When I spoke about what I was looking forward to in Deus Ex, it was all about implicit gameplay choices and choosing to play a game the way you want to play it. When it comes down to accomplishing the goals of the game – the ‘get to checkpoint A’, ‘retrieve item B’, or ‘rescue princess C’ – there is value for the player (and therefore the game designer) in being able to choose how he or she gets there. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s no less important now than it has been throughout the history of games. Deus Ex has a few great examples of how the game designer can make this happen. Since there’s plenty worth saying, and Deus Ex provides some good examples, I decided to split this into two parts for you to peruse at your leisure. Part I is focusing on the actual choices in the game, while Part II is about making the most of those choices by communicating well with the player.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
I’m going to lead off with the horribly obvious: if you want the player to be able to make choices about how they overcome a game’s challenges, there needs to be space for this in the gameplay. If a player can only walk forward and shoot, they’ve got a small space of choices (when to walk, when to shoot). Conveniently for this article, Deus Ex is a great example of both doing this well, and not doing this at all (bear with me, I’m not really criticising the guys over at Eidos Montreal).
Deus Ex presents a detailed 3D world, gives the player a goal with some challenges (usually armed enemies who will happily shoot first and ask questions later), and says ‘Have at it’. That on its own doesn’t necessarily give the player much choice (if guards A, B and C are in the way, and the only way to deal with them is shooting them, I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how many choices there are), but Deus Ex goes that little bit further. Do I ease my conscience and knock out the guards with non-lethal force? The game includes tranquiliser weapons and a choice between lethal/non-lethal melee take-downs Do I think avoiding confrontation altogether is the best way to come out on top? All areas give the player the opportunity to slip by undetected. Or do I figure dead men tell no tales, and they knew what they were getting into when they signed up to the nameless-badguy-union? Unconscious guards can be spotted and woken up and alarms set off. And at what point do I change my decision and adopt a new method? These are all questions the game asks the player, but there’s more.
Beneath these choices lies another layer of depth. How do I plan to do these things? Do I cautiously remove enemies from a distance or take a more certain close range approach? There are lethal and non-lethal options for a variety of ranges. Do I study the guards’ patterns and seek out blind spots, or is there another way altogether? Every surveillance pattern in the game has some sort of weak point (often a few subtly different ones to add more choices), and then there are skillfully tucked away secret passages that allow you to circumvent entire areas of confrontation, but only to the diligent, determined and observant. This is to say nothing of how you gather your information and beat electronic security (listen in on the guards’ conversations, hack computers, loot electronic personal assistants). Each and every one of these choices had to be tested and worked on in detail so it felt pretty much equal to the others in merit. Hats off to the guys behind that.
But what would the game look like without these choices? Could the designers have mis-stepped, or does a player’s desire for choice basically do the work for them? Look no further than the reviews of Deus Ex – it’s hard to find one that doesn’t at least mention the ‘boss battle mistake’. There are a few points in the game where, after skillfully weaving my way through enemy territory, I’m treated to a cutscene of some big badass talk about how s/he’s going to kill me, then I’m stuck in a room with only one option: kill him/her first. It’s dissatisfying for all the reasons the rest of the game is satisfying. It’s also probably common knowledge by now (or you can hear it here first) that the boss battles were outsourced (to some AI specialists at GRIP Entertainment), and I’d even venture to say it’s long past the point of arguing over whether there were just communication errors in the process or someone messed up, etc. (does it really matter now anyways?) The point is, this is what the game would look like without those choices of gameplay. No hiding, no knocking unconscious, no information gathering, barely a choice of range. And it wasn’t nearly as fun as the rest of the game for most people (me included). Moreover, the champs over at Eidos Montreal took up the challenge and ‘did it right’ in the post-game downloadable content. Nice one, guys.
That’s it for Part I. Join me over at Part II where I’ll talk about how Deus Ex highlights the importance of communicating with the player about these choices, including how all this might come into even simple game design. In the meantime, hit up the comments with your thoughts about the implicit choices in Deus Ex and games in general. Got any specific examples that you think match the bar set by Deus Ex? Maybe something a bit more divisive: When you play games in general, do you think about the choices you can make (or lack thereof), and how you make these choices? Is it about self expression, what you think is ‘efficient’ (whatever your current definition of that is), being ‘smart’, winning, or do you just wing it and see what happens? Some mixing of these, or other motivations, is to be expected, but do you have a priority amongst them when you game?
Let it all out, then join me over in Part II.