PC Gamer

This discussion was originally published in March 2017. With the release of Prey, which features prominently, we've brought it back to offer some insight into the development of Arkane's latest game.

Deus Ex. System Shock 2. Dishonored. Some of the PC's most celebrated games belong to a genre called the immersive sim, which emphasizes creating a complex world with tons of player freedom. They're some of our favorite games to talk about, and at the 2017 Game Developer's Conference we were lucky enough to do just that. We put together a roundtable of familiar faces, all of whom have had a major hand in exploring or creating immersive sims.

Our guests: Warren Spector (Otherside Entertainment), Harvey Smith and Ricardo Bare (Arkane Studios), Tom Francis (Suspicious Developments) and Steve Gaynor (Fullbright).

You can listen to the hour-long audio version of this discussion here or grab it from our podcast feed. Consider putting it on while you play Deus Ex and pretend it's a brand new audio log. Or, if you want the good old fashioned text version, read on.

Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: Thanks for joining me at GDC to talk about immersive sims, which I would say is PC Gamer's favorite genre. We love 'em. As food for thought, to start with, I want to open up with the idea of talking about why immersive sims are especially important to gaming, whether it's to you personally, as somehow it affected your career or way of thinking about games, as well as the broader industry, guiding what we hope to see from games as a medium.

Warren Spector: I have a firmly-held belief that to honor a medium, and for it to grow, you have to do what it does that no other media can do. When I look at what games can do that other media can't, I instantly go right to the immersive sim. That sort of real-time you are there, nothing stands between you and belief that you're in an alternate world, that is something that I guess LARPing gets a little close to, and D&D gets pretty darn close to, but we're the first mainstream medium that can actually do that. And the immersive sim is the perfect way to do it.

Steve Gaynor: And I think it's perfectly fair—I think we should start calling them instead of immersive sims, probably digital LARPing. That sounds good to me.

Harvey Smith: Let's alienate ourselves as much as possible.

Steve: The interesting thing about this discussion is that there are a couple of us here, me and Tom, who really came to an understanding of immersive sims as fans first, and then got to actually do work in that space. For me, I think it is what you're saying, Warren. Immersive sims are incredibly powerful in that they allow you that full sense of being in another place, not just through visual fidelity or it looks like I'm here, but the systems of the game allow you to express your role within that space in a way that makes you feel like what you're doing is part of it, as well as just being near it, observing, watching.

And that can be anything from: you're a cyber secret agent and here are the things you'd be able to do, and how to express that role when you're in that place. To something that's more subtle, like Thief, where it's not so much about all these wild powers, but what could a Thief do here, what would a Thief do here, and how do we let the player put that on screen.

An early immersive sim, Thief gave players powerful freedom in exploring its environments.

Tom Francis: The immersive part and the sim part are the two parts that you kind of carried over to Gone Home, right? Gone Home was not an emergent combat game, but it was immersive, and it was a sim, and you put a surprising amount of effort into making sure that you could interact with the world around you in a way that would realistically make sense, even though that wasn't core to the story.

Steve: Yeah, there's this feeling I think that immersive sims are about having this consistent ruleset of how the world works and how you work within it. So yeah, if we're making a game about exploring a house, you need to be able to open the cabinets and turn the lights off and on and kind of exist as an intentional agent within that space, even if it isn't about controlling AI to fight each other.

Ricardo Bare: I think it's interesting that Warren brought up Dungeons & Dragons. I've always thought that people who made good Dungeon Masters also often made really good level designers for immersive sims, in particular, because it's this really magical blend of representing the game rules, the RPG system, but also being responsive to the fact that the players around the table are part of the narrative and driving the narrative. Which I think is what happens in a good immersive game. The player feels like a really powerful agent, affecting things, but they're also interacting with a system of rules that are predictable and they can use to make plans.

Harvey: I think that you guys have touched upon some of my favorite things about this sub-genre. It's that sense of presence, exploring a place that doesn't just feel like a series of puzzles someone's erected for you, but rather a coherent place that you can actually explore in the real sense of the word. And part of that is the pacing. Immersive sims often go very fast, and very loud, but generally only if you trigger the right sequence of actions. Otherwise they can be very slow-paced.

I think we should start calling them instead of immersive sims, probably digital LARPing.

Steve Gaynor

One of the great pleasures of my current position is not only did we just finish Dishonored 2, the team in Lyon put years of effort into that, but I now roll into playtesting and commenting on Prey, which is the first game in a long time that I find myself, even on the weekends when I'm home, toying with the idea of driving in to play the game. In my mind I'm solving problems, considering rooms and other approaches, and that's a very good sign. I'm in love with the game that Raphael and Ricardo and the team here in Austin have made.

But what I was going to say is the pace is incredibly important to me, and the non-combat verbs. Being able to say 'how can I get into that security station? I don't have hacking. There must be another way. Let me toy around with mimicking a small object and rolling up to the window and going through the little slot that the guard asks for papers through.'

Just solving all those little problems. I look up and it's been 30 minutes, and all I've done is roll around as an object, getting into a small space that I couldn't have gotten into otherwise, noticing some narrative detail. It's the consistency of the rules and the fact that so much is not hand-crafted, but behaves according to system-wide rules that enable this player toy exploration process. The fact that it's in an emotionally evocative backdrop, where you're reading about the lives of people, seeing the traces they've left behind, the mood is powerful, and part of that is that I'm going at my own pace, often just toying around.

Dishonored 2's powers allow for some incredibly complex interactions.

Warren: There are about 10 things I want to say. I know I'm the one who first brought up D&D and then Ricardo brought it up again. One of the most interesting things to me is that though that's a really apt comparison in a lot of ways, in some it's really not. Because one of the defining characteristics of the immersive sim for me is that it's about roleplaying not roll-playing. D&D had its own 'simulation' I guess. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were using the best tools they had, which were funny dice.

We have different, and frankly I think more effective, ways of simulating a world. And so there's an interesting discussion to be had about whether die-rolls and characters classes and all that stuff have a place in immersive sims. No, they don't.

But the other thing Harvey brought up, pacing. I'm working on System Shock 3 now, and I've got a team of people who haven't really worked on this kind of game before. One of the things I have to constantly remind people about is that the pacing of these games is very different. It's not run, gun, gogogogogogo. If you do that in an immersive sim and you're really good maybe you can succeed, but when I think about these games, the pacing is more... Okay, I get to a decision point. I stop, I assess. I make a plan. Then it's gogogogogo as I execute. Then it's stop, assess, make a plan. Gogogogogo. So it's this kind of staccato thing that I find really appealing. I love it. Probably because I suck at gogogogogo, but pacing is critically important in these games.

Tom: Something that's come up a lot talking to people about immersive sims lately—Dishonored 2 has kind of kicked it all off again, because all my friends are playing it, and a lot of my friends are Deus Ex fans and have the same taste as me and are loving it. The ones who don't, the common criticism I hear, and it's by no means unique to Dishonored 2, but all immersive sims support multiple playstyles. And most of the ones we're talking about support the very slow, very careful nonlethal ghosting playstyle which Dishonored even sort of marks out as... it doesn't explicitly say it's the best one, but it gives you big check boxes and says 'yep, you did that, yep, you did that' and those are the only two checkboxes, so it kind of seems like the thing you're supposed to do.

A lot of my friends who haven't clicked with these games feel obliged to play that way. Because they know they can, and it's morally better, and the game rewards it in some ways. They feel they can't play any other way. And I know some people don't enjoy playing that way, but just feel compelled to, because they feel like that's how you play these games, and if they screw up they feel like they've got to reload. Maybe there's a challenge there that we haven't solved yet in terms of persuading people to play in their own way and explore new playstyles.

Harvey: Definitely. I think that's less about immersive sims and it's actually inherent to stealth games, in my opinion. Seth Shane is a designer that worked with us on Dishonored 1 and is now lead systems designer on Prey, and funny enough, he and I were talking about that this morning. Where as soon as you have this perception that I could've done that better, I could've done that more elegantly, it does set up for a certain percentage of players, an obsession with redoing it or doing it right. And the whole point of the Dishonored games and the Deus Ex games was there's no right way to play, you can do this your own way, except Tom's right. There's an implicit narrative value judgment there.

But I think it's similar to the problem—there's a community of people who contacted me through Twitter who said 'hey, I know this is weird, but we're a group of people who like to find every coin in the Dishonored games, and we think that there are a few that have fallen through the world that can't be collected. Can you help us?' I was just like, 'Oh my god, I love you guys, but the best way I could help you is to tell you not to collect all the coins.' But they wouldn't accept that, so I did help them. You can get all the coins in Dishonored 2, by the way. But one of the coins was, like, over on a rock to the side of Addermire Institute in the grass, and we had to look for it with the level editing tools to tell them where to go.

Maybe there's a challenge there that we haven't solved yet in terms of persuading people to play in their own way and explore new playstyles.

Tom Francis

In a way, if that's how you enjoy playing the game, and that scratches an itch for you, who am I to say don't do that? But on the other hand, that's definitely not the spirit... I would hope you'd be free to find your own path, and if you want to stand on the roof of the building and look at the bird's nest on top of Addermire with the black bone charm in it and watch the waves rolling in, that's just fine. On the other hand, if you want to go across the objectives, that's fine. If you want to try to ghost the game, that's fine.

But it is weird, how some of these games definitely set up the desire or the obsession in players to do it a certain way. From my personal perspective, I'm only saying this for me, it does feel like that would interfere with the general enjoyment of the game. I don't know. Maybe it's a flaw inherent in systems. Systems driven by computers are basically optimization machines, they're against the true spirit of the word 'play' in that sense.

Steve: I feel like the real sense of joy, when you do play an immersive sim, is the idea that when you're able to let go a little bit and say 'part of what's interesting about this is, if I do screw up and I do get made, there are ways to use my tools to recover.' Even if it's sloppy, even if it's not perfect. If you want to play the perfect ghost run, then that's the goal that you've made. But I think that part of the beauty of these systems, and games like the new Hitman game, or when you play Far Cry 2 or things that are even adjacent to a traditional immersive sim, that feeling of saying 'I'm going to use the rules of the world to scout this area. I'm going to make a plan, and I'm going to attempt it. And then if I didn't notice there was a guy around the corner and he sees me trying to be sneaky, and now I can say, okay, how can I knock him out before he alerts anyone else, or use Far Reach to get up onto that ledge and circle back around' and live within that mistake in a way that can often be much more satisfying.

Rather than saying 'Ah, he saw me, and now I'm going to know where he is for the next time.' But that said, that's sort of a higher-level request of the player than what is actually inside the rules and possibility space of the game itself.'

Stealth or combat in Deus Ex? Spector says players usually mixed and matched.

Warren: It's funny, people ask me all the time: 'Do people go out and play extreme playstyles?' Most of the people I hear from play a kind of balanced style. They sneak when it feels right, they fight when it feels right. So I think most people play down the middle and we're talking about the outliers. But the thing that surprised me a lot, that's relevant here: when we were working on Deus Ex I thought players were going to just pick a playstyle and stick with it. 'I like fighting, so I'm going to fight my way through the game.'

Instead, very early on, I remember watching normal humans playing the game, I mean, well, gamers, but I remember watching them play, and they'd get to right on Liberty Island, an early choice point. We tried to reveal the choice points especially early on. They'd get to a choice point and two things would happen. First, they'd put the mouse down and push the keyboard away like 'Oh my god, I have to make a real choice!?' Because games had trained people not to make choices effectively. It's just, okay, kill everything that moves, or I get seen by nothing. And we were trying to do something different.

You don't judge the player. You don't tell the player how to play your game. It's their game.

Warren Spector

I would see that, and then the one that frustrated the hell out of me at first, I would watch people save their game at an obvious choice point, and then try something. And then go back to their save and try something different. And go back to their save and try something different. In one sense that's one of the strengths of the game, that they could try all those things. But then they would pick the one that they liked the best. That was not at all what I thought they were going to do, and it really bugged me for awhile. But then I realized, like you guys were saying, once it's their game, it's their game. As long as they're finding fun, who am I to say how they're playing the game? That's another one of the defining characteristics of an immersive sim. You don't judge the player. You don't tell the player how to play your game. It's their game.

Ricardo: Something that we're all sort of brushing up against, a little bit, that's inherent to the immersive sim, is just the complexity, and difficulty, of onboarding players into a game like that that aren't accustomed to it already.

Harvey: Wow, did you just say onboarding?

Ricardo: Yeah...

Harvey: Oh my god. Go ahead.

Ricardo: Just teaching them, this is a game where there's more than one way to do stuff is really challenging. We've made several games already and we still struggle with how to do that. Warren, you mentioned the beginning of Deus Ex. I remember when I let my brother-in-law play the game. He plays a couple games a year, probably. And when we had the PlayStation version of Deus Ex, I remember handing him the controller, and within 20 seconds he had accidentally thrown his weapons into the water, fell off the dock, and drowned. And I thought, oh my god, we are not making games that are easy for people to get into. At all.

Warren: We are the kings of the cult classic, I know.

Ricardo: Yeah. But it's still difficult.

On the next page, our panel share stories about their favorite moments playing and designing immersive sims.

PC Gamer: I think that gets to an interesting point: all this player freedom you have in an immersive sim, it generates good stories like that. The thing that people love about these games is the stories they generate out of the game, the same way you generate a story in Civilization where you were at war with Gandhi for 200 years or something. In an immersive sim, people don't usually talk about the story that was written. They talk about the story of that time they played it and these seven systems interacted in some insane improbable way. So I want to get you guys to tell some anecdotes, either from playing or designing immersive sims, maybe your awakening moment to 'oh shit, this game or genre is amazing, and this is why.' 

Harvey: That improvisation thing you're talking about is definitely one of my favorite aspects. Doug Church is probably the first person I heard talking about that. We were standing in my office one day and he was like, 'people talk about their D&D experiences or their experiences in games like these as if they actually happened to them. I did this, and then this thing fell over, and then this happened.' It's so true.

There were epiphanies like that with Adventure, the Atari 2600 game, because it was so procedural. But really, Ultima Underworld, I remember getting to the temple of the bullfrog or something, a puzzle where you can un-invert a ziggurat so that you can cross this big pit. And I hate puzzles like that. There are a couple dials on the wall. It's like, oh my god, another puzzle. But I found that if you jump—the far lip is a little higher than the lip you start on, so you can't just cast levitate and glide across. But I found that if you jump and then cast levitate at the apex of the jump, you could levitate across and land on the other side. And you feel very clever for defeating the puzzle without solving the puzzle. That is a magical moment in my life, and in my career, for sure.

I have a bunch of those anecdotes from Far Cry 2, of course. We had one recently with Dishonored 2 where the Game Informer guys were there, and we had a very controlled demo that we gave people, where there were a bunch of Overseers executing a heretic, and there was a certain way we did it, just before the guy on the firing squad pulled the trigger, we used Emily's Far Reach to yank him up to the balcony where we were. Anyway, the demo went super well, they loved the game, but they said 'hey, our heads were down, we were writing, can you run through it one more time?' So Dinga, our lead designer, Dinga Bakaba, was like 'hey, you know what, you've seen the game, you like the game, you get the game. I'm going to just leave the beaten path and improvise here and do some stuff that maybe isn't as expected.'

Far Cry 2 is famous for its weather and fire systems, which turned Africa into a fascinating, dangerous sandbox.

So he went back to the firing squad scene and used Emily's Domino power to link the heretic in front of the firing squad with the guy who was about to pull the trigger. We had no idea what was going to happen, because we literally didn't set that up. We didn't say, explicitly, in the code anywhere. We just said 'if you're Dominoed to to someone else you take the damage type that they receive.' So the guy in the firing squad pulled the trigger and killed the heretic, and he died at the same time. Everybody in the room, their heads just popped, like 'Holy shit.'

What they didn't realize at the time was we had no preparation for that. Dinga was worried even as he tried it that maybe for some reason it wouldn't work. But those improvisational moments, as Ricardo says it's hard to train the players to play games like this, but once they do, especially if they'll play a second time… If you go play System Shock or Far Cry 2 or Prey or Dishonored a second time, the intimidation of learning the systems and knowing the game space is gone, and you get back to that joy Steve Gaynor was talking about where you're playing at this point. You're improvising and experimenting and it's beautiful.

Ricardo: If I can just piggyback off of that, I know exactly the moment you're talking about, because I played through Dishonored 2 with my daughter, who's never played a game like that before. And it was so amazing to see the game through her eyes. She's never played an immersive sim, and that specific scene, I did the same thing with the Domino, and it was a magical experience to her that something like that could even happen, and that then afterwards the guards were baffled like 'someone's here, there's a murderer, search the area.' It was really cool to see someone experience that for the first time.

Harvey: That's really gratifying to hear.

Steve: Something that's interesting about immersive sims is that oftentimes, like you're talking about, players will find exploits that are a legitimate combination of systemic interactions that the designers weren't expecting. I feel like the classic example is using wall mines to climb walls in Deus Ex.

If you play [an immersive sim] a second time, the intimidation of knowing the game space is gone... You're improvising and experimenting and it's beautiful.

Harvey Smith

So when I was playing Dishonored 2, I really like doing the slide move, and also I'm playing totally non-lethally. And at some point I was like, can I do a non-lethal takedown on a guy while I'm sliding into him? And I just tried it out. And I found that, beautifully, you have a whole set of custom animations for doing a non-lethal takedown while sliding. When I found that, I thought, that's cool. Then I thought through how the systems work and I'm like 'wait, this is an instant non-lethal takedown on a guy, whether he's aggro or unaware,' which is the only way aside from a tranq dart that you can non-lethally take down a guy instantly no matter what state they're in. If they're aggro on you you have to deflect their blow, then take them out.

At that point I realized the only way I'm going to defeat anyone for the rest of the game is sliding into them and knocking their head into the ground.

That was about the mid-point through the campaign, and for the rest of the game my entire playstyle was about how do I set up this encounter where there's three patrollers around, maybe Domino all three of them together so I can slide-tackle into one of them, or XYZ. Setting up those challenges for yourself, saying 'oh, wait, here's this edge case of how all these systems interact, and that allows me to act like a freakin' weirdo.' But the game supports it, and there's the satisfaction and the robustness of saying 'yes, I'm doing something totally strange and comical, but the game is there for it.' It's actually a legitimate way to play even though that was probably not something QA was going through saying 'let's do an all-slide tackle run, make sure that doesn't break anything.'

Arkane's Prey will allow you to morph into everyday objects. So can your enemies.

Tom: It's funny how once you're immersed in these games, learning the rules and then using those rules becomes entirely what your brain is occupied with and you don't really care if it's realistic or makes sense. When you asked for anecdotes from playing immersive sims, the one that sprang to mind is one in Deus Ex where I had started to hack into a terminal that could open Gunther's cell on Liberty Island. As I hacked it I was looking through the camera that shows the view of the room I was in, I could see myself hacking the terminal, and a guard ran in. And guards aren't allowed to shoot you when you're using computers in Deus Ex.

[Warren puts his head in his hands and shakes it, moaning softly]

Tom: So I could see he's pointing his gun to my head, but can't fire, because I'm busy! I had to figure out, I was playing on Realistic where you just die in one shot from those guys at close range. I can't leave the terminal now because I'll die instantly, so I had to figure out a way, with just the tools I have now, to try to block this guy from shooting me. The turret couldn't shoot him. But I figured out if I open Gunther's door it'll nudge him a little bit around the corner so he no longer has line of site, so I can leave the computer and attack him.

Warren: I'm so proud.

Tom: And there was never a thought in my head that this was any way unrealistic or strange. I just thought, this is amazing!

Warren: I have two anecdotes. One, on Ultima VI, which is kind of where I realized that all this improvisational stuff could really be magical. It was unplanned, kind of a bug. There was one puzzle where the Avatar and his party came up on one side of a portcullis and there was a lever on the other side of the portcullis that you had to flip to raise the portcullis and keep on making progress. I watched one of our testers, a guy named Mark Schaefgen, playing in that area. And he didn't have the telekinesis spell, which was the way to get past that portcullis. I was sitting there rubbing my hands together going 'oh ho ho, he's screwed, he can't do it.'

He had a character in his party named Sherry the Mouse. You can probably see where this is going. The portcullis was 'simulated,' and here the air quotes are around simulated, simulated enough that there was a gap at the bottom that was too small for a human to get through, but not too small for Sherry. He sent Sherry the Mouse under the portcullis, over to the lever, she flipped the lever, and then the rest of the party went through. And I fell on the floor. At that moment I just said to myself, 'this is what games should do. We should start planning this, not having it happen as a bug.' That was where I realized this was really powerful.

The Deus Ex story that kills me, though. A year after we shipped, I was out in San Francisco at the Eidos offices, and our publisher-side QA lead, a guy named Charles Angel, was playing the game, demoing it for some executives. Now why Eidos executives needed a demo of a game that had shipped a year earlier that had won like 35 game of the year awards I will never understand. But they did. I'll probably never work again for having said that, but anyway.

Sherry the Mouse in Ultima VI.

I was watching him on Liberty Island, and there was a spot where a guard was standing on one side of a doorway, there were two or three guards on patrol on the other side of the doorway, and there were laser triggers covering the doorway. And so what he did was, he secretly was sneaking around, moving explosive barrels around and stuff. I was watching him, and I kind of knew what he was setting up. He crept back and got out the pistol, which was the weakest weapon in the game, and with one shot he took out the guard that was guarding the door, took out the laser triggers, and because he had waited for the right exact moment, took out the two guards on the other side of the door. With one shot. And I fell on the floor again. Because I'm completely certain that no human on the face of the earth had tried that before. No one on the team... Harvey, if you knew that was going to work, I'll buy you lunch next time I see you.

Harvey: No, of course, we didn't set those things up explicitly, that's just one of the pleasures, you know. Warren and I both had this experience, and we have it now with Prey and Dishonored games, going down and watching the QA testers play is just magical because they chain things together, they use powers in unexpected ways, and then often they require a little support. Because to Steve Gaynor's example, nowadays the production values have gone up so you might need animation support and things like that.

But yeah, it's amazing, and to get back to the critical side of this conversation from the love side so much, it gets back to one of the inherent problems with what we do. Which is, I've played Prey a lot and commented a lot, but I've started, instead of playing across many different builds and powers, I'm in one big contiguous playthrough now that I know the game super well. That always contextualizes your experience at the end of the project. It's magical.

There are several steps like that. The other is taking an Xbox home and playing on your own rig or whatever. The environment even changes it for you. In any case, getting back to the critical part, we have a game that if you play twice, or three times or four times, and you become a virtuoso with the systems and understanding the narrative and the world, little epiphanies are popping off in your head all the time and you're having these improvisational experiences. In Prey I'm not only doing that game mechanically but I'm doing that narratively and emotionally. I won't spoil anything but I gave an example to Ricardo yesterday related to what one of the monsters mutters, and how it connects back to a human in the world, who has a real history in the world.

Ricardo: I think we've talked about that if you want to mention it.

Warren: You're choosing your words reeeeally carefully right now, aren't you?

Harvey: The point is if you've played a lot, you get a lot out of these games, but the downside is if you haven't played, you struggle initially with the sheer complexity of it, or you're thrown right in. It almost works like a novel where to fully understand it you feel like you have to have seen the beginning, middle and end. They're very complicated economically and narratively and in terms of systems, and in order to make them sing you have to be a performer. You have to practice and learn. Whereas in other games you just drop in and look like a badass instantly, even if you're following a trail of breadcrumbs and kicking off a sequence of scripted events over and over.

On the next page, our panel talks about the challenges of designing immersive sims and their many interlocking pieces.

PC Gamer: I'd like to dig in a little bit to the process of creating and designing an immersive sim. I think most people who pay attention to videogames know that it's not a linear creative process where you build from the beginning of the story to the end. A game is usually not really playable or fun or 'complete' until very late in development. In the case of immersive sims you're potentially talking about a dozen systems, from AI to weather to hacking, or combat, all these incredibly complex things. How do you go about building these and testing them when it's not fun, or when certain things aren't online, when it's only half complete? What's the process of choosing those elements and testing how they work together?

Steve: That is a really interesting question for the guys here who have worked on the big titles. I've worked on, basically, sequels to immersive sims. I worked on Bioshock 2 and Infinite, but I didn't work on the original Bioshock, and obviously that's kind of a continuation of System Shock 2. So I'm interested to know, when you are building a game that is based on this bedrock of multiple strata of systems, do you try to block in as much of the different player abilities and AI systems as you can as early as possible, or is it an ongoing glazing of 'what if we added this, what if we added this' over a long period of time.

Ricardo: There's a lot we could say there. Some of it is what you're saying, Steve. I think we try to get a 60 percent version of as much as possible in, as quickly as possible. Because part of the fun, of course, is not just the thing existing in isolation, but when it interacts with all the other systems. People have likened it, a little bit, to making a stew. Individual elements aren't that great, together they're okay, but they kind of have to live together in the pot for awhile so that you can begin identifying, like 'this one mechanic doesn't contribute very much. This other one, though, we should double down on.'

By the end, maybe we make 25 percent more than necessary, mechanics, that end up getting stripped out, and we focus on the ones that end up being really successful in the whole mix altogether.

Bioshock 2 took us back to see what had happened to Rapture, while Minerva's Den told a smaller, more contained story.

Steve: It feels like it's inherent to this kind of game that for it to actually be the game at all, there's this critical mass that's required. You can't work on Dishonored for six months and only have two player powers, because it's just not relevant to what it's going to end up being. But also you obviously don't just write your perfect design bible and you're like, 'here's the dozen powers and exactly what all the enemies can do' and just make it. Finding that balance must be really challenging.

Warren: Design documents are always right. [laughs] There was one point on Deus Ex where the documentation was 500 pages, but we're not going to talk about that. It was ridiculous. The final version was 270 pages that nobody read. Anyway, the interesting thing about making this kind of game is that you guys are all right, until those systems are online you don't even know what you have. Alpha is the point on a game like this where the game is complete and finishable and playable and sucks. 

To make this all work—the money guys love this, while you're working on it the first two years or whatever it is, the game is not there, it's not there, it's not there, and everybody's going 'oh my god,' biting their fingernails down to the nub, because they're giving you all this money and they can't see the game yet. You have to go and say 'relax, it'll be okay, everything will come together.' And then you hope they'll give you enough time in alpha, at least this is my take on it, they give you enough time in alpha to make it right.

The money guys love this, while you're working on it the first two years and the game is not there, it's not there, it's not there, and everybody's going 'oh my god.'

Warren Spector

On Deus Ex we implemented the skill system that a couple of us came up with pretty early on. I think we actually got to alpha with that in there. And then we invited guys like Doug Church and Mark LeBlanc and Rob Fermier, and even I think Gabe Newell came down, and they played it, and they said 'wow, this skill system really sucks.' And I think it was like 24 hours later, Harvey, you had a completely redesigned skill system. Thank god! Because it wasn't at all what we thought we were going to make. Until we played it, and saw it in context with all the other systems, you're just taking your best guess.

Harvey: I wish Raphael Colantonio was on the line with us today, he's traveling to GDC. But one of the things he talks about a lot is how much iteration games like this actually require, and how flexible a studio has to be, and how you have to train the team not to think like traditional developers. You have to be willing to react very quickly. So much of this kind of game is a synergy, and the magic only happens very late. And I can tell you from experience, sometimes they don't give you the money to finish it, to get that final three months or whatever. But in almost all the best cases of these types of games, the ones we've worked on here and the ones that friends have worked on, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Bioshock, you hear these stories about how things almost came together at the end but then we got three more months or six more months and then we just started hitting it with the magic in place.

By contrast, you have developers who say 'on day one, you need a loop, and if that loop is fun, you just iterate it and your game will be fun. If your game is not fun on day one, your day will never be fun.'


Harvey: Like it's some sort of dogmatic blueprint approach. Well, for some games that is true if they entirely depend on one arcade game loop, then yeah, probably. But these games are something different. They're a sense of presence, they're exploration, they're player pacing, they're toying with systems, and they really rely on this gestalt.

Not an immersive sim.

Steve: I think there's something interesting you're saying about that last three or six months that can also be extended to things like DLC and direct sequels. I worked on Bioshock 2 which was a direct sequel to Bioshock 1, and I was the lead designer on the story DLC for Bioshock 2, and at that point as a developer you're kind of in that space of saying this has been developed to such a degree that you have the familiarity with it, you have the stable base to say 'now our job is to know this stuff well enough to do something really good and really interesting with it' that you don't find in that initial build-out. And that's kind of what you're doing in those extra three or six months. You spent all that time making the game. Now we know what it is. And we can actually use this time to express what we've learned that we might not have been able to otherwise.

Ricardo, you worked on the Dishonored 1 DLC, right?

Ricardo: Absolutely, the Knife of Dunwall and Brigmore Witches stuff.

Steve: I think that's sort of an extension of that idea that these games are such a, the end product is greater than the sum of its parts. Having that ability as a designer to work within that established space and do things with it that I wouldn't have thought of or known how to do earlier in the process is especially relevant when you're making games of this complexity and this relation to the player's role.

Tom: There's also a huge technical benefit of being that late in the project. Particularly with these systems-driven games, you have to build the systems, and then once you've done that, making a new ability or a new item is actually almost trivial. You hook it into the systems that already exist. And the whole point of these games is those systems have to be consistent, have to be universal, so you have to get that right first, anyway. And once you've done that, making an ability that uses those systems is super easy.

I've just hit this point in Heat Signature, so I'm really excited about it. Now if I want to make a gun that hacks things when you shoot it, it's literally create a gun, add the hack damage type to it, and it's just done, it just works.

Heat Signature emphasizes the unpredictable interactions of systems immersive sims do so well.

Steve: That even happens in a story game like ours that is not about these deep, dynamic, interactive systems. As a content creator, making these kinds of games the arc is really on a logarithmic scale. It's ramping and then you hit that tipping point where now, working on Tacoma, I have enough of the tools to say 'oh my god this room is so empty, it needs stuff in it,' and then you work on it for a day, and you're like 'oh, we've built enough that we can make this feel very populated and unique and like a real place very quickly' in a way you couldn't have earlier.

Or you can say 'I know how our AR character system works, I can extend this scene that we already have to do something else' because we've been building up those tools over time. Once you have the toolbox, which takes a long time to get to, and you have the familiarity with what all of those tools can actually do, that ability to quickly and very creatively extend what you already have into things that feel very unique and memorable to the player finally appears.

Ricardo: What you're citing is one of the reasons I actually love being finished with the main game and getting the chance to work on DLC. You have that baseline there that you can build on top of, and it's so easy to add things. In the Dishonored DLC it was really fun to get to experiment with Corvo's base powers to make new powers for Dowd, the main character in the DLC. Like adding the ability for when Dowd targets his Blink power, the whole game is frozen. So it's more like a tactical, thoughtful consideration where you're going to Blink. That was only possible because the main game, all that stuff was already executed and established, and we could play in that sandbox.

Warren: You do need to be thinking about player improvisation early, though. We did build those proto-missions [on Deus Ex]. That's what I called them, I can't remember if anybody else did. We built that White House mission where everything was sort of hacked together, which didn't show how the game was going to play but showed the potential of it.

We implemented the skill system pretty early on. And then we invited guys like Doug Church and... Gabe Newell, and they said 'wow, this skill system really sucks.'

Warren Spector on Deus Ex

I can't really talk much about System Shock 3, but I will say that we're just beginning to prototype a bunch of stuff, and if you think about giving players the ability to improv early, you can start to see the fruits of that early. 

We built one thing out—I should not be talking about this—where there are a couple ways to get past a problem. But I found one that no one knew was going to work. Instead of taking five, six minutes to play through this space, I did it in 10. Ten seconds. It was pretty magical when I figured out something that no one on the team knew was going to work, even early. And we've got another system that I'm not going to talk about that we've started prototyping. And already we're starting to see people use it, family and friends testers, they're starting to do things with it that we had no idea would work. When you start seeing that, even early on, that's the magic of these games. It's what makes them different.

If everybody on the development team knows what every player is going to do, my advice to them is just go make a movie.

PC Gamer: We've got a few minutes left before we need to head off to other GDC events. Does anyone have a question they'd like to ask anyone here, before we have one closing question?

Warren: Yeah, could you guys stop working on Prey? [laughs]

Ricardo: We are about to start working on it! [laughs]

Warren: I can't wait to play it.

Steve: Yeah, I'm super excited about it. I guess there's three of us in the room that are making space station games, but you guys get to ship yours first, congrats. I assume you guys haven't announced a release date? God dammit, I hope you guys don't ship the same time as us.

Tom: Is that your question? When's your release date?

Steve: Yeah, can you announce your release date, please?

Ricardo: Oh, it's May 5.

Warren: It's on the trailer, it's in there.

Steve: Oh, that has been announced? Fine, you guys get to be first!

Harvey: Honestly, I say this with all humility because I didn't work on Prey, it's a game made by the Austin studio with Ricardo and Raph and Seth and Susan running the show, it is one of the best games I've ever played. I tweeted something recently about having finished Dishonored 2, and now looking at Prey back to back, Brian Eno had this write-up, and it really made me stop and think about me as creator vs. me as player, what I like to play, and it's really an interesting contrast. In my career I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to do this back-to-back within the same studio. We finished one game and are about to finish another game with a different team, and just to look at the two and decisions they made differently than decisions I would've made, yet I love both games. I think Dishonored 2 is the best game I've ever done and Prey is one of the best games I've ever played, but they're very different in their decisions and how they arrive at certain decisions is fascinating to me. So May 5, yeah.

PC Gamer: So I'd like to close with a question, looking beyond Prey, where immersive sims are going to be going in the next few years, the far-off future of 2020, what do we still have to improve in immersive sims? What have they not quite cracked yet? Is it AI? Is it elements of level design, maybe moving beyond the conveniently human-sized vents placed on the backs of buildings?

Tom: Never! [laughs]

PC Gamer: Where are we going next?

Warren: Non-combat AI is an area where games in general really have some work to do. In the more linear cinematic games that we're not talking about today, I think there are some pretty amazing things going on. But in terms of characters who can react to you, whether they hate you or love you or are neutral towards you, we still have a lot of work to do on that front. I would say non-combat AI is one, and accessibility is another.

We talked about that a bunch, but making this so normal humans, non-gamers, can actually get to this, so we're not just making cult classics. We're making mainstream games that show the world what games can and should be. Accessibility is a big problem for us.

Tom: Coming at this from the indie side of things, I'm excited about stuff to do with the structure and format around the actual missions that you do. In a triple-A immersive sim it's almost a story that is told from beginning to end and there's maybe some branching, but you're playing as one character throughout the whole thing. I think that problem I was talking about earlier with people feeling obliged to stick to one playstyle even when they're not enjoying it stems from that.

I'm trying a game where each character you play as is a new life. Every time you die it's permadeath, but each time you restart you're a new person. I'm suddenly finding loads of immersive sim problems just go away if you just change the structure completely. It's a completely different format of game. This is just a baby step towards it with Heat Signature, but I'm excited to see what other people do with that, as roguelikes are a big trend with indie games. I just want to see that mashed into immersive sims in as many ways as possible because I think there are some really interesting things that happen there.

The thing about playstyles, I just have a missions listing board, and I've just realized recently, I've added the ability to have missions that you have to do stealthily. You'll fail this mission if you get spotted. And so you can just work playstyles into the mission listing board, then let people pick which one they want to do, and it's just natural that they would vary if they wanted.

Steve: From the other side of indie development, something that I think is really fascinating and valuable is immersive sims as a lineage is it's a very long lineage that has kind of continued to accrete properties over time. Warren, you've been there for the entire run—

Warren: Thanks for reminding me of my age, I appreciate it. [laughs]

Steve: Well but you were working on Ultima Underworld and System Shock 1, and our approach to exploring that, as a small independent developer, is rewinding the timeline and removing factors and thinking of it in terms of, if we went back to an earlier point in what these games are and explored a branch from there, and tried to find aspects of that experience that are inherent to it, but have not been the focus in a lot of ways...

I guess what I'm saying, to your question Wes, that there's one way of looking at this as: 'Where do what immersive sims have become go next, and how do we solve more problems and add more on?' And I think there's this incredible potential to saying: 'Well, but what have they been, and what was not on the main trunk of where they've gotten to, and what else is there?'

The spaceship exploration of Fullbright's Tacoma, like Gone Home, takes some inspiration from System Shock.

You think of an immersive sim now and you think of things like upgradeable player powers, AIs that have emergent abilities when they interact with each other, and having an economy so you can buy equipment and all that stuff. When I was working on Minerva's Den, and it was a reference forward design wise, and then I was working on Gone Home, I replayed System Shock 1, and it was sort of a surprise to me to realize there is no skill tree. There is no economy. This is about a place, and you as a character with a role in it. It has enemies in it, different ways you can address problems, but there's so much that we think of as being part of what an immersive sim is that is really just the version of it that we've arrived at.

Being able to say 'System Shock 1 is an immersive sim because it has a sense of place and it has you being able to fulfill a role within that space,' and so a game like Gone Home is kind of an exploration of how we apply that to a mundane setting. How we apply that to a space that's more familiar to you. How do we apply that to something where finding the audio diaries is the actual game, not just a thing you do while playing the game. Continuing to explore what else is already inside immersive sims is a really exciting thing to be able to do.

Warren: In some sense, actually, System Shock is actually the purest expression of what an immersive sim can and should be. All the character stats, upgradeable this and economy that, all that stuff you were talking about, it kind of turns things into a hybrid RPG-immersive sim thing that I love, I absolutely adore that kind of game, but in a sense if you're talking about the absolute purest form of the genre, for me it's going to be System Shock.

Ricardo: I don't have anything specific to say, other than the thing that's exciting to me is to see, Steve was talking about different ways it's affected other games, and I'm really interested in the family tree, or the lineage, of immersive sims. Seeing how that bleeds into other games. There's sort of a core essence to immersive sims. But I love it when people experiment with that. I think a game that draws from immersive sims doesn't have to be first person, for instance. There are some 2D games that sort of have that same fundamental philosophy of strong sense of place, plus very expressive interconnected game mechanics, that have come from the developers being fans of immersive sims, and that's why they made the game that way.

I love seeing more expressions of that sort of development philosophy in other genres and independent games. I don't have a super recent example, but I really loved Mark of the Ninja.

PC Gamer: Great game, yeah, from Klei.

Ricardo: That's a 2D game, or sidescroller, but just the way that you play that game, it's clearly founded on similar principles. Just the open-ended nature of the game mechanics. They're super fun. Like Steve was saying, the Gone Home and Tacoma-like games, they're more stripped down than the giant triple-A action immersive sim. But they're an interesting offshoot. I look forward to seeing more things like that. Offshoots that come from that lineage.

System Shock has never felt more relevant: it's getting a remake, and a sequel in Spector's SS3.

PC Gamer: Anything from Harvey?

Harvey: Yeah, in part, I would echo what other people have said, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. And the thought that comes up over and over is purity. Right now we have a lot of stuff that we've accreted that we put in through legacy or because commercial audiences deserve a game of a certain size in order to pay a certain amount for it. Just to do one of these games, with AI for instance, with physics interaction, with the scope of the game, the development budget is pretty large. There are all these forces that pressure you to go one way or the other. You either go full-on where it's got tons of stuff in it and layers and layers and lots of different ways for the player to switch playstyles as they're going, or you go the other way and strip it all down to the bare essence and find something interesting. Whether it's the setting or a particular form of interaction, a particular tool.

One of those works better in the commercial space and one works better in the indie space. For my money, I would love to have the opportunity to just play around with, what is the minimum, here? I appreciate the hell out of games like Gone Home, of course, because it was innovative and revolutionary in terms of subject matter and the feel as you play the game, it was one of my favorite games that year. But our games are so big in terms of economy and sheer scope that I would love to make a more stripped-down game, but I wouldn't want to sacrifice that magic moment that happens when you manage to get a turret up on the roof and hack it to your alliance, and then somebody you weren't expecting comes around the corner and your turret opens up on them, but you happen to be in the line of fire. A whole sequence of crazy improv events happen that you have to react to. 

The other thing I'm excited for for the future of immersive sims: I hope we come up with a better name.

Tom Francis

Some of the stuff is not just accreted baggage. It's where the actual synergistic gameplay comes from. Where it lives. And so it's thinking about how much do you need, and which do you need, that's not just painting by numbers. You know, 'oh it's an immersive sim, let's make the first code 0451 and add a crafting system or whatever.' The future is bright for deeply interactive games with a sense of presence.

Tom: The other thing I'm excited for for the future of immersive sims: I hope we come up with a better name. [laughs]

PC Gamer: I was actually going to ask, I don't know if it's common knowledge where the term came from. Was it a Kieron Gillen-coined term, or if it predated his writing on the genre.

Warren: I think Doug Church was the one who came up with that, isn't he? He's the first person I ever heard use it.

Harvey: I don't know, I remember a conversation with Rob Fermier, I think on Twitter, where we were trying to figure out where that term had come from. I think Rob's conclusion was that he first heard it from Doug, as well. 

Warren: Yeah, and we all hated it! It fell out of favor for awhile and recently it seems like it's come back. It's really odd.

PC Gamer: Has anyone come up with a description they like better?

Warren: No.

Ricardo: I don't know if it's better, but when we're talking generally with the press or gamers we avoid the term, because it sounds very inside baseball. We say first-person games with depth, instead, and then elaborate from there. But it is a bit technical.

Harvey: I like FPS-RPG hybrid.

Ricardo: Yeah, that works too.

Warren: Genre mash-up, yeah!

PC Gamer: So maybe by 2020 we'll have decided on a new name for the immersive sim. Well, I wish we could keep doing this. I could literally do this all day, makes my job easy. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for joining me! We should do it again. Maybe we can make it an annual immersive sim roundtable.

Warren: Sounds great. I'll have something to talk about next year.

PC Gamer

Update: The Good Bundle just got better with the addition of more than 20 games and pieces of content, including Among the Sleep and the soundtracks to Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac, and Desktop Dungeons. Steam keys from developers who have opted to provide them will also be made available, and the deadline has been extended as well, to 12 pm PT on December 1. 

Original story:

'Tis the season to save money. With many-a-Black Friday sales already underway, itch.io's A Good Bundle offers a stonking 151 indie games for $20 with 100 percent of proceeds being split between the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood charities. 

Similar to the likes of Humble Bundle's multi-tier format, spending $2 or more nets you 89 games; $8 or more gets you a load more while saving $114; and $20 or more nabs you the entire bundle, saving $451 in the process. 

It's worth noting that some games are otherwise free, and that the quality of some may not be as good as others—but for that price, not to mention the fact your money is going to exclusively to charity, this seems like a pretty good deal. 

"This is A Good Bundle," reads the bundle's description. "A bunch of creators are sharing their works to combat some of the ugliness in our world."

Particular highlights for me include the aforementioned Gone Home and Proteus, Read Only Memories, The Novelist and Raik. Have a gander at the list yourself and share your own favourites in the comments below. 

A Good Bundle is live on itch.io now until November 29.  

PC Gamer

Here's a nice thing to bookend a week that has not been very nice. Developer Fullbright has made its first-person snoop-'em-up Gone Home free to download on itch.io, "for people that need something about hope and love right now".

You have until the end of the weekend to grab it, and if you do so, it'll be yours to keep. You can also 'claim' it to your itch.io account, if you have one, and download the game at a later date.

What does PC Gamer think of Gone Home? Have a read of our review, or browse the 'gone home' tag to read some other interesting articles around the game.

PC Gamer

Ubisoft Toronto level design director Matt West will never approve a four-meter-high wall. Three-meter-high walls look scalable, he told me over the phone, and five-meter-high walls look unscalable, but four meters high? That s a confusing wall. You ve got to run up to it and mash a key to find out if you can climb it screw that, get rid of it.

West works on some of Ubisoft s big open world games, including Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal, which feature vast environments. At the same time, another level designer, Nina Freeman, is wondering what someone s bathroom might look like. Freeman started her career studying poetry in New York, where she developed an appreciation for 70s and 80s poets and vignettes about ordinary life and people s life experiences. She s now a level designer at Gone Home developer Fullbright, working on science fiction exploration game Tacoma, and thinking about how people live on a spaceship: What s on the dinner table? Who left a sock on the floor?

Putting a light at the end of a hallway, according to West, will nearly always attract the player s attention.

Freeman probably thinks about wall height too, but level design is such a broad pursuit that gunfights and Jeeps and mountain tops and stray socks exist in the same discipline. It involves psychology and storytelling and logic mechanisms and architecture and ecology. Rand Miller, one of the creators of Myst (along with his brother, Robyn Miller) and the recent Obduction, was designing levels nearly 30 years ago as black and white still frames, and says he still hasn t really figured it out yet completely.

I interviewed West, Freeman, and Miller as well as a couple other level designers over email looking for commonalities in their work. I wanted to see what sort of tricks they use to guide players. Putting a light at the end of a hallway, according to West, will nearly always attract the player s attention and that s the sort of thing I was after. But 10 wild and wacky tricks level designers use to totally Criss Angel mindfreak us didn t turn out to be exactly the story I found. What fascinated me is how much else these designers share in common, whether they re making a firefight or a puzzle or a crumpled note on a kitchen floor, and how they seek to gently guide us toward clever thoughts.

A lot has changed, but Obduction's Myst roots are clear.

Clear, but not obvious

West describes level design as the practical counterpart to game design s theoretical art if a creative director decides what kinds of decisions and experiences should be in a game, the level designer creates specific decisions and experiences. Even on the practical side of game design I found that there s a lot of theory, but wall height is important too. In the practical work and testing, you see echoes of the big ideas.

When there are boundaries that aren t walls, for instance, Warframe s lead level designer Ben Edney tries to make them clear, but at the same time, not obvious through differences in materials and lighting. Before having heard that, I coincidentally asked Miller how he makes his obscure worlds, which hint at puzzle solutions, clear, but not obvious. He laughed and acted flustered. That s one of the challenges he s been experimenting with throughout his life.

It s all experimental, as far as Miller is concerned. He got his start designing levels for children s games such as The Manhole. The advantage we had is it was just a mouse and one button, and we could sit a kid in front of it and watch what they do, and it was amazing how kids and adults did the same thing in front of those early games, said Miller. They d click on the same spot, you could entice them to click somewhere, entice them to go somewhere, and we had to figure out how to give them continuity, connect all the dots.

The Manhole was first released in 1988.

The advantage we had is it was just a mouse and one button, and we could sit a kid in front of it and watch what they do.

Rand Miller

As a puzzle designer, Miller has a somewhat unique perspective he wants players to be stumped, at least for a little bit but the dots should all be there to see so we can connect them. At one point in Obduction, the player is asked to restore power to a building (aren t we always) and the solution is to look up, see a powerline, and follow it, a literal connection.

It s amazing how many people, though, walk out of that hut and don t see it, don t put that together," said Miller. "But at some level, then, it s not up to me anymore. We did our job.

In that case, the powerline was enough. But watching testers fumble to make sure they only fumble so much does often lead to changes. The week before Obduction was released, for instance, Miller and the team added a license plate to a desk. We put it there because we were seeing a lack of connection, and hearing it from some of our testers, and that small little change gives people, a lot of times, just the push it might even be subconscious a subconscious push to make a connection to something that was important in that space.

Heavy testing ensures you can't fuse with a rock in Warframe.

Finding a path

Aside from keeping players on track with well-placed license plates, I heard a few things that might be called tricks that Criss Angel headline isn t bad, so don t count it out for the future such as using enemy pathing to direct the player. But what I found more of were good old fashioned architectural principles, such as what Warframe s Edney calls hierarchy of space.

This is essentially designing our crazy sci-fi levels with the same considerations one might plan a new building in the real world, Edney wrote. Main through-paths are open, clear of obstacles, and generally inviting when first entering a room. Side rooms and access hallways are tighter, more defined in their usage and utilitarian.

The same goes for Freeman and Tacoma. She s concerned with spaces people live in, and how they re laid out in our world be it natural or cultural, it s what we already experience. Bedrooms are typically tucked away in the backs of houses, not the front. More fundamentally human, if you find a kitchen, you should probably find a bathroom somewhere in the same area. Granted, Tacoma takes place on a spaceship, so there s also room for set pieces that aren t going to be totally plausible but as long as they re plausible enough the player can get around with their already-learned understanding of architecture.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist's levels are about giving players lots of paths.

In the world, there definitely are dead ends, and I ve had level designers kind of glibly inform me of that fact.

Matt West

Good architecture is one aspect, but designers have to support the game design as well, and give players the opportunity for clever solutions a game where you can scale walls would suck if 90 percent of walls weren t scalable. And there s balance to find between complex mazes and stifling linearity.

Earlier in West s career he worked on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which he describes as linear, but Splinter Cell linear meaning that there was always more than one way to approach a problem. There d be a center path, more brightly lit and obvious than the others, for instance, and contrasting paths to either side. Maybe one goes to the left and below and the other to the right and above. And all of them should feel like good choices.

In the world, there definitely are dead ends, and I ve had level designers kind of glibly inform me of that fact, said West. But in a game, it just takes the wind right out of your sails. The whole thing is about making players feel smart, making players feel like they re intuitively selecting good routes, but then smacking into a wall? That is a personal pet peeve of mine.

Now that he works on open world games, West has many more paths to think about than he did with Splinter Cell as many as the players want. Out there in the wild, big landmarks in the distance give guidance, and that s a major principle of Obduction s design as well: there s literally a big red beam on the horizon. You can t even see what the source is, said Miller. But we knew when we put it there that everyone would head over that direction, of course they do.

The open spaces of the Far Cry series give West even more freedom to let players make choices.

Opening up

For West, open world level design is about getting out of the player s way, letting them tell their own story. It s almost like you re dressing kids to go play outside in the winter, he said, recalling a conversation with a recently-hired junior level designer. You re giving them scarves, hats, and boots and all that stuff, but eventually they re going to go outside and throw snowballs. So we re just preparing them so that they can do that stuff, but we re not telling them to throw exactly 13 snowballs and then take cover behind a tree.

He has another metaphor: a buffet table with all the different types of foods the player could want. The food is actually elements of the game design and different playstyles, of course so if the player wants to stealthily eat a banana, it s there. If they want to throw a steak at someone, that s an option as well. I might be mixing up his metaphors. The point is that West tells young designers to pull back on any urge to design specific action sequences.

You re giving them scarves, hats, and boots and all that stuff, but eventually they re going to go outside and throw snowballs.

Matt West

The player is the best storyteller, said West. If I see this kind of elaborate set up, and the level designer is saying, Enemies are going to come in from here, and then there s going to be a big swinging scythe, and then you have to jump to this spot, and turn and fire, I will just turn around and tell her, No, we re not doing that. We re going to say the scythes can be there, and the enemies can be there, but there s got to be three or four or five ways to get out of this situation.

There's only one way to go at the start of Obduction.

Miller also employs open areas and branching paths, and our conversation took West s thoughts about preparing players further. Miller compares games to trips to foreign countries, in that the unfamiliarity can be stressful at first.

We realized that providing people completely wide open space to start with, with options in every direction that you can just click anywhere and do anything is not a very reassuring way to start a game, he said. People don t respond well to that. They feel a little inhibited, they are uncomfortable with so many options.

As a result, Obduction begins in a cave which is very similar to Fallout 3 starting in a vault with only one direction to go. Outside of the cave, there s a canyon that begins to widen. (West also mentioned that widening paths attract players, while narrowing corridors do the opposite.) As the canyon widens, there s still only one way to go the world is expanding, but the player is still comfortably going in one direction and then a man gives you a goal: go to the house with the white picket fence.

It was very deliberate that we gave you the goal before we branched open the path, said Miller. Because now you have the assurances of, Well I have the white picket fence in my pocket, I know I can go there eventually, and you feel the freedom to start making some choices without anxiety. Now it s interesting to see what players do depending on their style, whether they re rebellious and like, Screw you, I m not going to the white house with the white picket fence, I m going over here to the second path that you didn t tell me to go on.

Well, they can act all rebellious but the fact of the matter is they re only doing that, they only have that rebellion in them, because they have the security of the little goal in the distance.

Tacoma's design is about the spaces regular people inhabit (in space).

Plausible spaces

Freeman is less interested in how players might find their way through a canyon, and more interested in the little details of life. She loves the bar in the game Catherine, for instance, where the player can sit with friends, go to the bathroom and look at their phone, play an arcade game. It s all these little, little moments, and I like that stuff because that s just what I do every day, she said. And I think ordinary life is interesting and I like to see the ways in which these game designers are putting their characters into those situations, and what those spaces are like. I m always just like, Put more bars in your videogames!

I m always just like, Put more bars in your videogames!

Nina Freeman

Her focus on Tacoma is making spaces that feel lived-in, and it was her previous game, Cibele, that led her to Fullbright. The kind of level design I was doing on [Cibele] was, How do I design an in-game computer that feels plausible and feels lived in, very similar to how someone might design a bedroom in Gone Home or something, said Freeman. She had never designed a 3D level before joining Fullbright, but a penchant for designing around authentic stories was there. Tacoma is definitely about ordinary lives and people who feel like you could know them, like they could be your neighbor. That s what we share despite coming from different backgrounds.

While Freeman s focus is heavier on tasking players with putting together the remnants of an ordinary life connecting dots in a different way than in Obduction, or in Far Cry 4 all three designers share a desire to build plausible spaces.

A machine in Obduction needs a reason to be.

"The puzzles have to fit the world as best as possible, at least the way we do it," said Miller. "Jonathan Blow loves to feature the puzzles, so his levels, the puzzles that are there just in some ways can be arbitrary, because the thing is the puzzle. But I think what we've done and what we've gotten to in our little niche, what we do, we're trying to balance all three of the legs that I think are interactive: the environment, the puzzles, or whatever the friction is, and the story."

He added later that it s a pain in the ass.

We have people who are in charge of those aspects. So the art guy may come up with a visually stunning looking piece of equipment, but the story guy goes, That doesn t make sense, that couldn t be in this world, and we have to figure that out. The same goes in any direction puzzles that don t fit the story, story that doesn t fit the art. It must be cohesive.

For West, a level design could start as a sketch on a soggy bar napkin (he actually once approved a bar napkin scrawl as an initial design) or an MS Paint drawing, but from there he believes collaboration with artists is vital so that they don t get handed this dodecahedron that s done in this gray flat texture and get told to turn it into a carousel. He wants to see plausible spaces, and he makes a point of saying that it s a team effort, that the best level designers are the ones who work well with their artists.

Even if the character has to do absurd things in them, West wants levels to be believable.

The best level designers are the ones who work well with their artists.

Matt West

A typical level designer can be seen as a balancer of Miller s three legs environment, obstacles, and story which I prefer to call 'Miller's Pillars.' The other part of their challenge might best be summed up by that phrase I stumbled on earlier: be clear, but not obvious.

In Cibele, Freeman wants players to discover a folder of photos on a desktop, and later put together themselves why it s there and what it means to the character. Miller wants players to have a cognitive rush as they discover how his puzzles and worlds fit together, without ever telling them explicitly how it all works. West wants players to choose their own path and feel good about it without being guided too closely to know where to go, but to tell their own personal story on the way.

These level designers don't want to tell us what to do or think, but to guide us gently like good parents. I think it s telling that Miller delights that there s no difference between what adults and children click on, and West thinks of the player as a kid getting dressed to play in the snow.

It's a good principle, but of course these are hardly the only game design philosophies. Miller doesn't make puzzle games like Jonathan Blow makes them, for instance. A favorite game of mine, Lovely Planet, forces players to perfectly execute the designer s vision in an entirely implausible world a very strict parent in an abstract shapeland. West would never design a shooter like that. Miller would wonder if the planet could actually be three planets, connected by giant gears. Freeman would add a bar.

So there are methods but not rules, and every level designer brings their own experiences and ideas to the task. But however I'm guided toward a designer's conclusions, I like it best when I'm shown the way, but not told.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

Oh, Tacoma [official site], where the wind comes sweeping down the nacelles. This is the next game from Gone Home folks Fullbright, and this time we’re in space, and there are people. Well, sort of. The below 15 minutes of footage from the start of the game gives a clearer picture of how this is going to work, and its similarities and dissimilarities to the cupboard-rummaging and diary-reading of Gone Home. There’s a train ride, a musical interlude, and most important of all, SPACE BLANKETS.

… [visit site to read more]

Announcement - Valve
Today's Deal: Save 80% on Gone Home!*

Look for the deals each day on the front page of Steam. Or follow us on twitter or Facebook for instant notifications wherever you are!

*Offer ends Monday at 10AM Pacific Time
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brendan Caldwell)

What’s your favourite thing about spacetime? Mine is that it goes wobbly. In All The Delicate Duplicates [official site], we are promised that wobbliness will occur. It will tell the story of John, a computer engineer, as he inherits a bunch of strange objects from ‘Aunt Mo’. Along with his daughter Charlotte, he starts to notice that the objects – glass bottles, lanterns, illustrations – all have some kind of otherworldly properties. It isn’t long before things get weird. Come watch the trailer after the jump.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Check under the Christmas Spaceduck.

Given The Fullbright Company’s background with 0451 games (its founders were behind BioShock 2’s DLC chapter Minerva’s Den), their next game going into space makes more a little uneasy. Watching five minutes of gameplay from the Gone Home folks’ spaceborne second game, Tacoma [official site], part of me is on edge waiting to hear a System Shock 2 protocol droid mutter “This place is a terrible mess” or hear a midwife’s eerie call of “I’ll tear out your spine.”

That doesn’t come, or at least not in this video. Or as far as I can tell, anyway, as two folks from Game Informer are gabbing over the top of it.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

A (hopefully) weekly series, in which the RPS hivemind gathers to discuss/bicker about/mock the most pressing (or at least noisiest) issues in PCgamingland right now. Hot Takes are go.>

Alec: OMG THIS IS GOING TO BE THE MOST AMAZING HOT TAKE EVER. By which I mean, today we are discussing hype and videogames and if that helps or hurts them and helps or hurts us. The prompt for this is Hello Games chat with Pip last week, in which they mourned the crushing weight of expectation placed upon them as a result of having made some pretty good trailers for their space exploration game. I guess we re going to struggle to avoid a touch of physician heal thyself here, but anyway. How do we feel about how the world feels about No Man s Sky? … [visit site to read more]

Announcement - Valve
Today's Deal: Save 88% on Gone Home!*

Look for the deals each day on the front page of Steam. Or follow us on twitter or Facebook for instant notifications wherever you are!

*Offer ends Tuesday at 10AM Pacific Time

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