Problem: Explosive Gel introduces inconsistencies to the game that can break immersion.
I’ve seen a number of games that utilize terrain destruction to some degree, such as blowing through a wall or using a crane to remove an obstacle. This can draw the player into the world, and make the experience seem more immersive, but it can also backfire. Interacting with an object can remind the player about all these other objects nearby that the player can’t interact with, and remind them that they’re just playing a game.
Arkham Asylum’s explosive gel, as cool as it is, fell a little too far on the latter side for me.
- Certain walls can be destroyed entirely, but other walls will be completely unharmed by the explosive gel. I could apply the gel a hundred times, and not even chip the masonry. This reminds me that I’m not really in this world – it’s just a game engine.
- It violates Batman’s character. Batman carefully avoids killing or using any kind of lethal force against his foes, yet he doesn’t mind detonating a patch of explosive when a guy is one foot away. Sure, the game will tell me he’s only unconscious, but it still seems like a risk Batman wouldn’t take – unless he knew he was in a video game, and the bad guys will never get killed. Again, it reminds me that it’s only a game, and breaks my immersion.
- How much explosive gel is Batman carrying? He seems to have an unlimited amount, which makes me want to be able to apply it liberally to blow down doors, or pour out a bunch to blow through some weak flooring. As a player, I know that more of an explosive agent = a bigger explosion, but I can’t choose to have Batman use more explosive. It breaks my feeling of control over Batman.
The problem is that we, as players, know what explosions do. They destroy anything. But the explosions of Arkham Asylum have a different set of rules, where they destroy certain specific things, stun other things, and don’t affect most things at all. Explosive gel can end up feeling more like a different kind of keycard than a cool explosive device.
Solution: Change Explosive Gel to a more technological item.
Instead of explosive gel, I’d have Batman carry another device to accomplish the same effect. Let’s call it a Bat-Sonic Device for now.
The Bat-Sonic Device has the same gameplay features as the explosive gel:
- When placed on a weak wall, it vibrates the masonry until it crumbles.
- If a bad guy is close enough, the sonic screeching will overload his senses and knock him unconscious.
- When activated, it makes a noise that attracts enemies to its location.
- It’s disposable, at least as much as the Batarang and explosive gel are.
The Bat-Sonic Device also avoids the problems of the explosive gel.
- When placed on a strong wall, the masonry is supported and not susceptible to vibration.
- It’s more technological, and less messy than explosions, which feels more Batman-like.
- There’s no risk of killing an enemy with sonic waves.
- The player doesn’t know how the Bat-Sonic Device works. They don’t expect two Devices to be twice as powerful as one – maybe some quirk of this technology is that the sonic waves from two Devices just don’t interact with each other at all.
The more general principle here is that, when designing a game, you shouldn’t utilize known interactions between objects unless you’re prepared to handle every possible interaction of those objects. By ‘known examples of interactions between objects,’ I mean explosions, setting things on fire, hitting things with a sledgehammer, or even just climbing on a box. How many games have you played where you see an object that looks like you should be able to jump or climb on it, but you can’t?
These are actions we innately understand, from our lives or from movies. Explosions destroy things, fire burns wood and paper quickly, sledgehammers can tear a chunk out of concrete, and we can climb on anything about chest-height (or higher, depending on how athletic our protagonist is).
Many games avoid this problem by limiting ‘every possible interaction’ to one – such as jumping in a stationary crane to lift an object out of the way. Many ignore the problem entirely – look at any game with grenades, where they go off with a boom and a flash, but no real damage to the scenery around them – but they ignore it consistently.
I’m looking forward to more games like Red Faction: Guerrilla, to embrace the possibilities of interaction. That game avoided inconsistency with the destructive power of explosives by simply letting the player destroy everything, even mission-critical buildings and vehicles. After playing RF:G, it’s hard to go back to games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, where I can clearly tell that my power to interact with the environment is just a thin veneer over a traditional, linear level design.
(I feel like I should mention again that my comments on the game’s design flaws do not necessarily indicate that I disliked the game. Arkham Asylum is a totally amazing experience. I just don’t know why they gave me explosives if they didn’t want me to explode everything that gets in my way!)
Problem: Conflicts self-escalate and self-perpetuate
Here’s a situation. You’re heading towards an objective, and you pass by one of the EDF Supply Crates that you’re supposed to destroy. You saunter over and take a swing at it with your sledgehammer. A trooper across the street sees you destroying their property, and starts firing. As you take cover, a car pulls up, and several guerillas jump out to ‘assist’ you. They kill the trooper. More troopers show up. They kill more. Pretty soon, the EDF is at red alert, there’s APCs climbing over each other and gunships sniping you from above, and there’s no hope of actually reaching your objective – all because you decided to take a swing at an optional target.
It’s even worse if you start shooting back. The EDF has an unending supply of troops, and as soon as you shoot one of them, they all seem to know where you are. This means that, despite the game’s title, guerrilla tactics don’t work – if you want to ‘hit and run,’ the only place you can run to is your safehouse, a minute or two away…and it’s likely that the EDF will respawn by the time you get back.
It’s not entirely uncommon in open-world games, since destroying cops rightfully tends to attract the attention of more cops. However, Red Faction: Guerrilla has two design choices that aggravate the problem. First, if the area supports you, guerrillas will arrive and fight with you during combat. That’s really cool, except that there’s no way to let the Red Faction know when to knock it off and disengage. Second, there’s no Pay n’ Spray (from the GTA series) or equivalent to allow the player to escape pursuit or lose their alert level. They can retreat to a safehouse, but there are only a handful of those scattered across the entire game world.
Solution 1: Add ‘disengage’ logic to guerrilla AI
With a few tweaks to their AI, the guerrillas can be helpful to an escaping player, rather than dragging them into further conflicts.
First, we need a way to identify when the player is attempting to evade instead of fight. It doesn’t need to be a very complicated system, though. Just keep a hidden numerical variable to track the player’s attitude. Once per second: +1 if the player doesn’t fire a weapon. +1 if they don’t cause any damage. +1 if they’re sprinting. +1 if they don’t take any damage. +3 if no enemy units have line of sight. -3 if the player fires a weapon. -5 if they cause damage. -1 if they take damage. -50 every time the alert level increases. If the number gets to 50 or above, the player is considered to be evading, rather than fighting. If they take actions to lower their number again, their status can change back to fighting.
If the player is evading, their guerrilla allies attempt to help them escape. They stop trying to kill the EDF, and start laying down suppressive fire, moving away from the battlefield, and looking for vehicles to escape in. As they disengage, the EDF assumes they’ve won the conflict, and the alert level drops rapidly.
If the player is evading and on foot, running away from the conflict, they will get a radio message that a prepared vehicle is being sent for them. Shortly thereafter, a vehicle will pull up nearby. If the player takes this vehicle and avoids any illegal behavior for a short while, their alert level will drop. (The vehicle is nondescript, radar-camouflaged, a diplomatic vehicle…any explanation is just as good as another.) This ‘pull-up-and-leave-a-vehicle’ behavior already exists in the game, so the only change that needs to be made is causing the vehicle to affect the player’s alert level.
Solution 2: Create stealth abilities the player can purchase and use
Another way to allow the player to escape is to give them more control over escaping from a conflict.
In Red Faction: Guerrilla, the player has an NPC ally, Samanya, who offers them weapon and item upgrades in exchange for salvage (currency). As an armor upgrade, Sam will offer stealth upgrades to the player’s heavy Martian coat. The player would activate these abilities by holding down the Crouch button (L3 on PS3), and the abilities would last until they draw a weapon or take damage. They can use their stealth as much as they want, although high-tech stealth solutions have a cooldown time before they can be used again. Red Faction: Guerrilla is still an action game, not stealth action, so the player shouldn’t be able to rely on stealth for offense too often.
At the beginning of the game, all the player can do is turn up their collar, hide their weapon, and try to look nonchalant. Even this can be helpful for disappearing into a crowd.
1/4 way through the game, Samanya offers the player a quick-change coat, which can rapidly be turned inside out or otherwise modified to appear as a different style of clothing.
1/2 way through the game, the player can purchase automatic camouflage, similar to Old Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4. If they crouch and move slowly, their coat will automatically change color to match the closest surface. This makes long-range attackers, especially gunships, much less likely to notice and attack the player, and allows the player to attempt evasion even with no civilians nearby.
3/4 way through the game, true invisibility becomes available. The invisibility cloak only lasts for a few seconds and has a recharge time, but it allows the player to move to a different hiding spot, climb in a vehicle unnoticed, or slip past an EDF blockade.
None of these items offer a perfect escape from a conflict, but they all allow a player to have more control over their attempt to escape. They’ll also promote more guerrilla tactics, where a player can strike at the EDF then disappear into the crowd, without being drawn into an extended conflict.