Thursday, October 15, 2009

Design Reboot: Laputan Machine

Thursday, October 15, 2009
"I am not a machine."

This is a Darth Vader story.

Skip the part about the screeching kid and the Oedipal overtones and the retroactive ruination of a classic film trilogy--skip all of it save the image of a man in black, eaten up with machinery. That's Gunther.



Portishead - Machine Gun

In Deus Ex (2000) Gunther Hermann is mostly a punchline: a psychotic dinosaur, a mechanically-augmented agent rightfully fearful of being made obsolete by the new-model nanotech Denton brothers.

But picture a prequel centered on Gunther's descent into monsterhood. Start with a well meaning field agent with the deck stacked against him. End with an echo of a man, steeped in blood, pleading for a clean slate.

A friend once told me what they wanted out of games was feeling "like I had just jumped out of an airplane with no parachute."


Laputan Machine is about that suicidal freefall: a series of choices between bad and worse, how a man's moral compass is broken by way of desperate self-preservation.

The game starts with a fully human Gunther Hermann on his first major field op. It is a disaster, a bloodbath, the wounded Gunther barely escaping with his life. While convalescing he is talked into receiving his first mechanical augmentation.

At first he is elated; the young agent is given a bulwark against mortality, an easy upgrade to dramatically increased operational fitness, the player behind him given a seemingly familiar route to more mayhem (shadows of Syndicate's classic agent upgrade system, pictured right).
But here also begins the central conflict/negative feedback loop of the game: balancing Gunther's mental stability/grasp on humanity with the dehumanizing necessity of mechanical augmentation. (Perhaps implemented something like the "sanity" system of Lovecraftian horror games.)

The more indiscriminate the killing, the higher the bodycount, the more unstable Gunther becomes and the more he gives in to the mech-augs enabling the bloodshed, dimming his conscience and humanity. Give in to the machine too quickly, or kill too many and Gunther loses it, the game ends prematurely with the first major alternate ending: Gunther being put down like a rabid dog by his disappointed handlers.

As in the original Deus Ex, the game may be completed with predominantly non-lethal tactics employed for most missions. This limits Gunther's recourse to mech-augs and eventually earns the second alternate ending of Gunther finishing with his mind mostly intact, possibly even leaving the newly established UNATCO, but this is an ever increasingly difficult path.


The player is in Gunther's shoes: ultraviolence by way of mechanical augmentations is the easy way out, but also the road to lost humanity. Do you take the increasingly difficult moral high road, or does Gunther give in to the machine?
Going the full mech-augs/1,000 killcount scenario earns the ending that places Gunther as he is at the beginning of Deus Ex, with the revelation of where Gunther's childlike psychosis stems from.
Conflicted over his lost humanity and psychopathic killing, Gunther begs his handlers to finish what the mech-augs have started: memory erasure/ personality augmentation. He loses most of himself, even losing the cherished memory of the final stage of mechanical augmentation available in the game: the skul-gun aug.

The game encompasses the classic cyberpunk question of humanity eclipsed by technology, but is also centered on the questioning the moral ramifications of an action videogame protagonist's typically guilt-free mass murdering sprees.

I personally love IO Interactive's Kane & Lynch (2007) for most of all the reasons Jeff Gerstmann famously hated it: the characters are exactly as ugly and unredeemed as their actions would dictate. There is no mystifying disconnect between the character and their actions in the game. I think it's an idea worth further exploration.
[For me this is the major cognitive dissonance in Uncharted--Drake efficiently killing swaths of men, then gets back to effortlessly chucklehorsing around with the cute blonde in cutscenes. Uncharted is hardly alone in this, but the extremely high quality of the storytelling heightens the dissonance above most other games.]

Upon release, Laputan Machine earns a Metacritic score of 69/100.
It slowly builds a following from Deus Ex fans, but many critics and gamers are off-put by the frank, "un-fun" depiction of violence and gore; the game's themes are judged too heavy handed, the story too much of a downer. Who wants to get their nose rubbed in the violence they're complicit to?

Check in tomorrow for the companion piece: Flatlander Woman.

30 comments:

Ninjas said...

Classic cyberpunk is something that has been hinted at, but never really covered in games outside of a few aged examples on the PC (I think Deus Ex itself is a bit too 'epic' to fit the "classic" label).

I would love to see a cyberpunk game done with some of the more modern game design conventions. I don't have much hope for anything on the way though, including Deus Ex 3.

This outline seems like it could make an amazing game, and kudos on the top notch art!

Anonymous said...

Totally love this idea.

Except, I would hesitate to make full mech-augs/1,000 killcount scenario the one leading to Deus Ex, I would put that as a burn-out storyline. Much as you go on to describe.

Whereas, I think if the player could balance their play, walk the line between tough choices, pushing the tech but struggling to control it, that would lead to the kind of character Gunther becomes. He's worked hard and struggled 24 hours a day to control the cutting edge tech that threatens to rule HIM. All for the "greater good". But suddenly, despite everything, he's outdated, aging tech. This is the final straw. That's the kind of man I always saw Gunther as. And it would probably add a bit of depth to this final character.

The sun sets on the Laputan Machine in this scenario with gunther continuing the struggle, continue the sacrifice for the greater good. Doing what he believes to be right. (Of course, we all know how that will end up if we've played Deus Ex)

gauss said...

Hey thanks guys.

Ninjas: Yeah we've talked about it but boy is it curious to see the visual direction Deus Ex 3 is going in. A prequel that looks like a more futuristic setting than the game it's supposed to predate is worrying, to say the least.

Anonymous: Very insightful. I generally considered this idea to be a retro-continuity about Gunther's personality, since it's probably more difficult to achieve desired thematic touchstones when Gunther is presented as such a goober--but I think you're right that the "middle path" balancing act should net you the canon ending. Food for thought.

disperse said...

I want this game to be made. It reminds me of the Cyberpunk role playing game where getting cybernetic modifications led to a reduced humanity score. A couple ideas:

First, the failed field op needs to be in-game. Introduce the player to his fellow field operatives in advance and then send them all on a mission with the odds stacked dramatically against them. The deaths of the fellow agents will have more impact in-game than in a pre-rendered cut scene.

Secondly, allow Gunther to perform a non-lethal takedown by choking out his opponent. As the game progresses and Gunther gets more and more cybernetic modifications he starts to make mistakes; he breaks his opponent's neck. This happens with greater and greater frequency as his humanity is reduced.

gauss said...

disperse: great comments. That was "Cyberpunk" after all, huh? I never played it, but I had a friend in school who explained the mechanics at length and the humanity score always stuck with me. Pretty quintessential cyberpunk and certainly a direct influence on the thinking here.

Complete agreement on first op. I'm about as anti-cutscene as you get. It's also a chance to introduce some variables that might affect the rest of the playthrough--the only thing almost as bad, or maybe worse, than a cutscene is a forced failed outcome.

Great idea for the choking takedown. Having a variety of moves that act as signifiers for him becoming progressively more brutal is excellent, because once again it's in the eye of the beholder. The players that want the old ultraviolence are happy that a wimpy nonlethal takedown is now a killing move; the nonlethal players have legitimate cause for concern. Something like that anyway... everything comes out different in the playtest :)

Lagwolf said...

I like this sort of thinking. As a fan of Cyberpunk 2020 when playing pen & paper RPGs (both as a player/GM) I have always disappointed about the weak way games handle cyberpunk. Deus Ex, one of my favorite games of all time, top 2, came the closest to get the whole vibe and genre down.

It would be interesting not to end the game when you "lose it" because of lack of humanity, but to turn you into a complete rogue. You then become hunted by your former comrades and bounty hunters ala Fallout 3/Blade Runner. Cyberpunk has always been a genre about choices= consequences. Any method which pushes this in a game is to be welcomed.

disperse said...

Your loss of humanity could be portrayed in the game as a loss of player control over the character from time to time.

I'm thinking of being able to transform into the Slayer in Baldur's Gate II; making your character super powerful but also attacking friends and enemies indiscriminately.

Also, the feeding frenzy mechanic in VTM: Bloodlines.

Anonymous said...

Great idea, great artwork.

chiasaur11 said...

I like the idea in general, but the non lethal bit feels best.

I always love nonlethal but functional takedowns, and one of those ending in an uncomfortably identifiable crack would be... memorable.

Gabe said...

I think Gunther's still more human than you give him credit at the start of Deus Ex. I'd personally frame the story with what you've got here more as the intro/first third, with the remainder the time he spent as Anna's partner. A story design similar to Max Payne 2's romance, except the situation the two of them are in prevents anything remotely human from entering their relationship, leaving them just as two soldiers who live to kill.

The finale would be after the start of Deus Ex, as Anna is removed from him as a partner and assigned to JC, whom Gunther is anxious about as outdating him. He subsequently goes through two very difficult missions alone in NY against NSF, and we reach the ending, Gunther's "Darth Vader" moment, as he finds out JC joined his brother as a traitor, killed the one person Gunther trusted and felt attached two, and fled.

gauss said...

Lagwolf: good call; forced failure is always a bad idea, if "losing it" can be made into another playstyle alternative (like a lot of talk about Alpha Protocol, in that every decision the player makes get positive rewards, just in different ways).

chiasaur11: agreed, the idea of a surprisingly lethal "nonlethal takedown" move would be a pretty singular gameplay moment, disperse gets a lot of credit for that one.


Gabe: right on, I really like the ideas for alternate approaches to the structure of the game. Alternating through Gunther and Anna would absolutely fit the bill--I think that Max Payne was ahead of its time with that element and few if any games have bothered to elaborate on the concept.


Great discussion everyone, I feel like people have better ideas with where to go with this kind of game than I do, which was a real goal for promoting discussion on this site. Hope you stick around and keep providing these kinds of insights.

Mark said...

The final scene of the game is Gunther pressing the vending machine button for orange and recieving lemon lime. He then falls to his knees and screams as his last vestige of humanity is stripped from him.

gauss said...

Hahahha... it's more pathos, more tragedy than you'd ever know just playing the original DX.

Sean said...

"Do you take the increasingly difficult moral high road, or does Gunther give in to the machine?"

The idea that this would be a real struggle for the player to mull over is so intriguing to me. To do it right, I think you'd have to focus on getting two things right: immersion and scaling difficulty.

If a player can get immersed in the game world, one's actions will already carry some of this moral weight without any additional reinforcement from the game. Whether it's killing an innocent scientist running for an alarm in an FPS, or stealing bits of gold from a humble home in an RPG, questionable actions can give an immersed player pause. Not enough pause to kneel and mourn the dead, perhaps, but enough to know that his character isn't the purely noble hero that so many NPCs will greet him as.

Additional feedback from the game would intensify these feelings. I think Laputan Machine could more effectively pull this off through dynamic interactions with NPCs, rather than a sanity meter fugue or increasingly inaccurate weapons or something. Maybe at first other operatives would crack some dark jokes about how ruthless Gunther is or whisper about his weird augmentations; later, higher-ups give a "Christ, pull it back a bit, will ya?" speech; finally, his peers are visibly frightened to talk to him, avoiding eye contact, keeping to monosyllabic utterances, and never contradicting him. Show his increasing loss of humanity by showing an increasing loss of meaningful human contact. Maybe Gunther's dialogue choices change, too, and lots of violence and augmentation would mean he would eventually struggle to put a coherent thought together when talking to someone. This progression wouldn't line up with the start of Deus Ex exactly, but if the game's going to give the player much choice, a pure prequel might be hard to do. Maybe there could be an epilogue explaining away any discrepancies by saying the character temporarily evened out a bit over time or something.

In order to put the player in a position where tough choices about augmentation or violence would have to be made, the difficulty would have to progress just right. When playing stealth games, I always try to go through as nonviolently as possible, but there's usually a situation where things seem so dire that I "have to" make a compromise (the compromise being "murder," in this case).

If you could scale the difficulty of the game so that the player frequently feels his back is up against the wall, that he has "no choice" but to take another augmentation, or to kill some low-level security guard, you'd be able to force the player to repeatedly struggle with the opening question. (You'd probably have to have a strict save system, like Hitman, in order to have a stealth approach that was difficult but not impossible work out like this.)

I think the player will almost always choose moral compromise over failure, even in a game in which he's immersed. Failure isn't an option for the player (since he wants to see the end of the game), and failure isn't an option for the player character (since he wants to live to see tomorrow). And if failure isn't an option, then doing anything to avoid failure starts to seem justified.

I love the idea of a game that doesn't tell the player that this thinking is wrong, but rather hurls him down that slippery slope headfirst, making him confront all the consequences of this thinking along the way.

disperse said...

I love the idea of people's reactions to you changing as you become less human and more machine.

I've never liked restricting dialog choices as a mechanic in a game. It breaks immersion when you don't allow the player full control over their character. I do, however, like the idea of allowing the player to *try* to be nice/empathetic/warm/caring but *fail*.

John said...

Space Siege attempted to implement an outstandingly similar premise: the protagonist can opt for mechanical enhancements at the loss of "humanity".

(I think Space Siege has a similar metacritic score...)

Copperkat said...

I love this so much. I have nothing to add. I'm not even a Deus Ex fanboy and I love your depiction of Gunther pre-aug. The musical accompaniment is always appreciated. Listening to machine gun I can just picture it playing over this games brooding trailer.

I wish good ideas were just blindly funded. Make this game please.

Anonymous said...

Laputan Machine is a wonderful idea. I'd like to see the moral conflict extend beyond Gunther's humanity. For instance, introducing a squad of teammates who become increasingly difficult to keep alive without using augs means either Gunther must sacrifice part of himself or part of the team (literally or figuratively, depending on whether they die or are augmented beyond recognition). By the stage of the game when this becomes an issue, the player should have had time to become emotionally attached to them, creating a genuine dilemma. Another example would be an aug that gives a ranged, non-lethal attack. While it lets Gunther act more compassionately towards foes, again it compromises his humanity.

Since Anna and Gunther are the only mechanically augmented agents in UNATCO at the start of Deus Ex, we can easily imagine (canonically) that the majority of the team were either killed or quit the agency when they realised they couldn't hack it without excessive "upgrades". Despite Gunther's level of augmentation, he still couldn't keep everyone alive. And yet he soldiers on, driven by a fierce loyalty to the organisation. His willingness to sacrifice everything for the good of the mission represents the last vestige of his nobility.

As for the effects of dehumanisation, I came across an interesting treatment at http://www.ambient.ca/cpunk/change.html - essentially the effects of augmentation influence four factors: alienation, ego, obsession and paranoia. Depending on the degree to which Gunther is afflicted with these problems, the same dialogue option - even a simple "yes" - could be delivered distantly, sneeringly, distractedly or guardedly, with commensurate reactions from NPCs.

Disperse: I agree that people's reactions to Gunther should definitely change as he gains more augmentations. We could imagine a scene where Gunther returns from his first mission after gaining a mechanical arm, only to have his supervisor politely decline to shake his hand for a job well done (paranoia++). In gameplay terms, NPCs may be less inclined to talk to agents with visible augmentations.

Finally I have to compliment the excellent artwork accompanying this article (and on the site in general). The first image of Gunther perfectly conveys his grim determination to follow a path he knows may ultimately lead to his own self-destruction.

Copperkat said...

@Anonymous (last): That's some good food for thought. Following on your four rules: alienation, ego, obsession and paranoia; and your idea of more interaction with the squad before, during and after augmentations--Would it be insane to introduce a character Gunther used to deeply care about? Could be a standard love interest, but what's important is regular interaction with this person and the fact that they know who Gunther was before "the big 4" set in. A sort of physical, living, representation of his fading humanity?

There's a great article from this weeks issue of The Escapist that deals with power and it's relation to humanity in 2007's The Darkness: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_239/7104-Journey-Into-Darkness.

It also shows an example of a "forced fail" mission done right, which I will quote a part of:

"That pivotal scene was something of a gamble for developer Starbreeze. You have full control over the Darkness up until that point; wresting that control away from you in order to force you to experience something unpleasant could have easily felt like a cheap shot. But because the developers spent so much time and effort into establishing the characters and allowing you to emotionally connect with them, the moment is devastating rather than simply infuriating."

Great post Anonymous, you've really got me thinking on this.

quantumdot said...

I just wanted to say--I found this site via a link on Twitter, and I've been perusing it for the better part of the evening. Excellent stuff.

As for the Laputan Machine idea, well, I loved what little I played of Deus Ex, and the picture painted by your setup and the comments is something I would definitely love to play (and your choice of music is impeccable).

Going back to what Coppercat said, I think that giving Gunther a tie to the real world could help matters, but if done badly could be as much a gimmick as anything else. If it was, say, a daughter and/or wife that had to be left behind when the op was failed, there would be a fine line to walk between actually making it a sticking point of his character and just being yet another bullet point under his characterization. The one character that comes to mind when I think of humanization-via-family is Sam Fisher, for whom his daughter was a background element until only the latest iteration of the series. Even then, I didn't really feel the emotional depth I would've expected from such a tie, though that could largely be chalked up to the uncoordinated dual effort behind Double Agent.

If done properly, on the other hand, a la Max Payne, where the tie gets minimal screentime but maximal importance, I could see that becoming an interesting drive--maybe, if at the end of the day he does the job alright, he'll be able to rest. There's still one person that he can remember being good to, until he couldn't any more.

Maybe the Anna bit could even be a projection of his ex-wife due to aug-induced hallucinations... anyway, I've gotten too far off topic and rambled long enough.

Crowbar said...

If I give you one of my organs, can you make this game happen? Laputan Machine would probably make game of the year for me.

Max said...

I'll echo the general positive opinions given so far; however, in terms of sheer game balance, how would you balance out augmentation versus non-augmentation?

It's an unfortunate fact that players will generally take the option that provides the most solid benefit in a game, and if being more human means less power then players will most likely say 'screw it' and complain about their bad ending.

Jakkar said...

This does make me very happy. Gunther is what I think of when I think of Deus Ex. His body modifications, his cynical muttering and paranoid expositions in the break room. That and exploring Hell's Kitchen, putting down criminals and robbing freely, excercising the freedom my augmentations award me in a lawless place and imparting the kind of justice Hermann would be proud of, when my ethics catch me.

Copperkat said...

This game idea is still something I mull over in my head. I read it a long time ago. I envision the game's trailer on tv, set to portishead's machine gun of course. God I wish I had a few million dollars to give you. I'm not even a massive deus ex fan, but I'm sure this would appeal to a lot of jaded players.

ScottMcTony said...

Sorely disappointed that nobody's mentioned Iji.

gauss said...

I have a friend who is a great admirer of Iji, and not without just cause. I haven't played through more than about 40 minutes of it, but I was very impressed with how dialed in that game is mechanically. The kick alone is the definition of "well tuned", the trifecta of mechanics, animation/timing, and sound effects.

plugav said...

I just wanted to say I love the idea of a game that says "violence isn't fun" (which seems to be exactly opposite to what so many other games have to say), but at the same time lets you find out for yourself.

It's been a theme in Cyberpunk 2020 and Vampire: the Masquerade, both of which I think I've seen mentioned above, where you get all these cool gadgets and powers... and then you get your Humanity rating.

But I don't think Gunther's gradual degradation should be enforced too harshly. While I can't imagine the game not having an ending in which someone triggers the killphrase, I think it should be done at the very end, on equal terms with the other variants (staying in or leaving UNATCO). There are some nasty people pulling Gunther's strings - they won't think twice about eliminating him, but only after he's served his purpose.

Anonymous said...

Im really hating that the cause and consequence relation is very diluted in many games.

Id been through the ideas for laputan machine a couple of years back I think. Liked them then, like 'em now. Thumbs up to the author and to all the commenters who contributed to the idea. Im late for the comment party, but what the hell....

I want to add that the player should experience physical, mental and moral consequences of augging up, directly through gameplay rather than be indicated by endings or just limited avenues for progression. Otherwise, as Max said, you tend to choose the easy way when your gameplay still remains the same or gets better, regardless of the ending. You play a game for the gameplay more than for the ending.

An example of direct consequences to gameplay:

When completely organic, you cant take more than 2-3 hits before going down in a firefight, you cant jump much or lift too heavy and so, a few level paths are closed off to you. Aug-up to offset this and you can risk taking a few more hits in firefights, jump higher, lift more, target better, etc.........but it comes with consequences such as an adaptation period to any new aug or upgrade, investing in periodic aug maintainance resources that you could have invested elsewhere(such as better weapons or armour or a bribe), getting hit in the augs causing expensive repairs and eventually, a temptation to go in for upgrades.

I'll give a big thumbs up to all the previous suggestions regarding the mental\moral disposition of the player.

Being organic should have significant disadvantages at the beginning, but should get progressively better as throughout the game. Augging up should be the reverse, easy at first, but should get difficult (in terms of upkeep resources and\or gameplay changes involving mental\moral disposition) as you progress.

There must be a trade-off between resources available, player ability and its interaction with the level. The emphasis should be that any change has consequences.

Together, it would all make for very compelling gameplay.

Anyhow, you planning on doing anything with these bunch of ideas?

BTW, cant be said enough....awesome art! The shape of gunther's head is just as i'd imagined.

-ram

Sorex Archaeopteryx said...

Dude, is that... is that Chuck Liddell?

http://goo.gl/OnYMP

gauss said...

Yep! No mistaking that brow :)

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