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The Hand-Tuned Machine

Heavy systems-based games are always interesting because they provide the most dynamic character and environment interactions. Games that rely on physics, for example, will always be a new experience because the gravity and friction systems will cause things to react differently upon each playthrough, something you’re likely to experience when you play something like Half-Life 2 or Portal.

Games that rely on artificial systems, though, are something else entirely. Physics is natural and intuitive; you live and breathe it every day. The systems of a game like Dishonored or Deus Ex, however, are not. In fact, they’re the complete opposite in that you’ve never experienced summoning a swarm of rats before or become partly cybernetic, so when you discover that you can teleport over a building, fall down the side, and possess a guard by a balcony, it is as if you are discovering something as fundamental as gravity for the first time. It is a wholly exhilarating endeavor.

So then it’s not that surprising when games often turn to mechanized methods to give dynamics to an otherwise rote experience. Valve, for example, largely touted Left 4 Dead‘s AI Director as a way to constantly create new experiences on the fly. Having an artificial system pick and choose when and where for things to happen or not happen provided players with the most varied and best playthroughs because it fed into the horror genre where surprise is key. By having the game itself decide where to spawn enemies or drop musical stings, Left 4 Dead provides the same systems-based dynamics as with something more natural like momentum and velocity.

The same goes for Skyrim. The Radiant AI system dynamically creates scenarios to bring new quests or old ones that you simply missed to your attention. Once you grasp the underlying methodology of the system, the magic-factor of it diminishes slightly, but it’s still a pretty neat way to keep things fresh in a game that otherwise might get very old very quickly.

But when you contrast these types of dynamic systems with the mostly hand-crafted sheen and structure of more narrative-focused games like Uncharted or other more conventionally built games, the question begins to emerge on what is more valuable: the unknown or the refined.

Which isn’t to say that games like Skyrim and Left 4 Dead aren’t refined, but rather that everything they contain isn’t quite as particular or deliberate as something like Uncharted. In the Naughty Dog games, interactions with the environment and enemies are fairly deliberate and are attempting to form a cohesive message through its gameplay. The opposite could be said for the methods of systems-based games, though the intentions are the same. Both types of gamed want to give you a worthwhile experience; they just go about it differently.

Uncharted builds upon the ongoing story by having you go through specific fighting beats that show that Nathan Drake is a capable and traveled adventurer. He does what he does for a specific reason, just like Naughty Dog in putting enemies where they are and having them do and say what they do and say. The only difference, I guess, is that Drake may not always know why he does those things, but they always seem to work out, so I wouldn’t sweat it, Nate.

In something like Left 4 Dead, enemies are dynamic so the game surprises you because that is most apt to what zombies do; they surprise. No one ever comes across a zombie and thinks “oh, this is exactly what I thought would be behind this door.” Just like our survivors actually would be, you are also in the dark about much of what is going on when you play that game. It’s a sort of unfortunate vicarious way of living in a zombie-infested land, but it is quite effective.

And this bit of living vicariously seems to matter in Skyrim, too. While the opposite does happen, people don’t generally stand around until someone comes around asking if they need any problems fixed. No, they will be proactive and recruit to get things resolved, so when a messenger comes running up to you and says there’s a farmer that needs help or that there’s a house being robbed, it seems much more natural. The catalytic event fits better with your experience not only because it comes to you for resolution (as opposed to you hunting it down) but because it is usually abrupt and unexpected. This plays to the innate flow of life in that things usually don’t start and then stop so another thing can start; it all overlaps.

Knowing these things—how these games engage in equal but different ways—elucidates us, revealing that crafting a worthwhile experience can happen in at least two ways: recreating a particular story and creating your own story. Both have their merits as when a story is entirely under someone else’s control, you are guaranteed a certain experience, but when you manufacture your own adventure within a given framework, it becomes your responsibility to wring something that you (and maybe only you) value. That can feel much more personal and more like you are living in someone else’s shoes, but having a well-crafted, refined tale handed to you in its entirety can give you something you never knew even existed.

And perhaps those artificial systems aren’t so artificial after all.

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