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Will We Ever Get To Play "One City Block"?

Block Party

Following on from my article on the importance of keeping our eye on the future, I've started writing what will no doubt be an irregular column on the future of games. I wanted to start with looking at the future of some aspects of game design, and particularly – in the context of the previous column – looking at the kinds of things that have been hoped for or predicted in the past, and have not yet come to be.

Let's start with Warren Spector's “One City Block RPG” idea. What is it, and will we ever see it? Fullbright's Steve Gaynor and a number of devs from Arkane contribute to the discussion that follows, and try to explain the persistent appeal of the One City Block idea as an ideal in game design.

Warren Spector, the designer who led the original Deus Ex project, has said on a number of occasions that he'd ideally like to make an RPG/immersive sim that took place entirely within one city block: "My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly." Recently he raised the idea when talking to The Guardian newspaper in the UK, when he said "I really want deep worlds that you can interact with. My ideal game would be one city block - some day I’m going to make that.”

It's a fascinating idea: the notion that if an environment was detailed enough, with comparable interactions to a real city block, with all its people, mantelpieces, and cockroaches, then it could sustain an entire game at quite a high level. It's also something that fires the imagination: what would the plot be? What other constraints would such a game place on the designers? Would there be a single bullet in a revolver in a drawer somewhere, which would signal the end of the game when it was fired? So many questions.

One day, perhaps, Spector will get to make that hyper-detailed microworld for us, but he's just as likely to be beaten to it. Plenty of designers are gunning for similar notions, and it seems like teams like Arkane have come pretty close already.

“Arx Fatalis was this type of game,” argues Dishonored co-lead Raphael Colantonio. “It's the reason Arkane Studios was born and we love creating that kind of experience.”

You can certainly see those influences in their work. Most recently, Dishnored might not have simulated city blocks in as much details as Spector was talking about, but the designers still clearly habouring similar ambitions. The other Dishonored lead, Harvey Smith, who worked with Spector on Deus Ex, has long been familiar with the idea: “I remember talking to Warren about the one-city-block RPG; it's the kind of interconnected, deep game design idea that we all love. It's a clever constraint, like the Twilight Zone episode where everything takes place in one room, and as much as anything, it's a great creative exercise.”

Colantonio echoes the idea that this kind of constraint could make for thrilling creative space: “I would do anything to work on a game like Ultima Underworld set in a modern mall, blocked off and sealed up after a cataclysm. That's about the size of a city block, and it would allow us to make everything super detailed, with rival clans and factional alliances. Exciting!”

When you see designers talking about the concept like this, it becomes clear that One City Block is perhaps no-longer simply Warren Spector's dream game, but more a sort of guiding design principle: a notion of how games could and should be that is informing the future direction of both big studios like Arkane, and smaller, although no less ambitious, indie projects.

Although it's not operating with quite this sort of breadth of vision, it's hard not to see The Fullbright Company's Gone Home – an NPC-free immersive sim set in a single house – as a nod towards the One Block ideal. I put this to Fullbright's Steve Gaynor: “It's weird, people have (rightly!) brought up the One City Block idea in relation to Gone Home, and it totally fits-- we're deeply simulating one single location, a manor home, and allowing the player to mine every drawer, cabinet, and secret panel for meaning. But honestly we'd never made the connection to the One City Block game until someone else reminded us of it after seeing our announcement video!”

It's easy to see what Gaynor and chums are doing as perhaps one aspect of what the One City Block idea is intended to achieve: a range of believable interactions with mundane objects being at the heart of its systems.

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Gaynor is the first to concede that Gone Home is only a fragment of what Spector's dream would likely have to encompass: “I doubt we're doing what Warren Spector is imagining. When he says "One Block Role-Playing Game," it implies a lot more: simulating the people who live and work there, allowing the player to buy equipment and improve their character's skills and attributes. So I don't know if someone will get to exactly where he describes... but maybe close. “

Meticulously modelling something on a very close-in, narrow focus, seems crucial to the idea, and it's one that designers other than Spector have wanted to take further, as Smith recollects: “I also remember Doug Church talking about an even tighter version, based on an old comedy sketch: the Cheese Shop game, where everything occurs in one store. The basic idea of accounting for myriad interactions and player choices and weaving them into a narrative is appealing.”

And the idea of dragging the focus right down to the objects in individual spaces does seem enormously appealing to developers, particularly those with an interest in level design. Dishonored's lead level designer Christophe Carrier is a strong advocate of the One City Block philosophy: “I would love to do a game like this!” he says. “Tight and dense with consequences. Huge open-worlds give you the feeling that you're part of something epic and bring out the explorer in all of us, but the tighter the space, the more detail is possible, so as a game designer you can really hammer the feeling that you're in a world where little things matter and that you leave traces of your influence everywhere.”

Carrier believes that the attraction of One City Block idea is based on interaction. This game design ideal makes everything in the world – not just the things that are part of the core game (such as the guns and enemies in your typical FPS – important to the player experience: “As far as I remember, environmental interactivity has always been one of the things I crave to see in first person games but it's hard to pull off. I want a game to let me stop at any given floor while taking an elevator, I want to break things that look breakable or be able to use the bathrooms or turn the AC on, even if there's no gameplay implications whatsoever. That's always been my drive when working on games like Arx Fatalis, Bioshock 2 and Dishonored.”

Gaynor echoes this sentiment: “Experientially, too many games are much too broad and shallow. They only let the player touch the surface of things (usually as they sprint past them firing an SMG wildly.) When I play a game I always have the desire to inhabit its gameworld, treat it as a real place, find out about who lives there and what makes things tick. Focusing entirely on one house inhabited by multiple generations of one family allows us to deeply explore a very small, personal history, to dig deeper below the surface than most games allow.”

Gaynor has other thoughts too, saying that for them the focus on a single house is a practical constraint of being a small team. But I think what's exciting about the idea is that it sort of maps out a future for unrealised games, by implying what iy is that both gamers and designers are interested in exploring. Sprawling landscapes are on thing, said the folks who contributed to this article, but it's the things at our fingertips that games really need to get to grips with. And that's not simply a technical challenge: not just about graphical fidelity, and physics complexity, it's a design challenge. Game designers have to make these things fit and be fun, in their future games. And that's a complex problem.

How that problem is approached, will define how the One City Block idea resurfaces in our future games.

It's Smith who makes the most important final point about the One City Block idea. It comes down to to what extent it relied on one of two competing design philosophies: the one that relies most heavily on a script, or the one that relies most heavily on systems: “Whether it felt more like an emergent narrative in the sense of a game like FTL or (the tactical story in) XCOM, or more like an "insanely scripted" RPG is the question,” he states. “You could make a compelling experience either way, but obviously there's a thrill and some feeling of elegance to game interactions when they arise from systems.”

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Jim Rossignol