Michael Clarkson evaluates some of FC3’s design

Michael Clarkson has a great post up analysing in some detail the design features of Far Cry 3 and their relative success or failure.

Most interesting to me is his discussion of why FC3 designs away the landscape, by encouraging the player to treat the map itself as the terrain, and this is borne out in how much more “vividly” he says he recalls FC2’s landscape vs FC3’s. Here’s what he has to say about one of the main design features that does it, and I’m glad he pointed it out because I don’t think I had made this point explicit myself (and I totally agree):

The oversimplified routing that results from the fast-travel system also contributes [to the player disregarding the landscape]. Far Cry 3 allows the player to teleport in close to a desired point and then take a relatively short and direct route to wherever the mission will start. So, at any time that the player has a goal in mind, his first action will always be to look at the map and find the nearest fast-travel point. The map itself, rather than actual travel through the world, becomes the journey. The world effectively becomes discontinuous and only coheres when mediated by the map. Additionally, the density of fast-travel points means that the player doesn’t have to really think deeply about the relationship between the map and the landscape, since the ease of travel mostly obviates the need for route-planning.

There’s a great level of depth to the rest of his analysis too, go check it out.

Far Cry 3 and designer inducements

Thinking some more about the ideas in Andrew Vanden Bosche’s great post that I responded to the other day, I realised that I hadn’t really thought about it from the perspective of the game designer, i.e. from the position that someone like Jeff Yohalem is in. So what is it like to be Yohalem, and to be in his position? What is compelling him, from his perspective?

As a disclaimer, this is going to be largely speculative and may or may not prove accurate. However the structure of the game designer’s explanations for why they made the game design choices that they did are often remarkably similar from person to person, so much so they form something of a trope. The culprit that is inducing the game designer to produce certain types of things is quite usually (though by no means always) gamers themselves, or perhaps more accurately (thought more abstractly) gamer expectations. In other words some kind of cultural push that Yohalem et al. feels from outside their own workplace is limiting, directing or shaping the kinds of choices that the designers themselves can make. Marketing departments at Ubisoft probably form a part of this ecosystem, but game designers aren’t aloof from their own culture, either. They tend to know what “gamers” like and enjoy because they are gamers themselves, they buy the same games, they read the same publications, they have Twitter and Facebook, etc, etc.

I’m going to pick out a quote from the Yohalem interview at RPS that I linked in my original post that I think is pretty telling, and highlight some of the important phrases:

“I feel like we’re in this place in the videogame industry where we’re in an abusive relationship. Players feel like game developers don’t respect them, and don’t create meaningful works for them, so they call a lot of games stupid. And a lot of developers get upset because things are being called stupid, and they say that players don’t get it anyway, so they just handhold them all the [way] through. I think that’s an abusive relationship. You need to break that cycle. You need to cause both sides to step back and say, “Maybe there’s something else that we can both have between each other.” We can create situation where players go, “Huh, maybe games have something interesting to say after all, and I’m going to listen.” And then that puts the pressure on game developers to not create lazy crap.

So here’s a clue: Yohalem feels that players can and do put actual, real, felt pressure on developers somehow. For gamers themselves, this probably comes as something of a revelation, since the closest any of us come to feeling like we have any influence over the games that get made comes either through voting on which banal version of the boxart we like better (which is more like participating in a focus group without getting paid), or by organising boycotts or petitions (still rather abstract; though it occasionally gets things done by demonstrating a significant market, a la Dark Souls on PC), or slightly more directly by backing Kickstarter projects. As far as I know, Far Cry 3 involved none of these.

Putting aside for the moment Yohalem’s troubling views on arbitration and breaking the cycle (tl;dr – when two ‘sides’ aren’t equal there’s no such thing as breaking the cycle by making tem both ‘step back’. Imagine doing that in something like apartheid South Africa and see how unfair that attitude actually becomes) how might Yohalem be directly feeling the pressure from game players? I think the clue is in that all the vectors for ‘player pressure’ on developers come in the form of aggregates or otherwise abstracted forms. There are no direct conduits for ‘player agency’ to express itself on game development, so no wonder players become hyperbolic and feel like Shinji Ikari who gets no say in the matter of what kinds of games are available for him to play, or over the future direction, development and philosophy of these games.

There’s an easy target of all-caps CAPITALISM! here but I want to ignore that for a second and think more about the difference between individuals and aggregates. The problem with aggregating and encapsulating player agency into these ‘markets’ or collectives of petitions, or cumulative buying power, etc, etc (we might add – collective outrage/influence power to this list, but that’s a far more complex issue) is that it is a reductive process. My concerns, wishes and desires are not going to be identical to your concerns. They may overlap, but there is no way to non-reductively combine our issues and ball them up into one collective ‘pressure’ unit to direct at game developers to get them to stop or start doing something, or influence them in other more nuanced ways.

For example, I’m thinking of a post by Claire Hosking that really highlights the troubling intersection of valid and important concerns about the representation of women in games with the just as valid and just as important concern about allowing women of all body shapes and sizes (including women with large breasts! Hello Lara Croft!) be represented in media and to also possess their own rich inner life. The concern here is that in the push for more ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or (heck) even realistic body shapes we can accidentally trip into the situation where we deny busty women the kind of nuance and interiority that we grant to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars. Claire’s example in the forthcoming post is Christina Hendrick’s character on Mad Men, who is voluptuous and objectified by those around her but which the show itself treats with the same respect as any other character.

So it is incredibly difficult to aggregate such nuance effectively – I’m “for” more body-diversity in games, and I’m all for the reduced “objectification” of women in games, but I’m also not happy with sacrificing representations of busty women just to stop teen boys objectifying them? Suffice to say, shit is complicated.

For another great example, look at the intellectual work that Robert Yang has to do to unify even in a blog post the “Queer Feminist Agenda” for games. Imagine how much harder it’s going to be to unify actual people, with actual opinions and hesitations and peccadillos and all the other things that come along with being human. But there’s a good reason to try, particularly since it’s partly how we get game designers like Jeff Yohalem take notice of us. There are good reasons to encapsulate or aggregate.

I’ve half-joked before about the need for a Gamer Union or something like that. I don’t have the time or ability to organise it myself, but I actually quite seriously believe in the potential in something like a gamers lobby group or union or something (at least, one that was done well. We’re already sort of doing this in a loose and anarchic way through twitter and the like). Imagine the impact we could have had when the Girlfriend mode thing happened if we could go to Randy Pitchford and say “Here are 10,000 people not happy with that glimpse of your studio’s development culture. What are you going to do to change that?” How’s that for some pressure?

Passive agression, Spec Ops: The Line, and the individual onus

Andrew Vanden Bossche has a great little post up on his tumblr about the way Shinji Ikari in Evangelion reacts to being told what to do, wanting to resist doing it, while also being unable to say ‘no’ to his father. It finds its realisation in passive agression, frustration and following orders with a bare minimum of effort:

He’s a kid and this is the only possible way of saying fuck you to his dad and that is very important to him. His contempt for the life and death game the adults are making him play is obvious.

This is super familiar to me, especially at this time of year, as Christmas is often the time of year when I feel I have the least amount of personal agency, a stifling lack of freedom regarding what to do or where to go, am often unable to retreat to a private space (when staying with relatives), locked into the schedules of adults. Christmastime frequently became a period of painful obligation and a test of endurance. But I digress.

Andrew says that this rejection of his lack of agency, expressed as resistance through resentment and acts of minimal enthusiasm, was how he played Spec Ops: The Line,

The game insists over and over that it’s my fault all the bad things that the game is forcing me to do to continue are happening. Spec Ops is barely self aware that this is the case—people are dying because you just keep going forward, a voiceover informs you. But they’re only dying because the game orders them to die. Video games are pretty eager to blame players for killing when designers are the ones that turn on slow motion every time I score a head shot.

This is absolutely spot on, and something that we also see in Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem’s interivews, for instance:

So in this case it’s torturing your little brother, and there’s no real reason to be doing it. You’re not saving the Earth, you’re not doing anything that makes that act okay. That was meant to really shock people.

This said with no awareness, of course, that the player knows this and has the additional piece of information – that the writer intended this to happen to the player. And yet Yohalem wipes his hands of any personal responsibility in making the player “torture” his own in-game brother. This trend (and I really do think it’s a trend) is super interesting to me, not least of all because of the way that Andrew in his post frames this as a clash of systemic responsibility with individual responsibility:

I think it would be pretty cool to have a game about how cruel oppressive systems survive by pushing on their problems onto individuals.

I agree, it would be an extremely cool game that dealt with that issue. In my PhD thesis, I’m attempting to build a case for certain types of fairly novel arguments about, for one example, the way certain ontologies give us permission to outsource responsibility, and to shift and move it around depending on which way the wind is blowing. Certainly at present, what gets called ‘neoliberalism’ (but which I’m mostly calling ‘Capitalist Realism’, following Mark Fisher) gives permission to outsource responsibility onto individuals the end results of systemic issues which result in individual cases of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and stress.

Consider this: if your work conditions are so precarious, your conditions so utterly decided by the whims of the ‘market’ or ‘consumer demand’ or even a the will of a capricious boss who can’t keep his dick in his pants, how is it your fault that you are depressed?! Surely in those circumstances depression and severe anxiety is normal! And yet responsibility under neoliberalism always trickles downwards… was Reagan secretly right?

Far Cry 3 – On tessellation, FOV and enjoyment

So I changed two minor video settings at some point this week and it’s like I’m playing an entirely different game.

I changed the geometry to ‘Ultra’, and the Field of Vision (FOV) to 90 degrees, up from the default 75. These two changes have literally flipped my experience of Far Cry 3 on its head. Before it felt like I was fighting against the game at every step, now I feel more ‘relaxed’ and at-east within the game, being able to inhabit the world much more fully.

Which seems bizarre, right? Two tiny settings and now I can enjoy the game, whereas before it was a pain? But it’s absolutely true. Lets talk about what these two settings actually do in detail and speculate around why they might be so important to my enjoyment.

So some important PC spec details:

  • Intel Core i5 2500K overclocked to ~4ghz
  • 8gb of (I think?) pretty fast timed RAM
  • 256gb SSD
  • Nvidia GTX560

Pretty powerful stuff that I shelled out for last year, should be able to handle pretty much whatever I throw at it reasonably well. But there’s a catch with the 560 and a particular DirectX 11 feature involving ‘tessellation’, which in a nutshell adds more triangles to more complex geometric objects as the viewer approaches them. Here’s the Nvidia ‘endless city’ demo that shows off this pretty neat piece of tech. Watch the following zoom-in/zoom-out section to see how it dynamically adds and subtracts geometric detail.

“If I zoom out you’ll see how all that simplifies, and if I zoom in more and more triangles come back.”

This is neat! It makes complex in-world objects look… well… complex! But there’s a catch. How do you render the addition of these triangles without it looking like the object is morphing before your eyes? The nVidia demo manages it because there’s a lot of shadowy darkness around it, and in the textureless and wireframe views we don’t notice the unrealism of the morphing because of the abstract nature of those views.

But in Far Cry 3 this technology is where the rubber hits the road, for me at least, as the method of smoothing between geometric levels of detail becomes painfully distracting. Essentially, a shimmer effect is applied over the object as detail levels are added or removed, and in complex scenes with a lot of dynamic addition and subtraction this gets overwhelming really fast.

Here’s as good an examples as I could find, watch the two crates/boxes besides the hut at the third place the camera swings around to after the player turns off the radio tower. I’ve set the time on the video as close as possible to the point. It may take some re-watching to see what I mean, and admittedly it doesn’t look that ‘bad’ here, but there are scenes where it has been incredibly distracting for me. (You’ll have to watch in 720p to even notice, but it’s plainly visible at 1080p)

It also happens on a basket sitting on the bench in the first scene, and on a flower in the bottom right corner of the second location the camera pans around to. Once you start noticing it, it can get distracting very quickly, and what has been seen cannot be unseen.

So what was the purpose of setting it to Ultra? Well the change that effects is to decrease the amount of culling of triangles, so once the high detail is there it generally stays till you are very far away, and (I think) you also begin to see the shimmer happen further away form you, reducing its impact. When the shimmer effect looks like an item is being beamed in by teleporter from the Starship Enterprise, it’s worth trying to minimise it as much as possible. So that change was something of a revelation.

The second change, to widen the FOV to 90 degrees rather than the default (even for widescreen!) of ~74/75 degrees felt reminiscent of the cessation of an irritating noise just below conscious attention. It was that kind of release of an ambient tension that is pent up just below the surface, the kind you are entirely unaware of until it actually lets up at which point you suddenly go “Wow, I was clenching my jaw without realising”.

Such a simple fix, and one I didn’t realise I was missing until it happened. What does this tell me about myself and what I am used to? I think it’s a sign that I have so habituated the ‘angle’ or ‘perspective’ that goes with a certain field of vision that I resist attempts to be squished into anything less. But this is strange, why would I feel so claustrophobic when constrained by something as simple as FOV?

The 90 degree FOV puts ‘your head’ further back from your arms, as a consequence of the bending it does to include more of the field of vision into the rectangle of your monitor. You end up ‘further away’ from your arms, as a result. This is a weird paradox because, as I said about Far Cry 2, it was my identification with my arms that caused me to feel like I was so much more a part of the world. In fact what I said about Far Cry 2 was that it wasn’t so much a first person shooter, as a first person hander. You ‘do’ most of your verbs with your hands in that game, heal with your hands, climb with your hands, swim with your hands, shoot with your hands (hands that very competently translate your instructions into weapon handling) but which are also interrupted by sick hands when you have to cough and splutter and take anti-malarials.

So in Far Cry 3 getting further away from my hands (and further ‘back’ from the screen perspectivally) ends up ‘feeling’ better, and along with a couple of the skills which allow me to (I think?) run faster generally, I feel more competent and confident at inhabiting the world.

How silly that such things depended on two little menu settings, and that it took me so long to realise.

Comparative feelpinions about Far Cry 3

Most of my readers will remember that I’m known as one of the biggest fans of Far Cry 2 in the world, having done my ‘Permanent Death’ saga in which I played through the game in one life and documented my progress and how playing in that manner changed the game. So readers should know that I’m already hopelessly biased against the sequel to what is, in my estimation, one of if not the most interesting and important game of our generation.

So in trying to work through my initial reactions to Far Cry 3 I’m faced with the impossible task of trying to sort out my inevitable disappointment from some more legitimate gripes. John Walker has already listed a bunch of things that he finds incredibly grating about the game, but there’s one particular issue that I haven’t seen anyone really put their finger on.

I think the main issue I have with the game is that I don’t like its tone, and I’ll explain what I mean by that with a couple of examples. The tone of FC2 was incredibly ambiguous, and almost entirely unique. Tom Bissell in his review of the rubbish Spec Ops: The Line, described FC2, saying that, “the game just stares back at you with lidless, reptilian eyes. It doesn’t care how you feel.” The way that I described it, back in one of the first things I wrote about the game, was that it was “about the individual; death; nihilism. The contentious design decisions, even the whole game, only starts to make sense when viewed through this lens.” Mortality and the nihilism of deadly violence is not just A Theme of the game, it is it’s only theme. When that prism refracts individual design elements; the enemy AI design and their distinctly ambivalent likeability; the incredible natural beauty; the precarity of the instruments of death; and the themes of the individual missions, with their echoes of post-colonial adventures in Africa, all of them are revealed as shorter wavelengths that make up the crystal clear light shining throughout that whole game.

FC2 was about entropy (how rare to say that any game is about ANYTHING, let alone something so abstract and important!) and carried an awareness of material entropy – fire, oil, metal and springs, gas and cartridges, rust! Blood and dust.

And after playing it for about 5 or 6 hours I want to ask a similar question: What is FC3 about? 5 to 6 hours was approximately how long it took for the theme of FC2 to emerge, so it seems fair to ask now. Except that I don’t think FC3 is ‘about’ anything, at least not in the same way that FC2 was. Possibly this is an impossible standard to live up to – perhaps FC2 was a fluke, an accident, an impossible project never to be repeated.

But why would that be the case?

“Because of the market, stupid! Because game development happens in a certain way and it means that a game with such singular focus will never be made again!”

That kind of cynicism is remarkably prevalent in the faux-enlightened corners of the enthusiast press and can even be found creeping into the occasional mainstream publication. But that argument can’t even be taken seriously once we expose the rhetorical assumption behind it – that there is something natural or inevitable about certain kinds of contemporary game development. At the risk of alienating my less philosophically inclined readers – this is pretty clearly an extension of what Mark Fisher calls ‘Capitalist Realism’.

Almost incidentally, that also presents a unique problem for games studies, in that it is an admission of the fact that extra-game forces have a greater determining power over the game than anyone who supposedly is making actual ‘game design’ decisions. When was the last time you read a paper about weapon reload time changes and their impact online that also took into account and integrated the larger, determining forces of capitalist production and workplace labour laws? Which means that design philosophy is an up-for-grabs target of critique.

So assuming that FC2 was the product of it’s own distinct design philosophy, one which I won’t attempt to name or even locate within Clint Hocking and/or his team of designers (this for pragmatic reason), I will say that it is obvious that Clint et al. had a design philosophy for FC2. So let us instead posit the existence of the design philosophy that resulted in FC2 merely for comparisons sake. Then what can we say, in comparison, about FC3’s design philosophy, by observing the results (i.e. by playing the game)?

Let’s talk specifics – this game has some really shitty racist elements. I won’t say anymore about it because it’s bleedingly obvious to the point where I could just copy+paste the phrase “Magical Negro” a hundred times and it makes my point for me. I will leave it to others to decide whether FC2 was, in it’s own way, racist or not (though I suspect it was far less so, if it even was).

An even easier comparison to make between FC2 and FC3 has to do with the amount of dehumanization the enemies undergo. In FC2 the enemies are nasty, brutish, violent mercenaries and this is an important element to their character, but they also get scared, they are terrified of dying and particularly of dying by fire. This is probably one of the most important and least remarked upon elements of FC2. In FC3, the red-shirted pirates are caricatures. Little better than cardboard cutouts from a shooting gallery, except that they also fire back. The main antagonist – Vaas – is actually the exception to this rule, which is a weird thing to deal with. He is, however, pretty much a non-entity past the intro (at least up to the point I am at in the game).

Another area where the sequel fails (at least comparatively) is in terms of the weapons and what I can only describe as their ‘feel’. This is a combination of a number of things I’m sure, including the way that FC2 stuck religiously to first-person perspective, and the way it balanced the whole combat system around an ongoing shortage of ammo and the risk/reward of picking up a ‘rusty’ gun, etc, etc. I guess it’s clear that the number of systems entailed in the combat mechanics of FC2 is quite nearly all of them, and that was itself fantastic. FC3 has the same shortage of ammo but instead of a system around the risk associated with picking up enemy weapons… FC3 involves a hunting and crafting system that feels far more artificial and grindy in comparison. At the very least these are inelegant solutions.

And similar observations can be made elsewhere – why does it take so long to loot bodies and why play an animation? Why can’t I pick up ALL the cash money piles at once, instead having to perform the same tedious “press and hold” routine for three or more piles of cash ($7… $3… $9…). So far I think what FC3 is most about (if its about anything) is what might best be described as the “general upward trend” gotten from grinding. I’ll save you the boring readings of grinding through a political-economy lens and just say that while I can often enjoy the occasional grind, I think the FC2 alternative solution of a more ‘flat’ experience (no levels, few upgrades very miserly apportioned) was a much, much better fit for a first person shooter with operatic scope and pretensions to being meaningful.

The economy reflects this issue as well, with Tristan Damen (@Unbearabledutch) pointing out on twitter today that: “FC3’s economy seems pretty busted. Only reason you need money is to buy weapon attachments.” If I had to pick one word to describe much of the crafting and economy decisions in FC3 I would describe them as arbitrary.

Lastly (for now) the decision to include civilian/native populations (which were nearly-exclusively ‘invisible’ in FC2, bringing its own set of problems, primarily around ‘othering’ the inhabitants) but without going to the trouble of making them anything more than set-dressing opens FC3 to accusations of denying indigenous agency/autonomy (passive civilians waiting for the hero to rescue them) which is a frequent problem for games generally. In fact this is one of the reasons that their very omission in FC2 seems like such an enlightened choice. Better to avoid it altogether if one can’t do it properly. Another comparison here might be apt, this time to Just Cause 2, which John Walker (and numerous others) has already usefully compared it to. But the caricatures of civilians that the Just Cause series presents (where they wander aimlessly, occasionally chat about something or other, and generally provide a backdrop feeling of a ‘lived-in-place’) only works within the context of the wider suspension of disbelief that is necessary for any Just Cause game. FC3 doesn’t go to these same ludicrous heights, nor does it pack as much into the world, with frequently big empty spaces to be trudged through (which remain unlike FC2 which turned them into an endurance test and an integral part of its meditation on the nature of safety in relation to deadly violence).