[one_third]The Sneaky Bastards crew gets some wires crossed and convenes for a roundtable discussion of indie stealth puzzle-platformer Gunpoint’s latest beta build.[/one_third]
Dan: I didn’t like the idea of the cross-link tool when I first saw it. Francis’ walkthrough video was a little vague, a little confusing, and it just looked a little too fiddly. But once I started playing around with it, I transformed from a trench-coated spy who wanted to leave an office untouched and accomplish his objective through acrobatics alone, to one who gleefully explored every possible permutation of environmental control the mechanic provides. I began to look at Gunpoint less as a stealth game and more as a lethal puzzler, and spent far longer than I ever expected figuring out how to turn the environment against the gun-toting guards within. To that end, making a guard knock himself out by changing the direction a door opens still hasn’t gotten old.
Sean: Curious, I didn’t feel that way at all. I thought his walkthrough was succinct and demonstrated it’s potential fairly well. What concerns me about cross-link is Francis’ ability to design missions well enough that they retain the creativity and ingenuity I’m hoping for, while also not just being a complete mess where no individual strategy feels “right”. Though, yeah, I doubt knocking out guards by opening doors will ever feel wrong.
Justin: I hadn’t watched the videos on the website so most of what I knew about the cross-link was from previews. Explaining what’s possible is one area where the game struggles, I spent a long time trying to get the Enforcer to “take a fall” or whatever the wording of that bonus objective was. I didn’t realise I could leap at him to knock him out the window, I’d instead been creating convoluted schemes to try and get him to fall down an elevator shaft or walk out of a smashed window in the dark. Both of those options felt like they fit within the rules of the world but it was difficult to work out if my plan was flawed or if I was simply messing up the execution. I fear it’s going to become too easy to get fixed on certain approaches that aren’t actually viable but seem like they should be.
Dan: That optional objective had me scratching my head, too. You’re shown that you can carry guards out of windows do their deaths by pouncing on them, and then specifically told that Enforcers can’t be pounced on as they’re too bulky. I thought there must be another way to launch him out the window, but turns out, no – you still need to pounce on him, but only when he’s as close to the window as possible, as it will nudge him off the ledge. I like that there are analogue interactions like this – the character movement feels very fluid and logical, within the game’s own ruleset – but the whole thing was still a little too vague. As for no strategy feeling “right”, I’m finding the later levels promote the opposite – with cross-link circuits often separated into four separate colours, there is often one very definite, pre-defined path through a level as activating each successive circuit becomes equivalent to solving the next stage of a puzzle.
Sean: Yeah, those were neat. It makes a lot of sense having a series of puzzles throughout larger levels. It definitely promotes a keen awareness of what you’re messing around with. In one of the later levels I was trying to complete an optional objective not to take out any guards – but one I’d left roaming in a previous building was able to spot and shoot me through a broken window I couldn’t avoid breaking. I’m enjoying that multi-layered puzzle solving where each level knows what you’re going to try and plays off that. What if I do this? Oh then this happens, well, what about doing this after that? So although progress through the larger levels can be linear, what you’ve done previously can come back at you, which is really good design. Gunpoint emanates the sort of The Incredible Machine vibe that makes you want to keep playing just to see what crazy stuff each mission will throw around. My favorite so far has been watching a guard fall through two levels of glass flooring after I turned a light off. Wonder if I can make him fall onto that other guy…
Justin: During some of the earlier levels I’d started to worry the design would focus on isolated puzzles. Patrolling guards wouldn’t use stairs and I can’t work out how to get them to open doors consistently. I got over confident, so I was pleasantly surprised to be shot in the back after I’d knocked a guard out a window. The noise had provoked his companion to run up the stairs behind me, something I’d never seen before. After that I started to pay much more attention to the level as a whole rather than discrete parts. I’m now starting to wonder if the design might be smarter even than that, it could have been an accident of this build but I started a level that looks like it required the wire-jack without having it. I haven’t managed to finish that level yet but if it’s possible with just the cross-link that’ll be really interesting.
Dan: Maybe it’s just my playstyle, but I’m finding as I progress deeper a focus on isolated puzzles becomes more apparent. The one thing I’ve been aching to do is set up a chain reaction that basically clears a large level of threats, like a slapstick Rube Goldberg machine. But with everything separated onto different circuits, it seems impossible to do this until you’ve activated them all – which often requires taking out most of the guards in the process. I’m not even sure if a chain reaction would be all that impressive, as I’m having differing experiences with guard reactions. The one instance they definitely came and investigated was after I plunged through three glass floors. All the guards started scurrying about, and this made for a much more tense and dynamic experience. Combined with the isolated puzzle design, I’m finding levels are becoming increasingly static while opportunities for ingenuity increasingly granular rather than grand. It’s a fault of the level design, rather than any of the game’s core systems. I wonder if more levels where you’re forced to make a noisy entrance might spice things up?
Sean: Yeah I’m hoping for more levels that allow chain-reaction solutions, too. As for the design becoming static – I’m not sure how far you guys are in but later levels definitely become more experimental, at least in how each section is designed. I see the earlier levels as setting up the various types of enemies and easing players into the various gadgets and techniques, and they obviously have to be somewhat easier to navigate. Once the mechanics and gadgets are established the levels will undoubtedly become the chaotic playgrounds we’re after. Noisy entrances would effortlessly play off that chaos too, especially with the Resolver that stops enemies firing at you while you aim towards them. Venturing into spoiler territory a tad here but some of the later gadgets almost promote crashing through windows and dealing with the consequences reactively – you can set up traps on doors, cross-link enemy weapons to fire on command… would certainly enjoy that approach being occasionally viable. Though, again, it’ll be a fine balance between letting the player go crazy and saying, look, there’s a bit of a flow and purpose to this one.
Justin: I’ve reached a point where you have certain objects operating on more than one circuit and I’m finding myself devising some complex solutions to what would earlier have been simply problems. Several times I’ve wired a switch through a door simply because it exists on two circuits and lets me bridge them without using up power cells. Getting a guard to knock himself out with a door is fun but getting multiple to do it to each other is better. I am starting to see levels that seem impossible to solve without actively provoking guards, the sneak thief in me wishes there had been some way to trigger guard behaviour without having to directly reveal yourself. Maybe something akin to a noise maker, especially if you could hook it up to other objects via the cross-link would be a great way to solve problems while remaining somewhat unobserved.
Dan: I think Gunpoint will really come into its own once Francis implements the game’s post-level statistics and ratings system. I hope it’s as meticulous a report as possible, encouraging players to pursue their chosen playstyle (no alarms, never being spotted, speed-running, etc) beyond the goal of simply finishing the level. Once the level design moves out of its tutorial phase, and all of the gadgets are available, I hope there’s ample opportunity to orchestrate a perfect symphony of electronic sabotage – or a completely chaotic one. All of the mechanics are there – we just need the levels to provide the range of opportunities they certainly encourage.
Sean: Comparative ratings would really add that vital layer of reward when experimenting with each level. Spacechem and Frozen Synapse recently brought back that entwined one-upping that had me, if not almost everyone that played it, digging deeper into the possibilities of the mechanics – spurred with the knowledge of knowing someone else utilized them better. Hopefully Gunpoint’s later levels will provide enough tools to facilitate that. I think the only other feature suggestion I’d have would be some occasional graphical feedback from what’s happening around the level. Say, when someone walks into your trap, perhaps the game could slow down and zoom closer to that scene – something to give the player a bite of joy for an accomplishment. Anyway – even in such an unfinished state Gunpoint has been a delight to tinker with.
Justin: I’m keen to see what kind of creative constraints will result from those end of level statistics and the variety of bonus objectives. Some of the more expensive items look like they provide means of responding better to potential failure, which would provide more of the improvisational play you find in Deus Ex. With the existing elements, Gunpoint has a solid foundation of intentional problem solving already in place. The level design will be where this game can really shine, the more layered the interactions the more creative solutions present themselves and the more amusing the stories of dramatic success or abysmal failure become.