We can all agree that it’s more interesting to have multiple routes to your objectives in gaming. It’s become pretty standard now to not only have one option to reach your mission goals. Games like Dishonored, Fallout, and Hitman all make use of different paths and diverse strategies players can use to complete their mission. While playing the new Deus Ex I’ve begun to wonder how many paths are too many? Are we starting to over design? With every obstacle, I’m faced with up to 5 or 6 different routes… is this interesting or even a challenge? While I’m not a level designer, I’m going to try my best to dig into this and more in today’s post. I’ll be having some minor visual spoilers from “Deus Ex : Mankind Divided” so you’ve been warned!
During my playthrough of Deus Ex, which I am enjoying by the way, I’ve started to notice just how many paths there are in every environment. While doing my stealth playthough, it seems that wherever I look there’s a hidden vent, a hole hiding behind a heavy box, or secret ladder leading around obstacles. I heard a friend of mine was playing on the “hard” difficulty setting, and so I figured I’d give that a shot as well. While I essentially can’t take any damage, with the number of different routes and shortcuts… I find that navigating around hostiles to be a breeze. Looking back at games like Splinter Cell, I never felt it to be quite this easy… Splinter Cell definitely didn’t have the amount of path diversity as Deus Ex maintains, and yet with having fewer options each felt more polished. In an effort to explain my meaning, I tried to analyze a few scenarios from Deus Ex.
In the above example, you’re tasked with infiltrating an area full of heavily armed hostiles. The player can identify five potential routes at first glance, and this is without turning on the character’s augmented eyes would would highlight interactable objects (ladders, openable windows, and doors). Most cases feel like variations on this for the player… we can clearly see the “hostile” route with the enemies, and several other paths of least resistance.
Once you climb up the left ladder, and turn the corner you’re presented with this scene. Here we can jump down to a lower level, cross a catwalk, open a vent and enter an adjoining room, or go up and bypass a laser grid. Again we can quickly note the “hostile” route, and then side paths.
I started doing some additional research into level design, honestly it was hard to not find things that were not specifically multiplayer references. While some sources were less academic than others, I found a lot of great material. I found this forum at “Game Development Stack Exchange” where a contributer “Sean James” added the following :
“...carefully limit the number of paths available to a player. While it is common these days to advertise that there are multiple paths through the game, this is frustrating to players who want to ensure that they are seeing everything the game has to offer...”
Over at Pentaduct.com there’s a really interesting write up on level design from the previous game from Deus Ex, “Deus Ex : Revolution.” Writer Tom Francis, has a pretty thorough breakdown of the strategies used by the developers… and honestly… they feel quite similar to what we’re seeing in the newest game as well. Francis does a great job breaking down the multiple pathing routes, and player cost for either, in a really interesting way.
Yet, to really explain my point… I think I’d like to share some things I’ve learned from a retrospective I found from Iowa State University called : “Design patterns in level design: common practices in simulated environment construction.” Mainly I’d like to cover different patterns and strategies used by level designers, and then compare these to what I find to be what’s happening in Deus Ex : Mankind Divided.
To start with, let’s talk about “Linear Paths.” These are pretty straightforward and easy to understand, the player as an objective from A to B along a straight path. These are probably the most common pathing options we see in gaming and can be quite boring depending on the content.
Next we have “Bottlenecking Paths,” similarly to “Linear” we have at least one straight path to the objective, with optional side paths for the player. Something that author Denise Bacher cautions is “be aware of is that a level's bottleneck needs to be clearly defined so players do not accidentally end up backtracking down another path instead of proceeding to the next area.” Which may be an element that’s currently lacking from the current Deus Ex.
There’s also “Open Ended,” these are often referred to sandbox levels and allows players to do the objectives in the order they choose. I think at times Deus Ex could be referred to this style on certain levels, yet the structure of many of the environments don’t always allocate for this style.
Now we come to the style of my own creation, “Spaghetti Style.” Within Deus Ex we’re provided with multiple branching paths on top of other branching paths and yet there’s a sever lack of direction. These path’s don’t converge into a bottleneck style, instead they weave and merge into one another. While exploring, I’ve allowed myself to naturally go from one route to another... Only to find myself aimless and back at the beginning. In earlier posts I’ve talked about visual priority and understanding where I should be looking as a player. I think that’s one of the things lacking from the branching choices of Deus Ex, there’s no real visual ques for where I should be going as a player. I find it quite odd that in all my augmentations, my character doesn’t actually have a GPS similar to Dead Space. As Bacher cautioned above, Deus Ex does not clearly define where the player is intended to go in most cases. Leaving the player to open a clumsy blueprint, and attempt to navigate their way. While it could be argued that the game is more realistic in this regard, we have to keep in mind that at the end of the day we’re playing a video game. While I’m still enjoying my play through of the game, I still can’t shake the feeling that some of these areas could have a bit more structure. Sid Meyer once said that “a game is a series of interesting choices,” and I’m worried that many of the choices in Deus Ex aren’t interesting enough.
I hope this was another interesting read! While this isn’t exactly my field, I tried my best to supplement it with more research. Thanks again for reading!
I make games, I play games... and sometimes I have some thoughts about that.