.  While exploring near Riften, I stumbled across a broken down house, so I went to check it out, expecting to find a bit of loot and then move on.  Instead, I found an NPC who directed me to a Skooma den in the basement.  I had never been to a skooma den, so, curious, I found a nearby trapdoor and checked it out, and what do you know, it’s an underground skooma den!  The area featured a vendor table with a protective cage, attendants selling skooma, and passed-out customers.  I poked around the place, found a few bits of loot, and was about to leave…when I noticed a locked door.  Now, I had no reason to expect that there was anything beyond that door, but the designers had left it there to pique my curiosity, to bait me into exploring.  They didn’t do it with a quest marker, they did it with a simple locked door.  So, I picked the lock, snuck into the backDegeg.jpg area, and, what do you know, there’s an entire system of caverns, traps, and skooma manufacturing machines being run by a cabal of vampires using the skooma den to harvest their victims (Redwater.  Get it?).  I fought my way through the facility and got a ton of loot, ending in a dramatic showdown with the master vampire.  Apparently the area is used for a quest later, but I didn’t care, because I had found these layers on my own, and I hadn’t expected a single one.  It was a ruined house on top of a skooma den on top of a vampire den, and the discovery of each layer lead to more excitement.  I was directed through these layers not by an artificial game system, but by my own curiosity and some subtle design tricks.

Bethesda’s approach to open world design has radically shifted since Morrowind, from an more organic, if clunky-feeling world with a heavy emphasis on narrative complexity, to, as Errant Signal’s Campster described it, their own blend of walking simulator and ARPG.  Yet despite the studio’s contemporary lack of narrative ambition and setting reactivity, I find two things about their design ethos that keep me hopeful for the future of the format, even if Fallout 4 was largely a disappointing iteration.  The first, is that New Vegas proved that their format could work beautifully if the right team with the right narrative focus takes a stab at it, as New Vegas is one of the most fascinating and reactive 3D open worlds in the entire medium.  The second is that Bethesda has only continued to refine the core loop of their quest structure, finding a way to push it closer to the rhythmic flow of Diablo-inspired ARPGs, but keeping a feeling of player-driven, designer-absent play.  Skyrim’s designers push their audience towards a specific playstyle just as much as the designers at Ubisoft and their contemporaries, but they do it with a subtlety and a respect for the diegesis of the simulation that it feels much more natural.  This is a very careful balancing act, as the failures of Skyrim and Fallout 4’s radiant quest system proves.  Despite the increasing emphasis on procedurally generated missions, Bethesda has still proven that they have the raw design talent to create open worlds that beg to be explored, with a mastery of their craft that seemingly almost no one else in the industry can pull off.  For all my dislike of contemporary open world games, the fact that developers like Bethesda and Obsidian can create games that are so consistently engaging gives me hope that designers outside of these companies can shift away from creating abstract game spaces and into creating simulated worlds.

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Musical Platforming: Dustforce, Runner2, and Game Feel

I’ve never really been into platformers, so the fact that I’ve been playing two of them this week is pretty unusual.  Mostly for lack of other games to play, I’ve been messing around in Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (I’m just going to call it “Runner”, if that’s okay) and Dustforce, and while my lack of experience with any platformer other than Super Mario Bros is pretty difficult to overcome, I’ve managed to really enjoy these two games.  Despite my inexperience with the genre, I’ve found that these two games feel wildly different, and exactly how those differences emerged from a top-down design philosophy is something I want to explore, because, coincidentally, both games have a very interesting relationship with their respective soundtracks.  Music usually serves as background to gameplay, designed to enhance emotions, but rarely taking center stage.  In both of these games, music has a unique effect on their game feel, and, given that I wrote about a rhythm game last week, this seems like a great time to dig into just how each game uses music to more effectively communicate its specific design philosophy.

Dustforce is a very strange game for me because it has one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming, but I hadn’t played more than ten minutes of it before this week.  The soundtrack was created by electronica artist Lifeformed, and while I’m not knowledgeable enough in music genres to be able to more accurately explain his music, it’s generally a very calm and dreamy take on electronica, with some woodwinds tossed in for good measure and heavy use of echo effects.  I bought the soundtrack when I first picked up the game, and even though I gave up on the game itself, I listen to the soundtrack pretty regularly.  A soundtrack this relaxing would seem to clash with a platformer that ramps up the difficulty as quickly as Dustforce does, but strangely enough, it fits it perfectly.  Every aspect of the game is designed to assist the player in reaching a sense of flow, from the fluidity of the animations to the smoothness of the visuals, and this music fits in perfectly.  With a game as difficult as Dustforce, that leads to as many retries as its levels screenshot8.pngdemand, keeping the player from crushing their controller and rage quitting is a persistent task for any developer, and Hitbox Team helped address this in a few clever ways, many of which overlap with this design aesthetic of flow.  The game’s restarts are incredibly quick, absent of any load times, and don’t linger on your character’s death in the same way a game like Dark Souls does.  You’re right back in the action in a few seconds.  The music itself doesn’t even stop or react in any way, with an indifference to the player’s performance that stands in stark contrast to Runner2, or really most games out there.  The game wants to keep the player calm so they are okay with trying over and over to perfect their runs of a level without turning into a rage-consumed troglodyte.  This doesn’t mean the music takes a secondary role in the player’s experience, however, it means that the music creates a rhythm where a slip up and retry isn’t a jarring experience like it is in most games.  You still fail – the game certainly isn’t pulling any punches – but the music keeps going even when you do.  In addition to making restarts less frustrating, it also makes successful runs feel even better, as the player feels like they are matching the tone and mood of the music with an effortless-looking run.  The jumps the player is making may, in actuality, be pixel-perfect, but the music, animation and game feel make it look natural.  The combination of all of these elements, from visuals, to music, to game feel, to level design, create an experience that encourages to player to enter a focused, zen-like state of calm persistence as they slowly perfect their runs of a level and increase their mastery of the mechanics.  The game wants to keep the player’s focus in the specific moment of the moves they are trying to pull off, and uses the music to narrow the player’s focus more effectively.  For example, the game’s scoring system is designed to distract the player as little as possible, with the player being graded on two, easily and quickly identifiably variables: completion and combo.  Completion is obvious to the player without requiring much additional mental effort, they just need to see if they have cleared the entire map.  The combo meter is also straightforward, and simply requires the player to move quickly between objectives.  With how easy both of these variables are to keep track of, the player can focus on the one variable that really matters: time.  As a result, the player is always focused on their immediate concerns of moving as quickly as possible, because they do not need to spend time thinking about how to max out their combo meter or how to juggle other abstract systems.  Without a focus on complex systems, the game can tell the player to focus on the immediate flow of the level, making the music match the tone perfectly.

Runner2 takes a different approach to the platformer as a genre, and implements its music in a different way as well.  In contrast to the precision jumps and mid-air reversals of Dustforce, Runner has more in common with the endless runner games that grew up on smartphones.  The player character is moving to the right by default, independent of any player input, and nothing the player can do can stop or slow him.  This creates a sense of momentum in the gameplay that Dustforce requires mechanical mastery and map knowledge to reach.  However, Runner iterates on this momentum by making nearly all its game pieces momentum-stopping obstacles that the player must avoid in some way.  However, this doesn’t just maintain the default momentum, which would create a monotonous experience.  Instead, each action contributes both to the momentum and the soundscape of the game.  The game plays some sort of fun-filled animation (a consistent aesthetic choice throughout the game) to make the obstacle avoidance look good, but then plays a sound effect in sequence with the music.  While Dustforce’s music was defined by a non-reactive indifference to the player’s performance, Runner’s music is so synced up with the player’s actions that it’s practically a rhythm game.  This makes sense given that previous Bit.Trip games were actually rhythm games themselves, a genealogy that is clearly evident in Runner2.  The music starts with a melody-heavy foundation inspired by chiptines, in fact, many of the game’s contributing artists got their start working in this retro-themed genre.  Runner2 continues that genre’s strong emphasis on catchy melodies, brought on by the technical limitations of early NES music that could only runner2-ss1support three tones at a time.  However, the game builds on this with multiple musical layers, at first with only a background instrument or two on top of the melody, but eventually growing in complexity as the player picks up four power ups in the level.  Each one plays a sound effect, displays a colorful notification on the screen, and adds another layer to the music, making the final few seconds of a level feel like a busting musical landscape.  In addition to these power-ups, the level is also filled with thirty to fifty gold bars for the player to collect, all of which play a note or two when collected, also in sync with the music.  Avoiding obstacles in the environment plays a different sound as well, each one placed at a point in the music that it feels natural.  This is iterated on further in the boss fight for World 4, which uses a call and response structure as the foundation for the level’s music.  The boss readies obstacles to throw at the player while playing a series of notes to let them know what obstacles to prepare for, then the player jumps over/ducks under/destroys these obstacles as the response is played.  All of these aspects lead to a final audio track for each run of a level that is unique to that player, based on what collectibles and power-ups the player grabbed, and if they hit them at the correct time.  This results in an aural experience that is much more reactive than even most rhythm games, where the player is expected to perform the audio the game wants rather than dynamically create their own.  The end result is a more reactive take on flow, that feels just as elegant as Dustforce, but while Dustforce wants you to feel a detachment between the music and the gameplay, Runner2 wants you to feel like you are helping create it.  Both takes are incredibly effective for each game’s specific design goals, but when compared, I think they provide interesting examples on how music can be used creatively with regards to game feel.

Monolith’s 2005 Halloween: FEAR and Condemned’s Approaches to Action Horror

FEAR 1 and Condemned: Criminal Origins were released just over a month apart from each other, by the same studio, in the same engine, with the same first-person perspective, and the same light focus on horror elements.  I played these games a year apart without knowing about these similarities, and had an incredibly similar experience with both: I played them non-stop for almost an entire day, but never ended up beating them.  The two titles feel incredibly similar in their design sensibilities, and, while I can’t find out if both were developed by the same team within Monolith, I am almost certain that they were sharing ideas.  FEAR was published by Sierra, while Condemned was published by Sega, but both of these publishers ended up getting tonally similar products with slightly different focuses.  

FEAR is your standard, big-budget, action horror game.  In its aesthetics, it pulls from westernizations of Japanese horror classics, like The Ring (adapted from the Japanese novel Ring) and The Grudge (adapted from Ju-On: The Grudge), and these are easily the least effective moments of the game.  I can’t speak to how they felt at release, but in 2015, they fear-20060802011341726were obviously scripted and mostly cheesy.  The more common mechanics of FEAR, however, created quite the opposite feeling.  In addition to being a horror game, FEAR is also a first-person shooter, and it doesn’t seek to innovate too dramatically in that department, but it does execute on those mechanics wonderfully.  From a design doc level overview of the game, it doesn’t have much to offer: samey enemies with guns, normal first person shooting, and a slow-motion mechanic to spice things up.  But the game does so well with all three of these features that it elevates the game to an incredibly well-polished version of an oversaturated genre.  First, the enemies use an incredibly clever AI system that sees them flanking, falling back, and responding to player actions, in a way that makes every gunfight feel delightfully dynamic.  The first-person shooting feels punchy and kinetic in a way even games today still have trouble getting right.  And the slow-motion, despite how overused it is in shooters, elevates the entire experience to a tactical, visceral experience.  FEAR’s combat is not its only strength though, it’s environment and atmosphere do a much better job of evoking discomfort than its scripted sequences do to evoke horror.  After a tough gunfight, the incredibly reactive environments will be covered in rubble and broken glass, leaving the previously sterile environments a mess.  As the player walks from objective to objective, or explores an area for additional supplies, the tone is uncomfortably quiet, occasionally broken up by quiet, low-quality radio conversations that further the player’s sense of isolation.  FEAR’s environments post-combat feel tense, and even though that tension is usually broken by a cheap jump scare, that tension is one of my favorite parts of the game.

Condemned, in many ways, feels like a riskier version of FEAR.  It relies on grimey environments to build tension, just like many areas in FEAR, uses those same, quiet radio conversations to evoke loneliness, and its own experimentations with AI.  Condemned’s core combat mechanics, however, are an inventive take on first-person melee combat, a style that has rarely, if ever, been done well.  Combat sequences feel systemically dynamic in a very similar way to FEAR as a result.  The player will often enter a room only to be ambushed by an AI that has hidden behind a nearby corner, and, startled, yank a piece of piping off a nearby wall to block the attack.  With the enemy knocked back, they might hit them with their tazer to move in for the kill, or grab the enemy’s weapon and use it against them.  While FEAR executes near-flawlessly on a very well-established idea, Condemned tries to experiment with an entirely different one.  As a result of the newness of the style and the lack of good examples from elsewhere in the industry to pull from, Condemned often is very interesting on a high level, like the encounter I just described, but less satisfying on a low-level.  It seems like the developers wanted the combat to feel ss_49e024a8cfc2a25b0fbe6da1a0628dde7dd855d5-600x338frantic and confusing, but often it comes across as clunky and unpolished.  This is a completely acceptable aesthetic to shoot for, but it diminishes the feeling that the game will respond to a player’s low-level skill instead of their higher-level skill.  For example, aiming a gun in an FPS is a low level skill, it’s directly about using the controls to perform an action and the game reacts based on how well you do that.  Deciding to flank an enemy and shoot him first instead of charging him head-on would be a higher-level skill, making tactical decisions that, while dependent on your low-level interaction with the controls, aren’t as immediately involved with them.  This makes combat in Condemned more fun to think about than to actually play, as action games tend to rely more on low-level skill and the satisfaction gained from mastering them.  In an opposition to FEAR, what it lacks in its low-level mechanics are made up for at a higher level.  Condemned completely nails the atmosphere that FEAR only gets right some of the time.  The discomfort of FEAR’s environment is ratcheted up for Condemned, making the player go from uncomfortable to always on the edge of their seat.  Levels feel labyrinthine, requiring backtracking into rooms that will often be filled with new enemies performing unscripted actions.  The game is fond of the same unmotivated cuts to confusing, horrific images and scenes that FEAR is, but it does them with more subtlety and effectiveness.  While FEAR’s art style is largely forgettable, Condemned takes place in Metro City, but is obviously a grimey version of 1980s/90s New York, taking visual influence from films like Seven and Silence of the Lambs.  Neither game seems to care too much about its story, but Condemned’s works a bit better as a frame narrative.  Where Condemned does fall apart, however, is in its level design.  FEAR uses similar environmental progress blockers, but FEAR also has a reason for the player to explore: ammo, health packs, stat boosters, etc.  Condemned, meanwhile has…collectible dead birds?  And that’s about it.  You can find additional weapons, but no one is really better than any other, and it mostly comes down to personal preference.  This means, coupled with the complex mazes the game dumps you into, that the player will spend a lot of their time lost, and won’t be finding any extra goodies to make it worth their while.  Like in FEAR, it does help mediate the game’s pacing, but mostly by grinding it to a screeching halt.  This leaves the totality of Condemned’s experienced as a much more conflicted one.  FEAR feels like it’s a consistently effective experience 90% of the time, and a dated, ineffective one for the 10% while it’s trying to directly scare the player.  Condemned fluctuates throughout, never really putting the player in a situation that is completely bad, but also never putting them in one that is completely good.  Both games feel like they were made with very similar sensibilities by a team that wanted to create a first-person horror game with a lovingly-crafted combat systems, and Condemned certainly takes more risks than FEAR in that regard, but simply does not fit together as well.  When deciding which of the two to play, the player is left with the choice of playing something interesting but messy, or something they’ve played before but done very, very well.