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Not too long ago, and for a lot of the history of video games, the visual quality of a game has been decided entirely on how ‘realistic’ the graphics are. Using photo textures, true-to-life lighting models, and increasingly sophisticated shading systems, we tried to – and, indeed, continue to try to – create rendered images that are completely indistinguishable from a photograph. On the one hand this makes a lot of sense – I mean, photorealism is often regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the height of technical mastery for a painter, so shouldn’t game graphics aspire to the same thing? On the other hand, what a tedious aspiration this is, for a medium that could do literally anything, portray any kind of weird and wild reality.

Fortunately this is no longer the aspiration for most games. This may have as much to do with the problems inherent in trying to produce to this quality of fidelity on a budget as with any shift in aesthetic priority, but the end effect is that realism is no longer the universal standard of quality – in most games, that is.

It’s interesting and a bit dismaying to look at the games where ‘realism’ is still prized. War games, mostly, and particular first-person shooters. These games are mechanically some of the most distant from their source material – wars full of permanent death, permanent destruction, permanent loss, portrayed in a manner where everything can be redone, remade, regained, with a quick checkpoint reload in single-player or starting the next round in multi-player. Sure, the same can be said of most games, which usually have dramatic stakes and some sort of loading/reloading system, but rarely does real and tragic loss sit quite so closely to quick and easy consequence-free gameplay. There’s something exceptional and grotesque about using real wars, some quite recent, as set-dressing for your shooty game, and selling that illusion with state-of-the-art graphics.

The reason why realistic graphics have become less popular, aside from budgetary reasons, is that we’ve realized that graphical style can communicate something about the nature of the game and the world it takes place in. The reason why it’s odd that realism is still the art style of choice for military-themed shoot-em-ups is that what this art style conveys is: “this is reality, this is what war is like, it’s gritty and bloody – and also painless and fun and inconsequential!”

Perhaps they’re pressured to adopt this realistic style by market forces – it is, after all, easy to appreciate realism because we know what reality looks like. It also makes them appear faithful and respectful to the realities of war in a certain way, since they study real war to make sure they can replicate its aesthetic, and perhaps the desire to use a realistic style is in some way a response to the massive narrative and mechanical disconnect noted earlier. They keep pushing this aesthetic harder, and though they still shy short of presenting the screams of agony, the begging for mercy, the child casualties, how long before they wear this, too, as aesthetic? How long before the fans defend these choices, as well, as being ‘realistic’ to the war portrayed, when realism is the furthest thing from the mechanics of the game experience?

Maybe this all seems very alarmist, but the reason why this bothers me is how often people who advocate real actual war position themselves as being realists, as just being pragmatic, when they talk about the necessity of armed conflict. The way we frame discussions of war as being willing to do what’s necessary, willing to see a hard thing through, it seems similar to the way we smear dirt and blood over things to make them seem real and true, wearing the aesthetic of sacrifice instead of trying to understand what is lost. And, to be clear – this isn’t just games. We wear blood and suffering as a costume, while quietly shuffling past all the actual blood and suffering, in all sorts of media.

So perhaps it’s just market forces that make it so every game that’s about being a person, about real and painful loss, looks like a cartoon – while every game about getting to be a cartoon, about being Itchy and Scratchy killing each other over and over again, looks like footage from a war zone. Perhaps I’m just worried about where the market is forcing us, and what will happen when we get there.

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I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been, for the most part, loving my time with it. Of course, the more I enjoy a game, the more frustrated I get with the few things that stand out to me as issues. I went over this a bit a few days ago, about how difficulty changes which are usually used to push a player to explore a possibility space can, when used without care, constrict that possibility space. Modifying the difficulty of a stealth game can be tricky: After all, there are a lot of easy handles to grab to modify the challenge of a traditional action game, numbers such as damage, health, speed, powerup effectiveness… It gets trickier in a game that’s not based on overpowering force, but on sight-lines and motion, suspicion and awareness. In stealth games, what is difficult or not is often based on intricacies of positioning and movement, rather than whether one number is bigger than another.

Because of this, it’s entirely understandable that Dishonored’s attempts to increase in difficulty over the course of the game, and across difficulty settings, largely boil down to the game becoming more punishing of mistakes. That is, rather than asking you to succeed against a greater challenge, it mostly asks you to succeed against the same challenge but with a smaller margin for error. This is not completely ineffective, since it does add some tension – but since the actual consequences, in a game with quickload, are so negligible, it doesn’t really change the experience of playing the game except to make it more finicky. Heightening the consequences of mistakes just removes any chance to recover from them, any chance to retreat, to improvise, and replaces these with just reloading your last save. Does this incentivize more careful planning? Not especially effectively, when the worst that happens is a quick load screen and then another attempt at navigating the same challenge.

I suppose some might say that this is an issue with the player being able to freely save and load, and I think this is not an invalid perspective, but I prefer to look at it differently. I think the issue is more that the designers approached the creation of more difficult enemies as a way to push people away from the using the exact same tactics that were discouraged by every other enemy, but more punishingly and aggressively. Ideally, each new enemy would add some new factor the player had to contend with, a new and different challenge that forced the player to approach it in a new and different way. The tallboy enemy type, essentially a set of armored stilts, does this quite effectively: This enemy type cannot be choked or easily stealth killed, and also can see into areas other enemies cannot because of its height. However, other enemy types, such as the Music Box Overseers, and even the late-game basic enemy types with improved attack abilities, mostly just serve to make it less feasible to recover from a mistake while still being vulnerable to the exact same tactics.

I thought it would be an interesting design exercise to consider how I would try to improve the game – at least what I would consider to be an improvement, I know tastes vary. What follows are my notes for a fantasy patch for Dishonored, one which would push the player to vary their approach to the game’s obstacles while still allowing for different generalized styles of play. Having not played Dishonored 2, it’s entirely possible that I’ll say something that appears foolish in light of the changes made in that game. Oh well.

Fantasy patch notes:

Cannot knock out opponents using the choke-hold on very hard difficulty. On all other difficulties choking works on any opponent from behind, regardless of alert status

More objects are throwable, including all vases and dishes as well as swords and armor dropped by enemies.

Throwing enemy bodies, dead or alive, at an enemy causes a long stagger.

Damaging alarm stations in any way now sets off the alarm.

Enemies are now staggered by attacks that hit them during their attack, but only after their attack is complete.

Enemies sometimes do desperate attacks while staggered, which increase their stagger time but can be dangerous when careless.

Tallboy models revised with heavier armor, drop attack no longer possible, have a blind spot directly under them beneath their sight-line.

Music Box Overseers are visibly armored front and back, though there are enough gaps to make choking and stealth kills possible. They’ve selected elite troops to carry the music boxes, so they’re all visibly taller and the armor has red highlights. Music boxes now, rather than disabling all magic use, rapidly drain mana – once mana is drained, they continue to quickly drain health. This effect is weaker the further away the player is from the music box, and up close the drain is enough to kill the player in about 3 seconds. This drain rate is percentage-based, so the same regardless of current mana/health, and the lost health and mana will regenerate if the music box is removed. Some Music Box Overseers are set to constantly play, and will only stop if knocked out or killed. A new effect has been added to make the range of the music box more clearly visible. Being behind a wall will offer some protection from the box, but it continues to affect the player. Music box no longer slows down player movement.

Armored Butchers no longer have a ranged attack and deal damage that results in near-instant death at melee range. They now always explode on death or knockout, alerting everyone nearby and dealing slight damage. This makes knockouts impossible on non-lethal and ghost playthroughs. However, the player can also pickpocket the oil tanks powering the armor, leaving them immobile, though they can still cry for help. While immobile they can be picked up and moved like any other body.

The intent with these changes to create a game that’s a bit more dynamic. Meticulous planning is still the strongest route to success, especially with the new types of obstacles and complications you have to plan for, but you also have more room to improvise a recovery, both in lethal and non-lethal play. I tried to make the aspects I dislike less obnoxious without actually nerfing them – that is, I feel that these versions of the Music Box Overseer and Armored Butchers are actually much more challenging and dangerous than the extant versions, but also more interesting to play against.

Playing a game is learning a set of habits, a set of reactions, and trying to tune and optimize those habits and reactions towards those that most frequently successfully achieve the game’s goal. Calling it a strategy might, sometimes, seem a bit grandiose, since we make a lot of these decisions through habit and muscle memory, but the decisions we wire into our brains are still strategic constructs. However, the approaches we take must shift with the situation the game puts us into: Depending on the circumstances, a good habit may yield bad results, or a foolish strategy might win big.

Weak players tend to rely too much on the general case best strategy, where more experienced players recognize the situational nature of tactics. A case I recently saw was a game where you have three dice, a number you’re trying to beat, and have a single reroll of as many dice as you choose. Now, the obvious best strategy for trying to optimize your roll for high numbers is to reroll every die that lands on 1, 2, or 3 and to keep every die that lands on 4, 5, or 6 – this will yield the average highest result. However, when the goal is not just to roll high but to specifically reach a threshold, the strategy must change to suit the circumstances. As an extreme example, let’s say the target is 18: You now need to reroll any die that comes to something lower than 6 to have even a slight chance of winning. Or, if the target is something else relatively high, like 16, even if it’s possible to keep a 4 and still win, that would mean you’d need to roll 6’s on the other two dice, which is significantly less likely than rolling 16 on three dice – though both are a bit of a long shot.

Of course, that’s quite an edge case, and I can’t see any scenario short of trying to roll an 18 where you’d want to reroll a five, but there are many examples of when the necessity of trying to reach a particular success threshold affects the strategy. An extremely common example, and one I’ve talked about before, is balancing attacks that do damage quickly in small chunks vs attacks that do damage more slowly but in bigger chunks. The faster attacks usually need to be significantly more effective in terms of damage rate to balance out, since strong single-hit attacks have the advantage of allowing hit-and-run tactics, of defeating a weakened opponent more quickly (potentially preventing a devastating counterattack), and of being more difficult for the opponent to effectively react to. Not only does how close you are to the success threshold of defeating your opponent drastically change what attack is most effective, so does the opponent’s mobility, preferred range, and their own most effective attacks.

A particularly interesting example of being forced to adapt your strategy is in heads-up collectible card games like Magic and Hearthstone, where how many cards your opponent is currently holding is a tremendously important situational modifier to your strategy. The more cards your opponent has, the more likely they are to have something that immediately counters whatever your general-case strongest available move is: This means it’s often worthwhile to lead with a generally sub-optimal move just to draw out your opponent’s countermeasures.

On a more meta-gaming level, there’s a curious kind of balancing that takes place in many competitive games. The stronger the move, the more players have learned how and prepared to counter it – and, commensurately, the weaker the move, the more unexpected it will be. This sort of self-balancing can only go so far, and it of course only works under circumstances where the weaker move is distinct enough from the stronger move that the same countermeasures aren’t effective against both. Unfortunately, these strange automatic balancing mechanisms don’t really work in single-player games – even if you could make an AI that chose its strategies in a manner indistinguishable from a human player, if the players knew it was an AI they would probably feel it was behaving arbitrarily and erratically – after all, why would it ever pick the obvious ‘worse’ move?

Despite that limitation, this principle isn’t restricted to competitive games. Often what separates a good game from a bad game, nearly irrespective of genre, is how much you have to pay attention and adapt your strategies to the situation the game puts forth. As I noted a couple of days ago, part of the role that difficulty plays in game design is in raising the stakes and responsiveness high enough that you have to adapt your strategy from your default in order to succeed.

How can we build to enable situational decision-making? There are two pieces: First, a system that generates diverse situations; second, a set of tools that gives a number of discrete ways to approach these situations. Many games present essentially the same challenge over and over – such as a room full of guys that need shooting. Under these circumstances, the player is likely to figure out one tactic they like and use it over and over again, which gets dull sooner rather than later. Many games present the player with a set of tools that are essentially identical – weapons with different attack animations and damage numbers but the same underlying mechanics. Now, no matter how diverse and interesting the situational challenges presented the player, they’re all just nails to be hit with a hammer.

These requirements may seem basic, but a lot of games honestly don’t do an amazing job of meeting them. Of course, a game can have many other fine traits, can even be fun to play – but if you want the systems of the game to be enjoyable on their own merit, there has to be something there for the player to react to. Without that reaction, that decision-making process, they’re just working an assembly line.

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been trying to livestream more gameplay (currently with a tenuous schedule of Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday @ 8pm, http://twitch.tv/problemmachine ). It’s interesting the sorts of pressures that streaming your gameplay puts on you – it pushes you to play the game in different ways than you probably would left to your own devices, and also pushes you towards different sorts of games than you might otherwise play. It makes you a showman as well as a contestant, playing performance and audience at the same time, trying to balance that experience – to act on the game, then react to its reactions for the crowd.

The experience of playing a game, as with any artistic experience, depends a great deal on the context we engage with that experience in. And, as someone who cares a great deal about games and tries to give each game I play its due, there are a lot of games I simply don’t feel comfortable playing on-stream, that I feel like I wouldn’t be doing justice by talking and joking and generally trying to be as entertaining as possible throughout the playthrough. Additionally, I’m emotionally reserved enough that I’m hesitant to play a really emotional and intense game on-stream, because I’m not super into the idea of sharing those reactions.

Sometimes I worry that trying to stream more means I’ll end up playing less of these games, have fewer introspective and emotional experiences out of games in favor of more systemic and improvisational ones. Sometimes I worry that trying to stream more means that I’ll play some games in a way that is shallower and less meaningful to me. The first is more of a problem than the second, but either way something is lost, and it’s a leap of faith whether what I gain in return is worthwhile.

That’s always the way it is, though. Every time you choose something you give something else up, and wanting everything is a quick shortcut to getting nothing. Right now, I choose to stream: In the future, perhaps I’ll choose otherwise. I’m a greedy man who hates to give anything up: My philosophy when faced with a choice between two things is usually to take both or neither. Still, that’s a philosophy with its limitations, and perhaps it’s just getting older but I feel like I’ve been hitting those limitations more often than I used to.

I suppose there’s a difference between reading a play and watching a play and acting in a play, and these are all precious and worthwhile experiences. However, the way you experience the play for the first time will forever shape your relationship to it, so which of those experiences you favor is based on what you need from your art, what you’re hungry for. Me, I’m always hungry for everything, and I want all the experiences. Dilemmas don’t sit well for me.

Difficulty can serve several important roles in a game’s design: It can create an aesthetic sense of danger and foreboding, it can make the actions of the player feel more consequential, and it can push the player to vary their approach and strategy and to thereby encourage them to explore more of the game’s design space. Difficulty is created through the use of obstacles, and can be increased either by changing the quantity or quality of those obstacles. That’s a vague description, with quantity covering everything from increased spawn rate of enemies to a turret firing missiles faster, and quality covering everything from a blanket hp increase across all enemies to introducing a new enemy type which is selectively swapped out for existing enemies, and probably countless essays could be written about the skills and methods of doing so – but really I just wanted to convey this understanding of difficulty as being created through obstacles which can be modified.

One way of understanding a game, then, is as a set of obstacles and a set of tools, with the player mediating a relationship between them – one which successfully fulfills the requirements of the obstacles by using the available tools. By making the requirements of the obstacles more stringent, a more varied and more creative use of the tools is often required to meet those requirements. So far so good, right? However, there’s a danger here in making those requirements too stringent: In a lax system, there are a number of possible solutions, which creates room for self expression: The game becomes a canvas through which the player can express themselves, a trait which has become only more desirable since livestreamed gameplay has become a common pursuit. As we tighten the obstacle requirements, make them more demanding and stringent – in other words, as we increase the difficulty – this space narrows.

This actually leads to the main complaint I have about Dishonored, which I recently livestreamed my first playthrough of: Since I was streaming, I was trying to make my approach to the obstacles presented by the game as flashy and absurd as possible. Dishonored is an excellent game for this sort of approach since it offers a huge number of ways to approach most of its obstacles. However, this also meant that things which were meant to make things more difficult also ended up frequently making the game less interesting, since they decreased my available space for improvisation. For instance, there’s an enemy later on who, once they notice you, disables all of your special abilities – at the same time, this enemy slows your movement to a crawl while being extremely resilient against any damage from the front. This completely hamstrung the high-mobility, extremely mobile and aggressive style I’d been trying to highlight, without really offering up anything interesting in exchange. In other words, rather than forcing me to do something new, they actually forced me into the more predictable style of just sneaking in and killing them or knocking them out from behind – rather than, say, running past the guard, knocking someone out with a sleeping dart, grabbing the unconscious body right in front of their face and jumping out through a window to make my escape.

So, when we tighten the constraints of the obstacles too much, it begins to feel like the player has no room for expression. This isn’t necessarily bad: Some games, such as demanding platformers like Super Meat Boy, are intentionally built with little to no room for expression and just demand raw performative reflex skill. That’s fine. At the other end, if we relax the system too much, the game becomes a sandbox where anything goes, where the game itself doesn’t really care much what the player does: This, too, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and many games are specifically sold on this kind of openness, but it does remove any sense of consequence to the player’s decisions. That is, it becomes an exercise in creativity rather than an exercise in creative problem solving – which has its own sort of appeal, to be sure, but an appeal that many would prefer to turn to artistic pursuits for, rather than playing a video game.

Still, that just represents the way these systems trend. That is, it’s possible to create both a strict system of obstacles with room for player expression and a lax one with a high degree of responsiveness, it’s just challenging for the designer. Viewed through this lens, Dark Souls is clearly outstanding as a game that, while being strict and demanding in terms of the obstacles it presents, offers a great deal of flexibility in terms of the tools and methods you can use to navigate those obstacles. At the other end of the spectrum are those games which give you tools to navigate obstacles but don’t position any particular resolution as desirable: Given the tools and the obstacles you can decide what your own goal is, based on the creative style you want to express. City-builder games and the like are usually built upon these lines, though occasionally they make the supposed obstacles so lenient they end up being mostly sandboxes anyway.

When adding or modifying obstacles, when planning difficulty, the important thing is knowing which experience you’re trying to offer: The problem-solving game where the player finds their personal favored solution to the presented problem, the recitation game where the player discovers and perfects the intended solution, the building game where the player finds and surmounts obstacles based on their taste, or the sandbox game where obstacles are absent or irrelevant and the player simply creates as they will in that space. What sort of obstacles, what sort of difficulty you are building, depends entirely on what the intended gameplay, and the player’s role in that play, is meant to be.

A thing about video games that I wonder sometimes if people really understand is that they’re made to be completed by the player. Dark Souls is made to be completed. Cuphead is made to be completed. The most challenging (or even unfair) game you could possibly imagine is still almost certainly made with intent to create a complete experience for the player. A lot of players never finish most of the games they play, but still, that intent, that structure, is there.

This makes difficulty a kind of odd concept. We offer challenge paired with the assurance that the challenge is possible to complete – which makes it completely unlike most of the challenges we’re likely to face in our day to day lives, which might easily turn out to be impossible. Perhaps impossible for anyone, due to some fundamental law of nature, but more often circumstantially impossible – impossible for us because we don’t have the resources to make it happen. Some of these resources are external, such as wealth and social power; some of these resources are internal, such as mental and physical health. Either way, some of us are born with more of one or the other, and this can make some tasks others consider to be easy impossible – and others some consider impossible to be easy.

I worry sometimes that the structural assumptions, taken from games, that challenges are inherently completeable has helped to reinforce the ever-popular just-world fallacy, the belief that what is sown is reaped, that we all get what we deserve through our own merits and demerits. This belief is extraordinary popular both because it absolves the wealthy and powerful of responsibility for caring for the less fortunate and reassures those less fortunate that if they only try a bit harder, try to be a bit better, than a commensurately better life awaits them.

In games, when we make every goal set out for the player achievable, we communicate, over and over again, that those who cannot achieve their goals are not working hard enough. When you believe that natural advantages and disadvantages simply make achieving those goals easier or harder, when you think of having or not having privilege as merely being playing on easy or hard mode, you are convinced that anything is possible for anyone. If you regard physical and mental ability as simply being the quality of the player, and if the player can’t improve their play then they deserve to lose, you are convinced that anyone who won did so because they were a better player. It becomes a meritocracy where the ability to avoid starving or dying of exposure is defined as merit.

What’s curious though is that games are full of things that are actually impossible. Invisible walls constrain you to the constructed play area, you only get a few dialogue choices at any moment, your hands are built only to stab and shoot and fight. You aren’t made to live like a person, but to be played by the designer until you complete his or her obstacle course. That’s fine: It’s a good time, it’s a fun and interesting experience if it’s made well.

But I think sometimes about what it would be like to do the impossible. To break beyond the level boundaries, insert new dialogue options and game commands. We have words for this: Cheating, modding, hacking… And these, as well, may be what we will need to do to break down the boundaries that channel us, that let us be played by our designers, in everyday life. Cheat, mod, hack, and turn the world into something its owners never intended it to be.

A week or two ago I was watching someone play through the first Silent Hill game, and I was thinking about the role that combat plays in horror games. In many cases, the entire idea of combat has been phased out of the genre: Helplessness, so the logic goes, is far more terrifying than struggle, running is scarier than fighting, so many horror games now are built around the idea of running and hiding.

I’m starting to wonder, now, if that’s why I’ve been so uninterested in playing most new horror games.

It’s not that that’s a bad line of logic, it just has a narrow conception of what horror is and why we come to it. What’s interesting about making it necessary to run away is it makes the monsters other, alien, distant and unknowable… On the other hand, what’s interesting about making it necessary to fight back is it makes the monsters intimate, similar to us, makes us engage with them on the same terms with which they engage with us.

If you look at the actions portrayed in an old horror game, one with combat, you see a massacre. You see weird creatures react to an intruder with aggression, and see them mercilessly mowed down. You see a lone human cutting a bloody swathe through crowds of creatures which, though they seem grotesque and outlandish, will apparently just stand in place until the player comes and finds them. The player’s character is the one who seems out of place – and, though the narrative casts them as weak and vulnerable, in the reality of the game they are tremendously powerful, nigh-unstoppable killing machines.

I think a lot of very clever designers saw this and felt that it was a contradiction, that the games were undermining themselves. And, certainly, from the perspective of creating an experience in the player of being weak, hunted, of having their world attacked by something outside and unknowable, that’s a fair assessment.

Personally, though, I like the other experience. I like being part of the hellscape, part of the calamity that is consuming the world, not just being there but belonging there – perhaps well-intentioned but, in the end, no less monstrous than the monsters I fight. The game that I think has captured this sensation best is, I think, Vampire, The Masquerade: Bloodlines, a horror-themed RPG in which you play a vampire. Bloodlines is, in turns, goofy, melodramatic, and genuinely unnerving. In Bloodlines, you undeniably and literally play as a monster – but a monster who lives in a world full of bigger, meaner, scarier monsters, ghosts which cannot be fought against and beasts which cannot be reckoned with. The contradiction has been resolved, but in a completely different way than by removing combat: By couching that combat in a story where we are both mighty and insignificant, truly monstrous but still trying to cling to humanity, a story where we are not a mere victim of happenstance, but where the horror is within us and a part of us, is created.

And, as much as I love the surrealism of horror, sometimes that realism is appealing as well. The terror of power mixed with the terror of powerlessness – the awful awareness of the harm that we can cause with a moment of anger or carelessness. Otherworldly horror begins to seem very worldly indeed.