Electron Dance

Into The Black

Obsolete Ring

Developer Orihaus made a short game called Obsolete for last year's 7DFPS challenge. There are two ways to approach Obsolete.

Option A is the obvious one, play. You can bask in the cold, abstract visuals and finish all of the levels. You can then file it away and pat yourself on the back for killing off another bite-sized game that you'll quickly forget.

Option B is to tell the rules to go fuck themselves. You can look away from the bright neon glow of the place where mechanics roam. You can go out there: into the black.    

dark striptease

Obsolete is shy, which is just how I like my games, and it is up to the player to figure the game out. This has proved problematic for some players, but the game and I were good together. Obsolete is essentially one of those silly visual metaphors for hacking that TV and film are addicted to because, let's face it, hacking looks boring. It looks like typing. And typing looks boring. Don't get me wrong; Obsolete is gorgeous.

The player starts in the middle of a brightly-lit helical structure and, despite the lack of instruction, everything you need to interact with is right in front of you. Valve would be proud with this attempt to guide the player without paragraphs of textual wisdom or the voice-over from an in-game friend. All the important shiny things stand out. Here you are. Do this.

Below is a picture of the first level of Obsolete; the player begins more or less in the middle of it facing the minimalist instruction panel on the left. I have had to pull back a bit to show you the full structure. But look carefully and you will there are some faint shapes in the bottom of the image.

Obsolete First Level

It is easy to become ensnared in the game directly in front of you and not even stop to take a moment to look around. If the player were to look up at the start of the game, this is what they would see:

Obsolete Upwards

The dark space surrounding the helix is far from empty. It's just scenery. Something to look pretty, provide contrast. It is the negative space to complement the mechanic-endowed positive space where the player is supposed to do stuff.

Yet if you decide to approach these shapes, there is a surprise waiting for you. Let me edge back a little more and show you.

Obsolete Retreating

Not all of the objects are visible at first glance and when you step tentatively into the darkness, a crowd of objects is revealed. It's like a pane of glass has been shattered across the level although it is less chaotic than it seems. Some of the shapes look organised as if there is purpose here, but the pattern to things eludes your grasp.

The next surprise is that most of the objects are solid and because they are invisible when approached head on, you often find yourself bumping into these blocks. Each time I move out a little further, I see more shapes and formations, beckoning towards infinity.

Let me keep going back. Now I can barely see the helix, a tiny star in the sky... and there is still more to see. How far do these objects stretch?

Obsolete Far From Home

Deeper still and eventually the helix vanishes into the distance. Although it gets harder to see anything and there are fewer objects out here, there is still a sense of order in what I see.

Obsolete Grey Formation

Surely there must be an end somewhere? Where is the edge of this space? Eventually I hit what seems to be the final object in this direction: a towering monolith. It does not care that I have found it.

Obsolete End of Universe Monolith

I see nothing beyond the monolith but I am not going to give up this easily. I work my way around to the other side just in case there is something else out there, just out of sight, but it does seem there is nothing else to see. The universe ends here, there is only the void now. Although merely a game, I am concerned that if I leave the monolith behind in pursuit of some other object out there in the black, I will become lost. Why do I care about that? This is just a game. But that infinite darkness, now very real, is terrifying.

I turn around and realise... I am already lost. Which way is the helix now? There are no markers here and I left no trail behind me. So the irony is I still have to travel into darkness, hoping I am going in the right direction, towards objects that will point me back to the helix. The monolith starts to feel like a tombstone.

It is not often that games let players become irretrievably lost. In an early version of Proteus, you could get lost in the ocean. I once travelled off the island, wondering if there were any surprises to find out there. I swam until the sun set and then turned around to swim back towards the shore.

I never made it back.

end of the wandering stars

This is all very cool, but do I have a point?

I have spent a great deal of time exploring the dark wilderness of Obsolete's levels and what it reminded me of most were the hours I spent in Flight Simulator II (subLOGIC, 1984) on the Atari 8-bit computer.

In FSII, it took a long time getting around. I embarked on hour-long journeys across the map, using VORs to triangulate my position as I travelled, always hoping to spot something new. Structures in FSII were few and far between because there were severe limits to 3d graphics on a 1.79Mhz processor. I would watch in awe as dots appeared on the horizon, the game flashing off a bit of thigh, making me wonder if I had found a new freeway or building. It was a slow striptease which made the moments more powerful than if I had just been speeding around in a jet car.

Flight Simulator II (Atari 8-bit)

I used a couple of FSII mission books to provide some direction. The missions were mainly a mixture of scenery spotting and tricky challenges but there were also... missions based around glitches. Missions that would take you to see things that were not supposed to be there. The unnatural.

IBM PC Flight Simulator - Pyramid

That's what navigating the black in Obsolete is like, charting a place where some power has deposited all the glitches in the world. And yet... the glitches often look purposeful. The monolith at the end of the universe. The stairway to nowhere. The haunted echo of a city that cannot exist.

Obsolete City

Videogames are lauded for their imaginative landscapes yet, despite this, critics and players often denigrate these environments with demands for purpose. It is not enough to merely exist; the developer god must corrupt places with mechanics, poison them with meaning. Proof of intelligent design must be demonstrated through challenges or collectibles. The journey itself is never enough.

In Dishonored, Robert Yang says the Heart is a trick to make us explore the environment, duping players into chasing runes to the far reaches of each map. The beautiful junglescape of Far Cry 2 is studded with diamonds, and we are granted a bog standard gamey magick that helps us track them down. What we think is a stupid fetch quest is a ruse to send us on safari.

But I wonder if we are beginning to reject such subterfuge. In FUEL (Codemasters, 2009) I quit the races and vista points but still drove around its post-apocalyptic landscape just for the joy of it. Phill Cameron wrote a travelogue describing a three-hour trek across the map of Just Cause 2. These are days when titles like Proteus and Dear Esther can find an audience.

Maybe we are ready again for such negative spaces in games, stripped of shiny trinkets and mechanical potential. Places that just are.

Places that wait for players to find them.

Obsolete Final Image

Addendum (31 Jan)

Originally I wanted to write about spending time in the dark corners of games where there's no reason to go. The idea of mechanics intruding only occurred to me in the final draft and it was too late to really dig into that topic especially as a Firefox crash obliterated an hour's worth of writing.

What I should have written about is the overjustification effect where an activity we enjoy for its own sake is spoilt by incentives. Taken from Wikipedia:

In one of the earliest demonstrations of this effect, Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett selected a population of 3–5-year-old children who displayed intrinsic interest in the activity of drawing. In the experiment, they divided the children into three groups. The experimenters offered and would give the first group of children a "good player" ribbon for drawing. They offered nothing to the second group, but would give them the same reward. They did not offer and would not give anything to the third group. Later, when observed in a free-play setting, the first group engaged significantly less in the activity of drawing, while the other groups' behavior did not change. The researchers concluded that expected rewards undermine intrinsic motivation in previously enjoyable activities.

I love exploring but I've noticed that when shiny trinkets are lying around I direct my exploration towards gathering the trinkets - until they are exhausted. At that point, I stop exploring.

This is why I think something like Proteus works so well, it's free of achievements. You don't even have anything telling you when you're "done" or "not done". I think this is possibly one of the most important takeaways for games with exploration in them. Make exploration its own reward and stop injecting mechanic-collagen into the process. Stop this plastic exploration. There you are. That's my new term.

Those who wouldn't normally explore - why are you making them do this? Making them spend their time walking around looking for a bunch of practically meaningless power pills? Those who love to explore - why give them power pills for something they will enjoy anyway?

I'm not suggesting we need to eliminate collectibles in games, but I am suggesting developers should think carefully about the intention of them.

(A version of this addendum was originally written in the comments below.)


  • I originally played Obsolete after it was featured on freeindiegam.es. After realising Eurogamer Expo title Dirac was made by the same developer, I was encouraged to play Obsolete a second time and that is when I started exploring the space around each level.
  • Orihaus is also working on a title called AEON.
  • Click any of the Obsolete images above for the original 1920x1200 resolution version.
  • Since posting this article, Orihaus has also released another short game called Césure where there is nothing to do but explore. Highly recommended if you are into exploration games. Surreal and oddly uncomfortable.

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Comments (0) Trackbacks (2)
  1. I was sure I wrote a comment here already. I lost that too?

    I lost an hour’s worth of work in WordPress last night – I was already in final draft – and whenever this happens and I have to rewrite from memory, it rarely feels as crisp as the first version. Something is missing, somehow. Let us mourn the original version together.

  2. Lost, drifting out in the black, forever occluded behind the dead expression of a black monolith.

    I like the point you make about exploration and how it provides a satisfying, rewarding and often unique experience of itself.

    The counterargument can be made that with games such as Far Cry 3, no matter what you might find within that world it is always only a framework for the core mechanical experience; exploration is an adjunct to the game’s nougat centre itself. So there are beautiful vistas to be witnessed, sure, but hanging over that is the knowledge that a patrol might pass by at any moment and begin shooting at you, drawing you back. Similarly, the game’s use of fast travel mechanics and towers that ‘unlock’ the surrounding areas directly act against exploratory impulses. You might equally enjoy the beautiful sights presented by the latest edition of 3Dmark.

    When I read this piece a second time, your passage about exploring off-piste in your very first moments within the game reminded me of Call of Duty: Black Ops, where the main menu affords secret exploration gameplay – of limited scope, but it’s there.

    Games that put exploration at the core of the experience, though… they’re a different affair. Whether they’re Proteus, open-world games such as Bethesda’s output, or roguelikes where exploring the world is indelibly among the game’s verbs.

  3. @ShaunCG: Oh that’s very poetic you stupid tosser, using “black” twice in the same sentence. Pretentious wanker.

  4. Shaun,

    I know what you mean, but I’m not sure I’m bothered as much about random game mechanics popping up as I am about “incentivized exploration”.

    Originally I wanted to write about spending time in the dark corners of games where there’s no reason to go. The idea of mechanics intruding only occurred to me in the final draft and it was too late to really dig into that topic. What I should have written about is the overjustification effect where an activity we enjoy for its own sake is spoilt by incentives.

    Taken from the Wikipedia page I linked above:
    “In one of the earliest demonstrations of this effect, Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett selected a population of 3–5-year-old children who displayed intrinsic interest in the activity of drawing. In the experiment, they divided the children into three groups. The experimenters offered and would give the first group of children a “good player” ribbon for drawing. They offered nothing to the second group, but would give them the same reward. They did not offer and would not give anything to the third group. Later, when observed in a free-play setting, the first group engaged significantly less in the activity of drawing, while the other groups’ behavior did not change. The researchers concluded that expected rewards undermine intrinsic motivation in previously enjoyable activities.”

    I love exploring but I’ve noticed that when shiny trinkets are lying around I direct my exploration towards gathering the trinkets – until the trinkets are exhausted. Then I stop exploring.

    This is why I think something like Proteus works so well, it’s free of achievements. You don’t even have anything telling you when you’re “done” or “not done”. I think this is possibly one of the most important takeaways for games with exploration in them. Make exploration its own reward and stop injecting mechanic-collagen into the process. Stop this plastic exploration. There you are. That’s my new term.

    Those who wouldn’t normally explore – why are you making them do this? Making them spend their time walking around looking for a bunch of virtually meaningless power pills? Those who LOVE to explore – why give them power pills for something they will enjoy anyway?

    On Twitter, Frank Lantz said he disagreed, saying Obsolete needed more gameplay not less. I can’t argue with that – my point was about the developers interfering with exploration – and the core game of Obsolete is fairly thin (it is, after all, a 7DFPS game) and there was a reason I hadn’t written about it before. It’s gorgeous, but there were no design lessons to be learned… at least that’s what I thought on first play.

    This morning, Orihaus confirmed on Twitter that little attention went into the formations around each level as they were procedurally generated. I think Obsolete is a great case of art-by-accident; by making the background somewhere we can explore and limiting how far the player can see into it creates this perfect cocktail. There are a handful of real secrets out there – I found a couple – but they are completely superfluous. I didn’t go out there looking for secrets.

    I’m not suggesting we need to eliminate collectibles in games, but I am suggesting developers should think carefully about the intention of them.

  5. I find this article especially interesting given that, moments ago, I read this article on Gamasutra – an argument in favor of linearity. Or, rather, defending linearity as a viable thing.

    I agree with that. I’m totally okay with linearity, but I love the idea of unchaperoned exploration in games. Here you have Obsolete, where the developer states that the stuff outside the main play area wasn’t really a major factor, yet you managed to get most out of the game by exploring it. Finding things on your own, and attributing value to them, even if the designer intended no value there. In a way I prefer that to the intimidating nonlinearity of your Skyrims (where I always feel like I’m “missing” something because I did something else), or the non-nonlinearity of your Far Cries 3 (where the game is the same experience again and again, only varying in the order in which you put together the puzzle pieces). It makes me think of the old days when I was a little kid and “discovery” was part of the gaming experience – all games were inherently new and I never knew what to expect.

    An odd contrary to the overjustification effect you describe is the rise of Achievements and Trophies. They seem silly to me, but so many people make an effort to capture them. I wonder if this is because we’ve gotten used to game structures, to the point where any new thing counts as a valuable divergence from the norm.

  6. @Steerpike: I’m curious about the bit where you mention feeling that you’re always “missing” something in nonlinear games like Skyrim. For me one of the issues with Skyrim is that virtually nothing takes place in the game without the player’s involvement. The player can, in a single playthrough, do and see almost everything that there is to do and see. The only exceptions I can think of are where the player kills an NPC who is needed for some future quest or another.

    In Skyrim the passage of time does not matter and nothing in the world has agency outside of the player. Although I didn’t nail this at the time I wrote the words “There’s a hole at the heart of Skyrim”, I think in retrospect that it’s a big problem with the game’s design. The world fails because it is, beneath the glamour, a virtually static canvas.

    In the past I’ve often had issues with “gone-forevers”, to use a fairly weak phrase I picked up via Final Fantasy, because I objected to something that is easy to miss and impossible to return to. But in retrospect, I think I prefer that. A game which serves up everything to you on a platter is dull and overly eager to please. A game which resists that impulse to pamper the gamer retains mystery and promise far longer.

    None of this necessarily jibes with what you’ve said, but I had the urge to say it.

    @HM: Okay, sure: incentivised exploration. That makes more sense, and on reading your addendum it’s a lot more clear. I probably should have grokked that in the first place (especially given that yesterday I was grumbling to myself about the poor reading comprehension of others!).

    Thanks for the clarification, and I think I find myself in agreement with your position, though I’ll continue to mull it over.

  7. @ShaunCG, in truth Skyrim is an unfair example, one where it’s not about choice but just openness and freedom – do what you will, when you will. Those games bother me much less.

    So let’s say Dishonored instead. A fairly linear game that still makes it clear how many choices you have.

    I find them crippling at times.

    If I use the sewer to get into a house, I feel like I’ve missed taking the rooftops. If I double back to the rooftops, surely I’ve missed bribing the guard. If I take the “good” path through a game, clearly I’ve missed the “evil” path. I feel like I’m not experiencing all the game is offering, even though part of the value proposition is that freedom of choice.

    This is, of course, a wholly pathological issue I have personally, and not something that should necessarily describe proper game design. But I admit, there are times when I look at something linear and find great comfort there.

    Meanwhile, I see Harbour Master turning away from the colorful helix and exploring the darkness of his own accord, and I’m kinda like… “yeah… yeah, I can get behind that.” It reminds me to download a new copy of Proteus now that it’s finished.

  8. Nice man, this overjustification effect nails it. It explains why people are reluctant against the idea of a game that has no challenges or pre-made goals. We’re the kids who’ve been drawing for rewards, because most games treat us like that, understandably so.

    The other day walking home I saw this wooden boat laying around behind a store, on the sidewalk. It made no sense, I just wondered how it got there and moved on. If my life was a video game, I’d be jumping around the boat, running against it pressing X, keeping an ear out for any mentions of boats in every conversation.

    So this whole thing is like Chekov’s Gun.

    We’re so conditioned by rewards that a developer has to think twice and one more time before adding some pointless prop that doesn’t quite fit in, else they risk a player wasting time on it, ruining the pacing.

    The game would either need to be completely “pointless” (don’t like using that word here) to pull out something like this boat. Or, funnily enough, it’d have to teach the player that some things are just pointless. I guess teaching that something is not used in the gameplay should be done the same way you teach something is part of the gameplay.

  9. When I first read this article, I was annoyed a little. I came back to it today since it’s on The Sunday Papers (congrats BTW) and I tried to figure out why exactly I was annoyed. I guess it’s just my developer side that was annoyed.

    It was screaming the following:

    come back…. :(

    As a developer I have often thought it’s sloppy to leave an “empty nothing part.” This is why there are those frustrating invisi-walls and cleverly-placed mountains: to direct you toward the Experience. There is also a practical consideration here: the fear that a neophyte player will in fact wander away from the Experience, get lost in the black, and then not understand where the game is in relation to that. We need to gently direct them: the game is here, please, look here.

    It honestly never occurred to me that just wandering around in the dark space with nothing to do is an experience unto itself.

    It would be pretty easy to develop a game like this. I could just take an open Unreal or Unity world, leave it mostly empty, set the player to fly and populate it with the occasional random interesting item. Is this an experience you’d find valuable? Serious question.

    I am a little reminded of the time I’m currently spending in inFAMOUS, and a particular frustration I have with exploring. inFamous has collectibles and for the most part I’m finding searching around for them to be pretty enjoyable. What I don’t really like is when I’ve decided that I’m Looking for Things, and I’m happily jumping and gliding from rooftop to rooftop, and then some guys show up and start shooting at me. It’s like the game didn’t trust that the exploration in and of itself would be fun without a combat bit. This was ultimately what made me stop playing the first Assassin’s Creed. I enjoy the parkour, so why do all these fight guys have to interrupt me while I’m doing it? It’s not as if the combat adds a needed element of danger – in particular in inFamous I’m immediately going to respawn at a nearby checkpoint, so this is not actually “challenge.” It’s just an interruption. Come to think of it, though I’ll probably make it through inFamous, any other game that’s teased exploration, but kept screwing it up with gunfire and arrows (like Far Cry 2), I just quit on.

  10. @Fernando

    Thanks! I think there’s something here to do with the cycles of game development. As we’ve got really good with guiding players and enticing them with rewards, we’re now ready to dial back a bit – relax some of the conditioning. It’s not that we need whole games devoid of mechanics rather, we don’t need games *completely saturated* with mechanics.

    Although it’s nice to say that players can make their own games – which is sort of what I’m doing here – there’s a psychological impact of drizzling mechanics over everything.


    I don’t know why but I am tickled that I annoyed you. I also could have put something to explain this to improve games for explorer-type players (something I made a fuss of when I discussed Kairo and Proteus in 2011) rather than just a general design recommendation.

    I love the idea that you can’t be sure whether something has “ludic significance” and this really is something I picked up from Richard Hofmeier when I interviewed him a year back about Cart Life. He crammed the game with things which may or may not have actual mechanical impact which gives the game such life. You may running down wild goose chases, just like the real world. If I walk down a back street I’m not guaranteed of finding a quest or hidden package or mana potion. Yet games have this tortured way of creating fabulous open worlds and destroying believability with well-established design patterns. That’s a little harsh of course; but I only mean to illustrate what we might be losing right now if we continue to apply super-perfect Valve level design and fear of negative space to open worlds.

    I don’t think filling environments with “random shit” is just going to work. There’s no magic bullet and, even it was found, it would get stale quickly and we’d be searching for a new one. Obsolete has this interesting sweet spot of creating an enormous, hard to navigate space that is completely superfluous to the game. It is full of discovery; things look completely different when you’re out there looking in. I created my own game accidentally – the author is dead, as we fully established a month ago, after all =)

    It’s interesting to hear, though, that you have had problems with mechanics intruding on your explorations.


    Oh my God, I suffer from that too. Especially Dishonored! I feel your pain!

  11. @HM
    I don’t think it’s important that everything have ludic significance, per se. Some of my favorite exploration bits are just parts that have a narrative significance. But I guess I have had hammered into me a certain mis en scene type of environmental design. If I’m looking at even some random scenery object in a game, it’s been deliberately placed there, so why? Is it there so I can duck behind it for cover? Is it there because it was left there by a character in the game and says something about their personality? Is it there just for verisimilitude? Yes, I guess this is very much the Valve school of environmental design in a way. I don’t go so far as to feel like I need to reward each little exploratory moment with an achievement (that sometimes cheapens the feeling of discovery). But I will say that if I were watching a playtest, and I saw someone do what you did and just fly outside the play around and sail around, I’d be VERY tempted to say “hm, I gotta put a wall there.”

  12. *play area, I meant to say, dunno what happened there.

  13. I almost wrote about “narrative poison” because that also counts as a developer reward. However, that point is wayyyy more subtle and I think that would have led our discussion astray. We can argue about that another day…

    But, yeah, all the conditioning of collectibles and augmenting location with narrative have changed our relationship with game worlds. Like Fernando was saying, we now expect the pop and fizz as we fiddle around the objects and scenery. It’s a giant toy and when the lights don’t flash in response we seem disappointed.

    I wonder if you’d really put a wall there if you’d seen me play? First time around, I played the game like I was supposed to. It was only on my second go that I spent all the time exploring. That is, I was looking for more to do and gave the game more life.

  14. Yeah I can understand Amanda’s angle and I know HM that you and I have discussed Valve’s streamlining before with regards to Portal 2.

    I’ve never been a fan of ‘artificial’ discoverables or incentives, that is, pigeons in GTA, flasks in Alan Wake, treasures in Uncharted (though they were very pretty things), thingies that I can’t remember in Vanquish, vista points in FUEL and Guild Wars 2 — they tap into that obsessive compulsive part of me (that I want to die) which tends to overrule other more subtle urges, thoughts or emotions I have. So when I’m exploring I’m not thinking things like ‘I wonder what’s around here’, I’m thinking ‘Where’s that fucking pigeon/flask/ultimately worthless piece of crap’. While Dear Esther might have left me cold, it was a joy to just, y’know, walk around freely without worrying about a shopping list of things to pick up.

    My favourite discoverables are simply oddities or little mysteries or things that just are. The hard-to-spot mad Azuran in Caledon Forest in GW2 sat by a ramshackle collection of huts proclaiming it as his ‘burgeoning metropolis’; the original graffiti scrawl in Portal (even though it was very much part of the ‘positive space’ it felt like an element outside of it thanks to the breaking-out of the chambers); the sex dolls in Saints Row: The Third just lying around in certain corners of the city; those odd rock piles in Dear Esther or the car wreckage and luggage flung down a cutting; the strange creatures and habitats in Knytt; the huge multicoloured elephant in VVVVVV or that strange enemy/rune just below Captain Veridian’s ship. Hell, even that bird over the waterfall in La Mulana I remember you mentioning somewhere…

    There’s something really exciting about the prospect of stumbling across something even if I don’t find anything, so while I do indeed love an intriguing discoverable, it’s not a necessity. To be honest, the fewer discoverables the better because it makes those rare discoveries even sweeter (all the negative space in Fallout 3, particularly the subway tunnels, contributed greatly to my elation of finding something).

    I’ve got Proteus installed and ready to go, I can’t wait to play it.

    Oh, and have you ever heard of Noctis? I played it briefly on Windows XP and was utterly confounded by the controls but it looks magnificent. I doesn’t appear to work at all on Windows 7 though I’m sure there are ways around it. It’s very low-fi in a FSII/Elite sort of way which makes it all the more compelling.

  15. @Gregg B
    The coffee thermoses and Uncharted treasures both suck because they don’t relate to anything and aren’t really interesting to find. Hey, you found a coffee thermos, congratulations but this means nothing. Also, I’m much happier if a collectible shows up on my mini-map somehow. These two elements of relevancy and usefulness makes the difference between collectibles I feel motivated to track down, versus collectibles I just ignore. I don’t think Alan Wake needed those collectibles at all, as they added nothing whatsoever to the experience. Neither did Uncharted. And these were both games I also didn’t like for other reasons. I feel like an entire article bubbling up in me right now.

    I suppose if you played the game normally the first time in this hypothetical test then you’d be off the hook ;) But I think there is a tendency in design to think “Oh, the player went off track – he must be /confused/.”

  16. This is actually something I plan to write up when I compare Max Payne 1 and 2- there are more than a few ways off the beaten path in 1, and even fewer in-game rewards for exploring them, but 2 rarely ever passes up a chance to stock extra supplies in its darker corners. For reasons you’ve described, I prefer 1.

    It was more accidentally present in Gothic 2, where the tip-tops of mountains were sometimes even missing polygons. I always made a point to get as high up as I possibly could, save, jump to my death, load, and climb back down. I was disappointed to find that you can’t mantle up ledges at all in Gothic 3, which was what made this all possible in 2.

  17. Per Steerpike (hello, Gormenghast! ;), for an even more damning example of multiple paths and how extrinsic rewards stifle what would be intrinsically fun gameplay there is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

    I liked this game quite a bit. But more than once I found myself crawling through a ventilation shaft, feeling very clever at having discovered it (no “golden glow” around useful objects for me, thanks), only to realize that I’d let myself into a room that I could have accessed by hacking the door lock… and thus missed out on valuable XP.

    The extrinsic reward of juicy XP for going through the front door is so tempting that it actually causes me to go through the ducts for 200 points of Explorer XP, then go back out before opening the door to get the door-hacking XP. Instead of just doing what I enjoy as an Explorer-type, I’m changing how I play the game because I hate leaving XP on the table. Somehow that seems a bit sad.

    Again, it doesn’t make me dislike DX:HR. Surprisingly, it managed to capture some of what was great about the original Deus Ex. But I don’t recall feeling the same annoying need while playing DX to take every possible path, even though that game was explicitly designed to offer multiple paths to gameplay challenges. Could it be because the rewards available in the different paths were different, and not all just XP?

    This is something I wish more game designers understood. Achievers — for whom most games are designed — see knowledge as a means to an end. It’s only as good as its resale value. But Explorers explore because it’s fun to know things. Knowledge is valuable to an Explorer in and of itself.

    So if you’re making a game that you want Explorers to be able to enjoy, why feel that you have to encode explicit, tangible, collectible rewards for exploring?

    Let heading out into the deep dark be its own reward.

  18. @Bart: that’s a good point about DE:HR. Similarly, the ‘optimal’ way to play the game is to pursue a non-lethal playthrough – you get more XP in almost every scenario by taking down every enemy but not killing them. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the levelling system that constrains many players into pursuing an almost pre-defined approach to their multiple-path game. Other players, of course, ignore it entirely and just have fun.

    As for the original DE… well, in many levels I would nose around where I did not have to, partly because I might find cool shit, but mostly because I wanted to learn whatever else I could about the game world and the people in it. I confess I also did it with DE:HR, and particularly enjoyed the experience with the level set in the media offices. As far as I can recall it’s the only game that has even tangentially engaged with concepts like the manufacturing of consent.

  19. Yeah I’m with both Bart and Shaun on DX:HR, the game encourages very specific ways of playing by rewarding them more handsomely which really ticks me off. Hacking rather than finding and using keys and codes nets you more XP, going through ventilation shafts rather than through doors nets you more XP, non-lethal takedowns as opposed to lethal swift and silent snipes net you more XP (bullets are actually less reliable than tranq darts or stun zaps at taking someone down, which is absurd). Most of the XP bonuses for exploring I would usually get anyway because I was very thorough combing areas but they were especially irritating when I went through a vent I knew wouldn’t lead me anywhere I hadn’t already been, just to get some XP.

  20. @Gregg

    I love the examples of things you found, Gregg. Noctis, incidentally, was one of the “inspirations” for Ed Key when developing Proteus as he mentioned in the Cat’s Away video.


    I have an interesting contradictory example from the Kairo alpha testing. In the original versions, Richard Perrin had put invisible walls in the game so you couldn’t fall off walkways and the like, so you could have the feeling of walking over bottomless pits but none of the fear. **I actually liked this**.

    But it turned out I was in the minority. More players complained about their freedom being limited, and the invisible walls were scrapped. Players are now free to jump around and explore where they weren’t necessarily expected to. And also fall off platforms, irritatingly.


    It’s been a while since I played Max Payne but my memory seems to recall a little bit of exploration in the original. In particular, those crazy TV programmes. I’d be interested in reading anything you have to write about Max Payne. I really love those games. Pippin Barr, for the record, didn’t. I don’t know why I’m picking on him – but today, I am.


    That’s a great story and I’m pretty sure a lot of players will recognise that kind of pattern of doing the same thing multiple ways because of additional rewards. It’s just wacky. Instead of owning your own play, you end up exhausting everything available.


    Oh my God, Shaun, you and me both. I explored everything in Deus Ex simply to dig out more story. Everything in that game was interesting, which is why I jumped straight on writer Sheldon Pacotti’s new game Cell: Emergence. (Which had very little writing in it as it turned out…)


    What do you think about Planescape, that offered massive XP rewards for talking? That felt remarkably unique.

  21. Ah. Hmm, I watched that video but don’t remember Noctis being mentioned… perhaps I was too distracted by the interviewee being out of sight.

    I liked Torment rewarding you for talking to people (it was very novel) but — and this is a testament to the game’s quality writing — it was always the actual exchanges themselves and the knowledge I gleaned from conversations that motivated me to talk to people, not the XP. I wanted to talk to everyone and everything, to soak up as much as possible; compared to Morrowind where you couldn’t have paid me enough gold and XP to talk to its dreadfully dull denizens. I’d have been happy for Torment to have been free from all that number crunching, XP and stat bullshit because all that just got in the way for me. It was like, here’s this fascinating world full of fascinating ideas and characters, with their own fascinating stories and backgrounds and I’m worrying about (well, not worrying, but certainly considering) my CHR, INT and STR attributes and whether I chose the right dialogue options to maximise my XP gain.

    I remember one conversation with a Dustman who feared death and we were talking for what seemed like ages. I was steadily bringing her round to the idea of it when I dropped the bombshell that I was immortal. It scared the living shit out of her so I tried to backpedal with ‘Nah, I’m only joking’ but it wasn’t enough and she wanted nothing more to do with me. That bothered me more than the XP loss from not ‘completing’ the conversation. From that point onwards whenever I was in Sigil I kept going back to her in the hopes that she’d allow me to redeem myself. She never did.

  22. @ShaunCG and HM
    This is why my first playthrough of Deus Ex was the best one. My computer was so terrible that everything was awfully choppy and the graphics were murky as all hell. Meaning, I was stumbling around and any way forward felt like my own. Prior to that, the feeling was only clumsily replicated in Crusader: No Remorse, where alternate routes through levels involved blowing up tons of stacks of empty crates.