Early first person shooters created virtual proving grounds for an emerging digital warrior class to test their combat skills, but as games became more intricate, new player archetypes branched out. By the end of the Nintendo 64’s life, Rare had learned to construct complex environments built with infrastructure stalked by reactive guards, while providing players with a large toolset to deal with them. The product turned them into versatile special agents rather than warriors, culminating in 2000’s brilliant Perfect Dark.
Perfect Dark’s intricacies are apparent as early as the first level. Your mission to smuggle the defecting Dr. Carroll from dataDyne is easy on the lowest difficulty, only asking you to reach the bottom of its tower, but adds more objectives that explain the whistleblower’s actions from there. The opening helipad leads down to the executive floors and this large office with two women. If you quickly knock out the tall blonde calling for security you’ll get Cassandra De Vries necklace, smartly introducing dataDyne’s CEO.
While the Special Agent difficulty adds this necklace as an objective, the game requires more from the player when Perfect Agent locks the office up tight. Observe the area and you’ll notice the desk facing the office, and conclude that the second woman inside must be De Vries’ personal assistant, a suspicion that pays off when you hit the button on top and unlock the double doors securing the two women inside.
Compare how different this scenario is to the dozens of prominent first person shooters of the 90s like Doom, Quake, or Half-Life. Where those games had enemy and environmental dangers, Perfect Dark has narrative and social threats, where small decisions can cause mission-critical failures. Consider another Perfect Agent objective where you need to obtain files on the defecting Dr. Carroll. Walking a dD exec to a computer terminal gets you the file, but if you hesitate to disable him afterward he will hit one button too many and order the doctor’s termination, sabotaging the game’s plot before it even begins. This is an implicitly social threat, a goal this very character mentioned minutes before.
Rather than a combat arena, the dataDyne tower’s multiple story threads make it a living place that requires you to think quickly on your feet and learn from your mistakes. Cassandra de Vries’ thread alone captures how Perfect Dark rewards those who investigate its systems: it shows how its challenge expands with each difficulty while revealing every mission’s narrative, unmasks De Vries as the face behind dataDyne’s unfolding global conspiracy, and molds you into an elite agent capable of unlocking all of its mysteries.
The Special Agent Mindset
It makes sense to think of Perfect Dark as a cyberpunk GoldenEye 007, as it’s founded on that classic’s design, updating Joana Dark’s arsenal to make her the James Bond of a technology-saturated future. Like 007, Agent Dark must slip into hostile territory armed with a predefined set of tools to acquire intel, recover research, and make it out alive. But here you’re given more weapons, each with secondary firing modes that can turn a punch into disarm or change a machine gun into a sentry turret, features you can train with in the game’s firing range. By the end of the first-three level sequence, you have stumbled onto dataDyne’s nefarious moves, and now must discover the extent of their global plot. But only skilled agents will make it through.
Perfect Dark’s maps are tightly designed ecosystems laid out with light, door, and alarm systems available to player and enemy alike. Each level is custom designed with infrastructure appropriate to the mission’s setting. Even maps that contain little overall real estate have interesting routing so that they seem full. While the first level’s tower only leaves a few floors accessible to the player, the long elevator ride to the bottom creates the impression of infiltrating deep into dataDyne’s belly. Similarly, Chicago’s streets have sewer ducts and back alleys, giving it a logical, varied layout.
Of course, all this would be pointless if the levels weren’t filled with non-player characters to interact with, and while the A.I. itself has simple overall behaviors, NPCs can have a wide range of actions. The way GoldenEye gave enemies basic perceptual abilities and location-based damage went a long way to making every unit feel human, but giving them contextual behaviors based on states such as disarmed or injured brings them closer to life. By linking individual behaviors together, the A.I. is versatile enough to not only simulate office worker and civilian NPC types, but construct the dozen distinct bot personalities awaiting you in the game’s combat simulator, each with its own distinct combat style.
A good agent takes advantage of the tools available to them, and Perfect Dark loads you up with disguises, drone cameras, and hacking units that do a great job of making the missions feel unique. There are deep options here. While the missions always start you with a few specialized items, many will be procured on site, and claiming them often set up their use in subsequent levels. The Night Vision goggles you take from dataDyne R&D in mission 2 is a great example, as the Perfect Agent difficulty’s objective establishes why you have them at the beginning of mission 3, where you’re forced to fight back up the DD tower in pitch black. It shows how well the story designers considered every detail.
The different NPC behaviors, level infrastructure, and player tools, can be combined in thousands of different ways to create a remarkably varied set of mission scenarios. Where one level requires you to disguise yourself as a flight attendant, another has you hacking a flying car to cause a distraction. Need some cover to work at a console? Throw the laptop sentry on the wall and let it rain fire on any guard that tries to interrupt you. But the additional difficulties build the design inward more from there, adding complexity that requires you to think about the levels differently. Terminals and tools that you didn’t pay attention to before now have real meaning, and changes up your overall strategy. In Perfect Dark, success requires you to change up your behavior from one mission to the next. It’s in understanding your environment and what you’re capable of that separates the rookie agent from the expert.
Perfecting the Art of Subterfuge
dataDyne responds to Joanna’s covert operation by storming her benefactor’s villa and taking him prisoner. On the Agent difficulty, you provide sniper cover for the hostage negotiator while safely perched on the cliff overlooking the complex. Perfect Agent flips this scenario on its head, placing you directly into the negotiator role, starting you in a vulnerable position on the dock surrounded by snipers. By building each mission out of swappable parts, Perfect Dark is able to radically change itself even within the same scene, forcing you to be flexible and think on your feet.
Difficulty scaling is an important aspect of videogames, and one of the easiest to overlook. Each genre handles it in unique ways, and while Perfect Dark uses the standard method of increasing enemy health, damage, and accuracy while reducing ammo drops, its expandable objective-based structure elevates it to another level. Missions can adjust objectives in hundreds of ways, from adding completely new ones to dividing up others into smaller tasks. More objectives mean more failure states, but the gameplay reward is access to more areas of the map and adds characterization and plot to the story. Since every component gets tweaked across difficulties in slight ways, right down to how generous the auto-aim, the cumulative effect greatly increases the challenge. Even its Agent, Special Agent, and Perfect Agent naming convention is clever, as each informs the player about how good they will need to be to succeed.
The Carrington Villa provides an excellent example of how objective scaling can reframe a mission’s scenario, but every level applies the concept in its own way. The second mission’s laser grid is great too, as following the service bot working the area vastly changes when you need to find and reprogram it on Special Agent, opening up an entire new area you didn’t have access to before.
When you study this design you discover a symmetry of systems, a universal set of components available to both sides. While this is apparent in the campaign, it’s doubly so in its multiplayer. Perfect Dark expands GoldenEye’s deathmatch to include robust game modes with a host of configurable A.I. settings and item spawn placement that let you create custom game matches. These modes are built on a plug and play design with easily modifiable components. The systems really come into play in the counter co-op mode that places one person in the role of a dataDyne guard that can procure weapons, hit lights and alarms, and create impromptu barricades. Perfect Dark’s parts are so flexible that they can be used for both offense and defense.
Think about what this means. By stacking all the systems, scripted and unique NPC’s, and scenarios that come with additional objectives onto a single map, the designers are bringing it to life layer by layer. More activity means more story, more characters, more secrets. It means more gameplay. It turns a FPS maze into an inhabited environment with unique perils, and transforms training missions for rookies into final exams for elite agents. Perfect Dark’s scaling design is simply awesome.
All of this culminates in the design’s best feature: its cheat system. By having every mission offer a reward for completing its par time including access to all weapons with infinite ammo, the ability to bring A.I. buddies, or dozens of other gameplay tweaks, it allows those who master a map to further break free of the bonds its own world imposes. Once you have proven your worth as an agent, Perfect Dark’s dangerous concrete jungles blossom into open playgrounds for your skills to run wild.
PLATFORM: Nintendo 64, Xbox360, XBoxOne
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1093912170