The Prospect of Space

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One day, Simba, you will reset all the outposts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Open Range

The current generation of gaming has seen a prolific increase in open world and sandbox experiences. I list open world and sandbox separately as a game can host a linear narrative and level structure while still retaining large sandbox levels, such as Bioshock, Dishonored, Halo or even the more recent Tomb Raider games. Within each new title that explores the realms of open design, we can observe familiar techniques and traits that each developer is drawing upon to refine each experience. While level designers have more real estate to play with, these techniques are no less refined or considered than those of their more confined counterparts.

Safe as Houses

The language of the landscape is often the most consistent element across many of these games, particularly because most open world and sandbox titles favor natural or rural landscapes. Just Cause, Far Cry, Shadows of Mordor and Metal Gear Solid: V, to name but a few, all feature similar principles of level design. For example, within each title, players can find pockets of what’s known as “refuge space”, a term coined by British geographer Jay Appleton, where they can lie low, take shelter or defend themselves from predators (particularly predators with long range weapons!). Refuge space is incredibly important, particularly in stealth games where the player character is a lot less durable and relies on the clear positioning of such spaces in order to progress across the open. Refuge space has also adopted a particular expectation within the context of gaming as a location where pickups and useful items may be found. It helps focus players on a goal, gives them a location to explore as well as often rewarding them for exploring.

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The building in the distance stands out as a clear point of refuge.

Prospectin’ on the Frontier

In The Experience of Landscape, Appleton refers to open space as “prospect space”. It’s easy to understand why it is labelled so, especially as an avid game player, when you consider that such space is characterized by its offering for opportunity. I believe this is why most E3 presentations for open world games use the classic “see that mountain, you can go there!” selling point.

Mr Appleton’s theory was that humans would crave refuge space when faced with prospect space, as opportunity is also partnered with danger. You risk being spotted by hunters, you risk the elements and you require something around which to orient yourself or risk getting lost. All these themes are prevalent throughout open world titles, and in particular Metal Gear Solid V makes excellent use of all three, with snipers, sandstorms and open plains to explore.

I also have to make mention of one of my favourite open world games of all time, Red Dead Redemption, and how Rockstar utilize the draw of opportunity throughout the landscape design. Having rocks and undulating terrain not only helps technical performance by reducing draw calls, it also creates a sense of exploration and pulls the player to distant locations. “What’s around the next corner” type curiosity is a very powerful emotion in open world games.

What's around the next corner? Maybe a broken down cart...

What’s around the next corner? Maybe a broken down cart…

I believe it is the draw of the unknown and the true nature of prospect space apparent in Red Dead Redemption that distinguishes it against, for example, titles such as Assassin’s Creed. Assassins Creed can sometimes forgo the draw of the unknown to present a map full to the brim of icons and events, leaving little to the imagination in favor of presenting a world full of activities. The world map in Red Dead can often be ambiguous, with nothing but a question mark to send you galloping across potentially dangerous open ground.

The prospect of death by cougar.

The prospect of death by cougar.

What to take away?

While open world games continue to get larger and longer, tried and true techniques and principles can help create the foundation of a game that speaks not just to gamers, but to the nature of human aesthetics. At least, that is, according to Jay Appleton. However I feel there is sufficient evidence within games such as Assassins Creed, Red Dead Redemption and even Batman: Arkham Knight, which subverts the typical “cave like” refuge space to extend to perches and high places, to suggest that these theories have merit.

Mass Effect

A long Easter weekend gave me some time to reflect on one of my favourite games from last gen, Mass Effect. Not only is this one of my favourite RPGs of all time, it’s also one of the most satisfying third person shooters I’ve ever played.

I suspect much of my enjoyment from the shooter aspect of Mass Effect (at least from #2 onwards) comes from the class I chose to play: Vanguard. The mix of control biotics such as throw and lift combined with the specialized shotgun talents made them a real joy to play. For anyone unfamiliar with Mass Effect, these abilities would basically trap enemies in a stasis field, usually making them float through the air. “Throw” in particular is basically a sort of energy ball you hurl at enemies like a homing grenade. When it hits an enemy, they are trapped in a bubble for a short duration.

I remember discovering the ability to arc a “throw” around cover really opened the game up for me. As a cover based shooter, this ability made me feel clever and allowed me time to gap-close for a CQC knock out. It was a great way that Mass Effect set up rules of play then gave players abilities to subvert those rules. Being able to knock enemies out of cover and trap them in stasis while I run (or warp!) up to them for a shotgun kill felt incredibly rewarding. The class as a whole feels like one of the most fully realized and well developed classes in the game. Being able to pair up with an Infiltrator and a Sentinel makes for the ultimate in team synergy.

It’s a testament to the team at Bioware that the various combat arenas throughout the game can support so many styles of play. By establishing a strong foundation (elements of Gears of War are very apparent, especially from ME2 onward) players can focus on abilities that open up arenas into little sandbox challenges. While the environments are not exactly dynamic (beyond the odd exploding barrel), I appreciated that the level design tends to be straightforward and not convoluted. It would be easy to let the sci-fi setting generate a bunch of contrived spaces (and indeed one of the most frustrating combat environments in the series is one of the more fantastical: the exterior of the Shadow Broker’s ship in “Lair of the Shadow Broker” DLC for Mass Effect 2) but on the whole levels take a back seat to the spectacle of player abilities. In this way, player’s don’t need to wrestle with learning complex environment layouts and can focus fully on playing their class.

Battling on the exterior of the Shadow Broker's ship can be somewhat confusing.

Battling on the exterior of the Shadow Broker’s ship can be somewhat confusing.

Another area where Mass Effect succeeds greatly is in tutorialising its combat. Mass Effect 3 in particular has a great intro that melds cinematic spectacle with intuitive mechanics introduction.

The initial combat encounters are very straightforward, all enemy approach vectors (the direction the enemy travels toward the player) are kept to a minimum (all enemies are on a single plane in front of the player) to ease players in to combat. In fact, the first wave of enemies are “husks” that are mindlessly trying to break in to a building, ignoring the player. This allows the player to get to grips with the shooting mechanics in a controlled, almost stress free environment. (The tempo is kept high with the background destruction vignettes while the tension of the encounter is low enough to allow the player to concentrate).

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Another benefit of this encounter is that the player is forced to use their gun, as most biotic powers are out of range for these enemies. After dispatching a few husks, the player gets to try out their biotic powers/melee abilities furthering their tutorial for combat. The game achieves this by “hacking” the weapon ammo to run out just as you open fire on the enemies at the next encounter. A simple trick used to great effect (as a side note, check out all the games that hack ammo in some way right at the start of the game!).

Capture2The final encounter in this sequence finally introduces a real threat to the player, allowing them to use what they have learned to overcome a small challenge. This cements their learning process and helps keep the tempo and tension of the narrative flow high. The approach vector of this enemy is still kept simple to keep the challenge at an appropriate level for this stage in the game. The enemy is also given plenty of foreshadowing through its reveal, by climbing up onto a ledge right in front of the player. Had the enemy leaped in from above or had another spectacular reveal, this may have startled the player or distracted them from the task of remembering how to dispatch the enemy.

Capture3After dispatching this enemy, the player gets rewarded with an exhilarating cutscene of a reaper wrecking Shephards day by destroying earth.

Great pacing and overall a fantastically crafted third person shooter!

 

Rise of the Planet of the Tomb Raider

I picked up Tomb Raider this week after finding some time outside of work to play it. I loved the rebooted Tomb Raider and found it had lots to offer in the way of interesting level design.

I was immediately aware of just how much Crystal Dynamics love “the gap”, or rather the bait and switch platforming which seems to have been made famous particularly by Nathan Drake across the Uncharted series. I was only about 2 minutes in before the mountain I was traversing started to explode around me, sending me scrambling for a foothold only for it to collapse away yet again.

It’s put to good use here, kicking off the game with some nice high-tempo rock climbing sets the pace well for what I hope will be another gritty, hub-filled action platformer. The previous game in the series was a great way to spend a weekend; solid and polished.

My favourite aspect of this rebooted Tomb Raider series are the well crafted “level hubs” that pad out the campaign. They have a very satisfying loop to them, with some great challenges, verticality and almost Zelda-esque unlock path that broadens out as you acquire new gadgets and abilities. The first of which I encountered in “Rise of…” has a satisfying ramp up speed giving me a relaxed pace at first, allowing me to hunt and get those first few upgrades, then introducing enemies just as I’ve made note of all the great little perches and flanking spots.

The game is also making the most of its smooth controls (at least, on PC) and enhanced vertical mobility via the climbing picks, rope slides and well positioned mantle points. I’m excited to see if these feature more in combat bubbles moving forward.

A great introduction to the game so far, looking forward to the rest!