Note: This is a Shamus-scheduled article that is being published post-mortem.
Back at the white house, Troy meets with Alex face-to-face. This next part is like your visits to Seraph Industries in Deus Ex Human Revolution. The player isn’t allowed to pull out their weaponsOr the game will let them, but discharging a weapon is an instant game over. or do any other shenanigans that would break the story. I know these games pride themselves on player agency and freedom, but I think most players are okay with not being allowed to pointlessly fire their weapons or toss inventory items around for no reason while visiting the White House.
Mission 3: Morpheus Protocol
Alex sums up the plot so far: Life is back to normal for the president. His poll numbers are up even more since the attempt on his life. We ID’d the people that attacked the White HouseLet’s just carefully avoid saying if they’re alive or dead, since the player could have spared or killed any number of them. and they’re a jumbled assortment of misfits and cranks. It isn’t rare that a few loonies would want to try something like this. There are always a few threats, regardless of who’s in office. What is rare is that the group would have the budget, training, and knowledge to get so close. These people were obviously helped by someone a lot richer, smarter, and better-connected. This fits with what Troy learned in Switzerland.
Troy asks how the arrests are going with the State Department. Alex says she hasn’t heard anything yet. The two wonder what “Project Morpheus” might be about.
Next Troy meets with Sam Carter. On his way there, the player might spot the Woman in Orange. She’ll be standing somewhere distant and unreachable, sort of like a G-Man sighting in Half-Life.
Carter is glad to see Troy Denton. However, if you killed a bunch of people in Miami then he’ll express his disappointment. Otherwise he’ll congratulate you on a job well-done. After that he says…
Carter: Here, I wanted you to have this.
Carter hands Troy a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver. (This is the infamous “Dirty Harry” gun. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a weapon with the right properties and of the right age to plausibly appear here. I’m not totally happy with this choice, but I’m mostly confident that I’ve avoided making any outrageous firearm blunders.)
Troy: (Taking the weapon and looking it over.) Woah, ancient tech.
Carter: That sidearm was carried by the man who trained me. This weapon was used to protect Jimmy Carter, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton, and the first two Bushes. And I’ve carried it as my back-up weapon for every president since then.
Troy: I’ve never understood the thinking behind revolvers. You only get six shots. Our standard issue sidearms hold 15.
Carter: You and I both know there’s more to a weapon than its capacity. This thing has stopping power. It was overkill in its day, but in a world where you might face an augmented threat, you want to have something like this on you.
Troy: It belongs in a museum.
Carter: It’s a service pistol. It belongs in service.
Troy: So I guess you’re really serious about retiring?
Carter: You’re holding my second-favorite handgun, so you know I am.
Troy: Thanks Carter. I’ll take good care of it.
I’ll explain the thinking behind this scene in a minute. For now, Troy takes the weapon. Troy reminds Carter about the “Morpheus Protocol” threat. Carter assures him that security is super-tight. No tour groups. No press. There are hardly any civilians in the building, and we’re practically strip-searching everyone at the front door. There are hundreds of soldiers hidden along the building’s perimeter and we’ve got drones circling the building like angry bees. It would take an army just to shout an insult at the president.
Carter then explains that Troy should report directly to the president and tell him what we’ve learned in Switzerland.
On his way into the President’s office, Troy will pass the Woman in Orange. Her design should make it clear that she’s trouble in an obvious-but-not-actionable way. Maybe she’s got a mean face, or maybe she has a femme fatale thing going on. That, plus the orange outfit,Particularly if everyone else is wearing grays and blacks. ought to be enough to grab the player’s attention.
Troy enters the president’s office. As he enters, a guard leaves. So now it’s just Troy, the president, and one rando secret service agent in the room. The president jokingly refers to Denton as “Agent Nephew”, doing a slightly cringy callback to Denton’s gaffe on day 1. Then he prompts Troy to explain what he learned on his mission.
The door to the office opens, cutting Troy off mid-sentence. We turn to see the Woman in Orange standing in the doorway.
The president remarks, “Oh, it’s you? It’s not quite time for our meeting yet.”
She seems to be reaching inside her coat, or handbag, or whatever looks the most overtly threatening.
“Gun!” the other agent shouts.
Troy grunts as his vision dims. This feels exactly like the malfunction we had when Leo Gold escaped.Assuming you tried to shoot him, and assuming I didn’t cut that scene. The other secret service agent seems to be having the same problem – he’s doubled over, off-balance. He’s trying to get out his weapon.
Troy draws his pistol. (And hey, since Carter gave us that present, we have a pistol no matter what, even if the player is doing a novelty no-weapons / no-inventory pacifist run! Because this scene would turn into a farce if Troy was guarding the president with something impractical like a melee weapon or a rocket launcher. Also, the animators can build this scene around this one weapon, rather than scripting for every possible thing the player might be carrying.) He struggles to lift the weapon, but he can’t seem to point it at the Woman in Orange. His vision slams to black, we hear gunshots, and there’s a thud.
The screen stays black for several long seconds. Dead silence.
There’s a rush of sound as Troy wakes up. An alarm is going off. The old revolver is laying on the floor in front of him. He doesn’t pick it up. The door is closed again. The Woman in Orange is gone, and the president is dead. So is the other agent.
Troy checks on the president and then radios to Alex for help. He tells her to find the Woman in Orange.
Alex: (Frustrated.) My screens all went blank for a minute there. They’re back now, but I don’t… I don’t see a woman in orange anywhere near you.
Troy figures Mrs. Orange must have used the secret escape tunnel. He opens the secret door to follow her.This is the same door that Sam Carter used to get the president to safety back on day 1. As the panel slides open, the main door to the room is kicked open violently and more secret service agents enter. They yell at Troy to stop, assuming that he’s the one who killed the president.
We’re in full gameplay mode now, so the player is free to handle this however they want. They can run into the secret passage, they can pull a weapon and murder their former compatriots, or I guess they could also stand still and get shot.Or surrender and get a Game Over? However we want to handle it. Tell the gameplay designer to email me.
The passage leads to steam tunnels like the ones we visited in the tutorial. We play peek-a-boo with the security system for a bit. There are military guys milling around “searching” for Denton the way enemies do in these games. The steam tunnels should quickly give way to the kitchen and laundry areas of the basement, because we already spent some time in this environment during the tutorial and we don’t want this to feel too repetitive.
There are a few encounters with groups of one or two agents along the way. While shooting is the path of least resistance, these encounters are designed so that it’s possible to escape without being forced to gun everyone down.
After the first of these encounters, we get this exchange…
Troy: Alex! Why is everyone shooting at me?
Alex: I don’t know how to tell you this Denton, but everyone thinks you killed the president.
Troy: Show them the security footage. I was incapacitated right as the Woman in Orange came in. We have to find her. She’s the one who did it!
Alex: I believe you. But I don’t have the security footage. My cameras went blank right before the assassination.
Troy: (Bitterly.) So she’s getting away while we waste time shooting at each other.
Alex: Carter told the secret service to stand down, but we have all these extra security people here today, and they don’t answer to him.
Troy: This must be the Morpheus Protocol: Use some kind of anti-aug tech to disable the President’s security detail.
Alex: Look, not many people know about this, but I actually have a backup system in place. It’s kind of a dead drop for video data. All of the footage is streamed to a backup server so we always have a copy, even if my security console is compromised.
Troy: Then I need that data to clear my name. Please Alex. Without that footage, the bad guys can make up any story they like and blame this all on a lone attacker – on me.
Alex: Of course I’ll help you. The problem is, the server is a one-way connection. It collects data automatically, but if you want to recover any of it then you have to physically access the machine.
Troy: Great. Just tell me where it is.
Alex: Get to the roof. I’ve got an idea.
This section is linear, so let’s keep it short. This “But I don’t want to shoot my former colleagues” thing will wear thin if it drags on too long. Denton sneaksProbably. upstairs and gets on the roof.
Alex remotely hijacks a helidrone. There’s so much chaos right now that nobody is going to notice if a single drone goes missing. She brings the drone in to pick up Troy and allow him to escape the premises.
Before he boards the heli, Alex tells him that he needs to unplug from the system. The PARASIGHT network will be able to track his mobile phone.
We get a little cutscene where Troy crushes his cell phone and drops it on the ground. Then he removes his secret service earpieceQ: Does he need an earpiece if he’s augmented with communications gear? A: Shut up. It’s an established trope that all agents wear earpieces. You can’t start asking questions about how his head radio works because literally No Game Ever can survive that conversation. and steps on it, literally and symbolically breaking his ties to his old job. Portentous musical sting.
He boards the heli and vanishes into the night sky.
Mission 4: Dead Drop
I think the idea of a “central” server with a one-way connection is inherently cartoonish. Which means this is a perfect idea for a mission.
This is a fairly straightforward location. It’s a big technology base / server farm that serves as a gameplay obstacle course. We should hit all the classics here: Visible red laser triplines hooked up to alarm systems, auto-turrets, patrol robots, rooms filled with coolant, massive steel airlocks hooked up to needlessly complicated puzzle-switches, maze-like layouts, dark corridors, and an excess of security cameras. Elsewhere in the game I’d caution the level designers to go easy on the air vents because they were just too often a definitive right answer in Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. But here in the Deep Storage level I’d tell them to go wild with the vents. Make them big, have them go everywhere, and fill them with big spinning fans that need to be turned off or routed around.
Also, is it too much to ask to make vents actually blowing air? Why are videogame HVAC systems always turned off? Then again, maybe having them blow air means thinking about where the air comes from, which would call into question these strange orphaned ducts that connect to rooms but never to any HVAC equipment. I don’t know. I’d tell the level designers to see what they can come up with. I like the idea of these vents being filled with the sound of rushing air and having a perceptible directionality to them. Perhaps you can find your way to the core by always going “upstream” against the currents.
The number of flesh-and-blood guards should be pretty low, and mostly limited to the outer layers of security. As the player moves inward the security should be automated, and in the innermost rooms it should be mostly environmental hazards.
There’s not much here in the way of story. We’ll give Troy and Alex a few lines to process the death of their old boss and talk about how much they liked him and how hopeful people seemed when he was elected. If there are sidequests or bonus objectives, they should probably take the form of self-directed treasure hunts. Maybe we tantalize the player with hard-to-reach weapons and upgrades and let them puzzle their way to the loot if they’re up for it.
This is one of the locations we’re going to get to revisit later in the game. I kinda like the idea of using this against the player. We can let them take some shortcuts on their way in, maybe setting off alarms and generally half-assing the job. There won’t be any obvious consequences at first, but then on the second visit they would find their original route of ingress has been fortified / blocked off. So if you were sloppy on your first visit, you’d have fewer options on your second. But doesn’t that just punish people who dislike stealth by making them do more of it? I dunno. I think there’s the opportunity for fun here.
Alternate idea, multiple routes:
Path A requires stealth. B is filled with trigger-happy mooks and no hiding places. C is an obstacle course of environmental hazards and hacking. The player has to choose one of the three routes, and various one-way doors save OCD players from feeling compelled to backtrack and run all three routes. Each path can have an aug upgrade. So you’ll get to the end of your chosen path, and you’ll see a now-unreachable upgrade from one of the other paths. Then when you visit this place later, you can do the same path again if you liked it, or you can try one of the other paths. But of course, you’ll only get another upgrade if you do a different route.
I think it won’t feel like “recycled content” if we specifically design the place to be visited multiple times, with opportunities for different experiences on each visit.
You get the idea. I’d give the level designers lots of room to work and then see what they come up with.
Troy reaches the backup server, where a big-screen computer terminal is waiting for him. There’s another door nearby that leads deeper into the facility, but we’re not going to be able to get past it on this visit.
Alex reminds him that they’re about to see the raw, unedited footage of the assassination, so he should brace himself.
The footage plays. We see the office from a cameraWould the president have a spy camera in his office? Yes. In this universe, totally yes. near the ceiling. Secret service guy on the left. Troy Denton on the right. President Ellis in the middle. We see the door open in the background. We can see the Woman in Orange, although her face is hidden from this angle. The president says something to the open doorway. Mrs. Orange pulls something out of her jacket / handbag. But it’s not a gun, it’s a… remote control? A phone? Maybe she pushes a button?
Both secret service guys double over. The guy on the left collapses. Troy suddenly stands up straight. He puts three rounds into Ellis, then three more rounds into his fellow agent. Then he points the gun at his own head and pulls the trigger three more times, resulting in three dry clicks from the now-empty weapon. Then he goes limp, dropping the weapon on the floor in front of him.
(Ok, now you can see why we needed Sam Carter to give our hero a six-shooter.)
Troy is stunned silent. We linger on the aftermath for a few more seconds.
Alex finally realizes that this was the Morpheus Protocol: Hijack an augmented agent to do the assassination, and then have that agent kill themselves to cover up the evidence. If Troy had pulled out a 9mm – which is what the vast majority of agents carry – then there would have been enough shots to finish the job. But because he was carrying Carter’s old six-shooter, he ran out of bullets before killing himself.
Troy is stunned. He really did kill Ellis. He’s mortified. He’s also confused. He didn’t think that his augmentations were able to do something like this – that they could knock him out and hijack his body. The implications are horrifying.
Alex says she doesn’t want to continue to run this operation from her office in the White House. For one thing, she’s now an accessory to whatever this is. She understands that Troy isn’t really at fault, but she also realizes that the two of them would have a very hard time explaining themselves. Secondly, she thinks she might be a target if anyone decides to clean up loose ends. She needs to get somewhere safe if she’s going to continue to help Troy. She tells him to get clear while she finds someplace to hide.
Getting out is easier than getting in, but it still takes the player a few minutes to retrace their steps and make their way past all the layers of security.
Troy doesn’t like that his body can be hijacked at any time. He figures he needs to find some sort of proof if he’s going to clear his name.
Alex suggests a visit to Mirai Technology, where his augmentations were designed. Maybe there he can learn how the hijacking works, who has access, and how he can protect himself. Maybe he can even find source code that can back up his claims.
Aside: I think if this was a real game pitch I might re-arrange some missions to put some stuff between the assassination and the reveal. I think the longer the player walks around thinking they’ve been wrongly accused, the harder it will hit when they learn the truth.
But I wanted to have both the assassination and the reveal in the same entry because I didn’t want people in the comments to spoil the twist with speculation. (Or worse, have someone devise something better than my idea, thus making my twist seem lame in comparison. This ain’t my first rodeo.)
Next week we’re headed for Tokyo.
 Or the game will let them, but discharging a weapon is an instant game over.
 Let’s just carefully avoid saying if they’re alive or dead, since the player could have spared or killed any number of them.
 Particularly if everyone else is wearing grays and blacks.
 Assuming you tried to shoot him, and assuming I didn’t cut that scene.
 This is the same door that Sam Carter used to get the president to safety back on day 1.
 Or surrender and get a Game Over? However we want to handle it. Tell the gameplay designer to email me.
 Q: Does he need an earpiece if he’s augmented with communications gear? A: Shut up. It’s an established trope that all agents wear earpieces. You can’t start asking questions about how his head radio works because literally No Game Ever can survive that conversation.
 Would the president have a spy camera in his office? Yes. In this universe, totally yes.
What did web browsers look like 20 years ago, and what kind of crazy features did they have?
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.
Are Lootboxes Gambling?
Obviously they are. Right? Actually, is this another one of those sneaky hard-to-define things?
Push the Button!
Scenes from Half-Life 2:Episode 2, showing Gordon Freeman being a jerk.
A wild game filled with wild ideas that features fun puzzles and mind-blowing environments. It has a great atmosphere, and one REALLY annoying flaw with its gameplay.