I sure am glad I’m not a game designer or developer, at least when I’m thinking of sandbox games while playing them. The thought occurred to me while playing a restricted sandbox, Deus Ex Mankind Divided, since you can do so much while given very little, causing a whole lot of ripples the game has to account for.
I’ve played quite a few games over the years, and with a whole lot of variety. I’ve even dabbled in the industry in the form of working in communications for a mobile game startup a few years back. In fact, working in the games industry was a dream of mine since my teens.
Yet, for the first time perhaps ever while playing a game did I think that I would not like working on a game like Deus Ex Mankind Divided, which I am very fond of at the time of writing (and most probably will be, since I’ve been playing it slowly for the past year, yet to finish the story). The thought occurred to me upon thinking about the freedom of choice that the game opts to give the players, i.e. me. And what freedom that is.
Ever since stepping foot on the streets of Philad*COUGH*Prague, I’ve been on a mission to explore every possible nook and cranny for hidden stuff, like hackable PCs and keypads, just for the challenge of it. While those feats are relatively easy by the time you return to Prague after getting acquainted with shipping container living, it is significantly less so upon first touching ground in Prague following the introductory mission in Dubai:
- See a balcony high up with a door clearly leading to an apartment? You can’t just jump right in with the Klipsringer aug. Maybe if I’ll pile enough of these trash cans I can reach that ledge…
- This keypad is encryption level 5, but I’ll risk it with my hacking aug lvl 2 aug since this seems to lead somewhere fancy.
See where I’m going with this? Since it’s early in the game, there’s no way to get all the augmentations you would wish to have to make infiltration, hacking, and discovery easily achievable. But then again there lies part of the attraction, for me at least – to see how much I can get away with with the least amount of resources available. This has become somewhat of an emergent gameplay element that I dable with in many sandbox games of late – Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, Infamous Second Son, Final Fantasy XV, etc. I’ve an insatiable thirst to see how far down a dire strait the games are willing to let me sail before I’m either steered away or presented with an insurmountable obstacle.
Regarding Mankind Divided, this drive lead me into many a place I assumed I wasn’t expected to yet venture. I explored beautiful penthouse apartments with views to plazas, basements with armed guards, and read a plethora of emails about devastating fates of people of Prague. Sometimes I eventually bumped into these people I had read about, striking a chord somewhere in the recesses of my game brain.
And this is the part where we get to the reason why I said I wouldn’t want to be in games development, at least not in the technical side of things. When I said I assumed something wasn’t expected of me at a given point in the game I was pleasantly surprised after all, when Jensen admited to reading an email about a related issue upon bumping into a sidequest involving a character whose apartment I had already raided and read their emails (and relocated their fridge, along with the fridges of plenty of other citizens of Prague….).
The implications of this haunted my brain for a few days afterwards. I had assumed only the unconscious or dead bodies of NPCs, manipulated objects, and discarded items remained where they were left upon returning to an area that had already been visited. Only this takes a toll on design processes since the game has to go to great lengths to retain immersion of a world I inhabit as the avatar I play as. Plus it feels quite rewarding when – as you bump into a sidequest – you realise you’ve been to the place before, hacked all the keypads and unlocked all passageways, and neutralised all the hostile NPCs in the area, allowing you to strut in uninterrupted and get virtually free experience points for completing an objective for doing (at the time) nothing.
But actually having to consider all the possibilities how a player might disrupt the natural flow of the game and discoverable tasks and the sort would take an immense amount of time and consideration. I can already sort of imagine the flowcharts that were involved in making sure everything was taken into account.
And yet I can’t, and that indeed is what bothers me about the scenario. While I adore games like Deus Ex Mankind Divided, especially both it and its predecessor Human Revolution’s Cyber renaissance aesthetic, and would like nothing more career-wise than to work on such a game – though lacking the technical know-how, it’d have to be in writing, proof-reading, etc. sort of role – the full scope of the endeavour would more than likely be to my detriment.
Still, having noted that not all early exploration has affected the unfolding events, I can think of ways that possibly could make a sandbox like this better. Mayhaps? It’s not like Deus Ex hasn’t been on my mind before.