Archive for the ‘ Bungie ’ Category

Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.

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Impressions: Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary: Colon

I walk through the ancient, alien halls, mesmerized by glowing symbols I can’t even begin to fathom.

My health is low–fortunately, my shield’s recharged, but still, I’ll need to find health soon. Emerging out of the alien hallways and onto a bridge, a chilly wind blasts my suit. I don’t know how the marines can stand it. The next thing that blasts me is a plasma charge. Shit. Hunters. I could handle them on their own, but they’ve got a dozen grunts, an elite, and three or four jackals backing them up… AND they’re on another bridge.

I die a good ten times or so, trying various tactics that don’t involve engaging the hunters directly, but they (or errant grenades and a hellstorm of needles take me down every time). I just haven’t got the health to survive this alone.

…and then I remember I’ve got a rocket launcher.

The first one goes down on the first hit. The second one, though, manages to take one hit to the face and keep firing. I mop up the grunts and jackals with a few well-placed plasma grenades, and I think I’ve taken out the Elite with one too, so I spin around, fire another rocket into the hunter, reload my rocket launcher–and something hits my shield.

Oh shit.

The Elite charges me, and I empty my remaining twenty-eight rounds into his face. A few melee hits and it’s over–I’ve got just one bar of health and no shield left. I take his plasma rifle and enter the room at the other end of the bridge. In the ensuing firefight, I manage to take out another dozen grunts and several jackals by doing a lot of strafing and weaving, but fail to find any health or ammo. Looks like I’m stuck with plasma for now.

An inviting light grabs my attention. I turn into a small hallway where I notice a shimmer and glow. It’s an invisible elite, but it must have its back turned. Slowly, I creep up on it and punch the creature in the back of the skull, killing it. A second Elite, which I hadn’t noticed (on account of it being invisible) begins firing on me, but a second or two of concentrated fire and he goes down. At the end of the hallway is another big room. I either smile or sneer–I’m not sure which; the onslaught of nostalgia, delight, and the “COME AT ME BRO!” feeling

I know this room.

It’s got Hunters in it.

The first one doesn’t even see me–probably for the best. I choose the overkill option and fire a rocket into his red spot. Thinking I spot the second one out of the corner of my right eye, I dodge to the left–and right into him. The ensuing “OHSHIT! RUUUUUUUUN!” feeling leaves me joyfully giddy. I dash back the way I came and flank the Hunter, but he spins and takes my second rocket in the face. He lumbers after me, but I flank again and go caveman style, using my rocket launcher as a club and bashing him in the weak spot for massive damage.

A few marine corpses–I pause to honor them–provide me with a new MA5B Assault Rifle, just over five hundred rounds of ammo, some grenades, and some new rockets. Then all at once I’m overwhelmed by a wave of jackals, but they’re stuck in the hallway with me blocking the entrance. I hem them in with my assault rifle and toss a grenade. They’re so busy taking cover that they don’t react until it’s too late.

The smell of burnt chicken fills the air, but I don’t have any time to take it all in. Assuming that the explosion killed me as well, a grunt rounds the corner to investigate.

He discovers a few bullets just as they enter his face.

Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary is a game that reminds me what fun is all about.

Because of the variation found in guns, AI, and the level design, the gameplay is almost never the same. “Play how you want!” the game seems to say, “we respect you for it!” You also get a great health system that doesn’t push you into cover right away, like most games these days, and you have these enemies with projectiles that are slow enough to dodge. Right now, I’m playing 343 Guilty Spark, and The Flood feel superb. I don’t actually know why anyone hates them. Just sidestep them like they’re projectiles, and suddenly they become super fun! I could swear the combat’s been tweaked. Some bits are harder than I remember them, while The Flood seem a tad bit easier–you can kill Flood combat forms with greater ease than even a blue Elite.

Gripes right now… well, look at that first picture! It’s so… busy. Sometimes, the graphics feel too busy, basically. Also, the people seem proportioned a bit weird, and I can’t even LOOK at Johnson, while Keyes’ lip sizes jump all over the place, and Cortana twitches around a bit.

…but you know what? Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary is great so far. I’m having a blast. I’m able to tell STORIES about my gameplay experience. The AI, the guns, the levels… even the controls make everything feel perfect!

This is, quite possibly, the best game purchase I’ve made all year. I haven’t had this much fun with a game in so long–possibly since Marathon! I’ve plunged through SHODAN’s corridors again this gen, I’ve re-beat Half-Life 2, I’ve played Tropico 4, Modern Warfare 3, Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Arkham Asylum (finally!), and Gears of War 3 but I haven’t played a single game as fun as Combat Evolved in a long, long time.

It feels great.

Apologies for the poor writing. I’m ultra-sleepy.