And Through the Cracks, Wilderness

I sometimes have trouble motivating myself to finish my games, and I am least likely to play a game through to completion when, by the end of the first few levels, I feel like I've already seen all that the game has to offer. To judge a game in this manner is not exactly fair; for who can say for certain that the fifteenth level of Metal Storm Five: Silent Thunder: The Darkening will not turn the entire game on its head via some unforeseen, potpourri excursion to a realm where things are neither metallic, stormy, nor dark?

It has happened before, to be sure. Remember how surprised you were by the lone-commando mission in the original Command & Conquer? (I do not admit of the possibility that you never played it.) That mission was the most brilliant thing about C&C. Not only was it a blast to play, but it also represented a completely different approach to gameplay than every other mission in the game: it placed the player in control of a single, vulnerable soldier, as opposed to the hordes of expendable troops that, even at that early point in the real-time strategy genre's history, had already become entrenched as the standard and expected play mechanic.

It is hard to overestimate the influence that this single C&C level has wrought upon the course of the gaming industry. I propose that it is a more proper progenitor of modern stealth-style gameplay than the later Thief: The Dark Project, which many regard as the seminal game of this type (though by no means do I deny its import). The C&C commando level challenged the player in a way that no prior game of which I am aware had ever done. Rather than tasking the player with adapting to a new enemy, different level design, varying mission objectives, or the like, it instead required that the player abandon all precedent and, in effect, learn to play an entirely different kind of game altogether. But unlike the common and generally intrusive "minigame", the C&C commando mission did not constitute a hiatus of any length from the normal interface or controls. The mission therefore feels contradictory, in a way; innovative in terms of theme, but consistent with respect to player input and control.

And therein lies the goal, for the game designer: to get the player accustomed to a certain way of playing, to establish a known system of play, and then to blow the player's frickin' mind -- not by replacing the old system with a new one, but by exposing previously hidden layers within the established system. We may liken this method of design to the setting of seemingly immutable rules, which the player subsequently discovers allow ample room to wiggle. The difficulty from the designer's perspective is at least twofold: first, in designing a basic game type that is interesting enough to have multiple layers at all; and second, in unraveling the onion skillfully enough that the topsy-turvy period of transition and re-indoctrination remains fun for the player.

Some authors of fiction adhere to a similar method. One of my favorite SF authors, Larry Niven, excels at setting forth rules for his fictional universes, and then breaking them. He does not violate the rules outright, but instead uncovers unexpected loopholes by which they can be circumvented. For example, several of his Known Space stories revolve around certain spacecraft that are indestructible by design. Niven uses his familiarity with physics and astronomy to expose various loopholes in the rule, and, by subjecting the indestructible ships to exceedingly outlandish (and, when the stories were written, still broadly theoretical) physical conditions, he destroys what had at first seemed invincible.

Niven learned this technique from Isaac Asimov, who compiled the famous Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It turns out that Asimov's robots aren't always quite as benign as the Laws might indicate; yet, crucially, Asimov doesn't ever violate the laws outright. The fun of reading Asimov's robot mysteries is in trying to anticipate where the wiggle room will appear.

If there is any one game which we should recognize as exemplifying this same method, then it can only be 1995's Chronomaster. Written by SF authors Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold, Chronomaster is a superb point-and-click adventure game in which the player takes on the role of Rene Korda, a retired creator of "pocket universes" -- small universes designed by contract artists according to the specifications of various wealthy patrons. (Pocket universes are not necessarily governed by the same physical laws as our own, and this fact by itself allows for much in the way of creative design.) Korda is called out of retirement because somebody is deactivating certain pocket universes, which has the effect of freezing the progress of time within them. As he investigates these eerie, frozen realms, Korda carries with him "bottled time," which extends a bubble of temporal activity around his body. So, if Korda stands near a landslide frozen in progress, it will become unstuck, and may pose a hazard. If he approaches a bird on the ground, it will come to life and fly away, only to become frozen again in mid-air when it departs Korda's sphere of influence. Under these strange circumstances, all objects -- animal, vegetable, and mineral alike -- behave differently, and the player must constantly assess how the new rules will affect familiar, everyday scenarios. More than any other game, Chronomaster revels in the playful juxtaposition of the unfamiliar and the familiar.

The pertinent difference between Command & Conquer and Chronomaster is that whereas the former offers the player no early indication of the major change in gameplay style that accompanies the commando mission, Chronomaster's setting and story make it quite clear from the outset that the player should expect many situations in which past experience will not suffice as guide, and in which prior "knowledge" will be called into question.

Kudos to you if, when reading the previous sentence, you detected an intersection between games of this kind and one of the more basic problems of epistemology: that of the surety of knowledge. The notion that knowledge is ultimately fallible, that prior experience is unreliable, and that skepticism is irrefutable, remains the most utterly intoxicating thought of which I am capable. By exposing us to situations in which everything we thought we knew is shown no longer to pertain, games that freely exchange what is known for what is not serve as an analogue to this frightening epistemological problem. And, in brief but all too terrifying moments, I fear that they may presage some further revelation yet to come.

Comments

What was first, C&C or Warcraft? Because I think that even before that lone C&C commando, there was a mission in Warcraft with Luthor the Lightbringer (no relationship to Demos and his glo-in-the-dark condoms), where you had to traverse the whole map with a beefy, but lone character.

Looked up Chronomaster on the Underdogs, to check if it was already available for free (btw, it's a 1996 game)... and it IS! I'm not really a point'and'click adept, but it sounds like a very interesting universe to explore.

What do you mean by

frightening epistemological problem

? That it is a problem that frightens philosophers because it's unsolvable (which makes it a philosophical topic, maybe I mean scientists)? Or do you mean the fact that no knowledge is beyond doubt is frightening?

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

What was first, C&C or Warcraft?

I believe C&C was first, few months difference. I doubt a little because Warcraft still had the one-unit-selectable-at-one-time thing from Dune 2.

Kudos, Lobo, for one of the best articles I've read in a long time. I particularly liked how your writing meandered from one interesting subject to another, while still maintaining a thread of connectivity. Put this one in your portfolio for sure.

dejanzie wrote:
frightening epistemological problem

? That it is a problem that frightens philosophers because it's unsolvable (which makes it a philosophical topic, maybe I mean scientists)? Or do you mean the fact that no knowledge is beyond doubt is frightening?

I think he meant that the epistomological problem itself throws the entire philosophical field into jeopardy. How can one leverage logic and reason against knowledge when all of our knowledge is constantly in question?

I was thinking of Shigeru Miyamoto and how he patiently introduced new gameplay elements throught his games, to the point where you always feel like the new introduction is a natural part of the game. He hints at the need for such a thing before you actually aquire it. Thus, I can't think of a single moment in which he "blows your mind". Can anyone else thing of such a moment?

Neat, something in some way related to Roger Zelazny that I haven't previously tried.. for free!

Thanks!

..your article had content other than that? Neat.

Seriously, nice article, now I want to try to think of other games where wiggling around inside the rules played an interesting role. And, look at that, I have an hour of pointless driving ahead of me. Thanks for the diversion.

Nice article, Lobo. In reading your piece several games came to mind that switched the rules midway through.

Good job, Lobo. You are the philosopher-king of effective transitions.

I'll tell you a game that I think carries that off wonderfully, although in an admittedly more subtle manner, and that's Far Cry Instincts. What began, for me, as a sort of rudimentary shooter would switch the gameplay conventions so frequently that I would actually have to adapt my strategy to complete a scenario. It's a sort of counter to the "repeat 30 fun seconds of gameplay" theory put forth by Bungie's lead designer, Jaime Grieseme.

JustinMcElroy wrote:

I'll tell you a game that I think carries that off wonderfully, although in an admittedly more subtle manner, and that's Far Cry Instincts. What began, for me, as a sort of rudimentary shooter would switch the gameplay conventions so frequently that I would actually have to adapt my strategy to complete a scenario. It's a sort of counter to the "repeat 30 fun seconds of gameplay" theory put forth by Bungie's lead designer, Jaime Grieseme.

That was the first example I thought of too.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Good job, Lobo. You are the philosopher-king of effective transitions.

ha!

That was an excellent read, Lobo.

Now I want to play Farcry.

I think Half Life 2 and Shadow of the Colossus are a couple of more recent examples that make use of the what-you-knew-before-is-crap idea, but

1) It's to a much smaller extent, the gameplay doesn't change drastically.
2) It's only in the last level of each game
3) I don't want to give out any more spoilers

What if the earth shattering gameplay element was there all along and was just waiting for the player to find it? Does that count? Like when you realize what clicking the left and right mouse buttons together in minesweeper does, or when you discover that one well placed pistol bullet will drop a Hunter.

Maybe those would better qualify as growing room, a close cousin of wiggle room.

dejanzie wrote:

Looked up Chronomaster on the Underdogs, to check if it was already available for free (btw, it's a 1996 game)... and it IS!

Mobygames lists it as 1995, which is where I got the date.

dejanzie wrote:

? That it is a problem that frightens philosophers because it's unsolvable (which makes it a philosophical topic, maybe I mean scientists)? Or do you mean the fact that no knowledge is beyond doubt is frightening?

I meant the latter, but the former is pretty scary, too! Souldaddy nailed it, really.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

What if the earth shattering gameplay element was there all along and was just waiting for the player to find it? Does that count? Like when you realize what clicking the left and right mouse buttons together in minesweeper does, or when you discover that one well placed pistol bullet will drop a Hunter.

Maybe those would better qualify as growing room, a close cousin of wiggle room.

That's an interesting thought! I guess, like you say, those instances are in a related but distinct category. Rather than pointing to our ignorance, they point to... I don't know, something subtly different. Incognizance? Obliviousness? In addition to hinting that we do not have a full grasp on things, they also point out something about our character.

If any of you decide to give Chronomaster a whirl, beware of death! For unlike in most adventure games, it is fully possible for Rene Korda to die by any number of means. So you'll want to save frequently, and think about your actions before blindly clicking everything on the screen.

I guess, like you say, those instances are in a related but distinct category. Rather than pointing to our ignorance, they point to... I don't know, something subtly different.

I think ignorance is the perfect word. A word that I think has an unfair negative connotation. If I didn't know something was a part of the game that had been available to me from the beginning then I was ignorant: uneducated, unaware, uninformed, not stupid. It's all about your self esteem. When I first learned that you could drop a Hunter in one shot every time I didn't feel stupid for not knowing it before; I felt smart for finding it out.

I think you could stretch that concept into a more complicated revelation and combine it with a scenario that, as your article says, nullifies past experience. Hell, when I type it out it looks like one almost has to exist with the other.

Unfamiliar territory coupled with multiple and beneficial potential epiphanies. A game I have yet to play but eagerly await.

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:
I guess, like you say, those instances are in a related but distinct category. Rather than pointing to our ignorance, they point to... I don't know, something subtly different.

I think ignorance is the perfect word. A word that I think has an unfair negative connotation. If I didn't know something was a part of the game that had been available to me from the beginning then I was ignorant: uneducated, unaware, uninformed, not stupid. It's all about your self esteem. When I first learned that you could drop a Hunter in one shot every time I didn't feel stupid for not knowing it before; I felt smart for finding it out.

I consider incognizance or obliviousness, in this context, to be subsets of ignorance. They are cases of ignorance owing, in part, to some protracted failure on the player's part to grasp whatever new knowledge lies before them, just waiting to be scooped up.

On a second read through, though, I realize that that's not necessarily what Danjo meant. For it is clear that, whenever we play a new game, there are things that we must learn, and that this learning is part of the normal gaming process. You are right.

I think whether or not an instance of epiphany is ignorance or obliviousness is up to the player. That first one shot Hunter kill is innocent ignorance, but when I think to myself "I can use the motion tracking vision mode to see things that move!" thats just me being stubbornly oblivious. Either way the experience of discovery is the same and perhaps thats why I insist on the obliviousness sometimes.

Forgive any big words I misused as the coffeemaker lives in the conference room where big whigs are currently hemming and hawing and generally keeping me from my sweet, sweet nector. I shake my fist at thee!