March 19, 2008

Protocol

If nothing else, I am completely committed to creating synergy between Hit Self-Destruct and hot, super-contemporary reporting. In that spirit, I have interrupted my GDC coverage to tell you about Thief: Deadly Shadows, the game from 2004 that I have begun playing for the first time. This is a pretty unappreciated title for some reason; I'm not sure if that's because it's assumed to be the Invisible War of the Thief series or that when people say they liked the Thief games what they really mean is they like being nostalgic for late-90s PC gaming. Either way, as a Thief fan, I am happy with it. It's a little late for endorsements, I suppose, but it would have meant something to me even a month ago.

Deadly Shadows introduces a persistent hub world into the series, as was the fashion at the time. The player moves through streets, alleyways and domiciles to the next mission, evading guards and picking civilians' pockets. It's a feature whose value arguably varies throughout the game, but I am not here to cast stones. I am here to enthuse thoughtfully.

There's one building I broke into, and as I looked around I discovered it was the home of a stonecutter who'd entered into a business deal with some lowlifes and was ripping them off. Going back downstairs, I find that the stonecutter's since entered the building, with the two thugs, who have caught on to his plan. I hide in the shadows (the deadly shadows -- although I've seen deadlier) while they intimidate him and, ultimately, kill him.

That turned out darker than I thought it would.

This situation reminded me of Knights of the Old Republic. I mean, it reminded me of about a dozen games where something similar takes place, but Knights of the Old Republic first came to mind. There's an event early in that game where the player comes across two dudes threatening a third dude and must step in. A dialogue tree follows, wherein the player can choose a positive or negative outcome; either killing the thugs or further extorting the merchants. What I find interesting about Thief is that there's no specific protocol for dealing with this. I don't have to engage it at all, of course: unlike KotOR it's playing itself out outside of my influence and if I do nothing they will kill the guy. Nonetheless, I'm compelled to intervene, but it's not as simple as walking on up and the game asking me directly whose side I want to take. The player has to solve this problem using the exact same tools as he does throughout the game, and with no prompting. I am forced to every option at my disposal: I could kill them, or knock them out. The stonecutter will try and make a break for it, so I could distract the thugs somehow and give him a head-start. I could attract the attention of the guard posted outside and somehow direct him to this scene at precisely the moment that it turns violent. What I can't do is speak. I can't tell the guard to get over here and I can't verbally intimidate the thugs. I Have No Mouth And I Must Use Water Arrow, that sort of thing. As far as conflict resolution methods go, that's a significant omission, and in that respect the game is less realistic than KotOR.

The limitations are there because I'm confined to the vocabulary of a first-person shooter. However, I believe Thief captures the sensation of witnessing a moment like this honestly and accurately. I have to ask myself first whether I'm going to intervene at all, or withdraw and let Deadly Shadows' Kitty Genovese get it. If I want to help him, then I need to figure out how, and -- as I would in real life -- assess my capabilities. I ask myself what I know how to do and if it is at all relevant here. KotOR won't let me casually intimidate or extort anyone; I could only access that ability once and it was specifically tailored to that situation. Whatever I do here, I'm drawing on a permanent capability of my character. Every trick I've ever had is at my disposal and so engaging with this situation feels natural. Real life is nothing but limitations. In the face of adversity all you have is your existing base of knowledge and skill. It would be great (or terrible, maybe) if we all had these particular systems to deal with individual problems. Not to mention, no matter what I do in the game, there's no "correct" solution, just my solution, which might not even accomplish what I'd hoped. In KotOR, I help or I don't. Whatever plan I try in Thief there are so many potential gradations of failure.

And in that respect I therefore crown Thief the more realistic of the two. What it lacks, unfortunately, is feedback. The scripted event ends after your intervention, and all the characters fall back on their standard programming. If I kill the thugs, the stonecutter will freak out because he's seen a murder. He doesn't know I've saved him because he's not the same guy he was a minute ago. I don't need a reward or a pat on the back, as KotOR would give me, but an acknowledgment that this was something deeper than a gentle manipulation of the AI. For all the autonomy sacrificed in KotOR, it kept continuity.

Essentially, my game design theorising has led me to conclude that it's a good idea for designers to play more than one game in their lives.

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