Chaos vs. Order: The Eternal Struggle

“You have destroyed so much– what is it exactly that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.”
–Wallace Breen, Half-Life 2

Video game plots have long been accused of being the run of the mill good vs. evil stories. And for the most part that’s true, even the best game plots often feature mostly black and white characters and or morality systems with purely good and evil options. But the real underlying conflict that most gameplay features is actually not good vs. evil, but the struggle between order and chaos. This is probably, in part, due to the element of agency in gaming– unlike other mediums, the core principle of the medium is about the player having freedom in a premade world.

So in this article, we’re going to shed some light on this never ending battle and show how some of your favorite games portray this eternal conflict.

The Player as an Agent of Chaos

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

This is really the underlying conflict in the majority of video games on the market. The player controlled character invades an area controlled by the enemy with carefully laid out obstacles, traps, puzzles, enemy formations, etc. Essentially a carefully set-up environment that the player character is meant to ride roughshod through (like that time you knocked over that block tower your little brother was building). Despite what the background story may say about how the villains are invading and disrupting the status-quo (also chaos vs. order), when you take over and start actually playing through the levels, you’re wreaking havoc on the carefully arranged battlements set up by the enemy. Even something as grotesque as the R-Type series’s Bydo Empire, a strange alien army composed of machines and deformed flesh, is still an organized group that spends time building and fortifying defenses that you need to penetrate/destroy. Even more mundane gameplay activities, like smashing pots and slicing up carefully groomed bushes for cash in the Zelda series, involve messing up or destroying some other character’s hard work.

Hire at your own risk!

Hire at your own risk!

Perhaps the game series that is the most honest about this perpetual conflict is the famous Grand Theft Auto series, which might be one of the reasons we like it so much. Obviously rampaging around the city fighting the cops makes you a force of chaos, but the story missions carry out this theme just as much, especially in IV. Niko Bellic is honestly just as dangerous to his employers as he is to everyone else in the city. At least 6 (more depending on some of the choices you make) mission givers are killed by Niko himself and several more are killed or brought down by the whirlwind of danger surrounding him. He not only disrupts the order of Liberty City, but disrupts the order of its criminal underworld as well. GTA: Vice City’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, takes a slightly different approach. Anyone who’s played the game knows that Vercetti deals out as much chaos as any other GTA protagonist, but during the second half of the story Tommy does begin to restore some order to the criminal empire he just decimated. After destroying Ricardo Diaz’s organization halfway through the game, Vercetti’s focus shifts toward building up his own organization, which causes a bit of a gameplay shift. He purchases businesses around the city and builds them up as branches of his own criminal empire. Even though the missions for the businesses usually involve wreaking havoc against someone else, you still have the sense that you’re building something, which makes Vice City a little bit more toward the middle on the order/chaos spectrum.

Bringing Order to Chaos

It's always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

It’s always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

This is the approach that most strategy games take, where your entire goal is to build your own army or settlement from resources that you collect. One of the best examples of a game in this category is the Civilization series, where you literally start off in an untamed wilderness and must build and progress your own society through the different periods of history. While you can choose to wage war against rival civilizations in order to win the game, you can also win via negotiation, science, art and other less chaotic methods, which places the Civilization games firmly on the order end of the spectrum. You even build your society’s values, transitioning from a chaotic tribe intent only on survival to a culture with a very focused and specific set of principles. Even further in the order category are titles like SimCity, the Tycoon games, and the strangely popular Euro Truck Simulator, where the entire goal of the game is to manage something in an orderly fashion, whether that be a city, an amusement park, a zoo, or any of the other kinds of businesses the Tycoon games feature. While these kinds of games certainly have a dedicated following, there aren’t nearly as many titles that focus on creating order. There are probably a number of reasons for this but perhaps the main one is simply that causing chaos is just more fun. Even in SimCity, causing natural disasters and watching buildings topple is very enjoyable, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be an event the player wants to avoid. Despite this, these kinds of games can provide a welcome change of pace and we may see some intresting twists on gameplay dealing with bringing order to chaos in years to come.

Surviving in a Chaotic World

Remnants of a normal life.

Remnants of a normal life.

Games that fit into this category don’t quite belong on the order to chaos spectrum like the games mentioned above do. Instead, the locations these games take place in are designed to be chaotic and the goal is to push through and survive in a harsh environment. Many survival horror games like Silent Hill 2 and the recent indie hit Lone Survivor fit into this category. While combat is technically an option in these games, the ability to inflict chaos back against your enemies is intentionally limited to make you feel all the more helpless. In Lone Survivor’s case, the game actually rewards you for not killing enemies, despite the fact they won’t hesitate to do you in. The game also encourages you to preserve what you can of your normal, more routine life, like eating regularly (and well), limiting your intake of pills, and even adopting a cat. The emphasis here is truly on surviving while surrounded by utter chaos and even making the most out of such a situation, instead of destroying or instituting order. You win by keeping yourself under control, not the world.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Of course, like how Vice City is a partial overlap between the above two categories, there are games in this category that overlap with one of the others too. The original Half-Life takes place, for the most part, in an incredibly hostile environment where Gordon Freeman cannot fight all of his foes directly (like that obnoxious tentacle monster). The game beginning like just another day working at Black Mesa even enhances the chaos that you feel after everything goes to hell. However, your ability to fight back against the Xen aliens and the resilient commandos (who are trying to cover-up the whole affair) is substantial enough to set it apart the survival horror titles listed above, as Gordon Freeman ends up causing a fair amount of chaos himself during the course of his adventure. The protagonist’s world is being destroyed, but he can’t rebuild– only fight back.


The Overlooked Legends of Zelda


This is what Zelda is all about. Right?

The Legend of Zelda is easily one of the most recognizable video game franchises out there. Nearly everybody knows it and most people acknowledge it as one of the best series of all time. But recently, these games have been in a bit of a rut. Sure, most of the recent Zelda titles were still good games, but they tend to draw most of their influence from Ocarina of Time, the gold standard for the series. And when they try to add innovative new mechanics, the game usually doesn’t turn out as well *cough*Four Swords Adventures*cough*. When you think of amazing Zelda titles, most of you probably think of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, games that provide an epic medieval fantasy world to explore. You probably think of vanquishing Ganondorf using the Master Sword and reclaiming pieces of the Triforce. But there was always another side to the series, a stranger side that helped to keep the games fresh before they went stale. This week we’re going to talk about two of the more offbeat entries from The Legend of Zelda’s golden years, and why they were instrumental in keeping the series fresh with their unique worlds and gameplay mechanics.

Link’s Awakening (1993)

Link can never just have a peaceful journey.

This was the first installment of the series that did not take place in the land of Hyrule, instead beginning with series protagonist Link ending up shipwrecked and unconscious on the mysterious island of Koholint. He’s awakened by Marin (a young woman) and her father, Tarin. From here, Link begins his quest to leave the island and return to Hyrule,  soon learning that he must awaken the sleeping Wind Fish in order to accomplish this. Interestingly enough, this was the first Zelda game to use music as a key plot element, since in order to awaken the Wind Fish, Link must collect (okay, so it’s not totally different) the eight Siren’s Instruments. There’s also an ocarina item in the game which Link can learn three songs for, each with a unique purpose. Surreal elements start popping up right away and continue to do so. A man warns you to watch out for him later because he knows he’s going to get lost in the mountains later.  Right off the bat, the game has a different tone from it’s predecessors. A strange raccoon monster who halts your progress turns out to be a transformed Tarin when you defeat him. Character’s from other Nintendo franchises make cameos (like a Yoshi doll you can win at a crane game, or a Chain Chomp you can take for a walk). Clearly, the game has a very different feel from any other Zelda title.


Da Da Da Daaa! You got the Chain Chomp! What could be cooler than this?

Now if you happen to hear about the big twist in the game without playing through first, you’ll probably think it’s a cop out. As it turns out, this is yet another “it was all just a dream” story. Well, that’s not entirely true, Link is really trapped on the island because it, and all it’s inhabitants are part of the Wind Fish’s dream. Link’s shipwreck sent him into this deity’s dream…somehow. In spite of the potential problems this kind of plot twist can have, the game really makes it work. The strangeness that is present from the beginning of the game helps makes the twist seem believable when the revelation finally occurs. Many of the later bosses (or Nightmares) will even try and warn you about the island’s true nature, pleading with you not to wake the Wind Fish with their dying breaths. The Nightmares even suggest that since you are in the dream, you too will vanish once the Wink Fish awakens, building a great sense of tension as you get closer to your goal. All of this builds up beautifully to one of the most bitter sweet endings we’ve ever seen in a game. After defeating the final Nightmares inside the Wind Fish’s egg, you do finally manage to wake the god and escape, but only after watching the entire island, including all the friends you made along your journey (including Marin, the woman who saved you at the beginning of the game), vanish into nothingness. It’s one of the few endings that captures some of the sadness you have when you finish a really great game, that despite your accomplishment, it’s all over now. And the ending has so much weight behind it because you were the one that made it happen, destroying the island was really what you had been working towards from the beginning of the game. In short, it’s some of the best storytelling The Legend of Zelda series has ever done.

Majora’s Mask (2000)

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

How on earth do you follow up such a monumental success like Ocarina of Time? You go off in a totally new direction. Miyamoto and Nintendo wisely decided not to try and one-up their magnum-opus and instead create a sequel with a completely different feel and some startlingly different gameplay mechanics, Majora’s Mask. Right from the beginning of the game, you know the Zelda formula is going to be shaken up, as the story begins with a strange imp known as the Skull Kid turning Link into a weak and seemingly powerless Deku Scrub while stealing his horse, ocarina, and trapping him in a strange new world eerily similar to Hyrule, except that it’s own moon is going to crash into it in three short days. The most obvious new gameplay mechanic is that you keep replaying the same three days over and over again, until you stop this impending disaster. It’s an interesting spin on the switching between present and future time travel mechanic in Ocarina of Time, and is even more original and central to the game. Many of the NPCs have very detailed routines throughout this three day period, which makes the side quests some of the most detailed within the series. Timing becomes a big deal, as you’ll have to approach people at a certain time during the three days to start a side quest and also usually have to finish by a particular time. While this sounds annoying on paper it actually works very well in practice, since you can speed up and slow down the three day cycle via songs on your ocarina, as well as going back to the beginning of the three day cycle at any point. These abilities give you a sense of control over time that has never really been replicated in any other game, making these very time specific quests of Majora’s Mask work. The only parts of the game that suffer because of the three day mechanic are the dungeons, since they follow the standard Zelda formula (which allows you to take your time) and have not been altered to fit the more time specific gameplay of Majora’s Mask. However, even if you fail to complete the dungeon within a three day cycle, it still won’t set you back that far, since you still retain most important items while traveling back.

Enjoy looking at this the entire game.

Enjoy looking at this face the entire game.

Another unique gameplay mechanic to Majora is Link’s ability to transform. At the beginning of the game you’re trapped in the form of a tiny Deku Scrub, but once you reclaim your ocarina, you’ll be able to learn a song that will let you swap forms, by turning your Deku Scrub form into a mask that you can put on and take off at will. As the game progresses, you’ll acquire Goron and Zora masks (the other two main races from Ocarina) through two tragic incidents, which will give you a total of four different forms (including your normal form), all with their own unique abilities. All of these forms are useful throughout the entire game, which is one of the design areas that some of the more recent Zeldas are lacking in (the wolf form in Twilight Princess for instance becomes much less useful beyond the halfway point of that game). This is probably one of the reasons Majora’s Mask was one of the few post Ocarina of Time games in the series that managed to innovate successfully, both the mask transformations and the three day time mechanic are completely inseparable from the game, so much so that they really define it. And of course, the mechanics are fun too.

So while setting a Zelda game in an epic fantasy world has certainly made for some great entries to the series in the past, it would be nice to see Nintendo revisit the more surreal and strange tone that the above two games had. If nothing else, it would add some variety to a series that’s becoming in desperate need of it. Oh, and they should bring back Tingle. Everybody likes him, right?

Power-Ups and Pitfalls: Ikaruga and Nights into Dreams…

[Our series, Power-Ups and Pitfalls, examines truly innovative and exceptional examples of level design in games.]

Level design is easily one of the most important disciplines in the video game industry. Things like an interesting art style, deep characters, and exciting new mechanics are all well and good but the entire game falls apart if the levels (the vehicles through which the player experiences the art, controls said characters, and preforms the mechanics) are poorly made. And that’s why we’re starting this Power-Ups and Pitfalls series, to highlight exceptional and interesting examples of level design (that and because writing about it’s a hell of a lot of fun). Both of the games we’re looking at this week manage to create fast paced and exciting levels that capitalize fully on the unique mechanics these games offer. So, without further ado:

Ikaruga (2001)

The game’s unique mechanics make this fight easier than it appears.

Like most shmupsIkaruga is a brutally difficult game– at least it’s difficult to play well (the more attempts you make, the more continues you unlock). However, what sets Ikaruga apart from other shmups is it’s simplicity. While most other games of this genre focus on gathering as many power-ups as possible to survive the extremely difficult levels (and not dying and losing said power-ups for future attempts), Ikaruga doesn’t feature speed boosts or spread shots. It structures all of its levels around one simple mechanic, the ability switch your ship’s polarity between light and dark and absorb the enemy shots of whichever polarity you currently have. Absorbing enough shots will fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen that will allow you to fire a salvo of homing missiles of either polarity. Also, in order to add  a risk/reward element to the gameplay, your shots do extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity, meaning that you’ll destroy a white enemy faster with dark polarity even though you’ll be vulnerable to it’s light shots.

Don’t worry, it get’s tougher.

The first level of Ikaruga is comparatively easy to the rest of the game. The game gives the player plenty of room to fly around the screen and, at least at the beginning, enemies don’t fire so frequently. This gives the player plenty of time to experiment with the game’s unique mechanics and get a feel for how to play. In order to defeat the first boss (pictured above), you need to be familiar with the basics of the polarity system. The second level forces the player to deal with more shots of differing polarity at the same time while making the player fly through a narrow pathways for much of the stage. Level three is where things really get tougher as it takes the narrow navigating room and increased enemy fire of level two and makes you deal with it at a much faster pace. The fourth level increases the rate of enemy fire significantly and the boss does the same, but gives you a minuscule amount of maneuvering room. Finally, the short fifth stage bombards you with projectiles of the same polarity, to get you in the habit of rapidly filling up your meter and using your super attack constantly, a strategy that will prove invaluable on the final boss.

So as you can see, Ikaruga does a stellar job of using its mechanics to create varied and increasingly challenging levels, the basis of good level design in nearly any game, but that’s only the half of it. You can play through the entire game without dying at all (a very difficult feat), and still get low rankings (C and C-) on all the levels. That’s because you weren’t taking full advantage of your scoring opportunities. Shooting three enemies of the same color will initiate a chain set at one, killing three more enemies of the same color (they can be the opposite color of the first three though) will set your chain at two, and so forth. The higher you get this chain, the higher the multiplier will be for your score and the higher your rank at the end of the stage. Surviving a stage in this game while making sure to only shoot an enemy of the color you need requires a huge amount of skill and planning, making Ikaruga’s levels optionally even more complex, while still catering to more casual players, since you can just choose to ignore the score and concentrate on surviving. This feat is why Ikaruga truly excels in level design and is definitely a game to check out, especially if you like shmups. Also, the boss theme kicks huge amounts of ass.

Nights into Dreams… (1996)

Not exactly the most self-explanatory game.

Nights into Dreams is one of those games (like Pikmin or Katamari) that is truly unlike anything else out there. What genre does it belong to? The game is a mix of adventure, action, flight, racing, even bobsledding. The game let’s you play as one of two kids (each one has four stages to play through), who have to travel to another world through their dreams to free a magic jester named Nights who then has to collect four multi colored crystals called Ideya while avoiding enemies within a time limit so he can fight the boss of the level *gasp for air*. So yeah, this isn’t the easiest game to describe. Essentially, while you’re controlling one of the kids (while searching for Nights at the beginning of the stage or after running out of time), the game is a 3D platformer/adventure, and while controlling Nights (flying around to destroy the cages the Ideya are kept in), flying as if in a 2.5D game.

In dreams, even flying through rings is fun.

Like Ikaruga, Night’s levels are entertaining, challenging, and certainly unique even when stripped down to the bare minimum needed in order to finish. But these levels also become incredibly hard to master for players who want to earn the highest possible score. During the Nights sections, which are the vast majority of the game, (if you’re good, you’ll only control the kids briefly at the start of a level), the player must collect twenty blue chips to destroy the cage holding one of the four Ideya. These chips are placed in such a way that the player can usually collect twenty within the time limit and recover the Ideya, which will allow the player to complete the stage with an adequate score. However, by exploring the levels, players can uncover hidden caches blue chips letting them claim the Ideya faster and use the remaining time to score extra points, by flying through rings, collecting stars, and other trinkets. In order to unlock the final stage in both of the kids’ quests, players must earn at least a C rank on the three previous levels. So the game forces the players to engage in some of this level exploration in order to complete the game. Some players may stop there, but the developers are hoping that this will hook other players into going for A ranks on all the levels. They’re essentially easing players into a more hardcore play-style in order to make the game (which is very different from any other) less daunting– the design allows players to “opt in” to higher levels of difficulty through exploration.

Constrained Randomization

Randomly generated levels are nearly as old as mechanics can get in video games. While initially this tactic was used due to memory constraints, now a-days it’s often perceived as a cost efficient method to add replay-ability to a game. We won’t lie, neither of us at CardinalVirtual are huge fans of randomly generated content in video games, preferring meticulously planned levels that introduce and then build on gameplay mechanics (with plot points woven in). But the idea of randomly generated content definitely has some potential, so here are a few games that use it efficiently and effectively.

Pikmin 2

Imperialism has never been more fun.

At first, Pikmin 2 largely resembles the first game, travel across immersive, natural environments while using your steadily growing army of pikmin to fight enemies and carry items. Aside from the inclusion of a second captain, this game seems nearly identical to the original. And then you enter your first cave. While the second game looses some atmosphere and immersion because of an over reliance on these caves (a discussion for another time), this area is where the game uses randomly generated content well. These multi-floored caves contain most of the treasures that you need to find throughout the game, essentially taking center stage and turning the game into a dungeon crawler. While the actual level structure for each floor does not change, the locations of the various treasures, the player’s starting position, the exit, and the enemy locations change with each attempt of the floor.

Life’s hard when you’re the size of a quarter.

This way of using randomly generated content adds a certain amount of variety and unpredictability, without removing the player’s ability to strategize and prepare on repeat playthroughs, since the content of each floor remains the same(which is important considering the emphasis the series puts on planning and strategy). The Pikmin series is all about exploring a strange and unknown world where you’re at the bottom of the food-chain, so adding this level of uncertainty can really add to the tone of the game on repeat playthroughs, without making things overly frustrating. Even this kind randomization can turn out to be frustrating sometimes (especially on the more linear floors), as the varying treasure locations can make you feel very unlucky sometimes, but even this fits the tone of the game. After all, surviving in the thick of nature definitely requires some luck.

Left 4 Dead

Oh well, at least there’s no Tank.

Like Pikmin 2, Valve’s tense zombie themed FPS, Left 4 Dead, makes use of randomized content in one specific area, the enemy placement. Okay, so technically Left 4 Dead’s “AI Director” isn’t really random, since the enemy placement is affected by players actions and performances, but the experience feels as if it is. You’re never thinking, “how is what I’m doing here going to affect what spawns later?” You’re focused on surviving and you’re hoping against hope that a hoard won’t spawn or that the sobbing you hear in the distance isn’t coming from a witch who’s weeping in a place you can’t avoid. It’s simply intelligent randomization, what you’d expect from the company that gave us expertly planned games like the Portal series.

Damn you AI Director!

Left 4 Dead and it’s sequel thrive as zombie games specifically because of the uncertainty that the AI Director can provide. It ensures that each time you play one of the game’s four levels, you’re in for a slightly different experience, which is very important since the game is trying to get as much replay-ability as it as it can. In fact, the game excels even more once you’re somewhat familiar with the levels. Walking through a city you know but being uncertain exactly where and what danger will strike is exactly how a zombie apocalypse should feel. That’s why the Left 4 Dead games stand as such definitive zombie titles.

The Binding of Isaac

The joys of randomly generated levels.

This final selection uses randomized content more than any of the previous two games in this article. In fact, being a roguelike in nearly every way except the ASCII graphics, The Binding of Isaac is much closer to a typical game that makes use of randomization and is usually not the type of game that either of us here at CardinalVirtual plays. If we had to say why it works for us (excluding the great art, the creepy tone, and the religious symbolism) we would say it’s because of the length. A typical playthrough of Isaac  will last a little over half and hour (closer to 45 minutes once you get better), so you’re never in danger of losing that much progress due to a particularly difficult setup of rooms, even in the later areas of the game. Also, since a big part of the game is unlocking new items and bosses into the rotation, you can still feel like you’re accomplishing something even if you don’t complete the game on every attempt (and believe us, you won’t).

Finding items also makes you look more…interesting.

Overall, the selection of items that you gradually unlock are fairly well balanced. There are certainly some maddeningly useless ones thrown in there as well as a few that actively hurt you (damn health lowering pills), but there are enough good ones so that you’ll usually have a decent shot at making it to the end. And then, there are the empowering playthroughs where you happen to find a great selection of items and power through the game, demolishing all resistance. These playthroughs make all the frustration worthwhile.

What Makes a Good Sandbox?

The two of us recently finished Saint’s Row the Third, and beating it raised some questions. It definitely succeeds in what it set out to do– in terms of over-the-top thrills, explosions, crude humor, and general zaniness it’s basically unmatched among any release of the past year, and the gameplay is tight and fun. But there was a sense of disappointment. Compared to its predecessor the game world felt smaller and less varied, and the game’s emphasis on climactic set pieces and giving the player shiny toys to play with led to a lack of focus (zombie fighting? laser guns? flying aircraft carriers? Wasn’t this series supposed to be about gangbangers?). It’s as fun as Saint’s Row 2, but said fun comes mostly from the missions this time around instead of the sandbox elements.

That’s the genesis of what we want to try and pick at this week.  What makes a good sandbox, and how can games built around sandbox mechanics use this?

[When we say “sandbox” in this context we mostly mean the kind of games that used to be called “GTA Clones”– ones that put the player in a (usually urban) environment and focus on freeform play– rather than open-world RPGS (like Skyrim) or Metroidvanias]


This should be what makes a sandbox what it is. We say “should” because even the best sandbox games can fall apart on this front. It’s easy to give the players a world to play in, but it’s harder to leave them with that freedom once they’re supposed to be engaging in the story and pre-designed missions.

The bank robbery mission is as awesome as a game version of Michael Mann’s Heat, but also about as linear and carefully orchestrated.

Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its stellar quality, has serious issues in this regard. Liberty City is an amazing, living environment and you have incredible freedom in wandering around, breathing in the life of the city, getting hot-water hotdogs off the street, and shooting pigeons in their face. But this isn’t present in the missions: you drive to the mission point and go through a fairly-linear shooting mission. Some of them are great (GTAIV is one of this blog’s absolute favorite games), but it is a frustration that one of the most organic and immersive worlds in gaming becomes a shooter when the player decides to engage with the game’s central story.

The worst offenders are several of the car/motorcycle chase missions, in which the target vehicle can’t be destroyed or stopped until it reaches a pre-determined point on the map– moments when a game that makes the player feel an incredible sense of agency and freedom suddenly feels artificial.

A sandbox that really, really gets this right, however, is Just Cause 2. It’s an almost polar opposite of GTA IV— colorful, frenetic, with shallow characters and a world that rarely feels like more than a big set of sandcastles for you to knock over. But it also does an absolutely amazing job of making the player feel like a complete uncontrollable wildcard. This is in part due to the player’s  incredible mobility– with a Zelda-style hookshot, the ability to surf on top of moving vehicles, and an infinite supply of parachutes, the player can rocket around the game’s wide-open spaces and becomes impossible to pin down. It’s also due to fairly smart mission design. Even

You can seriously go from booting the game up to riding a passenger plane in 30 seconds and four button presses.

the game’s more linear missions end up feeling fairly chaotic and keeping the player on their toes (such as one where you grapple from the bumpers of a convoy of vehicles, shooting off police pursuers and defusing the bombs strapped to the cars), whereas the game’s main objectives boil down to “destabilizing” the local dictatorship by running around causing chaos.

Just Cause 2 is, in all fairness, not nearly as good of a game as Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s pure, cheesy fun, not a powerfully-written crime drama about the evil of the American dream. But as a sandbox it absolutely excels– a sandbox game will, by its very form, be about chaos, and the game’s decision to resist corralling the player and give them truly extreme levels of mobility and frenetic, loosely-structured missions make it the rare sandbox where you feel as free in the missions as you do when exploring the world.

Things to Do

A sandbox isn’t a sandbox without the sand— not just an open world, but things to do in it. There are  two cases of sandbox games from recent years that both failed in this regard: Mafia II and L.A. Noire. We’re almost certainly going to talk about L.A. Noire in a later column devoted solely to its inspired and muddled attempts to do bold new things, so instead, Mafia II.

Get used to this view. You will see a lot of it.

It was Goodfellas done as a competent third-person shooter, with over-long driving missions in between the shooting sessions. Your options outside of the main story were limited to: stealing cars and driving them to a dock or junkyard, buying clothes, and robbing stores. You could pick fights with cops or shoot civilians, but the ability to rampage and cause trouble felt almost perfunctory (the fact that the civilians walking the streets rarely did anything but walk along the sidewalk didn’t make the world feel particularly deep, either). It was a sandbox game about the Mafia that punished you for speeding. To stretch the sandbox metaphor: Mafia II didn’t have any sand. It didn’t have any toys. It wasn’t a box. It was the parking lot outside an arcade where you pushed shopping carts around to earn the money to go inside and play the fun shooter games.

A game that makes the decision to include an open world– and that asks the player to drive across this world –needs to justify it either by providing diversions or enriching the atmosphere, and Mafia II didn’t. Exploring its pseudo-New-York doesn’t flesh out the game’s themes or story (unlike Liberty City, it’s not a satiric take or particularly different from the real New York, and the game could have easily put up a “New York, 1943” title card at the beginning and achieved the same effect). Instead, the inclusion of the sandbox simply paired every mission with an equal– or longer –period of driving.

On the other hand, an open world made almost entirely of “stuff to do” can be found in the hyper-stylized WWII sandbox The Saboteur. The game’s premise basically promised nothing but a parade of chaos diversions: “you play an angry and often-drunk ex-IRA racecar driver. You are in occupied Paris. Here’s a sack of bombs– every time you blow up Nazis, you get more money to buy more bombs.” The game’s world is absolutely riddled with watchtowers, zeppelins, SS officers, and anti-aircraft turrets, all of which can be permanently destroyed. It also gives the player multiple approaches, letting you steal Nazi uniforms to infiltrate ares, clamber across rooftops, or just throw C4 and rockets around wildly. There’s a real, tangible, reward to this too– you can scout out the area of an upcoming mission, destroy the sniper perches and watchtowers ahead of time, and clear out roadblocks along your escape route.

The only problem with the art design is that it makes Nazi occupation look absolutely beautiful.

It’s also a world that responds to you doing diversions– “liberated” zones (freed by doing major side missions) have less Nazis and more hiding places, whereas areas that haven’t been inspired to start le Resistance are crawling with potential enemies. Most impressively– and in a great choice that made The Saboteur a cult classic despite its serious issues,” the areas under tight Nazi control are bathed in a bleak high-contrast black-and-white, with only blood, fire, mission objectives, and the red of the swastika still in color, whereas freeing them bathes the areas in vibrant, hypersaturated colors (think a game that alternates between the visual styles of Sin City and a spaghetti Western). It fills the game world with things to do (more than any sane player will ever finish), and makes the world  visually  stunning to boot (the prettiest parts being the blood and explosions caused by indulging in the side activities). If nothing else, it contains an optional side mission in which you assassinate an SS officer during his wedding, which is officiated by Steve Blum. Every game should have side missions where Steve Blum asks you to “in the name of all that is holy, blow his fucking head off.”

A Living World

The best sandboxes– see GTAIV above– aren’t just big, open, and varied. They also feel like a world that the player inhabits, instead of just playing in. Whereas most games solely react to the player’s actions, a sandbox requires a world that believably lives and breathes. The player can’t simply interact with the world– the world itself has to interact with the player and  seem to operate autonomously.

Want to start a giant, bloody fight with an army of mascots? Only when the game wants you to.

This may summarize our biggest frustration with Saint’s Row The Third. The second game was full of weird interactions and bizarre patterns: you could start a war with the pimps by punching one in the face, hijack an ambulance and respond to emergency calls, or just listen to passers-by talk about what was going on in the quests (a brilliant one: “I think the story of the Saints would make a great anime!”).  In SR3, though, everyone on the sidewalk is walking from one place to the other. They’ll occasionally comment on something crazy you do. You can’t tear  fire hydrants out of the ground, the enemy gangs won’t fight each other. You’ll see plenty of crazy things, but even the men in hot dog suits riding scooters are just silently riding them in predetermined paths.

The game delivers spectacle aplenty, and the main story and its side missions have plenty of wild, crazy moments. But the real joy of the sandbox as a genre is that it allows the player to create their own spectacle by playing around with the world’s own rhythms and life, and SR3 doesn’t offer too much in that regard. The reason that rampaging wildly in GTAIV and other crime games is so fun is because it makes the player feel like a madman wreaking havoc in a real, deep world, but SR3’s relative lifelessness turns the world from a plaything to a set.

Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an absolute triumph at creating this kind of world. It’s surprising that there haven’t been more Western sanboxes– the only one that comes to mind is Gun, which was decent if nowhere near the same quality as RDR –given that the genres are both so strongly dependent on setting and that the Old West is as sprawling, morally gray, and beautiful a setting as you could hope for. This is a fact Red Dead realizes: one of the game’s biggest draws (besides the usual high quality of writing and characters we’ve come to expect from Rockstar) is the way that it really does make the player feel like a  Western  hero. And it does this, in large part, by making the world feel real and alive.

Part of the success in this department is the incorporation of random encounters and events– things that were too small to be side

It’s also the best cougar-knife-fighting game on the market.

missions, but that the player can run into and either ignore or intervene in. The way these encounters are designed fleshes out the world and gives a real sense of freedom: the game doesn’t simply give you the mission to stop an execution, but when you’re riding through Mexico and see a group of soldiers by the side of the road about to shoot someone it’s hard to resist intervening. Some of them repeat too often– one would think the shopkeep in Armadillo might invest in a gun after the fifth time he’s robbed –but on your travels through the (intensely beautiful, wonderfully varied) world, there are plenty of moments where it’s easy to sit back and watch the world run without your interference.

There’s also many, many even smaller and more detailed ways that the game drives you to interact with the world. There’s the option to hunt– in which you make that world a little less alive –a train that runs throughout the world and which the player can ride alongside for its entire route, wild horses to be lassoed and broken, bandit dens to eliminate, and a whole host of big and small adventures to have. Whereas Saint’s Row feels like an over-the-top gangster story, Red Dead Redemption feels like the entire genre of the Western in a big and vibrant way, folding elements and scenes from  Sergio Leone, The Great Silence, Dead Man, The Searchers, Blood Meridian, the myth f Jesse James, and other landmarks of the genre. Making the game feel so alive and rich  transforms it from the tragic story of John Marston to the tragic story of the West itself.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Games

We thought it would be a good idea to open this blog discussing exactly what the title suggests: the cardinal virtues of game design. And, specifically, the elements that make games such an exciting, vibrant art form to us.

One of the most frustrating things about games-as-art discussions is the way that so many critics try and use the standards of other mediums– “why is there no game with a story as good as Citizen Kane?” is a story that comes up depressingly frequently. Citizen Kane is brought up, of course, because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. The cruel irony here being that Kane isn’t a masterpiece for its narrative, but for its mastery of the medium of film: the cinematography, the gorgeous visuals, the use of techniques impossible to replicate outside of film to tell the story. Asking about gaming’s Citizen Kane is as futile a proposition as asking why no film can tell a story like Beckett’s The Unnamable or why Jay-Z can’t make a song as beautiful as the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Instead, we want to look at elements of games that are unique to their medium, and at some specific games that embody these virtues. There’s art here, not just in the artistic elements of design, but in the core game. The great moments of a game– the thrill of pulling off a well-executed stunt, the joy of actively piecing together a story through the environment, the power of having a direct hand in shaping the narrative of a game –are triumphs of their medium as much as the beautiful language of a great poem or the evocative visuals of a great film.

It is not always a magic that translates between mediums.


Satisfaction is where the core mechanics of the game come into play. It’s not the satisfaction of a narrative payoff, it’s the satisfaction of a job well-done. In a satisfying game, every action the player does– from the most basic attacks to the biggest events– feels simultaneously challenging, skillful, and rewarding. The player feels constantly challenged but never overwhelmed, and should always feel empowered by their skills and rewarded by the game. This can be very small-scale– the hard-kicking, enemy-destroying, controlled explosion of a shotgun in Doom makes every shot beautiful and rewarding –or become the core principle of the game, in the way that World of Warcraft and other MMOs put the player in a Skinner Box of continual challenge, stimulus, and reward. At its core, satisfaction is the “game” of a game– it’s no accident that games like Pong or Space Invaders, despite their lack of plots, art, or freedom, are what define the medium. (It also says something that, to represent this element, both of us chose games by Capcom– a company that has always placed a huge emphasis on challenging and over-the-top fun).

Jasper’s Pick: Resident Evil 4 (2005)

I’ve literally done this about ten thousand times and it’s still fun.

I will always hold up Resident Evil 4 as one of the best video games ever made. It’s a high-water mark for the medium as a whole. I don’t mean in terms of the story (which is Roger Corman-level silly and campy), or even in terms of the visuals (creative environments, some of the best graphics of its generation, enemy design ranging from simply good to the absolute beautiful horror that is the Regenerators). It’s perfect because it never stops being satisfying.

Every weapon in the game, be it the ratatat submachine gun to absolute battering ram of the Ruger Broomhandle pistol, looks, feels, and sounds unique and interesting. The game’s combat system is built around not just encouraging, but forcing the player to pull off neat and rewarding tricks– the enemies are slow-moving and ammo is rationed, pushing the player towards head- and knee-shots, which in turn lead to visceral hand-to-hand attacks. Just moving in this game is satisfying, as the controls allow you to sprint forward, hop a fence, stop on a dime, quickly spin 180 degrees around, ready a headshot, and immediately put a pursuing enemy down, all using simple and intuitive controls.

Special mention has to be given to the game’s use of quick-time events, which RE4 helped to pioneer (along with God of War).  Whereas in many games these feel like a crutch for cutscenes, RE4 uses them both in and out of regular gameplay, and they’re frequent and easy enough to give the player a sense of power– struggling out of enemy attacks, quickly dodging a projectile, stabbing a spider-shaped abomination in his mouth-eye. There’s not a moment in the game where you’re not about to do something cool, and the game (and, credit where credit’s due, Shinji Mikami) always makes you feel like you’ve earned it.

Joe’s Pick: Mega Man 2 (1988)

You, too, will want to be The Guy.

Despite what you’d expect from someone who grew up playing Nintendo, I have no real feelings of nostalgia for Mega Man 2. I first played the game over a decade after its initial release, but I’ve only grown to appreciate it more as a game designer over the years. It has a few missteps (like that turret boss), but the mechanics, overall, are rock-solid.

Since this is a Mega Man game, I’d better address the music first. The soundtrack is the best music the NES ever had. Each theme perfectly compliments its stage– Bubble Man’s peaceful, lethargic theme goes well with slower speed of Mega Man’s actions while underwater while the driving, forceful tune of Quick Man’s stage makes running the infamous laser gauntlet all the more frantic. The pairing of great music with complimentary gameplay will always be a rewarding experience for me. It makes the music not just a soundtrack, but an aspect of the level design.

In Mega Man tradition, Mega Man 2 lets you tackle the first 8 levels of the game in any order you want, but you’ll have to figure out which path through them gets you the right weapons to use against the upcoming bosses. Letting the player constantly build up their arsenal for the first portion of the game this way is a great incentive to keep playing–it offers major, and constant, rewards for progress– and figuring out which weapon a boss is weak against and completely destroying him with it is always incredibly satisfying–it gives the player a sense of mastering the game’s strategy and learning how to beat it, not simply accumulating power.

While the above mentioned mechanics are present in all Mega Man games, Mega Man 2 nails this formula the best, and I could talk about why for the rest of this blog. In the end, it all boils down to exquisite level design, which is really why Mega Man 2 is so satisfying to play. It’s just such a well crafted experience (aside from the previously mentioned turret boss), with a perfect and diverse selection of weapons, enemies and obstacles to give the game just the right level of challenge.


This is the one that a lot of the more intellectual game critics like to talk about, and for good reason: if you’re crafting a narrative in games, the fact that the player is your protagonist is a fairly important feature. A player’s immersion is the sense of being in the world, the sense in which the game world feels like an interesting and rich environment. It’s the aspect of games which benefits the most from great art design, great sound, and great writing. Games which are truly immersive are the ones in which the player’s happy to poke around in corners, scrounge for expository text, look for secrets, or just admire the scenery. It can be used to huge effect to create an emotional response in the player; think of the infamous reveal at the beginning of Bioshock’s third act, and how much scarier and more sickening it was to find that you had been manipulated and that your life was a lie than it would be for a non-player protagonist– and how much little impact this would have had if the game hadn’t drawn the player in and made us believe in its world through a lush, detailed, and emotionally-charged setting. An immersive game is a game we lose ourselves in.

Jasper’s Pick: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

The City of Vivec, which you will never ever see every inch of.

When I first played Morrowind, at the age of 13, I was blown away. It was the first experience I’d had with anything like a sandbox or open-world game, but what amazed me wasn’t just the size of the world or the fact that every person in it could be spoken to, made an enemy or friend, or killed (or that legendary theme song, which even today makes me tense up with anticipation). It was things like the buildings made from the hollowed carapaces of giant crabs, the bookshelves full of books I could read, the incredibly complex politics and religions of the island of Vvardenfell, and the feeling of really being in a strange and fully realized land.

What Morrowind had going for it, which Skyrim and, to a nearly-catastrophic degree, Oblivion don’t is a world that feels incredibly alien. There are a handful of the typical Eurofantasy brick-and-stone

Sadrith Mora, the inhabitants of which you will never like (because they’re Objectivist wizards).

villages, but most of your time will be spent in adobe buildings, houses carved from giant mushrooms, the aforementioned shell-buildings, or just staring in wonder at the colossal fleas or weird T-Rex/cow hybrids that populate the landscape. It’s a world with a huge amount of creativity on display, and it throws the player in headfirst to explore and acclimate themselves with the world.

There are few games, especially nowadays, that completely dispense with hand-holding and say “here’s your world, here’s the name of someone who might help you, here’s twenty bucks– go have fun.” And I can’t think of another one that combines that sense of vast potential with Morrowind’s almost obsessively-intricate backstory, creative art design, and seemingly-infinite amount of details, hidden treasures, secrets, in-jokes, and sidequests. I’ve probably clocked more hours in it than any game before or since, and a huge amount of that time was just wandering the cities, studying up on history, and going for nature walks. Playing Morrowind, it’s hard not to feel like you’re stepping into another world.

Joe’s Pick: Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

The distinction between Colossus and landscape can be pretty blurry.

From the moment I started playing Shadow of the Colossus, I was impressed with the presentation of its world. I loved the high-contrast lighting, the washed-out colors, and the subdued (or nonexistent) music when riding from place to place, all further heightening the sense that you are all alone in this vast landscape. All of this caught my attention and drew me in before I ever reached the core gameplay.

The sixteen colossi themselves are fascinating to look at, as nearly all of them have their own distinct, bizarre, and sometimes off-putting appearance. They may slightly resemble mythical creatures, but never to the extent that they look familiar at first glance (you’ll never say “that’s a minotaur” or “that’s a dragon”). And yet, as strange and alien as the colossi look, there are certain common features many of them share (like a stone faceplate, piercing orange eyes, the white markings indicating their weak points) that serve to make them all the more intriguing, since it makes you wonder what these creatures actually are and where they came from. It hints at a story you’ll never find out, again making the player feel so much smaller and younger than the world they’re invading.

The architecture– what little of it remains in this now uninhabited land — has a very primitive look to it. While many fantasy games have distinctly medieval buildings, the structures in Shadow of the Colossus have a truly ancient feel to them and and evoke the same kind of strangeness that we feel when looking at the ruins of a Mesopotamian or Aztec city. Once again, the world feels unfamiliar and you’re left without a point of reference.

Basically, the point I’m driving at here is that Shadow of the Colossus is immersive because the world it creates is unique and interesting. You could have a perfectly executed game about slaying sixteen dragons in Tolkeinland #35 but I wouldn’t find it as immersive because I’ve played many games in nearly identical worlds and would find it much harder to become interested, and the game would have been forgettable because it wouldn’t have had the beauty, strangeness, and emotional power that impressed so many people.


Agency is the player’s choice and freedom– it’s what makes them a player, rather than a viewer. A player’s agency is why, if you tape the same person playing the same game on two different days, the recordings will still look different. While, at its most basic level, agency can boil down to the choice of whether to look to the right or left, a game that handles it well will give the player free and meaningful choices. This doesn’t have to translate to a moral choice system, open-world gameplay, or WRPG-style character creation (although these are all expressions of player agency). At its core, agency means the player has a multitude of ways to approach most situations. Shooters approach this by giving the player an arsenal of varied weapons and letting them decide which fits their playstyle, survival horror games by forcing the player to ration their supplies and decide when to fight and when to run. Most importantly, these choices should feel meaningfulhaving twenty guns to choose from isn’t satisfying if all of them are equally effective, and being able to make extreme moral choices is empty if no one ever reacts to it and the world never changes.

Jasper’s Pick: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

I really want a Mass Effect game that’s just me and Mordin going to bars and having fun.

(I wanted to focus specifically on ME2 for this entry, both to avoid getting drawn into the endless bickering about Mass Effect 3′s ending and because I’m going to draw a specific example from it later).

Mass Effect 2 isn’t perfect in this regard, because this is an aspect of the medium games are still struggling with pretty hard. But it does some things very, very well. The player’s character customization is in-depth and important– the various classes play radically differently, and can be further customized to match the player’s style. It also gets a ton of credit from me for eschewing the traditional good/evil slider and instead giving the player bars which measure what type of badass they are; think of the Paragon/Renegade choice as being how much your Shepard is John Wayne or Lee Marvin, respectively. It also makes several of these choices have long-term consequences– minor characters from the first game will pop up in this one, characters you save in the tutorial mission will vouch for your integrity when you wind up in court later, and, for one of the first times in RPG history, blowing off a crucial mission to do sidequests will result in people dying horribly and you being rightfully chewed out for taking your sweet time saving them.

It’s easy to be evil when the devil is Martin Sheen.

That last point is what makes this game a real triumph of player agency for me– unlike so many other games with choice systems, it makes its choices hard. Even if you commit at the beginning to a pure Paragon/Renegade playthrough, there are going to be times where the Paragon’s mercy and understanding feels like a waste of breath, or where the Renegade’s expediency and refusal to compromise will seem cold, or even cruel. This is at its best in the mission “Old Blood,” probably my favorite hour or so of gaming in 2010, in which you accompany Mordin Solus (the ship’s doctor) in following up on the black-ops bioweapon work he’s still riddled with guilt over. The mission from start to finish puts you in a moral gray zone, constantly asking you how far your commitments to expediency or understanding go, and it’s one of the few moments in the game where I really couldn’t tell you what was “right.” Mass Effect can get pretty soap-operatic with its writing and morality from time to time, but “Old Blood” is about as good as any pop-sci-fi gets and most of its power comes from forcing the player to take an active role in the moral conflict, to make it impossible to leave without innocent blood on your hands. That mission, and all the other moments in the game when related moral conflicts and crises get raised, are about as free as I’ve ever felt playing an RPG, simply because it was hard to find a choice that was unjustifiable, and because every choice felt like a momentous one both for the game world for Shepard and Mordin’s souls.

Joe’s Pick: Fallout 3 (2008)

Liam Neeson will be very disappointed in your actions.

Fallout 3 is the game that completely embodies agency for me. Nearly every scenario you’re placed in can be completed in a variety of different ways, which actually make primarily investing in skills like speech and science seem like viable alternatives. The player’s choices in character creation become meaningful, because committing to a smooth-talking scientist opens up some paths and shuts off others. Even within combat, there are plenty of different types of weapons to specialize in, and which specialty you choose actually affects the way combat feels. While many games offer these kinds of choices, they often don’t radically change the way you experience the game. In Fallout 3 though, my first playthrough as a combat heavy, dumb-as-bricks cannibal berserker (who obeyed the orders of anyone wearing a fancy suit) felt totally different than my second playthrough as a pragmatic and opportunistic scumbag with a fondness for laser weapons, even though I focused on the main quest and many of the same side quests with both characters.

Many games these days feature tacked on moral choice systems that more often than not feel like a hastily added gimmick, but Fallout 3 is one of the few games I’ve played where choice really feels like a part of the core gameplay. From the moment you’re born in game, you start making a series of choices that define who your character is– whereas in New Vegas, the choices are primarily about what sides you take, in Fallout 3 they’re about who your character is as a person. There’s never a moment where you feel, “this is the choice the designers want me to make.” The story of your character’s life is formed through the choices you make, which gives the player more of an authorial role than any other game I’ve played (to the extent that major towns can be completely wiped out). That’s true agency.