If someone asked me the question “what’s your most satisfying gaming experience?” I would certainly answer Deus Ex Human Revolution. There are a lot of components that go into making a game pleasant: the art style, the musical atmosphere, the story, but what truly “makes or breaks” a game is the gameplay experience. “What does the player do on a moment-to-moment basis and how is he compelled to do those things?” are two questions I always ask myself while designing or analyzing a game. In the case of DE:HR, I simply thought I’d share how I think the game “compels” the player into going somewhere or doing something. Why is that worth sharing? I think this shows what can come out of a strong bond between art and design and how it can enhance the player’s experience.
What I want to highlight in the first few images is how the game's environment really pushes you in the right directions and informs you in a very clear manner what is the main path to follow. As I mentioned in the first level analysis post on Bioshock, it is best when starting out a game to keep the level of frustration or difficulty very low in order to easily reward the player, bring him satisfaction and possibly keep him playing. In the first picture, and pretty much every other one, we see the use of distinct straight lines supported by a very bright emissive material.
This is not put in place simply for aesthetic purposes, but also to define a player path. A wide variety of theories try to justify why bright shiny things naturally attract people, I’ll just take in consideration that it’s an innate thing. The bright lines make it easy for the player to notice them and follow them since they simply stand out. You’ll see in image 1, 2 and 5 that a line will often be found to be pointing in the direction of the “the main path” (found on walls and ceilings).
As the player progresses other techniques are introduced such as the use of geometry to reinforce this sense of direction (image 4). The materials themselves (can also use decals for quicker iteration) have direction information as demonstrated in image 3. You’ll notice that none of the patterns contradicts themselves. No pattern is reversed or put in a different orientation. This would simply be incorrect in terms of aesthetic, but also in terms of design where we want to make things clear .
I think that’s always why I thought DE:HR had a nice level flow. Its environments are very suggestive and use the right techniques to bring the player from point A to point B. Every “player path enhancer” don’t feel out of place either, they feel like they’re a part of the environment which can sometimes be a true challenge while designing any game. I think this is the result of great communication between art and design.
Another thing that I couldn’t help but noticing is the way the game gradually teaches the player the complexity of stealth encounters. It starts by introducing two enemies to the player and increments by one enemy each time a new “encounter room is reached” (see image 6 through 8). It’s one of those patterns that I often see while playing the first few minutes of stealth-oriented game.
Next thing I really started noticing at this point is how the developers handled level streaming and how this process always relate in one way or another to the world they are creating. If there’s a logical explanation as to why a certain area of the game isn’t accessible anymore then you reduces the chances of your player feeling frustration. After opening that door with the newly acquired power you see a part of the plane you came on crash into this windowed corridor. Water starts pouring in and at this very moment the “Airlock” closes itself and the sign “Airlock Active” turns red. This is perfectly logical. In an underwater city, you don’t want anything to flood the other area in case something totally breaks. The airlock system must then detect a certain volume of water (sensors?) before it seals the access to the other room. This will be used as a technic to make sure that a level can be safely unloaded.
At this very moment, another room is being loaded in at the end of the corridor. When you successfully cross that corridor we’ll observe that the airlock’s door successfully opens. Why is that? The water didn’t reach the airlock yet. Notice the presence of windows outside the building but none of them are represented inside. So what if they decided to make it so that you could see through those windows from the inside. Well, in the dumbest of the case you’ll probably see an empty black world with blue lines sign that the other portion of the game was completely unloaded (empty Unreal Engine level). The other case would be that you would be seeing some elements of the previous stage in a downgraded quality through something like LOD parenting or straight LOD.
Once you’re inside the new room, the goal is clear: reach that other door at the end of the room, but very quickly you’ll notice there’s things to explore on the sides of this path. When you turn your head right you’ll see an intriguing blue light. What makes it intriguing? The color of the light. It is in complete contrast to everything else in the level. If everything in the scene was blue I wouldn’t pay as much attention to it.
After a few moments have passed, you’ll realize that the water has risen on the other side of the airlock and it is now challenging it. Water starts pouring out and we now understand: “I totally won’t be able to go out there”. Again they translated the level streaming to something believable in the game world. This event will also help with the player immersion. They might feel like they are in a world that somewhat behaves like the physical world they live in.
The next thing that I want to cover here is enemy encounter. The first one comes into the room sliding very quickly along the center path. The second one comes in when you defeat the first one. If we do a quick recap, the previous room had only one encounter. This one has two. This simply means that the level designers slightly increased the difficulty (although you’re not battling two at the same time) simply to get you used a bit more to the combat system. Something that I took in consideration is the fact that I felt relieved when I eliminated the first one. I suddenly felt like the room was safe and secured and that I could move on. This is when they introduce the other encounter which trumps this feeling of “I have cleared the room it is now safe”. It is also a good thing that they introduced this early on in the game because it is one their design pillars. It could very well be described as one of their ingredients.
Arriving inside Rapture, we notice a clear visual path laid down by the level designers. The poles on each side of the path help the player understand that their next movement should be forward. We’ll notice as well the very clear vertical lines created by the tall window. A window will always stimulate the player’s curiosity. Here’s a few example of what I think goes on inside his head at this moment:
“A window, let’s see what’s beyond this room”
“Okay… I’m underwater for sure”
“This is a very big city…”
Thus this window helps the player immerse itself in the game, understand where they are and make them believe that the level is in fact a lot bigger. I also talked about the window’s height. Height plays a very important role in communicating information to the player especially in this situation. As coined by Lewis Gunson in his article “Composition Techniques and Player Direction” exaggerating the height of geometry can sometimes represent: power, stability and strength (everything that Rapture was supposed to be).
Another important task of the level designer is to introduce the game’s ingredient in an intelligent and concise manner in order to retain the player’s attention. Here we can notice physics interaction with the environment which acts as a way to boost the interactivity of the game and the world’s believability.
By advancing on this path and looking right we can notice the vita-chamber which is simply the game trying to justify why the player will constantly be able to “come back to life”. If we turn left we can see at the end of the path a sort of TV screen flickering very fast thus attracting the player’s eye through the dark corridor. A few key ingredients are then introduced: some sort of gunner bot (chasing away an enemy in a scripted sequence), a weapon (laying on the floor), the ability to destroy parts of the environment and the ability to crouch. All of them are presented very quickly in order for the player to get a general understanding of the game’s rule: you can destroy parts of the environment, you can crouch to access areas, the game features weapon handling and some strange flying machinery.
The next logical thing after giving any functionality to the player is to test this particular functionality and show its relevance inside the game. Thus, the level designers placed a single enemy encounter right at the top of the stairs. Not two, not three only one so the player doesn’t feel overwhelmed at first and can have a feel of the A.I. behaviour and how combat works internally. Notice as well what the corpse gives while looting it (introducing looting mechanic): a “first aid pack” and “eve hypo”, two major items that make the game functional.
The next step is to define what exactly the “eve hypo” is. This is handled through a scripted sequence where the player realizes that he’s going to be able to use some kind of “magic power”. Notice as well the very obvious visual clues given by the environment. I should also mention that I like to simply stop and look straight in front of me whenever I arrive in a new area. A lot of information is usually given this way. In this case, I can notice a door and an “electricity particle effect” that almost forces me to go and inspect (visual stimulation). Seems like the door is locked: logical. Notice that after the scripted sequence where the player falls of the balcony after injecting himself with Electro Bolt (and where the Splicers, the Little Sisters and the Big Daddy are introduced) the camera centers itself on the locked door giving obvious hints that the newly acquired power has something to do with the door. The player could’ve simply collapsed right where he injected himself, but the development team decided otherwise probably to minimize player frustration early in the game (they also needed a place wide enough for the interaction between the Splicers and the Big Daddy).
Entering an environment for the first time is always a crucial moment in a game’s internal life. Information needs to be delivered to the player in some way so that the player both understand what the “space” is about and what to do with it. The information given doesn’t have to be presented in an “in your face” manner each time, the level designer can place clues that are slightly off-screen or above and behind the player to vary the pacing of the game.
Here we can see that the door is half opened. I don’t necessarily think this originated from the level designers, but probably by the level builders with instructions from the lead narrative team or the game director himself (in this case Ken Levine). It may or may not represent something important, but the simple fact of having the door slightly opened fires all sorts of questions in the player’s mind: was somebody just there? Why is the door opened? Shouldn’t it be closed? If I go in there… will something get at me? The developers are slowly setting the mood.
The inside of the lighthouse features setting cues (large statue, inscriptions at the base of the statue). Even though the job of the level designer is more about creating the space required for the large statue prop to fit in I can’t pass by the very intelligent placing of Andrew Ryan’s bust. The development team could’ve simply placed the eyes of the statue slightly above the player’s eyes so that it’s the first thing that he sees while entering the lighthouse. Instead, the statue looks down on the player placing the unknown character (for the player at this moment in the game) in a clear position of superiority. I understand the philosophy of Irrational Games of letting the player control as much of the game as possible, but while waiting for the lights to power on the player might completely miss the opportunity of seeing this center piece. It is this important to the game? My answer would have to balance between yes and no as it is mostly an “atmosphere inducer”.
Here’s how I personally would’ve scripted this moment:
1. As soon as the player enters the room start a sequence to close the door.
2. Sync a flickering light right above the inscription at the base of the statue have it fully lit when the door close.
3. When the player approaches the inscription have the main top light power on.
4. If the player decides not to walk directly to the inscription but take the sides have the main top light power on.
5. Half way through the middle of the room have floor light opening leading to the two doors.
The next thing I noticed is the choice made by the level designers to have two openings leading to the lower floor. This is a very common technic used by LDs and is simply called “the illusion of choice”. Here’s what I think goes on behind the process of the “illusion of choice”:
1. “Two paths… hum let me choose one”.
2. Player makes a choice and takes path A.
3. Does the choice have any relevance on the game’s progression? No.
4. Did the level designer created some sort of interactive moment. Yes (he fired a decision making protocol inside the player’s head).
The next sequence sees the player going down in a sort of submarine (called the bathysphere) and interacting with a lever to activate a long scripted sequence. Even though the sequence is scripted the player still retains complete control of his camera movement.