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Avatar-Guidance

A spectrum of Avatar-Guidance and an Illusion of Choice.

In lack of a better term, I’d like to establish the notion of ‘Avatar-Guidance’ as a concept that denotes the methods of actively ‘guiding’, or ‘directing’, a player and his/her avatar towards a certain goal.
This can be used to help a player advance through complex level design, or to simply avoid exposing the player to certain gameplay-breaking scenarios. For example; one may use avatar-guidance to maintain the ‘Illusion of Choice’ - that is; the idea that a world is ‘open’, even though level design may be very linear.

To put it bluntly; the Illusion of Choice is the gameplay-concept that designate how open to his/her influence a player percieves a game world. If the Illusion of Choice is broken, the player may not feel as if he/she is actually part of another world
- instead more-so being instructed what to do by an application.

I find the Illusion of Choice critical to maintain the sense of atmosphere in a game world, and I believe it’s tightly coupled with Avatar-Guidance - since the latter may substantially aid the Illusion of Choice.
Below I’ll mention some of the more extreme cases of Avatar-Guidance, and some of the more discrete.

Examples of 'heavy' Avatar-Guidance through hightlighted objects [red] in Mirror's Edge
(Above: examples of 'heavy' Avatar-Guidance through highlighted objects [red] in Mirror's Edge)

Mirror's Edge features linear level-design in which the player avatar can only progress through the, very limited, use of certain objects (such as ledges or pipes) that are placed throughout the terrain. Often these objects are fairly few, and its not uncommon that there's only one such object that the player may use to get to the next area.
This accounts for linear gameplay; such gameplay developers usually try to hide with the application of some form of avatar-guidance to hinder the player from discovering this fact. In the case of Mirror’s Edge this is no easy challenge, considering that the player avatar has so few (progressing) choices in the game world. In this case, the circumstances make this tough to hide. Mirror's Edge, however, takes a slightly different approach by not attempting to hide this fact; but instead showcase it.

All ‘usable’ objects (meaning objects that progress the player to the next significant area, such as a ledge - or a pipe) are highlighted in a very protruding red colour, which makes it abundantly clear for the player what his/her choices may be.
The reason for this design decision is of course the very real need for a certain game flow in Mirror’s Edge - and mayhaps getting stuck in a certain area (thus breaking atmosphere) would complicate the Illusion of Choice even more-so for the player.

However, I’d like to claim that the Avatar-Guidance in Mirror’s Edge - albeit effective - may exploit the limited amount of choices to the player and thereby compromise the Illusion of Choice. At least, this is my experience.

Note that there's nothing wrong with the guidance system in itself. In fact, the system
works fairly well. A player will rarely get stuck in Mirror's Edge, and the gameplay is usually hectic and is rarely broken even when the player is exposed to complex environments - just as intended by the developers. Rather; the problem lie in that the game's linearity is exposed by the - very much so - protruding Avatar-Guidance.
Mirror's Edge is a game that (in its current state) requires some sort of heavy directing to maintain hectic gameplay, but one that also doesn't retain the Illusion of Choice in the game,
which may significantly harm the experience.

I’d like to believe that the Avatar-Guidance in Mirror's Edge is not bad in itself – but instead only affects the experience negatively because of the circumstances. I want to argue that most games implementing some sort of avatar-guidance does it in a sort of black-or-white way. Usually, if implemented, the directing/guiding system is very heavy (see Mirror's Edge or Fable 2) where the player easily notices the guiding and knows it’s there.
This may, or may not, be a problem.


For example; it may be seen as an issue for Mirror’s Edge because the gameplay is so linear. For Fable 2, however, this doesn’t really affect the experience as much since the player avatar may divert from the path displayed - something that may rarely be done in Mirror’s Edge. Contrary to this method is to have no real thought-out guidance at all.

But what happens in game when such Avatar-Guidance is extremely scarce?
One of my favourite horror titles is a game, from the fairly unknown developer Nucleosys, called Scratches. Scratches is described at Wikipedia as being a ‘mystery and horror adventure’-type game. Now, unfortunately I don’t belong to the Master Race of Adventure-/Puzzle-gaming, and therefore don’t possess their Superior Gland of Puzzle Insight - so I had a fair few problems getting through Scratches the first time. The problem could be derived into a little something like this:
‘A little bit too much to click, and no guidance to what should be clicked when’

...so regrettably I had to look up the FAQ at times, which of course didn’t exactly do wonders for the atmosphere. For me as a player - there was not sufficient guidance.

Route to objective is highlighted in Fable 2
(Above: route to objective is highlighted in Fable 2)

I’d argue that the Spectrum of Avatar-Guidance is mostly black-or-white; implementing either very obvious directing or hardly any at all. I consider this spectrum flawed, since Avatar-Guidance can be such a contributing factor to good gameplay and I’d like to see more developers go off the beaten path to implement a more subtle, more grey, type of avatar-directing.

An ideal case would be a form of Avatar-Guidance wherein atmosphere is preserved by using these methods to avoid exposing the player to game-breaking scenarios (end of a level, empty alleys, generally not sufficiently polished sequences) yet having the player oblivious of this manipulation.
There are a few examples of such subtle guiding that are very interesting from a gameplay type-of-view. Things start to get really interesting around this area:
What if avatar-guidance could be done by the player him-/herself – subconsciously?

Examples of guidance through use of lighting and subtle colouring effects in Left 4 Dead
(Above: Examples of guidance through use of lighting and subtle colouring effects in Left 4 Dead)

Like Mirror’s Edge; Left 4 Dead is an equally linear game and likewise in need of substantial guidance in order to give the levels some scope. However, I’d like to claim that Left 4 Dead uses considerably more subtle techniques to guide (or let a player guide him-/herself) a player through a complex environment.
During playtesting the developers of Left 4 Dead realized that players kept, subconsciously, moving toward lit areas.[2][3] The level designers therefore decided to make
the map design more minimalistic, with considerably less lights to distract the players, and instead strategically place lighting along a certain route - with slightly more protruding lights at (directed towards, above etc.) key points in the environment.[2][3] This led to the realization that players were often, without actually putting any substantial thought into it, guiding themselves by the invisible hand of the developers.
This meant that the developers had found a way to expose the players to desirable scenarios but still maintain the oh so precious Illusion of Choice. In my experience the levels effectively felt larger, as all the actual decisions of where to go wasn’t noticeably guided by the game.


The developers put a lot of effort into playtesting and also realized that players are drawn toward areas with ‘warmer’ colours, so a colour correction-system was put into place to give key points stronger colour than their surrounding, dark, environments.[1] This, along with the now famous grain-effect that was applied more-so to darker, ‘cold’, areas made the players tend to seek out the routes the developers wanted them to do.[1][3]

I find this to be a significantly more fascinating form of avatar-directing than that of Mirror’s Edge’s as it effectively attains the goal for which it was put into place, but doesn’t affect the gameplay experience by harming the Illusion of Choice. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I’d read some articles regarding Left 4 Dead’s Avatar-Guidance (and heard their commentary track) that I noticed these seemingly small details and the huge impact they had on how I play the game.
I find that Left 4 Dead features an impressive system of guiding a player, which keeps the experience fun and exciting whilst still functioning as an effective form of guiding.

It’s important to remember that a protruding Avatar-Guidance, that is easily noticed by the player, isn’t necessarily bad
- only if it showcases linearity and harms the Illusion of Choice.


References
[1] Randy Lundeen. Left 4 Dead Art Direction, Part 1: Filmic Effects. Article, November 10, 2008.
http://www.l4d.com/blog/post.php?id=1962
[2] Randy Lundeen. Left 4 Dead Art Direction, Part 2: Stylized Darkness. Article, January 2, 2009. http://www.l4d.com/blog/post.php?id=2129.
[3] Left 4 Dead Team. Left 4 Dead - Developer Commentary Track. Other, November 21, 2008.

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