Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst and Parkour in the Open World

'Parkour' is defined as "the activity or sport of moving rapidly through an area, typically in an urban environment, negotiating obstacles by running, jumping, and climbing." It's all about efficiency, choosing the proper path, and adapting to what's in front of you. Mirror's Edge endeavors to take those ideas, and put them into a game. It's not an easy task, but the initial result is beloved by many despite quite a few stumbles.

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, released June 2016 after eight long years, made one huge, quite controversial decision in its attempt: It has an open world. Where the original game has very limited levels and few alternate routes the, Catalyst throws you into a huge, varied area and expects you to figure it out.

And you will have to figure it out. Catalyst takes practice. You have to learn the routes, the types of obstacles you encounter, and different techniques as you traverse the rooftops and scaffolding of the City of Glass, and every time you think you've got it's number the game pushes you to a new area, with new obstacles to overcome.

This is a brilliant idea. It's reminiscent of how many people learn parkour in real life - organically, running around the concrete playgrounds of their city. The biggest problem - and it is quite a problem - is level design. In a lot of open world games, one area is much like another, and you often don't have to pay too much heed to the flow of traversal through an area. Stack a few crates around, throw some clotheslines between some buildings, some nice tall towers, and there's your Assassin's Creed town.

The City of Glass is an entirely different proposition. Every roof, every ledge, every railing needs to be tightly designed to allow for Faith's freeform, off the cuff traversal style to flow properly. Allowances have to be made for the evolution of her abilities, to both reward the player when they master (or unlock) a new ability, but also to be tolerant if they haven't yet. It also needs to be able to teach the player organically through the introduction of new obstacles and elements. It's an amazingly tough job.

They mostly pulled it off! I had my share of hair-pulling moments, particularly with some of the random delivery missions early on, but the feeling when I realized how much better I was getting was amazing. At first I felt slow and clumsy, adjusting to new controls, new abilities, and a very different environment, but before too long I felt like I was flying over the rooftops. It was a great experience, and in the end almost exactly what I wanted from a Mirror's Edge open world sequel.

Witcher's Work: Side Questing in the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

What was the last truly great side quest you played in an RPG? Side quests are often disregarded as filler content, just the stuff you have to do to fully complete a game and progress properly, but this is a mistake. Side quests are vital to fleshing out your world, giving it the proper tone and establishing and ground your setting. The Witcher 3 is a great example of this idea in action.

In the Witcher 3, almost every quest matters. Care and attention is paid to even the smallest, and very few go the way you expect. A prime example of this is in the intro area of White Orchard, where one old lady asks you to fetch a pan for her, and when you find it you discover the man that borrowed it was a spy who wanted the soot off of it to write a letter. It's fundamentally a basic fetch quest, but it's written and designed in such a way to say something about the world. 

The highlight of these side quests is invariably the Contracts, where Geralt is commissioned by some town alderman, small noble, or local guardsman to go solve some supernatural problem. Geralt haggles a bit (coin is hard to come by for a wandering monster hunter!), and then goes to investigate. Sometimes it can be routine - find the location of the attack, identify prints and wound marks, and track the beast back to its lair to kill it - but even the most routine contracts take the time to ground their story in the world and establish Geralt as what he is - an experienced Witcher with decades of experience.

Some of these, however, tell self-contained stories as rich and complex as any of the subplots of the main game. The first contract most players will encounter is a great example. Geralt is contracted to clear out a wraith that is haunting a nearby well - but first he has to figure out how to break the curse. In the course of doing so, he discovers a story involving a greedy lord, desperate peasants, and the tragic death of a young woman - who became a Noonwraith, a terrifying spectre who only appears under the bright noonday sun. 

Side quests are just as important to establishing a world and a fiction as any of your set piece moments. They generally make up the majority of playtime, and thus are central to establishing the feeling and tone of a game. So the next time you pick up an RPG, think about those side quests you pick up and what they convey about what a game is trying to say. Maybe you'll find more than what you were looking for.