irrational-games

Some of the earliest Vigors the player is given in Bioshock Infinite are Possession, Devil’s Kiss, and Murder of Crows. While both of these, like the other Vigors, are largely combat focused, it’s important that they both provide significant abilities relating to crowd control during combat. The earliest enemies don’t have a lot of health, but the player has a limited arsenal- by presenting these first, the game is giving players the tools needed to get in and get out with quick attacks or hard hits before they’re detected.

The Beauty Of The Breach

SWAT 4 is not a tactical shooter.

Oh, I know it very much looks like one. There’s a gun poking out from the bottom right quadrant of the screen, and on occasion you may be called upon to shoot it at somebody. At your command is a squad of interchangeable burly American men, who will do their best to follow your orders—or at the very least, try not to get in the way too much—and most missions are rife with the deafening clatter of confined submachine gun fire, punctuated by overlapping barked orders and screams. It has the punishing damage model of a tactical shooter, the realistic spaces of a tactical shooter, and the po-faced no-nonsense attitude of a tactical shooter, along with numerous other qualities shared with Rainbow Six and Counter-Strike and goodness knows what else.

But SWAT 4 isn’t really about any of those things. They’re ancillary elements at the most, which is fortunate, because giving orders is a clumsy menu-driven nightmare and the weapons are about as useful in your hands as a succession of aggravated iguanas. A rifle in full-auto firing mode might as well just eject its magazine onto the floor, given the odds of it hitting anything you point it at, and by the time you’ve marshalled your squadmates into position, whatever advantage you hoped to achieve has probably long since passed. You have snipers positioned around some levels, peeping into windows, but they don’t do anything on their own except announce when they spot something; you have to bring their view up on a picture-in-picture display, telekinetically wrest the gun out of their hands, and take the shots yourself. If SWAT 4 was a tactical shooter, it would be an utterly intolerable one.

Fortunately, SWAT 4 is actually about doors.

Doors. They’re a simple fixture, at least in contemporary settings. Hinges, frame, lock, handle. Just a thing that buildings have, so ubiquitous they might as well be invisible. Most games model them that way: press A to open, press A to close. Maybe there’ll be a lockpicking minigame, if someone really doesn’t want you getting in there, or maybe you’ll have to go hunt down the key. Doors are temporary obstructions at most—one step removed from literal ‘gating’—and often amount to little more than set dressing. This is reasonable. This is acceptable.

What you need to understand about SWAT 4, though, is how its missions unfurl. Being a good cop—and, crucially, an alive cop, who brings in people alive, to the fullest extent possible—means staying in control of the situation. If you have civilians running around like headless chooks, suspects hiding god-knows-where and your squad scattered all over the shop, things are inevitably going to go wahoonie-shaped. You need to be disciplined and methodical; acutely aware of which spaces are unsafe, securing the area one step at a time, moving from room to room and sweeping them thoroughly. To this end, you must master the breach.

You know, the breach; the moment when half a dozen armoured cops suddenly storm into a room brandishing guns, screaming at everyone to get on the ground. A disorienting whirl of action where everything goes from order to chaos and back again in the span of a few crucial seconds. Carried out correctly, it means taking everyone by surprise and having the weapons safely out of their hands before they know what’s going on; carried out incorrectly, it means a lot more yelling, and gunshots, and possibly cleaning up. How you choose to execute the breach is the primary factor that decides its outcome, and the conduit through which it is carried out is, invariably, one or more closed doors.

So what’s it going to be? You can, of course, just open the door, run inside blindly and hope for the best, if you’re the kind of person who crosses the street without looking. On the other hand, if you’re feeling cautious—and it should go without saying, I hope, that it pays to be cautious—you can take a moment to stick a fibre-optic camera under the door frame and take a peek first, to scope out the situation as much as your viewpoint allows. From there, you can make informed decisions about how your team’s going to burst in. Will it be a quick ‘open, flashbang, clear’? Or perhaps, depending on who’s watching the far side of the door, the precious second or two taken for a grenade to skitter across the floor is too much to ask for. It might be wiser still to try another door, and wedge this one shut so nobody sneaks up on you.

As in life, though, some doors are locked. This doesn’t present much of an obstacle to you, an officer of the law, but once again there are decisions to be made. Lockpicks are discreet and work without fail, but are a bit slow in a pinch. A flashier option is to blow the door wide open with a parcel of plastic explosive, which has the added bonus of momentarily disorienting anyone near the entrance, but can hurt or kill anyone too close to the blast. For a safer and far faster approach, you can simply shoot the lock off with a breaching round—a special shotgun round designed to not ricochet or hit things behind the door, as shells are wont to do—but it won’t give you the same breathing room, and leaves you standing in the open doorway holding a shotgun like an absolute lemon.

But I didn’t drag you this far to gush sickeningly over police violence, strangely enough. SWAT 4’s doors are important because they’re a prime example of how modelling complex interactivity—even in something otherwise perceived as relatively simple—can alter the focus of a game for the better. We’re used to our environments being simple models, because time and resources are finite things, but the right verbs in the right place can transform an otherwise familiar formula into something strange and different. Could SWAT 4 have done something similar with windows? Walls? Why not go deeper down the rabbit hole, and let the player open doors to specific angles, or target the hinges instead of the lock? Potential for complexity in the mundane is everywhere, and can be fleshed out to create new experiences without disrupting the delicate mechanical frameworks we rely on for stability.

And that’s what they are: frameworks. Rigid structures that define a rough outline sufficiently enough to stop the whole thing collapsing in on itself, allowing creative freedom elsewhere. A first-person shooter doesn’t have to be about first-person shooting, as inane as that may sound; it can be no more than the formula that allows a game to explore something only tangentially connected. With every intricacy afforded to it, something as trivial as a lump of wood with a handle on it can grow ever more central to the experience, until it becomes the prominent feature on which everything else (ahem) hinges. Doors. Door puns. Love ‘em. Goodnight.

Elena Fisher, Elizabeth Comstock, Liara T'Soni Portrait.