As promised, more thoughts on environment design. So the other major thing that popped into my head after too much FC4 was the difficulty you face as a designer when you are not relying on those normal quantitative design processes.
The short version is that one of the really powerful tools that repeating gameplay gives you is to be able to extend the life of any given environmental set. Art is often one of the most expensive parts of game development and wringing the most out of what you have available is really important. We'll all really sensitive to things like over-repeated use of assets and there's not much worse than the sense of being cramped in a bland environment, so in terms of creating a powerful, engaging experienc, getting the kind of scale and density and uniqueness to the visuals you need to support that is really critical.
Let's take a couple of pretty diverse examples (actually they're only superficially diverse) - Far Cry 4's outposts, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, particularly that first puzzle with the trains and the legs and the murder... murder... MURDER I TELL YOU (spoilers ahead).
So, any given outpost in FC4 uses a basic set of core assets, redressed and laid out to provide diversity in challenge of approach. But you've got your core building that becomes the safehouse, you've got the alarm post, you've got a cage with an animal. The repeating mechanics means you actually need this stuff to be repeated assets so they are more or less immediately recognisable. But, more importantly, the moment you hit an outpost, your exploration speed drops massively, and your approach to the game shifts into a new mode (this relates back to what I was saying on Friday). You case the place out, you check the angles, the approach, you move into a slower, strategic mode of thinking and basically spend a fair bit of time working the actual encounter through. That done, you've got the assault itself - or even better, a slow stealth approach which the game actively encourages - slowing play down further. Once that's done, you've then got additional time clearing the loot boxes and checking out the bulletin boards for jobs. That's a hell of a lot of time and content packed into a very small area - twenty plus times over. It's the easy way to make a 6-10 hour game last 50+ hours and it's tried and tested.
Ethan Carter uses the same basic design technique in a much more narrative, integrated fashion - it has too, because it's a game where the story occupies a central place in the experience rather than Far Cry's 'look, it's a just a rough conceptual peg to hang off really, now go and RPG a rhino' approach. But The Astronauts know their stuff, and part of that is the economy of production. Smart design isnt just a case of throwing everything at the project, it's about making sure the project gets made to the realistic production contraints you have available which translates into time and money and, mostly, the money it takes to have the time to make something. So puzzles get introduced, and it's not just a gameplay thing, because Ethan Carter isn't really a puzzle game, and I don't think it was a case of just playing lipservice to the perceived need for some form of mechanical gameplay introducing them. I'm not the only one to have talked about the difference between puzzle elements and lower level, task-based but not too challenging elements - let's call them intrigues - and it relates back to the earlier post about the need to preserve a particular cognitive frame or schema in how the player approaches the game. Ethan Carter introduces these intrigues, and tries to balance the concentration required to resolvers them against not pushing the player out of the narrative schema, and away from the core experience, which is the atmospheric, emotional being-in-the-world that is very evidently the core concern.
So why have them at all? I don't think this is a simple answer. Yeah, it's partially heritage, and the desire to make a game and the inclusion of interactive elements not (and I want to be SUPER clear about this) because The Astronauts did that mindless thing of including stuff-that-feels-like-gameplay-because-that's-what-games-need-right? - they are clearly smarter than that. It's obviously more the idea that there are specific and unique properties to interaction that increase being-in-the-world in a way that other mediums can't get at- agency, a sense of acheivement because your agency is clear, that kind of thing. But you can do without that. Gone Home largely does away with it all, Dear Esther pretty much completely kills it and both titles CLEARLY work, it's a simple case of sifting the available evidence to see that. So it's a useful plus, but not a given requirement.
However, what it does have is another, major, production-orientated added bonus that sprouts from the same Kyratian dirt as Far Cry's outposts. This might sound cynical, but I promise it's not - it's actually something to be celebrated because good design exists in the world, and finding a creative solution to a production issue that enhances the user experience is hard to do. Let's take the first puzzle in Ethan Carter - that train sequence. You find the train. You stop. You go inside the train, you check the front, you start to establish a line of thought about a solution. Then you go past the train, quite probably checking out all of the events along the track even though you can't do anything with them yet. You make your way down to the shoreline and eventually find the crank. You backtrack - potentially using a different route, hopefully using a different route as that's the holy grail of designing a backtrack (that is: hiding it or at least doing it in such a smart way that the player thinks 'that's a smart way of hiding a backtrack'), you return to the train, intrigue happens, you move the train. You spend a couple of minutes lining it up, after you've tried driving it all the way down to the blockage, because that's the sort of thing we all do as players. Then you look for a rock, and then and then and then... The space you are working with is not much bigger than a Far Cry outpost and you've spent probably upwards of twenty minutes in it, going backwards and forwards. The production principle is the same - there is a cost attached to producing that area, and it's smart to get as much value out of it as you can, in terms of the time a player is likely to spend in it, and the experience they are going to get out of it.
Indie games, particularly retro mobile titles, have been mining this rich seam for years now, balancing driving down production costs against wringing the maximum possible experience out of each asset invested in. It's much harder when you are making a more cinematic experience because the cost-per-asset rises hugely, but at the same time, so does the expectation of unique features. No-one criticises Thomas Was Alone on the grounds that it's just another rectangle, but you can't get away with the equivalent in Ethan Carter or Far Cry. Unless you've got an endless river of cash and time to throw at a project, in other words, you just have to slow the player down, and you've got limited options to do this. The traditional method is zombies, but its interesting how Bioshock Infinite, for example, got slammed for being so reliant on this method - introduce an expensive environment and make it pay its way by trapping the player in it for a suitable length of time by chucking enemies at them. Bioshock is probably more design-economical in that sense than Dear Esther. If there's nothing for a player to actually do in a space, the amount of time they are likely to spend in it drops radically, making the entire game itself a much riskier financial proposition. That might sound like I'm u-turning on my normal position that the 'a game's value is defined by it's length' argument, which I still maintain is basically lunacy and hugely damaging to game design (and exactly WHY Ubisoft seem to be driving towards cookie-cutter, micro-mission, icon-heavy design - we only have ourselves to blame if that's the case, with our demands that a title needs to swell and swell and have more and more stuff rammed into it because we can only quantitively asses it's value - ANYWAY -
The point is the challenge for us as designers. Ethan Carter does a good job for the most part of hiding the sense that it is keeping us in a holding pattern for any given environment (with the exception of that house puzzle, interestingly, as it's probably the only section of the game where it moves beyond intrigue into puzzle, breaks the narrative-schema into a more problem-solving one, and for me, loses much of it's punch for the duration of the task) - but again, I doubt The Astronauts are so wet behind the ears that they didn't have a repeating conversation during developing that basically went along the lines of 'how long will the player spend in this place'. We all do. Because we operate creatively, but also economically, because we also have to feed our kids.
There's another aspect to this as well, which relates directly back to the question of narrative schema and brings us full circle, and that's the almost direct mapping back from the question of economics to atmosphere. Games like Ethan Carter, and A Machine for Pigs, and Dear Esther, and Gone Home and Far Cry 4 are driven by atmosphere, sense-of-place, an emotional connection between player and system largely derived from the being-in-the-world, narrative schema. That takes time, player time, doing little time. You must create the time and headspace for a player to engage with the world, outside task-based schema, if you want them to feel connected to it. During an outpost assault in Kyrat, just like during our hunt for the crank in Red Creek, we are at our LEAST narratively connected. But the balancing act, the real skill of experience design comes from ensuring there is enough intrigue in the presented environment to engage us and slow us down enough for the sense of being-in-the-world to kick in. Some games, like Metro 2033 do it by alternating chaos and silence, using tension as a means to engage during quiet sections that gently let the emotional connection flourish and grow. We tried this in A Machine for Pigs, I don't think we did it particularly well, but in places we got close I think.
So there's a scale, and really what I'm saying isn't anything particularly new or innovative the more I think about it - we already know that packing in gameplay tends to detract from atmosphere (I've talked about this a lot before, about how the bit where you go back into the Ishimura in Dead Space 2, the long sequence WITHOUT necromorphs is by far the best bit of the game). But we also need to recognise that the situation is more complex than that. Firstly, that there is an economical imperative to maximising the experiential output of a given block of environment, and we shouldn't regard this as grubby or crass, it's just the nature of working in a commercial environment and there are ways of navigating it that can lead to powerful and deep artistic expressions. Secondly, and more importantly, the very sense of narrative and emotional engagement we are aiming for in story-centric games like Ethan Carter - and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture - are in part reliant on creating spaces with enough intrigue to slow the player down and create space for them to form deep bonds with the world. Walking that tightrope is the essence of experiential design.