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Why Perfect Dark just isn't that good (and why it still matters)

In this article I break down the design issues of two of my favorite shooters of all time. I'll be comparing the solo missions of both games, and will offer some insight as to how one fails where the other succeeds.

Ok, so clickbaity title aside, let it be said that I'm a long time Goldeneye - Dark fan, having played both the originals and the remastered versions to death. A lot of my formative years are coated in blocky shooter nostalgia, and let me say that the multiplayer modes of both games (especially Dark's) still kick serious ass. 

However, there are some major issues with the latter game in the spiritual duo that I believe are worth paying some attention to. 

As recounted by Rare employees, the level design approach to both games was thus: artists were put in charge of creating interesting spaces - nothing more - that would later be populated with objectives, objects, and baddies. Sounds like a novel approach right? Goldeneye in particular was praised for this method because the technique tended to yield "realistic" feeling environments consisting of useless empty rooms like the kind you'd expect to find in a real building. This approach works to a certain extent in Goldeneye because part of what players are expecting is a faithful recreation of the movie's sets. 

Levels based off scenes that are explained in the logic of the film (Bond runs through the gate, across the dam, jumps off), tend to flow nicely. In levels such as the dam, runway, facility, and archives, Rare's  job was simply to fill in the spaces the movie left out - leading to environments that were somewhat non linear but didn't totally sacrifice readability. Silo works similarly for different reasons - silo functioned as the test level used back when the game was being made as a rails shooter and thus is impossible to get lost in. These aforementioned levels work well because they play off the logic of the film, and unsurprisingly they are arguably the most fun and repeatable missions in the game.

Now, take levels that, while based on sets from the film, are forced to improvise and fill in the blanks a lot more as the movie scenes leave gaps in the environment's logic. Such levels as Statue, Streets, Surface 2, and Caverns leave the player fumbling around in the dark for what amateur players can potentially be hours as there is nothing inherent in the environments' structure that informs players as to where they should go, what they are supposed to do, and how they should do it. You can argue the case, as some have, that this approach is more realistic, but in a game where you're supposed to be emulating the feeling of being a competent and suave spy, groping empty areas for objective markers doesn't really leave one with a sense of command. This is bad, unreadable level design - plain and simple. Don't get me wrong - some of these levels have wonderful little details sprinkled throughout that are entertaining to rummage through - but in terms of supporting the game's mechanics, these levels fail big time. 

Moving on to perfect dark, a game which has levels that are not based on any movie set or film scene. Here the developers had to invent original environments whole-cloth, yet kept the same approach as their previous title for the design. The result here is incomprehensible, often unplayable level design. Unguided by any reference-able movie scenes, UI, map, or other such objective markers,  players are left to fend for themselves. Hardly anything inherent to the design of the levels, save the occasional corridor, clues the player in on what he or she must do and how it can be accomplished. 

This guess work is frustrated by two other crippling factors - time limits and escort missions - those fun crushing demons of the past that deserve the same place in hell as people who leave their dogs in the car on hot days. While Goldeneye is often targeted as having some of the worst buddy AI in a popular title (Natalya), it is Perfect Dark which commits this sin with extreme prejudice. You'll find yourself escorting everyone from fellow agents, to the president, to a freaking floating laptop. These escort segments are further frustrated by AI that constantly gets lost, and then pops up in front of you in a jump scare like manner, leading to many mission fails from accidental friendly fire. On lower difficulties, which feature fewer objectives and thus less getting lost, the stumbling around period is brief enough to not be a total headache. But boy oh boy is there nothing more frustrating than being told you're about to fail the mission, because somewhere else in the level something is happening, and you have 30 seconds to get there - and there's not so much as a whiff of suggestion as to how to get it done in time. 

So what Brandon? I'm a sadist and I like playing the same map over and over in order to master it. Intention means nothing to me. You should just "get good." Well, the reason I'm pointing this out and the reason you should still care that perfect dark isn't that good, is because dark, along with goldeneye, is still praised for having amazing level design. I am arguing that Rare's approach here of building a level with no mind for environmental readability or objective placement is simply a bad practice - novel as it seems, and any modern playstester would be damned to spend half an hour groping every computer screen in an office, hoping to hit upon the right one - or wander aimlessly through a useless back section of a plane, cursing that they couldn't find the cockpit in time AGAIN. 

Rare's design approach to both games was "build a lot of cool stuff, throw it against a bulkhead and see what sticks." As successful as those titles were, and continue to be, a huge factor as to why their success remains unrepeatable is because the product was nothing short of a Christmas miracle - like the unexpectedly witty result of a long form improv routine. If you're looking to study dark and goldeneye for suggestions as to how to improve your game, you should be asking yourself not how can their formula be copied, but rather how can one learn from their mistakes. 
 

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