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Through The Looking Glass: A Dissertation on the Decline of Complexity in Games
Posted by Royale H. Duke
Posted on 1 December, 2013 at 8:48PM ↑ 2 ↓ 0
Through The Looking Glass: A Dissertation on the Decline of Complexity in Games

I remember growing up in the nineties quite fondly, it was an interesting time for entertainment after coming back from the Market Crashes in the nineteen eighties. When people ask me about what I remember most about those early years of my life I don't reference Bill Clinton or much of the other nineties pop and political culture pastiche. The one thing I always recall throughout the decade and leading into this one is the games, the gaming and technological landscape crashed together creating an incredibly dangerous and wild time for developers. It left a wave so high, that even now as you look back in the annals of gaming history you can see where it all hit; The high mark and the swath of blown minds that littered the landscape, and the creative powers that birthed those ideas painfully into a rapidly growing and changing market. Small studios of less than a handful of people working in their garages, basements, and professional studios creating the future and breaking the boundaries of what entertainment could be and couldn't be. These little studios from Austin,Texas to Redmond,WA to the sun drenched haze of California, to the far lands of the Rising Sun, or the icy Canadian North where playable art was being created and published into uncertainty. The music, the fashion, the food, the times; The nineties were defined by so many things but the defining moment for me personally was sitting down one humdrum Charlie Brown Christmas morning to find a Super Nintendo Entertainment System Donkey Kong bundle underneath the tree with one extra game; Super Mario Role Playing Game: The Legend of The Seven Stars, this moment defined me as a gamer when games were no longer an idle distraction or hobby.

 I remember thinking that no other moment in time would compare, little did I know that the revolution had only just begun. A few mere years later the juggernaut genre defining masterpiece of gaming, Half-Life would release, and eventually the magical dark Victorian steam punk world and sarcastic musings of Garret the Master Thief would light the PC gaming world afire with Thief: The Dark Project and later its sequel Thief II:The Metal Age. Suddenly, almost tragically my world of gaming was split into two halves; the magic and voodoo like wizardry of PC games and the console gaming space. While I wasn't there right at release, it was closer to shortly after and on a friend's PC at the time. I remember the excitement felt running around the semi open levels and rooftops of Thief:The Dark Project's enigmatic Dark Gothic semi-Victorian Steampunk setting simply known as “The City” and encountering its various denizens. I also recall when the Electronic Entertainment Expo wasn't brought to you by Doritos and Dew. Even more than the Rares and Id Softwares of our world, I remember Looking Glass Studios and a man named Ken Levine who was part of a ragtag group of visionary developers much on the same level as Valve. Before this, my world was Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger or the strange and depressing world of Earthbound.


Now it was of strange creatures called Headcrabs, Master Thieves, insidious computer Artificial Intelligences, alien invasion defense simulators and one hilarious, ray-ban wearing one liner spouting alien ass-kicker. In those early years, a passion crept into me alongside my love of Cinema and Literature, with a modicum of certainty in my young heart that I had found my true love, technology and games.


Suddenly, there was more to my world than the mere rise of the Sony Playstation and the death of the Nintendo 64, and the numerous add-ons for the Sega consoles, and Sega's sad demise and final console killed by the DVD proliferating, sales chart busting Sony Playstation 2. Looking back through the looking glass of time, even the grimy terrible parts of those times are bright despite these darker but still fun times we all happen to live in currently. I don't think anyone could have seen things going the way they have; a reduction in complexity, scope, and meaningful storytelling through player agency. Constant reminders to press x to do some blasé action that wrestles control from the player, removing the player from the world that may have been crafted lovingly(or with malice), and from the character they are playing as. Video games are a wonderful, artistic escapist medium going forward the Independent scene is doing well with many conceptual games that seem to hark back reminiscently to those golden years while still doing something creatively, a soul if you will, of their own. One title I am excited about is Xenonauts, a game inspired by XCOM: UFO Defense and of course I have to throw in a mention of Inafune's Mighty No.9, the Megaman game we've wanted all our lives. Though not everything has to be indie for me to like it or be excited about it, recently I've been playing through Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS and I love how this game harkens back to the days of no hand-holding, and letting the player have their own adventure, their own experience.


While many games these days feel like copy pasted generic time wasting ephemera, there are still gems amongst the chaos. On consoles, I have always been very partial to the Metal Gear Solid(and pre-Solid games too, Metal Gear 1 and 2) series and it's great use of cinematic technique, narrative, and a sort of stealth “sandbox” in the feel of the gameplay. While it sounds like I am firmly stuck in the often beholden “Golden Era of Video Games”, rose tinted glasses stuck fully into my retinas like some kind of cybernetic modification that I never asked for. There are a few modern masterpieces, look no further than a true return to form for one of my favorite game series, Deus Ex. I of course speak of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the seminal tour de force of Role Playing cyberpunk goodness that actually respects the property that it was using and the players intelligence. No, there aren't any skills and augmentations are presented a bit differently due to it being a prequel, but the concessions they made for the modern gamer, were surprisingly few.


Deus Ex was an interesting game in that, like System Shock 2 and the Thief games they really put control in the hands of the player. There were cutscenes but they weren't intrusive, there were choices, skills, Augmentations, weapon modifications, and alternate pathways to just about every single objective. Even more impressive was that the game had many different outcomes for any given situation, based on things you did or didn't do or people you killed or helped. This could lead to some pretty hilarious sections of dialogue, or in one case using the static physics model of the Unreal Engine to prevent a character from dying, only to have that character show up later WITH an explanation of how you got away. The sometimes unintentionally hilarious voice overs, sometimes game breaking overpowered augmentations were always a highlight for me, the one thing that always pleases me is the first thing in the game is a choice, in which the game outlines the different play-styles you could take for the first mission(and rest of the game, obviously). I love that they did this again, in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.


In Human Revolution it is handled a bit differently, but there is usually quite a few different paths and there are again, consequences for player actions. In some aspects, the game punishes the player for taking the action route, denying precious Praxis kits, which work similarly to the old augmentation points, and Skill Points system of Deus Ex. While the original game didn't encourage a stealth playthrough, it neither deterred it or forced you into a shootbang fest either, there was always a way out of every situation, even some of the terrible boss encounters. The only forced section I can really think of in Human Revolution is a certain section involving a helicopter pilot, but even then you can do that non-lethally too. Other older franchises have gotten a bit of sunlight too, including my current favorite game of all time the new XCOM:Enemy Unknown, a sort of remake and re-imagining of XCOM: UFO Defense, which was basically an alien invasion simulator that had completely randomly generated maps, and dynamic gameplay. Furthermore, UFO Defense was incredibly tough and brutal with an absolutely obtuse menu system and a manual that was about the length of a good novel, the new XCOM eschews some complexities while retaining a lot of the spirit and fun of the original game. Again, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution this is a good way to bring an old property back, even though I miss the old huddle-soldiers-behind-the-skyranger tactics the new XCOM is more than I could have ever of expected of a modern XCOM, and the expansion is shaping up to look pretty fantastic too. No, before anyone asks I do not miss night missions. At all.


The games of yesteryear took chances rarely these days do we see games that really take that same creative passion, that desire to deliver something new. Admittedly, while I realize much of this comes off as someone stuck in the past I will add that I am not, there are many games I've come to enjoy in recent years and I feel that many, many gamers of my age do hold some bit of melancholic nostalgia over those days of yore, and would prefer a spiritual return to those times. I do know one thing is that I do tire of the slew of press the “X” button to continue the story driven cutscene of utter drivel that many games seem to devolve into. The one thing about a lot of older games that I find myself embracing is the mere fact that so many of them don't take control out of the hands of the player. There was a focus on player driven experiences, player controlled mechanics and those mechanics actually having an effect on the players decisions, not this faux scripted nonsense. That's not to say that all games were open level masterpieces back then, no there were quite a few stinkers amongst all those gems we remember but more often than not, games were fun and creative.


Aside from Thief: The Dark Project, and Thief II: The Metal Age, and a few other games here and there Looking Glass Studios is also responsible for one of the most superbly terrifying games in existence. The grim depressing dark and terrifying cold electronic world of circuits, murderous life creating rogue AIs and nanotechnology of System Shock 2 and it's predecessor. I think that more open level design, giving the player the agency in the story and moment to moment gameplay are extremely important things, my favorite examples of exemplary game design come from the defunct Looking Glass Studios. These games are not without their own flaws, in Thief, Thief 2, System Shock 2 I often struggle with the mantling systems detection of what is a climbable edge, it's worse in System Shock 2 for some reason but those are the only problems I have with the games that's few and far between when it comes to most modern games. The thing about System Shock 2 is that once you get to grips with the overwhelming amount of information displayed in its UI systems, and the player comes to understand the physics of movement, what skills do the experience becomes less grueling and more rewarding while still creating masterful amounts of tension through a combination of game systems, and the player's use of those systems. System Shock 2 is an interesting experiment in giving the player the agency in the story, in the world, while connecting that player to the world through its fiction, its enemies, and the environment itself and more importantly through player choice.


Aside from the story, each harrowing playthrough of System Shock 2 rewards me with a different experience depending on what choices I made in specking out my characters stats, in fact the prologue of the game is spent choosing your characters base stats by choosing various career paths and technical or non technical paths. The way this is done harkens back to the difficulty selection in Quake, albeit with a bit more flair, dialogue and NPCs. If you've played Bioshock, you will likely notice quite a few similarities between the two; things like the various medical hypos actually have quite the resemblance to the ones in Bioshock, the open hub based world, the collecting of audio diaries that help flesh out what happened aboard the Von Braun and USS Rickenbacker, or give you valuable codes to locked doors that could provide life sustaining goodies. Heck, even the opening is similar to Bioshocks' in that you are thrust into a bad situation, and a lone solitary voice over an intercom system guiding you through the chaos much like Atlas did in Rapture. This all makes a lot of sense because, Bioshock is the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 and even now after recently playing it the similarities are quite astounding, but as a fan of System Shock 2 I sometimes find myself wondering if Bioshock had retained more of the RPG elements of System Shock 2.


The one thing about System Shock 2 to understand that it is at its core a story driven survival horror role playing game, the complexity of its systems mirror the lore of its world and help to integrate the player into the world and like other Survival Horror games it relies on inventory and item management, it doesn't constantly tell the player where you need to go, or whose “X” button you need to press. It puts the destiny of the player, and the player's success in the hands of the player, what's more is that the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker feel like real places, nearly everything is tangible and has a reason or purpose to its function in the world. There's very little redundant video game-y things that stand out, and thanks to SS2's clean visual styling it doesn't look dreadfully terrible or borderline unplayable. On top of this, the story and the environment suck the player in with very little carrot dangling to try and get you to push on, because it doesn't need it the game inspires you to push on through its mechanics and through moment to moment gameplay. On my recent playthrough of the game, I specked my character for PSI and hacking, however I put most of my starting points into various PSI disciplines and forgot to put points(called cyber modules) into Weapon Standards so that I could use that shiny pistol and thirty rounds I painstakingly scavenged from trash cans, dead bodies, and broken or jammed weapons.

One of the beautiful moments of System Shock 2 is that moment when you find a weapon and you get really excited only to feel the soul crushing disappointment of not being able to use it because you did not spec for it; the good news is, there will always be wrench. Like in Bioshock, the wrench in SS2 can become a weapon of pure devastation only matched by the hilariously overpowered Laser Rapier, which in and of itself is more or less a lightsaber shaped like a rapier. Now by all means it doesn't turn the game into easy mode and as much as I like to say System Shock 2 is perfect, there is an aspect that carries over to Bioshock that quickly becomes very irritating especially in the later levels. I of course refer to the amazing randomly respawning enemy spawns, this only gets worse when you trigger an alert in the game since there are security cameras. When an alert is triggered an endless amount of bad news is thrown your way for approximately one-hundred twenty seconds of bullshit or five seconds of hacking to turn the alert off saving you time, resources, and effort. This is a great case of a conflicting design decision, on one hand it encourages you to be very cautious and on the other hand it can be a frustrating nuisance for the player. Being the stealth oriented gamer that I tend to be, I don't have a problem with the security cameras but for the more reckless Colonial Marines types you might have some trouble on your hands, so do exercise a bit of caution and the game actually teaches you caution fairly early on through the use of brilliantly superb sound design which is something that carried over from the Thief games.


The level design is mostly fantastic, if a bit maze like at times so those of you who are fond of that nineties sprawling level design will be pretty happy since, and the claustrophobic corridors do more than just funnel you to the next objective or cutscene because there's hardly any cutscenes. Truly, aside from some minor annoyances that some may not even mind(and admittedly I am grasping for straws in trying to grab flaws for this game, because really there aren't any) System Shock 2 and to an extent the Thief games stand as a reminder as to what Game Developers should aspire to create. I don't mean to copy, or to plagiarize these ideas but simply look at these experiences and analyze them, see the value the portray and try to think up something similar yet new.


After playing this for many years I often ask why developers do not look to the past to try and create something new, I often ask why we don't try to engage the player more and give them the power instead of taking it away. Give players complexity, respect the intelligence of your audience don't chase the money, try to make something that isn't creatively bankrupt.


Create something that stands the test of time, that like a legendary mercenary once said, we will be fighting the biggest beast of them all.


The Times.


Will the times we live in erase us or will we outlive them? Time will tell.


1 December, 2013 at 9:48PM ↑ 1 ↓ 0

A great read man. Glad to have you on-board.

Royale H. Duke
1 December, 2013 at 10:02PM ↑ 0 ↓ 0

Thanks Billy, it was my pleasure and I'm glad to be aboard sir!

Lazlo Falconi
2 December, 2013 at 2:44PM ↑ 1 ↓ 0

Oh my god this was beautiful. I don't know who you are, but I'm glad you're here. I hope we can see more of this type of writing, Your Grace.

(PS: I'm voting this as best of RotW 2013)

Royale H. Duke
2 December, 2013 at 5:00PM ↑ 0 ↓ 0

Thank you for the kind praises Mr.Falconi! I will be contributing over the next few days so stay tuned for more articles from yours truly.

2 December, 2013 at 8:36PM ↑ 1 ↓ 0

Great article! I never got to experience much of PC gaming back then, so I'm always interested in reading about it now.

Royale H. Duke
2 December, 2013 at 9:12PM ↑ 0 ↓ 0

Thanks for the Accolades fellas, it's much appreciated. As for experiencing the games of that age, you still can! And I highly recommend it! All the old Looking Glass stuff is available on Steam and GOG, it's definitely worth it to check out these bits of wondrous history.

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