Game design and player agency

Player agency, the ability to execute will, is key to game experiences. When a game forces something upon you, particularly something you can reasonably expect to be easily rid of, then it lessens the experience.

Some examples:
If you are forced to keep a bag of bait that you never want to use then it constantly gets in the way via your user-interface (UI). So a good game would allow the player to drop all pieces of the inventory. Removing gear ought not be done via standard play mode, eg. first-person shooting view. It is better done through an inventory screen so it’s not accidentally done in combat.

Control is agency

Automatic use of cover. I understand that this is a console gaming issue mostly but considering how console-ports retain this feature on PC it seems pertinent. Just put in the lean keys and let the player use cover.

Backpacks that you cannot drop. This is an old one. Sure you might lose your entire inventory yet it’s what soldiers do if they’re ambushed. Backpack can get you killed if it slows you down.

Unavailable items that show up all over fallen foes yet are not lootable. You’d just take it off the fallen and fix it, or cobble it together from the other fallen that have the same gear.

Over riding animations, uninterruptable effects, can sometimes be in games specifically to prevent player agency. A stun effect doesn’t need to lock out control when it could make your vision monochromatic and randomly skew your control sensitivity for a time.

There are methods to put in effects without removing player agency. Designers take heed.

Game design and player agency

Sound upgrade for PC

My audio commentary has a lot of background hiss. I suspect it is the onboard sound card gain method adding noise. So considering an upgrade to this sound card:

And, if required, this microphone.

The Zx has an excellent SNR of 116db. The microphone is a cardioid condenser so should highlight all the warm notes in my voice (or anyone else).  I like the brushed aluminium one; ideally in a shock mount with a pop filter/screen.

Sound upgrade for PC

Far Cry 3 – A Critique

Touted as an open-world shooter Far Cry 3 is a pretty long way from that. It is a sprawling environment that has little change. Mountainous tropical Pacific island with ruined Japanese fortifications from World War 2 and thoroughly despicable antagonists (slavers and drug dealers who are exterminating the natives) has little variety. It is really an updated Far Cry 2 with many of the same play elements but beefed up for the latest console players’ expectations.

Your character, Jason Brody, is a fantastically tough and mobile “natural with a gun” who is seeking to rescue his enslave friends before they can be ransomed, but sold off into slavery after the money is collected.

The writing of plot attempts edginess with quotes about sanity and the lack thereof from Alice in Wonderland: a favourite of shallow-writers attempting to be deep. Nietzsche would be a better source than the opiate riddled classic by an English diletante. All the writing really conveys is the shallow understanding that psychopaths/sociopaths cannot be reasoned with and attempting to is the definition of insanity; attempting the same thing expecting different results.

Some tribal magic loosely inspired by the Maori as Rakyat has a classic Serious Sam like monster encounter complete with closed arena and sprawling mass area attacks being put out whilst the monster must be struck in only one area. This kind of tired arcade trope should have died last century. For a game that claims originality it only manages to do a tried formula in fiction of having thoroughly hate-able antagonists, with a protagonist that has the abyss he stares into, look deeply back into him.

Still, the killing and jingoistic patriotism not so subtly veneered behind laconic humor is apropos for the USA audience and the thinly veiled un-PC snappy lines attempt an edginess that would be successful on all the minors who ought not be playing this game.

Game-play is polished to simplicity. There is a lack of leaning, replaced by context based “peek-a-boo” shooting conveyed to the played by the gun being lifted when close to an object – no slicing the pie and using lean in this game. Far Cry 3 successfully captures the kinetic fear of combat with an AI that will flank you well but it fails to suspend disbelief with spawn-behinds and impossible reinforcements, just like its predecessor.

Open-world is often only while you are not on a mission. It’s for this reason I have to say the game promoters are lying when they say it is open-world. It simply is not. If you are mid-mission you cannot leave the mission area without the mission auto-failing. Also if you stray to far from the islands you are locked into you will die auto-magically. This is like playing D&D with a 12 year old who can’t ad-lib, or a philosophy lecturer who gets upset with you not buying into her false dichotomies presented as moral paradox.

Morality is loosely touched on but there is no ramifications for actions in this game apart from auto-magical results. Ultimately it is a hint of a flavour but never really brought to the forefront. Many sequences intended to shock the player are better off left as a scripted cut-scene, in particular the torture of the younger brother, and the vanishing antagonists whom you are forced to work with become tiresome very quickly.

Far Cry 3 has many failings mostly with what the promoters claim it is meant to be. If presented as a frenetic shooter with visceral elements to build tension and a plot that has despicable enemies you will really want to take-out, then that would be accurate. Its open-world elements are limited to in-between missions and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Ultimately, though, it is an addictive experience because the AI is smart enough to be a challenge, the exploration rewarding enough to pursue, and the combat frenetic enough to be engaging. The main missions are a let down and if Far Cry 3 had a “non-story mode” it’d be a far better offering.

7/10

Far Cry 3 – A Critique

STALKER Call of Pripyat (Epilogue)

The evacuees sprinted towards the helicopters. Blades were spinning and the engines were spooling up ready to take off. Automatic fire streamed from west, east and south. Cutting the party like whips on already thrashed dogs. They leapt for cover and tried to advance.

One fell, cut down from a flanking burst, and the others killed his assailant. Obscuring scrub seemed not to hamper the attackers and they fired with accuracy as if guided by a higher power. Another evacuee tumbled to the concrete and his companions abandoned him.

Into the square the fought. The final two. A veteran stalker and an agent of the OSS fighting back to back in the centre of the square. They were within a short sprint of the helicopters when another force of Monolith advanced on them. Concrete planters that were intended to hold the vegetation that grew around them were the pair’s only cover. One fell and the OSS agent was left alone. Bullets hissing past his head and kicking up sharp clouds of fragmented concrete as the Monolith kept firing.

He seemed to prepare himself then leapt up firing and sprinting towards the helicopters. Tracers streaked into his armour, punching through, hitting the man within. He staggered and reached for the helicopter door to be pulled in by the crew. The helicopter door slammed shut and the machine took to the air in a whine of turbofans and chop of rotor-blades.

The crewmen swore angrily at their commanders. They were to rescue five and because of the lack of funding they went in with their guns empty. For the sake of a few hundred roubles they could have provided fire support and saved all the men instead of just lift off with the only one lucky, and armoured, enough to make it into the helicopter.

Cardyan’s missing friends: lost.

All of the men on the Pripyat tunnel mission: lost.

All of the crew of the Stingray mission: lost.

The mysterious client of the mercenaries identity: lost.

All of Strelok’s knowledge: lost.

Another chance to solve the mysteries of the Zone: lost.

And Collington Splatterov? Another man lost to the Zone.

Listrom - Stalker

STALKER Call of Pripyat (Epilogue)

STALKER Call of Pripyat Journal Entry 17 (Final)

Collington Splatterov (OSS)

Journal Entry 17

I leave the Skadovsk and head back to the dock cranes. It draws me for a reason I can’t identify. As I close on the cranes I hear some activity and some automatic fire. Quickly I climb and get a vantage point on one of the cranes.

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A small group of stalkers is fighting off a pack of psuedodogs and a Chimaera. I lend support with Tide best as I can, trying not to hit any of the stalkers. I take out the pseudodogs and there’s one stalker left. The chimaera hits him before I can shoot it.

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He falls. I feel terrible. I kill the chimaera but it seems like a token selfish effort. So I climb down the ladder and loot the bodies. I sell everything at Skadovsk then hire Pilot to take me to Garry at  Yanov, who will take me to Pripyat. 4000ru later and 3 hours: Pripyat. The Captain needs me to do more running around after him. Find lost soldiers, find more lost soldiers, find a lost lab. I hide in a basement during an emission.

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After I come out I realise when I’m staring at the leaping flames of an anomaly that I’ve been in four more battles. It must be post-traumatic stress disorder: PTSD.

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I keep wandering Pripyat and head into an apartment building. It is meant to contain a clue about these X-labs. The building is full of zombies and when I get to the higher floors there’s Monolith fighters everywhere. There must be a connection.

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The elevator is meant to lead to the basement. I see some power still here and don’t start thinking about it. Might make my mental state worse.

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It looks little better than a rusty lump of casing. I head back downstairs and see a dead man in a green environment suit: like the one I helped Solokov acquire from the scientists back near Yanov.

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He has some necessary bits and I get the elevator machinery working. The stink of ozone is strong and I make my way down to the lab. It is horrible. Wet, smelly, and lots of nasty hostile creatures. Again I’m so scared and caught up in staying alive that I take no pictures. There was a good little model of the reactor, in there. When I get back to the Captain he wants me to investigate a kindergarten where more of his soldiers went missing but I see Garry slugging down vodka so I talk to him.

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Mercenaries in the complex just nearby. I rush over to see if I can catch them. Nothing. For hours I wait and nothing happens. I head back to see the Captain and his missing men, find them dead, again mission. I do it just so I don’t have to look at him any more. Sending these boys out to die and for no appreciable gain. I hate him right now and want to shoot his smarmy face. So I do his mission instead.

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It’s dark and I feel psi-activity. The soldiers that are meant to be here are dead. I can’t tell what killed them but one of them has some demolition charges which I acquire and use one to enter the kindergarten. Now that I’ve got my exo armour I’m quite confident of surviving just about any encounter but I put the Moonlight in my artifact container and the throbbing in my brain fades away to just colour distortion.

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Monolith are in here and I fight my way to what I can best describe as an antenna. It is the source of the psi-effects. I reach for a charge to destroy it. I used it to get into the building. I throw grenades into it until it stops. Almost instantly I hear banging from below. I investigate and find the medic has locked himself in an oven or fridge. I’m so frayed I almost shoot him dead where he stands but he’s coherent enough to make it back to the laundromat.

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I sleep before talking to the Captain. There’s some radio-signals that are moving about. He wants me to track them down thinking they are monolith. After being attacked by blood-suckers, those nasty little rat-mutants, and a burer we realise that the signal is coming towards the laundromat: underground. We form up and make ready to fight to our deaths but a lone stalker approaches. His name is Strelok and it gives me goose-shivers to hear it. The legendary stalker who turned off the brain-scorcher and found the wish-generator.

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He says he can help the OSS figure out the zone and get the helicopters to land safely. Based on this information the Captain and his remaining men can be evacuated and I can complete my mission. A blowout occurs and we will have an opportunity to leave as soon as the blowout is over.

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The Captain paces about. I fidget walking from the windows, to Strelok, to the Captain and back again. We’re all set to go. This blowout seems to take so long: three times as long as any other. Then it stops. We form up and head out into Pripyat. The landing zone is to be up near the Prometheus Theatre: right in the heart of Monolith country. I can’t believe it. There’s a good piece of vacant land near river front but north of the hospital. I see a sign that takes my fancy in amongst all of this.

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We fight our way past Zombies, Monolith, creatures and a controller that makes the medic just stop. The Captain won’t go on without him so I have to go back for him. I’m tempted to put a bullet in the medic because he keeps shooting at Strelok. Strelok has been superb so far. Keeping us alive. Finally the medic comes with me and we clear the technical school grounds.

More Monolith, many more. The fighting is furious. They are using armour-piercing rounds and my exo armour is severely damaged. Strelok is killed. The Captain is killed. The medic is killed. I’m pinned down in the square outside the theatre and the helicopters are about to take off. I have to run now or I’ll never make it anyway…

[That is the final entry of my STALKER Call of Pripyat Journal. If you want to find out what happened after that, leave a comment.]

STALKER Call of Pripyat Journal Entry 17 (Final)

STALKER Call of Pripyat: Journal Entry 16

Collington Splatterov (OSS)

Entry 16

When I awake and go to see Cardyan again he’s back in reality. He explains, without asking for any booze, that he worked at a lab nearby that developed the weapon in my hands. He says he could make power-cells for it with electrical artifacts or pieces thereof and offers to do that for me should I need it. He also gives me a pass-card to access the lab which is under the Iron Forest.

It seems that this is what the helicopters were here for. To retrieve that weapon and take it out of the Zone for further research and development. I take the passcard from Cardyan, who says that he can fix the rail-gun but he needs calibration tools. I thought that would be the case and since I’ve scoured Zaton and the area around Jupiter, the only place left is in Pripyat.

Since I’m in Zaton I head to the Iron Forest and look for an underground entrance or stair or something. In a small shed at the back of the lot I find it and a heavy door with access control panel. The card slots in and the door opens. A blowout starts as if I cued it by slotting the card. Even underground it is very disturbing. Instead of rushing into this lab I wait out the blowout at the door.

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There’s a stairwell around a lift shaft but it is blocked by a locked gate. I try to shoot out he lock but only threaten my own life with ricochets. I really thought the armour piercing rounds I had would do the job.

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I creep into the lab suddenly alert. I hear shuffling and moaning and there’s zombies in there. I guess they found passcards of their own and then became zombies in here. That puts me on greater alert because a controller is likely in here, too. Some of the zombies are in exo but all of them have their helmets off. Tide does its job.

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I find an old control board and whilst I’m looking at it there’s a massive thumping sound from what looks like a rail workshop outside the grill and below. Peeping down there I see a massive form with little vestigial legs sticking out of its rear-end, like odd tails.

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I’ve hard Stalkers talk of these things called psuedo-giants. They are meant to have telekinetic powers and be very aggressive. I take a shot but mess it up because of the mesh. That alerts the thing and I feel the whole place shaking. Then I realise the equipment and the dust is not moving at all. Perhaps the pseudo-giant is using some psi-powers?

It takes a long time for the creature to settle down. I creep down to the same level it is on and prepare my magazines for the assault rifle. My first attack is a grenade. It barely seems to injure the creature. The psuedo-giant comes stomping around towards me and I unload a full magazine into it. Still it is barely injured. Another grenade. It seems to know what they are now and it stomps away. After the grenade detonates the psuedo-giant comes back and I unload another magazine at it. It stomps one foot and a force streaks at me kicking up dust, then knocking me backwards. I run for cover. This becomes a cycle: I shoot, throw grenades, then hide when it raises a foot to stomp that force at me. My assault rifle is very hot and smoking when the psuedo-giant finally dies.

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I look around the lab, still concerned there may be a controller in here. At the far end I see what looks like the rail-gun but upscaled to the size of a field artillery piece.

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There’s a mounted sheet of steel about 200mm thick and a neat hole in it directly in line with the cannon at the other end.

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I can’t see a way into the room that holds the cannon-sized railgun. I look around and there’s a ladder leading up and some air-ducts that do lead into the room. I make my through and into the railgun cannon thing’s room.

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It’s an impressive looking weapon.

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I find documentation about the development and figure maybe Cardyan can help translate the technicalities. With this in mind I leave the lab and go back to the Skadovsk.

STALKER Call of Pripyat: Journal Entry 16