Friday, September 21, 2012

Legacy skills through the Looking Glass.

Friday, September 21, 2012

I didn't know what he looked like either.
To a late 90's Looking Glass fan, the following quote from an interview about Dishonored would seem perfectly ludicrous:

GON: When I was talking to the guests, they all just started shouting at me to go upstairs immediately and check the diaries. So I resolved that I wasn’t going to do it, just to spite the game.
Julien: (laughs)
GON: Is that something that you find people doing? I expected the clues to be a bit more vague. Did you find this doing playtesting? Did you put it in because people didn’t know what to do?
Julien: Yeah. We try not to lead the player by the nose, but at some point we found that if we don’t give a little information, people just get lost and don’t know what to do. It’s just overwhelming. So we tried to add this element that gave just a hint, to help a little. But we try to do it as little as possible.
GON: It’s cool because there’s a lot of ways up the stairs, but it still felt a bit railroad-ey. What did people do before you put these clues in?
Julien: People would just walk around. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even go upstairs because a guard told them they couldn’t. They’d say “Okay, I can’t go upstairs.” They wouldn’t do anything.

Even from a modern vantage, it's easy to look at the above passage and laugh. But what's really going on here? Are players that stupid, or are a whole younger generation of shooter fans unconditioned to meet  to even modest exploration/decision making tasks?

I would say not likely--given there is a related and hugely popular set of sandbox games that revolve around exploring and deciding all you want. Something else is at work here. Is it the legacy skillset of current shooter fans working against them?

It's taken for granted that legacy skills (keyboard&mouse/two stick aiming) are required for first person shooters now, but what has now been completely bred out of an entire generation of shooter players is any desire to explore or not follow strict orders. I think a whole lot of young shooter players out there don't know how to play a single player shooter and not take shouted orders from a COD NPC Bro.

What do we expect, if it's all the diet FPS players have had for the better part of 6, 8 years? In COD and BF3, you get an abrupt mission over if you should deign to stop taking orders from your NPC comrades, sometimes even if you hesitate for a second. Shooter players are now conditioned to obey NPCs, in exchange for a jarring and sudden mission failed screen.

Taken in this light, the above quote seems a reasonable response from a tester. An NPC has just told me I can't go upstairs. I'm enjoying this game so far, do I really want to slog back through a load and the last checkpoint, just because I want to try, in utter futility, to push past my given bounds?

But in a game like Dishonored it isn't futile. You should be trespassing and trying to find your way out and around in spaces you're not usually allowed. The trick is to prompt the players who have been conditioned with swift punishment for straying off a linear path into accepting their widened freedom, and to encourage them to take advantage of it.

A small observation I know, likely not worth the space I've devoted to it here, but it struck me that legacy skills involve what you might also call legacy expectations: what kind of affordance have I been given in all the shooters in the past 5 years, and why should I expect any different of the game presently in front of me?
It seems to me a call to developers to take the poverty of modern linear shooters and reignite the expectation in players for better things, more decision making than which real-world analogous shotgun or LMG to pick for a multiplayer loadout.

There have been a lot of people pessimistic about Dishonored despite it giving every appearance of being a return to form for developers who have always believed in this kind of approach to games. I don't think it's fair to criticize them for having to re-educate a vast majority of their potential player base what it is like to call your own shots in a shooter environment.


Anonymous said...


first off hoping this is a return to active duty for you gauss-- been missing these posts for a while.

also, I'll take exploration and being cheeky in my FPSs over NPC Bro railroading (cinematic as it may be) any day, but I wonder if my response is common enough to rally a major commercial response for this game. I hope it is.

Ross Angus said...

Interesting. Think how mind blowing it might be for the hypothetical player you discuss to realise that then *can* enter the rooms with the red hammers above the doors in the cathedral.

As you rightly point out, this is a game testing issue. Their current solution is perhaps less than optimal. But how else can you persuade the player to question the very nature of (the game) reality? This is a really interesting question.

Anonymous said...

Well, looking at it from the playtester's side: I've begun playing interactive fiction for the first time lately, starting with City of Secrets. Theoretically, it's easy - there's topic suggestions, maps and no time limits. I'm utterly shit at it. I'm reading all the NPC text, but I keep mistaking clues for flavor text, used as I am to isometric rpgs like Torment where everything sounds interesting but has absolutely nothing to do with you. Getting better is happening in increments - get stuck, look it up, feel ashasmed of myself, be a little less stupid next time. Pride/embarrsement are good learning incentives.

How about NPCs only mention the diaries if you ask, and they're all suspecious of you for asking? Nothing that'd effect gameplay, wouldn't want to make it harder for players already having problems, but some of the ambient chatter turns to gossip about you; something to make the player temporarily nervous before getting on with the game. Or even something aesthetic - turning on flashing GO HERE arrows gives you hand acme, whatever. Unless you're on easy mode?

Adrian said...

I'd say a bit of both. Players in recent times, especially the young ones, have been conditioned to listen to NPCs. The main offender of this might be the many, many forced stealth scenes you see in shooters these days,since those have a tendency to disrupt the flow of play.

However, that doesn't mean they aren't curious of things if hinted to by framing the environment. Assuming the stairs to the area upstairs are made interesting (guard at his post, but the door cracked open slightly;someone entering going up the stairs; framing the door cracked open with use of lighting), the player might be more willing of checking the area upstairs without having the need of some party-going NPCs to yell at the player.

As someone who grew up playing the Thief series (it's closest counterpart), I find Dishonoured a mixed bag: I'm very excited to see something that looks like a proper sneaking game, yet am disappointed about some claims they made disregarding the game they drew most from (off the top of my head, "We're the first game where you can go without killing anything"). It's more of an issue with the attitude than the game itself.

岩倉レイン said...

I myself was a little disappointed that such an open-ended, choice-driven game has absolutely zero character customization, and the main character—though not an anonymous CODBLOP gun—is another gritty, aged, white male.

Even though it appears that the Corvo character is going to (surprise) turn out to be the father of the empress' child, I can't but imagine how much cooler the game would be if it allowed all the gender pairings. Perhaps the ruler is randomly fe/male, or the player picks their sexuality (hetero/homo). The story of two parents can still be told, and with either same-sex pairing, the child is now (1) adopted, or (b) from one or the other.

I'd like to hear your thoughts, as I know there's an argument that premade characters help strengthen any narrative arcs; at the same time, with all the versatility allowed to the player and the robustly generated missions, I feel very let down by the absence of those things in its plot.

Nels Anderson said...

There is something deeply scary about learned helplessness in that anecdote. I remember someone (don't remember who) relating that some younger person they knew was playing System Shock 2 and was confused about where to go when they were told to find a location, even though there were giant arrows ALL OVER the walls pointing to the Starboard Nacelle (or whatever it was).

With the game I just released, Mark of the Ninja on XBLA, we tried to kind of split the difference. Critical stuff is a little bit more explicit, but only a little. There's a lot of behaviours and dynamics that we never spell out, but (I hope) are discoverable because they're consistent and coherent. I think we did have a little bit of a easier time than Dishonored though, since our game is a sidescroller, going up and to the right will often get you where you need to go, at least a little bit.

But I think that observation of Dishonored having to reteach a whole broad swath of people is salient and I hope folks connect with it and want more.

gauss said...

Thanks for your comments everyone

Anonymous: we'll see, won't we? :)

Ross: yes, a testing and training issue. As a lot of developers are aware, the more you want to teach the player, in order to play your game, the more carefully presented these aspects need to be presented, especially if they veer too far off the beaten path. With a game like Dishonored, it feels like Arkane needs to spend special attention in sensitizing the player to their freedom, and then be very consistent in presenting it.

Anonymous #2: yes, the specific verbiage (and again, consistency or lackthereof) and affordance given to the player matter very much. This can really put level designers in a bind but consistency in approach makes for a better game in all aspects.

Adrian: I'm excited about the game too, as it seems about the only game in town for old school stealth players anymore, but it really just highlights what a complex contexts need be considered when releasing a game. What is it going to get compared to--in it's contemporaries, or it's forebearers--and will these comparisons be favorable?

岩倉レイン: this is an interesting question--one wonders, when going with a mute or perfectly generic protagonist, why not strip the given identity out fully, so as to give the player a more complete avatar to project into? Gloves on the hands plus the mask mean no outward sign of race, and clothing/size might make the gender ambiguous as well. I agree that there are few games that aren't made better by more player customization, but one must pick one's battles in terms of where the money goes. Dihonored is unquestionably their most ambitious game yet, perhaps it wasn't a call they could make?

Nels: Thanks for the comment, and congrats on Mark of the Ninja. I haven't played, but friends are very enthusiastic about it. Your SS2 example is really interesting because it points so much between issues of diagetic/nondiagetic information and legacy skills. Perhaps you had a player on your hands that has quite conceivably never played a game where critical path/navigational information was ever dispensed in-world? Bioshock takes the same approach of literal signposting for navigation as SS2, but with even worse results--hence that game's quest arrow.

World navigation is clearly a complex issue, but for me what always comes back is that players have a much better go of it when they have something of the following: clear, unique landmarks in the space, some sort of axial orientation (this level runs primarily north/south, etc), and some mental schema with which to reference in aid of orientation. Most of us can find a bathroom in a given commercial or residential building, because building layouts tend to follow consistent rules. We know where to look. Sometimes in our zest for interesting play spaces we strip out players of useful schemata, leaving them only to reference other games. And if the game they are playing isn't quite like anything they've played, they go to ground.

Curious thought: the notion of a game that isn't so much a game in and of itself, insofar as a trainer for games of certain milieu. Formatted and presented much like Portal, say, you could just send a friend a copy of Shootertron and in a few lessons they are at least reasonably conversant with the genre. Of course, such should only really be necessary with games that don't tutorialize properly....

Hugh Monahan said...

Speaking of tutorialization-- I just had the chance to play the Hawken alpha, which was an interesting experience. I won't speak much about the game itself save that they did a good job with the heft and in distilling down what made mech warrior fun.

The trouble is that their tutorial as it stands now is a textbook case of being both extremely frustrating and mostly useless. Rather than focus on the elements that *need* tutorializing, essentially all the stuff that makes Hawken different like the weapon behaviors, jump jets, heat &etc., you begin with locked out controls and the classic "Now look up-- now look down." I think it's a good couple of minutes before you can even move.

By the end of the tutorial all you've learned is that you have jump jets and that after a basic obstacle course you have somewhat of a feel for them. Jumping into the game then I'm immediately stymied by how obtuse many of the systems and weapon functions are. Does the recoil of one weapon affect the other? Does movement affect aim? What's the deal with the extra primary weapon slot which in some cases is a deployable? These are all the things that *should* have been covered in some fashion or another.

Can we just start skipping these kinds of things all together? If you've never played an FPS before then you should be spending time looking through the options / controls anyway, and chances are you're at least familiar with the concept of the shooter so you know about moving, aiming, and jumping, even if you have yet to master those skills.

Copperkat said...

Missed you Gauss. You know when I saw gameplay of Dishonored I immediately thought of Animal Memory's environment aesthetics. Not the theming as much as the liberal use of brick, and the overall watercolor treatment given to the textures.

Kelly Hughes said...

I agree there is surely something deeply scary about learned helplessness in that anecdote.

Robert Yang said...


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