Variety is – Part II

August 9, 2014

As I explained, variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. There is nothing to discuss if there is no variety. Adding the right amount of variety and “visual interest” to a piece of art can make it better. If videogames are art (a part of culture), surely variety has some sort of role in game design.

For today, I had planned to describe its importance across a sample of games, but then wound up with a post mostly about Thief. I’m not talking about Thief‘s more recently-released reboot of the series; no, I’m talking about the original games that left such an impression on gamers that they continue to rank highly in “best of all time” lists, and prompted the recent reboot. The original Thief, and then Thief II, are excellent examples.

But let me start with two others. One day I was interested to see gamers comparing Hellgate: London and Diablo II. The Diablo series made an impact on gaming history, and the first sequel arguably improved on many aspects of the original. When Hellgate: London was presented, it was as an amazing new game from some of the original Diablo creators. Surely it should have been a competitor or even replacement for Diablo II. Why wasn’t it?

The comparison looked to variety, and it’s sinister counterpart “boredom.” In Hellgate: London everything was gray. Gray concrete, gray pavement. Travel from one place to another and you hardly could tell anything had happened. But in Diablo II there was always something of interest. Across the four regions of the game you went from green and brown, to brilliant yellow, to dark green, blue, and gray, to brilliant red and black. Even if you didn’t play the game and simply saw it on someone else’s computer screen, things were always changing.

So in that light let me talk about Thief and Thief II. (Fan site here.)

When it was being developed and released, the original Thief offered two demos, both of which allowing you to do a little housebreaking. My long-term gaming consultant, my brother, played these with me and in the end we knew we wanted the full version. Then we got it and I, for one, was stunned: every single level introduced something new, sometimes drastically new, extending far beyond housebreaking.

My brother and I came to divide it into “thievery” levels, with normal housebreaking, and “Indiana Jones-style” levels, where you found yourself leaping around and mantling surfaces in a 3-D dungeon avoiding traps and nightmares. So, taking just the first four levels, there came “thievery / Indiana Jones / Indiana Jones / thievery” with each teaching the player new game mechanics. This is important: a progression of content matters not just for the sake of interest, but for player learning. The beloved game Portal is studied — yes, studied — for its ability to guide the player through learning tasks in an engaging and enjoyable way, introducing new content at the right speed and with the right tools for understanding.

Even when Thief got back to “normal thievery” in level 4, it struck a high point of artistry with a complex and memorable cityscape — that is, variety in sights, sounds, and setup. (And if you really want variety, I haven’t even mentioned the Escher level yet.) I adored all of this and I hold up Thief as the prime example of variety in a videogame.

Enough so that it could be too much. Note that levels 1 and 4 as I just described . . . were the demo levels. Between the two in the full version is a system shock (mildly-punful joke intended) of dungeon-diving. My brother observed it’s a good thing he played the demos first, as the knowledge that “more normal thievery levels are coming” is the only thing that got him through having to completely recalibrate his expectations for 2 and 3. Nowhere in all the advertisement for Thief did the developers prepare the audience for such variety.

Still, I loved it. When a demo for Thief II came available almost immediately afterward, I played that too. I personally wasn’t impressed by the new mechanics so I didn’t push to play the full version. But then I came to see people listing Thief II, not Thief, as their pick for “best of all time.” An endorsement by Sir Terry Pratchett of all people (a fellow who enjoys playing videogames while writing) finally compelled me to try Thief II.

Now . . .

I could dive into the level design in Thief II. An entire level of picking up tiny coins two by two? Waste of the player’s time.

But I was struck by something else: the developers eliminated variety. Instead of engaging in “normal thievery” and “Indiana Jones” in alternation, you go from levels 1 through 8 robbing from the same human guards in the same geometric buildings over and over again, with a little variation as the Mechanists increase in prominence. Any monsters are just for flavor, entire mechanics (“holy water”) are absent, and even new mechanics (“secrets”) are largely ignored. Despite the standard fantasy concept of “trapped treasures,” for almost the entire game you need not worry about traps. You almost never mantle a wall or climb a rope. You almost never see magic. You never see the light of the sun, period.

Even as Thief II attempted to mimic the original with an explorable “cityscape,” the streets had none of the variety. Buildings were all the same color and architecture, regions made all the same sounds.

At the start of this essay, I discussed the “visual interest” that the successful Diablo II has while the struggling Hellgate: London does not. Doesn’t this mean that Thief II, by visuals alone, should have been a flop?

It would seem that “breaking into houses and beating up on human guards” itself scratched an itch. The popularity of Thief with Actual Killing (I mean, Assassin’s Creed) makes it obvious that people will buy such games anyway, and so variety isn’t everything. But even so, I’ve kept shaking my head and wondering about Thief II: what do people like so much?

Well, I’ve spoken with people on that — people like Sir Terry Pratchett. At the 2009 North American Discworld Convention, he discussed what Thief games give us: an immersive experience. A sensation of being in a living world, where you can look out over the city and watch the people going about their evening. As such, he and his friends hold up one level as the prime example: all Thief II players will immediately recognize level 10, the “Angelwatch” level, as the one where you cross the roofs of the vibrant city and feel life around you. This isn’t the low-variety “cityscape” I mentioned above: Angelwatch is the cityscape concept done correctly.

Okay, follow me here:

Angelwatch was the demo level released shortly after the original Thief. Full of buildings with vastly different colors and architecture. Spread with different types of humans and peppered with different monsters; not for flavor, but where they belong. As far as I could tell, it was designed when the creators were still using the principles from the original Thief, and as such exhibited more variety than any other level in Thief II.

“And so variety isn’t everything,” because apparently people-who-aren’t-me think that Thief II surpassed the original. But what people remember about it isn’t the boring picking-up-two-coins-at-a-time level: it’s the living city level, imbuing the whole experience with a vibrance it would lack otherwise.

Isn’t it funny how variety improves even the “best of all time”? Thus, yes, variety has a valuable role in the storytelling and artistry of modern games, just as it does in any other aspect of life. A lesson to remember.

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