Now that the summer doldrums have set in, I’ve turned back to playing Civilization VI. Fully equipped with its two expansions, Gathering Storm and Rise and Fall, the game really is fantastic – probably the best in the series – and able to keep me in rapt attention for many, many hours.
Concomitantly, I’ve started watching the videos of prolific YouTuber PotatoMcWhiskey (PMW from here), who is very good at (1) playing the game, (2) talking about the game and (3) teaching viewers how to be better at it. One thing he said in a recent video, while he was playing Arabia, caught my eye.
He is trying to trade with Rome and offers them 20 diplomatic favor, to which they bid 7 gold/turn for 30 turns. McWhiskey would rather have the gold up front, and takes the viewer through his process for figuring out how much gold up front Rome will be willing to give based on their bid of 7 gold/turn for 30 turns. A natural first guess is that they’d be willing to pay 210 gold up front, but that turns out not to be the case, because they impose a discount. In the end, he gets them to pay 143 gold up front.
This, I noted, is evidence that Rome considered the time value of money in their calculation. And from there, I wondered, what is the term structure of interest rates facing Rome that led to that decision?
I’ll step back – for the uninitiated, Civilization VI (like all the Civilizations before it) is a turn-based strategy game not too dissimilar from something like Settlers of Catan. Each player plays the leader of a civilization, like Pachacuti of the Inca, or Trajan of the Romans, or Peter the Great of the Russians. The game begins in 5000 BC and usually takes about 500 turns, ending in 2050 AD.
Your goal is to expand your empire by founding new cities, putting down roads, building the optimal mix of infrastructure, creating great works of culture, expanding your religion, investing in science, and dealing with the other player civilizations, be that through war, trade, or diplomacy.
You gain resources by having citizens in your cities work specific tiles on the board. Some of those resources can be traded to other civilizations, either for gold or for other resources.
Because it’s a computer game, when you’re playing alone, all the rest of the player civilizations will be controlled by AIs. The efficacy and ability of the AI to play the game skillfully, or rather the apparent lack thereof, has long been a bugbear of devoted Civilization fans. But the game offers different levels of difficulty for single-player games, and on the highest levels, the AIs receive large material benefits which do make them worthy rivals to even the sharpest human tilters.
In the video I referenced above, PMW was playing a single-player game on the highest difficulty level as Saladin of the Arabians, and encountered in the course of the game Trajan of the Romans. He wanted to sell a unique resource, “Diplomatic Favor,” to Trajan for cold, hard gold. Gold payments in Civilization can be structured in two ways: either as a lump sum, payable immediately, or as an annuity lasting 30 turns, the first payment of which is delivered immediately. Just like any other rational actor, the AIs are programmed to be able to switch between equivalent amounts of either structure.
Presented with the resource on offer, Trajan made a bid: 7 gold/turn for 30 turns. As in real life, the extension of credit in this way presents tradeoffs. In particular, if any two trading partners go to war in Civilization, all per-turn payments, either in gold or resources, between them are suspended. Lump sum transactions, however, are not reversed.
Cognizant of the risk that Arabia and Rome might go to war someday soon, owing mostly to geographic proximity and rising power, that old Thucydidean thorn, Arabia wanted the money up-front. PMW then had to guess the max lump sum Trajan would be willing to pay – he first guessed linearly, so 210 gold, but Trajan rejected the deal. Then PMW applied successive discounts until Trajan agreed at 143 gold.
The equivalence of these two payments – 7 gold/turn for 30 turns and 143 gold – can be used to get a sense for what the interest rate facing Trajan was. Classically, finance types like to say that “a dollar today is not worth a dollar tomorrow” – this notion is the time value of money, which gives rise to the notion of the present value of a future stream of payments.
The critical bit for switching between the present value and the sum of the value of the future payments is (usually) the risk-free rate of interest over the period in question. Different structures have different formulas for switching between the two values, so let’s take a look at the formula for the present value of an annuity, which is what we’d call a setup like paying 7 gold per turn for 30 turns.
Using this funky little calculator, we can plug in the present value, 143 gold, the periodic payment, 7 gold, and the number of periods, 30 turns, and backsolve for the “rate per period”. In our case we get 2.683%.
We need to state precisely what this 2.683% figure means. In particular, it is the internal rate of return (IRR) of the annuity. It’s the number you get by assuming each future payment for this contract is to be discounted by the same risk-free rate of interest. The IRR wouldn’t be the same if each payment was 8 gold per turn, so it’s hard to use this figure to generalize. Moreover, risk-free rates can vary from year to year, so there’s no reason to expect that each payment would use the same rate!
So unfortunately, we can’t use this one calculation to say anything interesting about the term structure of interest rates facing Trajan of the Romans as he decides to finance some resource acquisition. In particular, we’d need to have the ability to vary the length of the annuity to see what the IRR would be for a 5-turn contract, or a 10- or 20-turn contract. With that kind of data, we could start to build a yield curve.
But from there, we start to get into thornier theoretical considerations. These are the rates we can recover from the contracts entered into between Trajan and Saladin, but who’s to say those couldn’t differ from the ones between Trajan and Victoria, or Trajan and Teddy Roosevelt, or Victoria and Teddy Roosevelt?
Moreover, we know that this is the rate faced by Trajan early in the game, when neither of the two economies are very strong or advanced. Who’s to say those rates wouldn’t vary throughout the game? Or vary with strength of diplomatic relationship, or with level of technology achieved, or vary with difficulty level?
At any rate, I’m glad to see that even in 5000 BC, Trajan and his advisors have a solid grasp for the principles of banking, lending, and money markets. Hopefully Civilization VII will allow players to earn interest on excess reserves at their central bank.
About a decade ago, when I was 15, I spent the months of June, July, and August holed up in my basement bedroom playing video games. This experience was not atypical of my adolescent summers. Nor was it entirely spurred by a cliché cloistered pubescence; I consider it rather more like an evolutionary adaptation, a means of fleeing the soaking highs of Maryland in June for subterranean comfort. I played a lot of good games then, none less so than Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2.
I remember the night I ran the game to its heady conclusion – a night that ended late, as protagonist Raiden dealt with the third act’s winding changes in perspective. In short order, the game exposes Raiden’s trusty handlers to be unreal, unreliable AI-generated characters. It pulls back the curtain to reveal the conspiratorial, Truman Show-esque backdrop of the game’s setting, the oil rig known as the Big Shell. In truth, Raiden’s – and the player’s – mission to stop a group of hijackers has all been an exercise designed by shadowy government forces to test Raiden’s skills and form him in the mold of Solid Snake, the player-character in Metal Gear Solid.
This design is abandoned when Solidus, the game’s villain, goes rogue and destroys the Big Shell. From there, the game speeds its way towards a dramatic fistfight between Raiden and Solidus atop Federal Hall in Manhattan, interspersing along the way mixed media digressions on the nature of the digital age, of information flow and control, of the nature of memes. Learned minds who care about this sort of thing have set firmly in stone the artistic value of MGS2, most of which is on display in this finale: the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall, the ensnaring metanarrativity of how MGS2 sets itself among the rest of its series’ canon, the particular novelty of the ludic, mechanical experience of postmodern narrative.
I think often of a few scenes late in American Psycho, when Patrick Bateman wanders a hellscaped (moreso than usually) lower Manhattan. Raiden’s experience in the bowels of the game’s final setting sings in harmony with images from Mary Harron’s film; recall how the ATM commands Bateman to “feed [it] a stray cat,” a narrative stunt twinned with the disintegrating Colonel’s command: “Raiden, turn the game console off right now!”
A decade on, I spent a late summer night unwinding the denouement of another Hideo Kojima game. I recently gave Death Stranding the highest plaudits for its mechanical and social experience, but in particular demoted the weight I gave to the narrative it told. This was a take steeped in the particular moment in the game where I wrote that piece. At midpoint, the breadth of the game’s mechanisms had emerged into full view, a sumptuous passage of movement in an environment of astounding natural beauty which left me so inspired as to write that earlier note.
But naturally, as the game concluded, the quickening beats of the story took priority and the mechanical experience ebbed away. A notable manifestation of this shift is that more and more of the game takes place in the all-important internal dreamworlds known as “Beaches,” upon travel to which protagonist Sam usually forgoes all of his tools and equipment. This bows the game into a quicker pace of boss fight > story scene > boss fight > quick traversal > story scene…etc.
Might as well take the opportunity to note deep spoilers of the game’s ending from here.
In the endgame, whose beginning I pin at “Episode 9: Higgs,” the player reaches the Pacific coast in the real world, and then goes to the Beach to defeat erstwhile central villain Higgs in a fistfight, by now a directorial mainstay. (Nodding again to the Kobo Abe short story whose excerpt provides the game’s epigraph, Higgs himself calls it a fight of “stick” vs “rope.”) A dissonant lyrical mood descends afterwards as you reunite with Amelie, Sam’s sister-of-a-sort and plot MacGuffin, and move to rejoin the rest of the game’s supporting cast back east, where the story began. Rather than tie things neatly up there, however, a half-dozen more hours of twisty developments proceed, culminating in an apocalyptic scenario put to Sam and the player. The central twist is this: Amelie is in fact no sister of Sam’s, and hardly even real, but rather one of a god-like sort who supervise the mass extinctions of life on Earth.
The scientific bent of Kojima’s stories as they approach the kind of stakes typical of auteur-driven action movies is worthy of more critical attention. He grounds this high-flying millenarian narrative in a mix, peculiar to him, of anthropology, archaeology, computer science, ethics, and media studies. His characters study geological strata and the fossil record to investigate the nature of these world-threatening plot devices, or else they leverage the supernatural elements of their world, like the timeless chiral material, into computational ends. Reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, as the game takes place more and more in these internal dreamworlds, totemic items take on key narrative roles – a quipu, a dreamcatcher, a bead bracelet they use the Portuguese word miçanga to describe. Even when the mysterious messiness of the human experience is augmented by the powers of a fantastical author, it remains inextricable from the human attempt to settle a scientific order thereto, or so Kojima’s characters, many of whom are genius scientists, claim. To claw that bog of criticism down, I’ll say at the very least that the research effort that goes into fashioning all these contrivances of plot is admirable.
Again as in Inception, the game’s hero faces eternal exile in the Beach if his plan to stop the big bad, Amelie, from destroying the planet doesn’t fully catch. Sam finds Amelie in the dreamworld and she lectures him on the dignity of giving up in the face of inevitable death, an ideology she had in fact passed on to Higgs as the secret string-puller the whole game long. She offers Sam the chance to interrupt the onset of the next extinction, but warns of its latent inevitability. Sam invokes the power of love and human connection to change the mind of Amelie the god-being with a hug, at which point she agrees to delay the inevitable.
The rather reductive topic on offer – gauging the point of life in the face of inevitable death being the primary issue between the heroes and villains of this tale – is made better with the focus on the interaction of technology and identity in this world. The reveal that Amelie never really existed is compelling, as is the further explanation of her corporeal and non-corporeal existences, and why they present differently. Diegetically, most of the interactions with other characters are done via hologram communication, the facility whereof lets linger the constant question: to what extent are the game’s most apparently physical interactions even real?
The ultimate exploration, though, deals with Sam himself, as the mysterious tar-soaked man known as Cliff, who stalks Sam for most of the game, is eventually revealed to be Sam’s father. In his own life, Cliff was an army officer deployed to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Another character, Die-Hardman, fought under him, and their mutual story’s end mines the rich vein of military relationships that Kojima crafted throughout the Metal Gear Solid series (and capitalized upon in The Phantom Pain). Watchful players could have guessed there was some familial relationship between Sam and Cliff much earlier in the game, but well-controlled direction and narrative sleight of hand work to obscure the exact nature of their bond until the very end.
After the credits roll, and the world is set to peace once more, the game concludes by unraveling a final knot of identity, that of the baby Sam carried on his body the whole time. BB-28, as the scientists refer to it, functions for Sam as a replacement for the child he lost in an accident, which is why he instead calls it Lou. Contrary to the game’s hints, BB-28 was not Cliff’s child, but rather a random baby meant for courier service.
In the course of Sam’s meeting with Amelie in the dreamworld, BB-28 died, and the government reserves for the reincorporated Sam the task of incinerating it. The trek to the incinerator, a repeat of one of the game’s earliest missions, is a soaring spectacle full of light and music. The camera pulls back and up as the player moves through a terrain rendered by the experience of 40 hours intimately familiar. Sam undergoes a set of visions at the incinerator which reveal to him the above mentioned truths about his own origins, and he decides to defy the government order and free the baby from its amniotic chamber. After bringing Lou back to life, Sam concludes the game by walking outside amid a rainstorm, framed by a rainbow.
Most things in my life have changed in the decade that’s passed between my playing Metal Gear Solid 2 and Death Stranding. What hasn’t is the appreciation I have for the messy ends given to these games, which, even in their jargon-fueled haze and all-too-encompassing scope, manage to say something capacious and groundbreaking about the experience of our times.
As far as I can tell, legendary game designer Hideo Kojima spent all of his childhood, and then most of his following early adulthood, in Japan. He was born in Tokyo, but his father moved the family around for work and so he grew up first in Osaka and then in the smaller city of Kawanishi. When he broke into games, as a young employee at Konami, they were still headquartered in Osaka, a marker of the extent to which Japanese gamemaking remained at that time a provincial sport.
But when at 24 he was asked to take over the design of Metal Gear, he consciously refashioned a bumbling project for the MSX computer into an homage to classic American films like The Great Escape. Thus protagonist Solid Snake begins the mission as a soldier of the nebulous Western governments that want to thwart the activities in Outer Heaven. America and its cities, its ethos, its myths, and its governments, both their outward projection and their shadowier cabals, would go on to pervade the games for which he would become the most famous – the Metal Gear Solid series, and, as well, last year’s genre-defying Death Stranding.
Indeed, Death Stranding is so peculiar in its fixation on America as to attract curious observation. The game’s bizarre setting pre-requires a model of American political-cultural economy as hegemonic and insuperable.
Trappings of American imperial myth – the absolute indispensability of the American presidency, of even the Oval Office, of the flag and its icons – are critical story elements. A kind of repeat Western expansion and integration, the hallmark political project of the 19th century American state, provides the main narrative thrust of the game. Its protagonist, Sam, is archetypically an American hero – brooding, individualistic, possessed of an unweening sense of duty.
It even manages to fold in something of the fringe millenarianism and doomsday cult that is so important towards understanding and reifying contemporary and past American culture – the preppers, descendants of vindicated survivalists, the types to buy hollowed out missile siloes in the Montanan plains, are key characters in the game’s third chapter.
What does this focus impart to the game, and our attempts to understand it? Among its offspring, I find it tickling curious to be treated by a non-American author in a way many American authors have treated foreign cultures – at heart, Death Stranding takes an essentializing, Occidentalizing approach to painting its American setting. In the same way that Rockstar Studio’s open world games (like Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto) compactify and heighten the appearance of the territories they simulate, Kojima heightens the variation within America – its geography, its people, and its state – to tell his story of overcoming an apocalypse not through technological ingenuity, but instead by the dogged, human insistence to keep putting one foot ahead of the other.
In working to tell a universal story of human connection, it is natural that he had to remove himself as capably as possible from the confines of the setting in which it takes place – put differently, I doubt he could have set Death Stranding in Japan. His coat would have caught on too many hooks.
Structurally, the interplay between mechanics and setting in Death Stranding represents a serious break from a previous model Kojima had adhered to in developing the Metal Gear games, all the way up through The Phantom Pain.
When we consider not merely the statics of the relationship between mechanics and setting – how at any one point in the game one informs the other and vice versa – but also the dynamics of that relationship, how the relative importance of each waxes and wanes over the course of the game, we remark firstly that the previous model, exemplified by the core Metal Gear games, begins by dropping the player-character into relatively banal circumstances.
As Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, you arrive at a snow covered military base to investigate terrorist kidnappings – as Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, you SCUBA up to an oil derrick to kick out some terrorists holed up there – as Naked Snake in Metal Gear Solid 3, you parachute into Russia to pick up a defecting scientist.
Only after an hour or so’s gameplay passing, and then all at once, does Kojima pull back the curtain and usher the player-character into the labyrinth of his kooky larger story. So once firmly ensconced in the Shadow Moses facility, Solid Snake sees the head of the terrorists revealed to be his twin. Likewise, after becoming firmly acquainted with the main stage of the game, the Big Shell, Raiden encounters a deathless guerrilla and a vampire (of course, things really go off the rails, narratively speaking, much later in the game – I wish I had written this entire thing about Metal Gear Solid 2 – but let the attached video suffice). Naked Snake likewise loses the defector to his mentor, The Boss, who is working in conjunction with the (literally cloaked) Patriots, and a nuclear attack on the lab he’s just escaped from sparks an international incident.
While the story unfolds, little in the way of mechanical progression is on offer. You start the game with essentially the full repertoire of verbs, equipment, and abilities that you will end the game with; the most common exception is the sniper rifle you get in the mid-game to fight a particular boss of MGS, MGS2, and MGS3.
This dynamic relationship offers an easy way to understand the statics of those games at any later point in the course of those games – the experience is basically a constant function of the mechanics, since there is little progression, and varies directly as the setting, namely the story, changes. (To caveat that point, there may remain a kind of virtual progression as the player acclimates to the complexity of the mechanics and attains a mastery in controlling the player-character in the setting, but this is to be distinguished from a pattern of true mechanical progression wherein new verbs are appended to the stack of possible actions.)
Death Stranding reverses this scheme. Within twenty minutes, Sam and the player are submerged in the full wackiness of Kojima’s post-apocalyptic world; before the first mission, a “void-out” has occurred, Sam has died, and the player must return to the world through the Seam, the game’s “afterlife”. By the start of the second mission, it’s revealed that the president of America (“the first and last woman president,” expositive informant Die-Hardman says, at which you have to chuckle) is Sam’s mother, that Sam’s sister is trapped by terrorists somewhere in San Diego, and that in order to prevent another void-out, Sam must incinerate his mother-president’s corpse at a mountaintop a kilometer away or so.
Mechanically, however, you start with the rudiments. I’m still in awe of the opening to Assassin’s Creed 2, where the player witnesses the birth of protagonist Ezio and then learns the control scheme by moving the baby Ezio’s arms and legs.
The opening to Death Stranding isn’t far off from that scale of adroitness. You can move Sam, squeeze the triggers to hold his pack as you take hard turns, and pick some stuff up, but that’s about it. But really rapidly, the game starts to open new avenues of interaction – the “PCC,” the device that lets you build permanent structures, comes next, as does, in time, the first use of a vehicle, the trike. Then you get some exoskeletons, the ability to make more structures, road-building. Soon enough, even the game’s terrifying enemies, the “BTs,” can be dispatched. Then guns show up, non-lethal and lethal, and you can get bigger vehicles – trucks and long-range versions of trikes. Ziplines, floating carriers, fast travel; the scale of mechanical interaction is massive.
But Kojima massages that massive scale into the game’s firmament with the grace of a pastry chef, and so the entrance of a new verb is exciting, a gratifying rush in the player’s experience. Few games I’ve played achieve the exact feeling of mechanical progression Death Stranding pulls off.
The magic, then, comes as the progression of Sam’s expanding mechanical powers matches the setting’s drive to persuade the player of the stakes of Sam’s larger narrative mission. As you get the ability to hurtle a truckload of cargo over dangerous terrain at high speed, safe on roads you built, you get the sense for the gains to society from having capable people like Sam around. In a funny way, the detective story component of the narrative is the junior partner in the larger setting – I want to know what’s “really” going on in the world, sure, but I also just want to make sure that next big city gets connected to the network. I want Sam to make the terrifying world of post-apocalyptic America safer for the Americans who still have to inhabit it.
Without reservation, I can say already, near the game’s mid-point, that playing Death Stranding has been one of my favorite experiences in gaming. The gamble Kojima took to make that structural inversion detailed above pays off in a rich sense of progression, which comes around in the midgame to offer truly serendipitous, emergent gameplay, the likes of which have been only pipe dreams in some of the industry’s most soaring minds.
That critical ingredient in creating that emergent gameplay occurs along a mechanical avenue distinct from the player-movement/verb system elaborated above. That avenue is the game’s multiplayer/social system, which consists largely of tools and structures other players leave behind, purposefully and otherwise, that appear in your world. I should say that this system has surprised me in how core it has been to the gameplay.
Without the other cohort of players involved in your world (and bracketing out several cohorts does appear to be how the game works in a netcode sense – the entire past and present player base of Death Stranding does not cointeract), there would be no feasible way to build the road network which makes such hay of getting between the game’s farflung locations. There would likewise be no way of spanning unleapable ravines or of descending steep canyonfaces, which the game so often asks you to do. And while the player cherishes those purposeful interactions, rewarding your thoughtful forebears with hundreds of likes, there’s something to the accidental crossings – where one player’s dropped item ends up being just what you need in a tight spot – that transcends.
As a case in point: late in the third chapter, Sam is tasked with disposing of a nuke under a strict (real world) time limit. Thoughtfully, the game has primed the player for missions done under time limits, so the new restriction does not jar oddly. Also by this point, the game has offered to the player a range of movement options – sturdy, spacious cargo trucks, floating carriers which relieve the burden on Sam’s back, agile trikes – and so the player sets off for the disposal site, a tar pit, at a quick clip.
In my game, I had recently extended the road network south of the departure point, which made the first few minutes of the mission trivial; but in a rush to get through the chapter’s story, I had stopped the network there, and so ran into some rocky terrain and impassable rivers after too long. The truck performed admirably, to a point; and when a misjudged fall off some rocks took Sam and the truck to the bottom of a cliff, I thought I’d have to restart. The timer was running below ten minutes at that point – Sam had actually died in the fall and I’d had to do the “afterlife” gameplay to get back to where I was in the world – and the truck was wedged in a cacophony of rockfaces, like a Dodge Hemi beached at the Giant’s Causeway.
Sam rose to his feet, and we got down to the remains of the truck and recovered the cargo. I deployed both of Sam’s trusty floating carriers, a true “delighter,” and set off to hit the objective point by mere pedal power. It was still far to go, and the game offered no immediate recovery, so I figured there would be some clambering struggle before an ignominious (read: a mission restart) end. Cresting a cliff in my course, nearly having lost both the carriers, I – and Sam – panned the camera around. Miraculously, another player’s abandoned trike came into view, perched pleasantly, as if in anticipation of my coming by. Relief rolled over me like a wave. Kojima’s grand social plan came true, and I set my cargo on the heaven-sent trike and hit the objective easily.
It’s never been easier for me to comment on the scope of a creative’s work than with Kojima, as, after following his twenty-one years of work since the publication of Metal Gear Solid, the recurrences are clear. Popular press publications had a field day of his social-system-based push in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to present a message of nuclear disarmament; take it then as unsurprising that a story current in Death Stranding offers a way to experience the horrors of nuclear armament that far exceeds Phantom Pain‘s efforts. He may moreover be the game designer most conscious of the thematic role pregnancy can play in a game’s story; Death Stranding makes sexuality, and its changes relative to the world before and during the apocalypse which sets the game in motion, an acknowledged, if not necessarily core, element of its presentation (Mama’s pregnancy is an acute storytelling device, like the nuke in the third chapter, which serves Kojima’s aims precisely).
These themes, which, aside from Kojima’s presentation, can be observed all over modern Japan, shine through more acutely in Death Stranding than in his previous works. This I attribute to the way Death Stranding disposes of the action-movie conceit which motivated the narratives of Metal Gear Solid. With this present game, as before, we are met as viewers with an expansive, creative, and challenging world-view; but as players, we must face up to the burden the game lays on Sam’s all-too-human shoulders.
Finished some longrunning content this week – took down Borderlands 3 and Luigi’s Mansion 3. I have my gripes about both games, but will confine my remarks here to the former.
Borderlands, as a series, is far more story-driven than I’d realized going in, a tendency which feels at odds with the gameplay structure. As I was streaming one of the missions late in the game, on the Eridian homeworld, the game urged me of a sudden back to Sanctuary to hear the Greek chorus of NPCs blather on before sending me back to Pandora, for the game’s final mission. Stiff models of the main characters, which I as a (quasi-)series newbie had neither familiarity with nor great affection for, delivered lines about the galactic goings-on just ahead of us, fully on display, while my avatar (hollow as that word is), Amara, stood, her weapon held up in front of her, obstructing my view.
This description is given to point out an instance of what I believe to be a ludonarrative dissonance emergent in the structure of Borderlands 3, which others among its genre – what I’ll generally call looter-shooters, though varying amounts of looting and shooting obtain among them – sidestep, tacitly or otherwise. In Destiny or in Diablo, quest-givers and story-critical characters are rather quicker in saying what they need to and getting out of the player-character’s way. This decision privileges the continuation of the all-important gameplay loop: the deployment of new skills and weapons on the world-objects, the flash of ever more spectacular particle effects on-screen, the recoupment of yet newer skills and abilities, and lastly the shift in environmental location, that the loop might recur with a new skin grafted atop it. This loop has long been held as the defining feature of the looter-shooter (in other parlance some writers speak of Skinner box game design).
If embedded in that loop of a gameplay structure we recognize two principal skeins, by which I mean the components the developers create and manipulate to achieve their artistic goals, we can best identify those as the mechanical skein and the setting skein. Skeins themselves are comprised of formal elements, like story, narrative, characterization, gamefeel, progression, empowerment, environment (in all its forms), etc., but all formal elements belong to one skein or the other, and not to both.
In that language, we can see that the approach taken by Destiny and Diablo is to jettison story as a formal element of setting and install mechanical player-character progression as the primary formal element within the gameplay structure.
We know moreover that there is magic in the overlapping interaction of the two skeins, and it may in fact be the case that looter-shooters, constitutionally, fail to apprehend any of that magic. For the loop, which drives progression, is massively sensitive to interruption – this is why a common lament of looter-shooters involves menu design and inventory management, for these are necessary parts of the game which are also necessarily outside of the loop (this is moreover why the console port of Diablo 3 received such high plaudits – it solved, or came close enough anyway to solving, a previously intractable problem).
Decades of advance in game development have yielded little fruit in another area which has tended to exist outside of the loop – the tools of story presentation have long been stagnant, and each implementation today is little more than a variation on another. Schematically, the structure of looter-shooter stories goes as follows: To advance the story, players undertake quests comprised of objectives, upon whose conclusion players must return to quest-givers and receive quest updates, a step without which progression – and the loop – cannot be restarted, as exploration is halted. These quest-givers then deliver the story update via speech, either in monologue or dialogue, whose result is the assignment of new quest-objectives.
Precisely here is where the rub lies. Quest updates in Borderlands 3 are given by actors behind a proscenium arch, an effect created by both the persistent 1st-person perspective and the silence of the player character. These updates have a very wooden feel – within the arena-environment, the part of the game world where the mechanics are acted out, technological limits severely constrain the possibilities for artful character blocking, interaction, or drama. Borderlands, as a series, has always sought to alleviate this uncanniness and forestall player disengagement with witty writing, as a radio program or talk show might. These efforts, it should be said, are often successful, especially when paired with dense, creative environmental design; but it is also the case that not all attempts of this breed can be successful, and more likely that at least a plurality of attempts will fail to rouse a laugh in the player, precisely because so much of the wit relies on timing, and updates are entered into with no precise rhythm, only on the whim of the player-character.
As some of the wit must fall flat, there is now a guarantee baked into the game design that the player will be bored during updates and that as a consequence, the loop will be interrupted and progression will suffer. Borderlands is and has been a successful game not because of the interaction between its two skeins but rather in spite of it, as the highs of the mechanical experience are sufficiently lofty to compensate for the doldrums of the story-setting.
What’s most peculiar about this outcome is that the tools chosen for story delivery in Borderlands are easily seen to be, a priori, the least intrusive means of interrupting the gameplay loop. In particular, the persistent en vivo perspective within the arena-environment requires no shift in player identification or user interface to complete the necessary agenda of the story update. The player-character may still take advantage of all the facets of mechanics available to them – the verbs of running, jumping, shooting, weapon switching, crouching, ability casting – even if that advantage earns less profit, owing to the local geography in which the story update takes place usually being denuded of arena-objects (take this term to mean, basically, enemies or interactable environmental components).
A player might even, according to their tastes, turn away from the quest-giver mid-update and walk away, or go and begin another quest-update. What again emerges as a problem is the precise timing of the quest-update: although player freedom within the arena-environment persists during the quest-update, that freedom is, all of a sudden, shockingly undirected. The player must wait for the end of the quest-update, when objectives are refreshed, quests are given anew, and the game world is ready to acknowledge the next player action.
Were the quest update handled slightly differently, such that the world-readiness was triggered merely at the outset of the quest update; or were it the case that quest updates involved the cashing-in of many chained objectives and the projection of many long-ranging objectives-to-be-done, this problem would be so scarcely felt that it may never have risen to attention at all. While those analog tweaks are unobservable from where we sit today we may by comparison with alternative implementations of the quest update system derive some further understanding as to the optimal arrangement of things in this our genre.
We take as our objects of analysis the other aforementioned looter-shooters, namely Destiny and Diablo, and will assess the necessary interruptions in their loops in turn. The Diablo quest system is aided by relatively larger environments in which the first part of progress is always exploration – note the expanding of the lit areas of the map, the expulsion of the fog of war which has been so long a mainstay of that game’s play. This means that individual objectives may be sustained over many loop cycles, with returns to quest-givers only needed after a long period. This, as conjectured above, would probably serve to ameliorate the thorny annoyance of the radio program model we took a look at in Borderlands, had that been the model taken up by Diablo‘s creators.
It was, however, not, and instead they implemented a design for quest updates which I analogize to the reading of a book. What’s notable about Diablo is that despite its position as the genre-progenitor – recall the first entry appeared in 1997 – relatively little about its design has changed to today. Tool invention, the basis of the implementation of formal elements, then was tightly bound by the technological frontier – the fog of war effect alleviated the burdens placed on already taxed GPUs, while text-box based character interaction was merely paradigmatic. They stumbled, happily, on a winning formula amid those strictures, and have needed not to change it since.
Indeed by Diablo‘s reckoning, the proper relationship of story to setting (and, transitorily, of the story to the mechanics) is akin to an iceberg. A certain sum floats above the water and must obligatorily impressed upon the player. Otherwise, the game runs the risk of substituting for the long-term purposive fuel of narrative the chained short-term highs of the mechanical loop (this is a problem not unfamiliar to bank executives and financial regulators). This obligatory story content, however, need not come exclusively through the quest-giver’s diegetic speech-updates, and keen developers will be quick to realize this.
To that end, then, Diablo puts the whole of the story in its quest updates, but also lets the player set his own pace in dismissing the update and continuing with the loop. A critical tool here is the way the quest update alters the player perspective: it pulls focus, halting the verb-expression of the player and opening a new, segregated mode of the game world. Instead of allowing the natural rhythm of the loop to die its own death while the quest-giver delivers an update, the use of the segregated mode severs the player’s connection to the loop and to the arena-environment in which it takes place. One can dismiss the segregated mode nearly as quickly as it appears and rejoin the arena-environment; but in this way, and through thoughtful, punchy writing, Diablo can shake the player loose of his mechanical loop-delirium, deliver the modicum of story needed, and spit the player out once more to fulfill the story’s next objectives.
To its credit, Destiny, too, makes use of the segregated mode, albeit with changes sufficiently large to obtain different effects upon the play-experience. Destiny‘s implementation I analogize to a ticket-counter at an arcade. Bungie, the series’ developer, has chosen to elevate the quest-giver from being merely a tool of story into a hybrid form, setting into motion the formal elements of both the mechanical and setting skeins. By this I refer to the cashing-in of both quest-objectives and incidental bounties, where loot generation – critical within the loop mechanism – is handled also in large part by the quest-giver. The length of time needed for this cashing-in is non-negligible, an important component of the feedback system which makes Destiny such a tactile experience.
To account for this, the quest updates are not text-skippable as in the book model but instead closer to Borderlands‘ voiced-diegetic implementation. The saving grace, then, comes in the freedom of the player to exit the segregated mode, halt the speech of the quest-giver, and continue on anyway with the new quest’s objectives.
What this choice brings about is a relocation of the story-delivery from the stationary, active quest-giver to a moving, passive accrual within the arena-environment in the course of the quest. This is the motivation behind the Ghost character as well – in a system where more story is to be delivered on foot (as it were), the presence of a character capable of providing story everywhere the player goes is needed. Think instead of how much sillier the presentation might seem with quest-givers and other NPCs not actually present with the player reacting to the movements and deeds of the player, environment, and arena-objects.
Because the quest-givers’ role is more as mechanical figure than story-deliverer, the focus pull upon player interaction does not, as in Diablo, succeed in impressing upon the player the critical story. It is then the case that the “distant delivery” is the only way players obtain narrative justification for their actions. Because these distant deliveries take place as the player is navigating the arena-environment, the guarantee of any one component of story being impressed upon the player is never achieved. This is an uncanny balance, which does not resolve neatly, and may provide for the player an incomplete experience.
I hold the quest-update as the most interesting and critical locus of looter-shooters as a genre, as it’s only here that the long-proven model of the loop is forced to stop. How a developer chooses to implement narrative progress amid the player-driven mechanical progress is key towards putting together a consistent, engaging experience. Diablo, in its earliest incarnation, may have hit precisely upon that magic I described earlier as occurring in the intersection of the two skeins of formal tools, the mechanical and the setting, as can frequently happen when the right idea, the best people, and just enough technological limitations come together. Destiny forgoes really nailing the quest update system in favor of a loftier environmental experience, and I think this focus serves the game well. Verticality, which Destiny knows how to do, is often the mot juste for transcending the mechanical-setting divide. And there’s something transcendent as well about the dogged fervor of Borderlands‘ loop, the ribald creativity and range of the mechanical experience, the vivid characterization of player and arena-objects, bordering on caricaturization. The radio show, the book, the ticket counter – all three in their own way avenues to stand athwart the looping player and yell, “Stop!”