Monday, March 23, 2009

Best of Both Worlds

A while ago I spoke with the head of a computer game development company. He explained to me that from an economics perspective, it's really important to keep the perspective on the player as a client of your company:
Imagine a graph of the player's enjoyment over time. The ideal arcade game starts the player with an amazing level of enjoyment, like eating chocolate cake with naked supermodels. Then after a minute or so, the enjoyment drops to zero so they put in another quarter.

Retail games are totally different. You only get their $50 once, meaning you want them playing the game as long as possible. This is so they'll recommend the game to friends. Having an absolutely amazing first minute isn't as important as long term playability and the general amount of content.
His comments stuck with me. A game designer needs to understand why players are supposed to enjoy the game, and whether it's more important to spend resources in one area or another. An arcade style game should focus on eye-candy and general visual "bling", including modern pay-as-you-go online games. The latest flavor of PC and console games only need enough eye-candy to initially attract people, and then get more mileage from more content. No one is happy with a pretty game that's finished in 3 hours.

He implicitly made one other point. Games are a tool for invoking emotional responses. He measured enjoyment, but games have the power to make us laugh and cry. They can frustrate us and make us rejoice. They can make us feel fearful and triumphant. It takes a truly brilliant game to do all of these things.

For me, that game is Thief: The Dark Project, from Looking Glass Studios. And by Thief, I also include the amazing sequel, Thief 2: The Metal Age. If you are unfamiliar with the game, I recommend watching Yahtzee's review at Zero Punctuation. It's delivered in his usual style of sarcasm and obscenities, but it's a very good review.

To summarize, Thief is a game that's the categorical opposite of a standard shooter. Rather than being armed with a dozen different firearms and enough ammunition to kill an entire brigade of bad guys, you play the role of Garrett, the master thief. Garrett is so weak that he's likely to die if he's involved in a fair fight with even one guard. Your whole job is to make sure that you never have to fight fair, ideally by avoiding fights altogether. The missions generally involve breaking into and out of heavily armed facilities, with every level providing a multitude of ways to approach it.

For example, to break into a manor, you might climb up onto the second floor and break a window to get in, sneak around to the back door and pick the lock, or knock out man guarding the front door. Each option has different challenges and benefits. Breaking a window is noisy and sure to attract guards to investigate, but being on the second floor means you're much closer to wherever the lord is keeping his valuables.

As a character, Garrett is a typical anti-hero, something I found refreshingly more believable than the standard do-gooder hero of today's games. Garrett is self-centered, distrusting, arrogant, and apathetic. He just wants to steal enough valuables to retire in style. But he's also extremely clever, and as a character, he is manipulated into both putting the world in danger and saving it through his natural reactions. Garrett only wants to save the world because it implicitly saves his own skin, and he'd rather not put himself in that much danger. But he doesn't have a choice, and the puppeteers in the game know this and take advantage of him because of it. To me, that's a much more believable character than an obscenely powerful special ops soldier who fights evil terrorists Just Because He's That Nice Of A Guy! I won't spoil the story because even after 10 years, it's still excellent.

I found the gameplay intense because it was the first game where I felt genuine fear. I'm not talking about the kind of frightening situations they'd put in a game like Resident Evil, where a zombie pops up out of nowhere and charges at you. That contains all the subtlety of a carnival funhouse. There's a difference between frightening and feeling fear. True fear comes from an impending sense of dread and worry, and that's something a zombie surprise cannot deliver. In Thief, however, you spend the entire game as a weakling. You know that if you make a single mistake, a whole slew of guards can appear and bring a world of hurt. So the entire game is spent wondering if you are hiding in a dark enough shadow, or if you can find a nearby window to jump through if things go downhill.

I'm so impressed that a game could do such a great job of bringing out a variety of emotions. In the space of one minute, you can go from suspense to fear to terror, and then feel extremely pleased with yourself by barely escaping death and finding a well hidden piece of treasure. And never have I played a game where the main character was so despicable, and yet I found myself liking him anyway.

I know that games should either be a lot of fun for a little bit of time, or a little fun for a long time. But somehow Thief manages to be the best of both worlds. The gameplay is always intense, and the story is so good that it hasn't gotten old in the half dozen times I've replayed the game. Somehow, this game embodies the best of both worlds. And while Looking Glass Studios is no more, I hope that someday someone makes another game as good as Thief.


Andrew said...

I have had similar experiences of mood changes in Deus Ex (that training level for starters, talk about forced stealth and battles making me paranoid - didn't have a light gem though), and STALKER (ohcrapohcrapmygunjammed wherethehellisthathunterthing shititwentinvisible!). The first person view really helps I think - a technical decision that does make an important impact on the emotional side of playing.

Ted Vessenes said...

Great point about first person mode versus third person mode. Thief 3 defaults to third person, which ultimately felt like cheating to me. A core part of the fun is NOT knowing who or what is behind a corner and having to guess. The third person view lets you see almost 180 degrees in the mid range and a full 360 degrees for stuff up close, so all the tension of "where should I be looking?" is lost.

I eventually decided that first person mode was the only way to enjoy the game. For what it's worth, I think Thief 3 is still a great game, but it's not as good as Thief 1 or 2. This is primarily because of the climbing gloves, but I suppose that's a discussion for another time.