Friday, November 16, 2012

Why XCOM Didn't Work For Me: Simulation vs. Strategy

I admit, I was a bit late to the X-COM party.  The original game was released back in 1994, and at the time I was a child still enthralled by Doom.  It wasn't until over a decade later that I would encounter X-COM as I began to explore tactics and strategy games more thoroughly; nevertheless, it left an impression on me that no other game since has been able to replicate.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis' take on the franchise, was released recently.  I spent some time with the game (about 25 hours), and was impressed with the polish and effectiveness of its execution.  However, despite its graphical and interface enhancements, it was unable to hook me in the same way that the original X-COM did.  After some thought, I've concluded this isn't because it's an inferior game, that I'm nostalgic, or any other nitpicky reason.  Rather, I think it comes down to the division between simulation and strategy and the different approach Firaxis brought to the game.


I am a very firm believer in videogame rulesets which apply in a universal fashion.  My favorite games are RPGs, and generally speaking those games tend to revolve around rulesets which are explicitly statistical and defined clearly for the player as well as the non-player characters, environments and challenges on display.  These sorts of rulesets are the real source of fun RPG gameplay in my opinion, because they are able to facilitate emergent play in a way that more fixed, non-universal systems can never emulate.

It doesn't really matter what kind of game you're talking about, either.  Deus Ex remains possibly my favorite game of all time for its near-perfect blend of RPG mechanics and a global ruleset which governs the game world.  Where most shooters rely on pre-scripted sequences and triggers to make the magic happen, the fun of a game like Deus Ex comes from interacting with systems of mechanics.  It doesn't really matter what kind of genre a game is, though - the most fun for me have always been those which offer a set of open-ended rules for me to negotiate and play with.

Both of the X-COM games I've mentioned revolve around rulesets which, for the most part, equally apply between the player and the non-player aliens (at least, when in combat).  They aren't RPGs as described above, but they both take from the same source - the idea that fun is the result of playing, not watching or "experiencing".  Both games have consistent hit points, damage numbers, rules governing hit chances, a degree of simulated physics which informs how the environment can be navigated and interacted with, and so on.  On the surface, they are very, very similar.


So why are these games so different?  I don't think it comes down to the new XCOM being a simpler game, although in some respects it is.  Rather, I think it boils down to the fact that Firaxis are not really interested in creating simulation-oriented systems, but game-oriented ones.  That is, whereas the original X-COM had its tactical combat founded upon a set of in-depth interactions between the intrinsic properties of players, aliens and the game environment, the new XCOM treats the environment and the characters in it as pure gameplay objects designed with very specific functions in mind.

This is a bit of a difficult distinction to make, admittedly, but I think it is important to do so.  In a game of chess, to continue the analogy, all pieces on the board have clearly defined functions and limited sets of abilities and interactions.  In such a game, the difference between a pawn and a bishop is how much and in what direction those two pieces can move.  Both have the same goal - capture all the other player's pieces - and the way they go about it is effectively identical.  The strategy of the game is the result of most effectively employing the particularities of each type of piece, in such a way that accounts for and exploits the other player's pieces and moves.

The new XCOM plays much like a game of chess.  There is a field with pre-defined points of cover for soldiers to hide behind, soldiers all have a set of abilities pre-determined by class, movement is limited to two moves and one attack per turn, and so on.  Because of the way that these classes are defined, there are very clearly determined "right" and "wrong" ways to play them.  The limited capabilities of each only accentuate this - a sniper is always a sniper, a support is always a support, and so on.  Each is specifically designed to be use for a specific purpose.

The same generally occurs in the campaign on a wide strategic level.  There are many specific methods to ideally game the research and base building elements.  For example, panic rating is generally very easy to manage, especially if you hold off on deploying satellites to countries until the last minute.  Upgrades are almost completely linear until the end-game - laser weapons are better than standard ones, which are both beaten out by plasma weapons.  The way the story impresses upon the development of the campaign also means there are very clear objectives to accomplish at all times, and completing them in set order and by certain times is necessary not because of the evolving needs of the campaign determined by rules of cause and effect, but because the balance of the numbers is rigged to require you to play a certain way.


The original X-COM, by contrast, did not really play like a game of chess, or other traditional games with set scenarios and challenges to overcome in specific fashions.  Rather, it featured a much more simulation-oriented ruleset.  This was exemplified by the number of small details which the new game completely lacks.  The original game allowed you to take advantage of these properties in creative and interesting ways; these weren't clearly defined in any play manual, but rather simply came about from how you engaged with the systems, and would often open up new possibilities at unexpected times.

For example, terrain destruction is still very much present in the new XCOM; however, now the feature has been solely relegated to certain weapon types, and only explosives are allowed to be precisely aimed.  This reduces the number of options available and more clearly creates a role for explosive items that others simply cannot fill.

Similarly, the time unit system in the original game allowed for multiple types of attacks which "realistically" offered different upsides and downsides, as well as the ability to move, shoot or perform other actions in any order.  The new game's two moves, one attack setup reduces options in combat and forces you to commit to decisions even if it does not really make sense why you can't fire and then move afterwards.  The distinction between the original game's different shot types, with their upsides and downsides, and the new game's cooldown-centric design which clearly denotes that some abilities are simply more powerful than others and should almost always be used when available, is also obvious.  In fact, many skills "unlocked" by leveling up soldiers actually simply fill gaps in your core set of options, which reinforce the feeling that they are being artificially denied.

The cover system is another thing that comes across as artificial.  By clearly defining cover points, levels almost play themselves because the options available are made far more obvious to the point where creative thinking is no longer needed.    Flanking, line of sight, etc. occur less as a result of your precision, timing and coordination and more as a result of you following predefined routes and highly engineered unit placement patterns.  The entire combat system is basically designed around the use of cover, which only accentuates that feeling of a lack of options outside of the ones the designers specifically deemed acceptable in advance. 

Closing Thoughts

All this is not to say that the new XCOM is a bad game by any stretch.  On the contrary, I had quite a bit of fun with it.  However, it is obvious that Firaxis approached the game with a very different mindset - that of designers engineering a game in a classic sense, instead of an interactive toolbox that allows for a multitude of non-predetermined interactions.  Considering their background with the Civilization series and the direction it has been headed, this surprising in retrospect - Civilization V also marked a clear step towards this "gamification" of the series with its greater focus on combat and downplaying of economics and diplomatic options.

X-COM was entertaining for me because it was unpredictable and exciting.  Every mission played differently because the simulation-style rules allowed for so many interesting things to happen.  Complex chains of cause and effect formed which hinged on every single small action.  That sense that the game I am playing has already been predetermined, and that I am just picking a set of more or less binary outcomes from a very limited selection, robs the game of much of the depth and replayability the original is known for.

So while the original game is still going strong among many players even nearly 20 years after it was released, I simply cannot see the new XCOM attracting the same long-term attention.  I don't even know if I'll be playing it a week from now.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dishonored: The Successes

In last week's update on Dishonored, I took the game to task for a number of elements I felt were either failings with the game, or places where it missed major opportunities to expand on its fundamental design.  However, I think what may have gotten lost in that article is that some of those same things I pointed out were intentional design choices made by people who are, in all probability, more talented and dedicated than I am (not to mention they, you know, have made real games and stuff).

In this article, I'll be turning my attention to what I think are the game's strongest points.  My complaints with the game and overall final impressions still stand, but I'd like to take the time to explain how and why I think Arkane did a phenomenal job in a number of respects as well.

It's Not Deus Ex

This was probably the hardest thing for me to accept about Dishonored.  To say it lives in the shadow of Deus Ex would be an understatement.  Not only is the inspiration obvious, one of its selling points has specifically been its links to those who worked on the original Deus Ex, specifically Harvey Smith.  What's more, Arkane Studios, while not really related to Ion Storm in any way, have a pedigree for excellent level design and especially interactive worlds - both Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic weren't just standard dungeon crawls or action games, they were comprehensively enhanced in almost every way by the inclusion of simulation elements that were very much part of the underpinning of Deus Ex and its strong emergent mechanics.

At the same time, Dishonored, while cut from the same cloth, really is not quite the same type of game and after spending more time with it, I'm not convinced it was ever meant to be a direct "spiritual successor" to it.  While the abandonment of the more complicated, tabletop-derived skill points, abilities and inventory system has sapped the game of some depth, that's not necessarily a misstep - it's an intentional choice brought about by the fact that Dishonored is really an action game first and an RPG a very, very distant second.  Deus Ex tried to be a perfect blend - its core action gameplay suffered from time to time as a result, and enjoying the game meant overlooking some flaws in favor of the whole.  Dishonored intentionally discards some of the smaller systemic details because it ultimately makes for a game that plays better in the short term.

Notice how I did say short term, and not just "better" period.  That's because Dishonored's changes to the design are not necessarily things which elevate it above its inspiration in the grand scheme; rather, it makes sacrifices in some places, namely vectors where long-term resource management and decision-making live, in order to provide more coherent gameplay on the immediate level.  That's to say, no, Dishonored doesn't have skills that determine how well you can shoot... but the result is that it can have shooting mechanics that don't feel like a bastard love-child between two conflicting systems.

There are things that I think that Deus Ex still did better. Call them skill points or not, I think that the lack of structure and progression in the character upgrades is a weakness that results in gameplay that can't evolve beyond its base elements in a way that it really needs to (i.e. the designers can't fully exploit abilities the player may or may not have at any given time).  The same goes for the weapon upgrades and the inventory system; Deus Ex: Human Revolution forced the player to make choices in improving his or her firepower, as well as in what to carry, and if it was worth giving up augmentation upgrades in favor of being able to haul around more tools of destruction or subterfuge.  Whether action game or RPG, these sorts of deficiencies are genre-agnostic.  It's for these reasons that while it might not be fair to compare Dishonored directly to Deus Ex, to use the PC classic as a reference point most certainly is fair.

Verticality Done Right

After playing Dishonored, it's amazing to see just how much modern level design has lost over earlier titles when it comes to providing game spaces which extend not just outwards on the horizontal, but vertical as well.  You are rarely if ever playing Dishonored with just one plane in mind.  Even if you're standing on a city street, there are lampposts you can climb to gain a height advantage; fences that can be climbed over or jumped on top of; pipes and ducts that form bridges and pathways.

Part of this relates to the style of game Dishonored is.  In a game like Call of Duty, the shooting mechanics very rarely take verticality into account, but this is also because there is little room for it in the existing shooting dynamic.  In Call of Duty the challenge doesn't come from positioning, but rather from having cat-like reflexes and firing upon enemies as they poke out of cover, while avoiding taking hits yourself.  This works very well for gamepads as it minimizes the amount of movement players have to do (generally the most cumbersome thing about playing shooters on gamepads, next to precision aiming), but it also means that having too much of a vertical component could actually hurt this intended dynamic by allowing players to bypass it; without it, the shooting mechanics in the game are not especially interesting because the enemies remain mostly stationary and the player has little way of avoiding incoming fire when not in cover.

Verticality defines Dishonored's level design - in many parts of the game, you'll be spending more time above the ground than on it.
Dishonored, because of its design mandate for multiple options in every scenario, cannot afford to have levels play out on a single plane.  Unless you built levels to about three times their standard size, it would be very difficult to accommodate every single gameplay option in a way that feels plausible.  Imagine, for instance, this common choice that Dishonored poses: three ways into a building - entry through a window, a small vent, and the front door.  What would this look like without any vertical component?  You'd probably see something like A, B, C, with your choices displayed one next to the other.  Verticality helps break up the composition of the level and make not just the choices themselves important, but the means of reaching each of them as well.  Suddenly, if a window is on the second or third floor of the building instead of the first, getting into it can be its own mini-challenge in a way that it simply wouldn't be if the player could walk right up to it and hop right through.

Verticality also has a profound impact on how the stealth gameplay operates.  Though the stealth in Deus Ex is decent, it's also often quite limited.  Most of the rooms the player needs to navigate have two planes at most, and while the vertical element is critical, usually it doesn't provide the player with options so much as create a puzzle that needs to be solved (i.e. how to get past a guard overlooking a room from above).  In Dishonored, however, the gameplay puzzles created by verticality are more complicated because the player is far more mobile between them.  A higher plane isn't an end goal, it's a means to an end, or even a transitional route to another location.  Sometimes it's not about routes from A to B, but little options you have on the way - using a gutter as temporary cover on the way to a doorway, or climbing onto a support beam to drop down on a patrolling guard.  Thus you have options both in the grander scheme of navigating an environment, but in even the split-second decisions you could make at any time.

It also goes without saying that the Blink power also enables a degree of vertical play that would simply be impossible otherwise.  While the level designers in Dishonored sometimes can't clearly mark which parts of the game world are accessible and which are blocked by invisible walls, most of the time they go to great lengths to ensure that Blink allows players the chance to move between one plane or another at almost any time.  Sometimes this can get a little bit ridiculous and implausible - the surprisingly sturdy and stable hanging lamps in a number of buildings, for instance, or holes carved into the upper portions of walls that allow the player to teleport from perch to perch - but for the most part it's done in an extremely seamless and non-contrived way.  That the vertical element works into the Dishonored's aesthetic is also a big bonus - it'd be very difficult to pull off this same style of gameplay outside of a dense urban area, so it's good that the game never even tries to leave it behind.

Don't Spell it Out
Dishonored spends a great deal of time and care setting up its world.  Though it rarely beats the player over the head with its particularities, it doesn't take very long to expose the player to its steampunk-style aesthetic, its industrial maritime setting, or its supernatural elements.  The world is littered with all sorts of details which you are guaranteed to absorb passively while you play - the merging of old-world architecture with the machinery of an upcoming age, the flesh and blood of the occult versus the cold steel of the state religion.  Even the constant propaganda broadcasts in the background serve as much to keep the player updated on the story as they do to simply reinforce the increasingly worse state the city of Dunwall is in.

Then there are the more overt details which are still only hinted at.  Much can be inferred about Dishonored's world by reading the dozens of texts scattered around it, from how the discovery of whale oil brought rapid industrialization that conflicted with the world's traditions, to the slightly strained, cautious relationship between the foreign powers across the seas.  The game never spells things out directly, but it paints a picture and lets the player fill the gaps in between.

Dishonored has been criticized for its lack of interesting characters, but I think the real problem isn't that they're flat or uninteresting, but rather than the game presents them in a way that requires interpretation and thought.  Unlike the BioWare-style characters many players are used to these days, whose personality gimmicks and motivations are spelled out clearly on a whiteboard for all to see within the first 30 seconds of meeting them, Dishonored's characters are a bit more dry in that they lack those same gimmicks.  Instead of looking at a given person and fitting them into a little box in your head ("the funny guy", "the femme fatale"), you learn to interpret them as human beings by learning little bits and pieces of information about them as the game goes on.

Dishonored doesn't take the time to flesh out every single character, but all of the recurring and significant ones have interesting things to say, and none of them are one-dimensional.
 For some characters this is more over than others, but even the secondary characters get some time to shine.  Pendleton's servant, Wallace, is far from the typical butler archetype, and usually comes across as a practical, slightly cynical sort, which mirrors his occupation as personal manservant to a demanding, demeaning noble far more accurately.  The main characters tend to require a little more analysis to figure out.  Admiral Havelock initially comes across as a grizzled old veteran who left the navy in order to keep his dignity - judge him on this and his later actions don't make so much sense.  Dig a little deeper, though, by reading his journals and talking to other characters, and you'll begin to learn that his discharge from the navy was less-than-honorable, and that he has an ego complex which renders other people underneath him tools.  Pendleton, meanwhile, is a noble, but living in the shadow of his abusive older brothers left him weak and malleable, and it becomes clear towards the end of the game that he has very little direct influence on his own because ultimately he's someone who needs to be led, not to lead.

Perhaps one reason why the game's plot twists are considered jarring by some players is precisely because Dishonored  doesn't spell out the motivations and intent of its characters.  They make sense in retrospect, and you can infer them from their past and current actions, but there are few cartoon villains who sit around twirling their mustaches.  Dishonored's characters don't come across as behaving arbitrarily or erratic - on the contrary, everything is there to suggest why they behave the way they do.  The game simply doesn't give them ugly scars or halos above their heads, nor do they spill their deepest thoughts to the player, foreshadow every next move they make, etc.  More than anything, Dishonored deconstructs the notions we have about good and evil by depicting characters who simply behave in line with their personalities - whether an act is good or evil depends more on circumstances and outcomes than it does on the act itself.  In a game that's all about enacting positive social change through assassination, that's about as appropriate as it gets.

Rewarding Exploration

If I had to say there was a major mistake made in Deus Ex: Human Revolution last year, it was the way the experience system worked.  Although the original Deus Ex rewarded you for exploring every nook and cranny around the game world, either with items or with skill points (sometimes both), these sorts of bonuses rewarded not the means you used, but the fact that you were able to solve the challenge presented.  Human Revolution, by contrast, gave experience points not just for exploration, but also for taking out enemies - with kills providing the least and flashy stealth takedowns providing the most.  This meant that there was a great gameplay incentive to play in a style that might not have felt right for you; the game effectively assigned a value judgement that said one player was better than another.

Dishonored does not have this problem at all, at least not for the same reasons.  By placing Bone Charms and Runes in the environment as collectables, it justifies its open-ended levels either by giving players optional challenges to complete, trinkets to hunt down, or secrets to run into.  This makes exploration in Dishonored satisfying and worthwhile, rather than just busywork for an arbitrary collectible.  And while there are definitely some downsides, such as how it randomly places different Bone Charm in the environment and makes it harder to plan character builds, that slot machine element also means that any Bone Charm has the potential to be useful.  The same goes for Runes, which, as a generic currency, work a lot better in this respect than Deus Ex's augmentation canisters, which conferred a bonus you either might not want, or already acquired earlier.

Dishonored's levels feature many optional areas to explore, ranging from little scenes and sequences to witness, to more tangible and useful gameplay rewards.  All of them tie into the story and world in some way.
 Sometimes, exploration doesn't provide gameplay rewards, but instead helps to flesh out the game world.  Early on, for example, Blinking up into an old sealed apartment building's second floor yields a poignant scene of several plague victims - reading the journal of one of the deceased gives a very human look into the effect of the sickness on individuals which is glossed over more by the main story.  Even when gameplay rewards are involved, they tend to say something narratively too - due to the occult nature of Runes and Bone Charms, for example, learning that a given character happens to have one framed above his mantlepiece, or enshrined in her basement, gives a little new insight into him or her.

If there's one thing I think Dishonored could have substantially improved here, it's the way that loot is handled.  As it stands, all loot, other than ammo and consumables, are immediately converted into money as soon as you pick them up.  This saves time for the player, it's true, and it avoids the problem of having gold coins lying around everywhere, but it doesn't make a lot of sense that there's no process whatsoever to convert those old newspapers, bottles of tonic and silverware into money.  There's obviously a little bit of Thief inspiration here, but it would be nice if the player's home base at the Hound Pits Pub had a fence to sell these items too.  It would help avoid breaking the gameplay/story segregation barrier while also introducing the potential for ways to expand gameplay - for example, different merchants that offer different prices or side-quests to get discounts on wares.  Ultimately it's a minor part of the game, but I never found myself especially excited when I picked up a high-value item in the game world - the process of going back to a merchant to sell it completes a psychological loop that the game currently doesn't manage.

Reactive World

One of the least-publicized but most important and interesting things Dishonored does is how it alters its game world based on past decisions.  Most games in the Deus Ex vein, as well as true RPGs, have degrees of choice and consequence - Deus Ex itself truly didn't have many decisions that mattered, but the ones it did react to made all the difference because they were significant in the context of the story and characters.  Actually hearing characters react to your play-style was an impressive thing to see when the game came out, and even today it's a level of acknowledgement that makes the world feel much more real than most modern titles.

However, Dishonored takes things to a new level.  Although the game's multiple endings have received some criticism because of the way the chaos mechanic forces players into stealthy, non-lethal roles to see the best ending (a complaint I share), to leave it at that is simply unfair.  The world of Dishonored changes in manifold ways, some of which are aesthetic, but many others have gameplay effects which are still being catalogued by fans. While the overall story doesn't change, the details of it reflect the player's actions enough to give Dishonored's world a sense of reactivity few other games manage.

One of my favorite ones happens early in the game, but ties into the sandboxy, emergent gameplay that the game promotes.  On the mission to assassinate High Overseer Campbell, Campbell is meeting with the city's guard captain and plans to assassinate him by poisoning his drink.  The player has the option of swapping the drinks around, spilling the drinks, leaving the drinks alone, or mixing them to kill both men as they sip their wine.

Dishonored doesn't just pay lip service to your actions.  Every mission can have its gameplay affected by past choices, most notably in the form of different numbers of guards, more security devices, and different enemy types.
 Already, that's a large number of options for just one way to take out a target, but the game doesn't stop there.  If the player swaps the drinks, then the guard captain, after witnessing the High Overseer's death, calls for help, and the guards rush in to arrest him, assuming he was responsible.  This fails the secondary objective to rescue the guard captain from the High Overseer... but if the player is crafty and manages to kill or knock out the nearby guards before-hand, instead the guard captain will panic and flee, which successfully completes the objective to rescue him.  Similarly, if the player spills the wine, the High Overseer escorts the guard captain to his private quarters in the basement to kill him more directly; when they arrive, their dialogue can vary significantly based on whether the player had previously visited and/or pillaged the Overseer's quarters.  And, if the guard captain does escape successfully, then the next mission has fewer guards and watchtowers, reflecting his more level-headed leadership.

Little touches like this are scattered all throughout the game, and if there's a fault, it's that sometimes they are so subtle you probably won't even notice them - perhaps that's one reason few commentators and reviewers have pointed it out.  But even so, the attention to detail by Arkane borders on obsessive.  In the game's intro, the player can come across a painting of the High Overseer being worked on by Sokolov, the Royal Physician, who is using a wine bottle as a scale reference.  If you take it, he'll chastise you... but later in the game, you'll actually come across the finished painting, and if you swiped the bottle, it will actually be missing from it.  Most developers wouldn't even think to bother with such things, but Arkane went the extra mile to make sure the player knew that the game was watching and responding to each individual play-through.

Closing Thoughts

I still think that Dishonored isn't the game it could have been.  It's undeniably good, even brilliant in a few key respects.  When it comes to level design and providing lots of different options which don't firmly fit into obvious "stealth" and "shooting" categories, Dishonored cannot be beaten - it's obvious a lot of time and effort were spent fine-tuning levels to make sure that buildings were spaced just right to let you Blink between them, or objects placed with line of sight and exposure in mind.  

However, when it comes to its mechanics and systems, it can't compare - the stealth lacks the depth of Thief over a decade later, character progression is not paced especially well, and I still think the decision to make Corvo a silent protagonist was the wrong one.  Although initially I thought perhaps I was being too judgemental, the fact is that certain flaws with the game are just that, flaws, whether intentional or not.  While it's tempting to say things like "it's not an RPG, therefore it doesn't need great character progression", I think that's a delusional attitude; whether it's enumerated XP or Runes, that doesn't make up for the lack of depth and refinement.

I'm extremely excited to see where Arkane go either with any sequels or DLCs they might be planning for the game, it goes without saying.  I also have to wonder if they see those problems I had with the game as flaws, or if I'm just an grumpy troll who went in with the wrong idea.