Monday, August 04, 2008

Visual Problem Solving: A Thief Game Example

Earlier today I mentioned that the first two Eidos Thief computer games excel at Visual Problem Solving, and then discussed what I meant by that term. Now I should provide an example from the games that illustrates how they excel at enjoyable Visual Problem Solving.

I'll use one of its adventures from Thief 2, which does Visual Problem Solving best. (For the first game the developers wrote the plot and then designed the levels. For the second game the reverse order happened. The second game thus has better adventures but a weaker overall plot.) In this adventure you need to confront the local sheriff, who has been illegally gathering homeless people off the street for an nobleman to use for evil experiments. The objective is to sneak into his manor at midnight, get to his bedroom, and talk to him.

Since some of the same issues remain valid for designing settings in a paper-and-pencil RPG or novel, I'll enumerate them distinctly below.

1. Choose Your Resources

Before the adventure starts you have to choose your equipment. If your style is to sneak in shadows you would stock up on ways to douse torches from a distance, move very quickly for a few seconds, etc. If your style is aggressive you would stock up on weapons. If your style is to knock out guards with sleep gas you would stock up on that gas. If your style is to make distractions you would get appropriate equipment for that. And so on... Many styles work; all will find certain approach strategies optimal, and none make the task trivial.

2. Choose Your Restrictions

On the easiest of the difficulty level you are allowed to kill people. But the game is designed so that you are a reluctant hero, not a murderer. Pretty much everyone who enjoys this game eventually plays it on the harder difficulty levels where you must avoid conflict to increasing degrees.

The fan community has invented even further restrictions, such as ghosting or perfect thief, and people share their successes.

3. Options for the Initial Approach

In this adventure you need to get past the wall around the sheriff's manor. You can simply fight your way through the human and mechanical sentry, but that would be contrary to the spirit of the game. If you explore a bit you will find a way to turn off some lights, which allow you to sneak over the wall unnoticed. Even more exploring shows a hole in the wall hidden by bushes. So planning your route begins with a choice of these three options, each providing their own positional advantages and disadvantages, and each requiring you to use different tools.

4. Options for Entering the Inner Sanctum

In this adventure the "inner" area is not a small, final location but the entire manor once you get beyond the outer wall. There are five ways into the manor. As before, the front doors are the well guarded and thus discouraged option. There are doors into the chapel, kitchen, and a "backfoyer" room with a reflecting pool. There is a also way into the basement under the front porch. Again, each option has its own positional advantages and disadvantages.

5. Options for the Nitty Gritty

In this adventure the opponents are the people in the sheriff's manor: dangerous guards and a few servants who, when alarmed, will run to fetch a guard. From past adventures you know how people in this building will function.

They are either stationary or walking a fixed, never-ending circular or back-and-forth route. They are quite observant but only look straight ahead. Together these mean that they never notice if you creep behind them.

They do not notice when a light is put out, door is opened, or ally is distracted. They do not see you if you are hiding in deep shadow. If they notice you they will react, but if you manage to hide well then in a few minutes they will assume you left the manor, cease hunting for you, and walk back to resume their established routes. These last parameters are very unrealistic but important parts of the puzzle you are solving.

Note that when doing Visual Problem Solving there is usually some sort of "nitty gritty" which involves timing. How much to accelerate when merging into traffic? When to click to photograph the baby's cutest expression? Which grocery store check-out lane to choose?

6. Get to Moving Targets

Most levels have one or more keys you must obtain. This level has a key carried by the steward, and gear-keys carried by multiple guards. By exploring you need to find which doors are important but impassible and where the keys are. Through this task the game designers require you to get to specified, intermediate locations on the map--usually moving locations since keys are carried by guards with patrol routes or servants with tasks to do.

7. Get to Select Rooms

Most levels have one or more rooms that control many lights, devices, or alarms that are not insurmountable obstacles but really get in your way. This manor has the previously mentioned place to turn off the lights by the outer wall and a "security room" inside that turns off security devices inside the building. This is a second near-requirement to get to specified, intermediate, fixed locations on the map.

8. Get to Enough Rooms

Even though the game is named Thief 2, the game is not about stealing stuff. You are trying to save your city from that evil nobleman. But the game does require you to steal a certain percentage of each map's loot, based upon the difficulty level. Since loot is distributed quite evenly across the map this is how the game designers require you to get to a variety of unspecified, intermediate locations on the map. In other words, the higher a difficulty level you choose then the more of the map you are forced to explore.

9. Find the Secrets

Each level also has three secrets. These are completely optional but fun (usually very interactive) things that happen as the result of very through exploration. They reward a player who chooses to explore all of the map well beyond what the objectives require.

10. Get Out

After you complete all of your objectives, you still need to leave safely. If you were super sneaky getting to the final room, you still have all your foes between you and the exit.

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