Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Raider, The Prince and The Assassin

Another Steam weekend sale was the entry vehicle for my first foray into the Tomb Raider series since the third instalment on the PlayStation One in the late nineties. The series had since changed developers and I had heard whisperings the game had received a positive rebooting. Tomb Raider Anniversary had certainly changed, and indeed for the better, the controls having escaped the “forwards/backwards, turn left/turn right only” paradigm and decided to rejoin the rest of the 3D platformer fraternity in allowing for agile changes in direction more reflective of normal human movement. Strafing and the ability to move much more naturally bring the game into the 21st Century and encourage an enjoyable level of exploration and navigation of the characteristically over-complicated world.

The game stands or falls on the strength of its level design – the fun in running; jumping; climbing; swinging is what the game wants to give the player and it necessitates some rather elaborately trapped tombs and other remnants of past inhabitation in order for the player to have a flipping great time (pun intended). But these elaborate death-traps can come in a couple of forms in TRA – in the early stages they are often just minor setbacks – a bit of lost health or a missed jump that needs to be attempted again. By the time the player has reached the second chapter of the game – set in a beautiful Grecian monastery – the traps and tasks the developers for the player to traverse become decidedly binary in a kind of ‘pass/fail’ way.

One of my personal favourite game developers for talking about game design is Clint Hocking and at the recent Game Developers Conference he gave a talk about the ‘rhythm’ of his most recent game, Far Cry 2. He explained that the game was designed in such a way as to present a myriad number of small setbacks to the player at any given time, and he called this ‘analogue failure’. Examples of this are when a player’s gun unexpectedly jams in the middle of a firefight and they are caught unawares while they clear the jam. As a part of the design of the game there are a plethora of systems all working against the player to provide these minor setbacks (malaria attacks, the wounding system, procedural fire propagation, etc, etc) and the result is that the rhythm of what the player does in the game takes on a back-and-forth kind structure that Hocking illustrates like this:

Hocking notes that most games are actually not like that, particularly on that micro-level of moment-to-moment play. Instead, depending on which part of the composition/execution split they favour they will either be more puzzle-like (if they favour a long composition phase while the player figures out what they have to do) or more like a theme park ride (if they have short composition phase and long execution).

Coming back to Tomb Raider Anniversary, the the second chapter gets really frustrating for me largely because the composition/execution balance in the game, along with the cost of failure being unrelentingly binary, means that whenever I get kicked out of the execution phase I don’t usually even get to reformulate my plan. Instead I just have to try the ‘execution’ again until I get it right.

There is no room for slight slip ups in TRA. The number of times I have botched a single jump in the ‘execution’ phase, knowing full well what I wanted to do but was simply unable to execute it because of either haste with controls or lack of skill, I have lost count. Anecdotally, the first section of the second chapter has a time trial aim of 34 minutes for completion, but in the end it took me 4 hours plus spare change to finally manage to do everything the designers were asking of me.

So this idea of ‘analogue failure’ is an important one – what Hocking points out in most games happens in TRA. When we fail in execution, we are usually faced with a load screen and gets stuck replaying the (increasingly tedious via repetition) execution phase. As Hocking said in the presentation, it’s like the developers are training us to jump through hoops, and both he and I find it personally unfulfilling.

An aggravating factor in the above scenario is the length of the execution phase – when the player fails it can take a good several minutes to get back to just the same spot in order to try again and if we were to measure the cost of failure in time (As suggested by videogame academic Jesper Juul’s GDC talk about balancing difficulty) we can see from my own 4x the recommended time that I was being severely punished.

One answer to this problem is the Prince of Persia solution, and you can take either ‘Sands of Time’ or the newer reboot. Both titles reset the player (or give them the opportunity to reset via rewinding time) to the point just prior to the ‘failure’ that would otherwise have ended their game. Thus, the execution phase is stopped from becoming the bloated, frustrating time-waste that it so easily becomes in Tomb Raider Anniversary. Still, whenever the player fails in execution, all that exists is re-execution. There is usually no re-composition involved.

Lastly, we can look at Assassins Creed for another example. Say what you will about the main game, the fact remains that the developers got the act of moving and navigating a crowded cityspace so right. Whenever you fall from a rooftop, whether you either failed in your planned execution or you are knocked off by a pursuing guard, you rarely die in Assassins Creed. Instead of being thrown back to a load screen, Altair experiences an amount of ‘analogue failure’ as the game pushed back against the player. Ultimately, the player picks himself up, dusts himself off and starts to recompose a route through the city again. You don’t even get to retry your execution unless you specifically go back to the point you failed from. In fact, there’s also little reason to since the failure is not binary, and less strictly win/lose than in Tomb Raider Anniversary or Prince of Persia. It only so much resembles the player being kicked out of execution phase and being placed back into the composition phase, much like Hocking described in Far Cry 2.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I have another game obsession to cultivate.


SnakeLinkSonic said...

You know it's funny...

I just alluded to the "Analogue Failures" in my latest posts as well and it's nice to see how developers are thinking alone those lines. I also appreciate your sentiments on how Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia deal with/play with that rhythm. I'm still wondering what was compromised in thought for Assassin's Creed 2, because the outcry was so whiny, it may have scared the developers into...paths of cowardice.


Jonathan Mills said...

I thought Assassin's Creed did have binary failure at times. During information gathering missions, like the Informer assassination missions, failure meant immediately retrying the entire section. In the last levels the challenge is to stealth assassinate five targets in five minutes without being discovered. If I was discovered by a patrol or killed too close to a guard, I had to escape and then restart the challenge. This was compounded by the fact that the environment didn't always reset. I once failed a mission after assassinating only one target, and when I restarted the mission the corpse remained. It was promptly discovered by the same assassination target, resulting in immediate failure, and so I had to put that mission on hold for a while. Successful assassination missions in Assassin's Creed require a cool head, and with each retry I would get more frustrated and impatient, making completing the mission even harder. While navigating the environment works the way you describe, I found the game overall to have a frustratingly high penalty for failure, especially in the later missions.

Ben Abraham said...

Jon - yeah, when I'm talking about not having analogue failure in Assassins Creed, I'm really only talking about running around (which was like, 90% of the fun in the game for me anyway). I think I cut a sentence from the final that made that connection a bit stronger.