I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Monaco (Understanding Games #2)

This is the second article in a series documenting my "Game Camp for Grownups" at Williams College introducing humanities faculty to the medium of video games. [Previous article in the series: #1 PAC-MAN DX]

Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine (2013)
Designed by A. Schatz and A. Nguyen
Developed by Pocketwatch Games
Published by Majesco Entertainment for Windows, OS X, Xbox 360, and Linux

Monaco is an indie video game that combines the elegance of the “PAC-MAN” game with the theme of the Ocean’s Eleven movie. It is best experienced with four players on a couch cooperating to execute heists...which invariably go wrong.

An early version of Monaco won the 2010 GDC Independent Games Festival  Excellence in Design and Seumas McNally Grand Prize awards. The McNally award for independent games is comparable to the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for independent film.

Advice for Playing

Monaco doesn't have a great tutorial on the controls and strategy...it is an indie game that expects more literacy and perseverance than we might have for our second game ever. The actual gameplay is accessible, you just need some advice:


  • Use the left stick to move
  • Hold the left trigger to sneak, so that you don't alert the guards. (Other noises such as healing and the Mole digging will also alert guards!)
  • Use the right stick to aim when you have a gun
  • Use the right trigger to use your current item: shoot a gun, launch a smoke bomb, plant explosives, etc.
  • The A button selects on menus. The B button cancels or returns to the previous menu. This is most important on the character selection screen.
  • The A button brings up the HUD for a short period of time. It displays your character's inventory and health around the character and the current objective on the lower-right of the screen.
  • The start button swaps between online and local play on the main menu
  • Pressing continuously against a door brings up a timer. When the timer completes, the door is unlocked and you can walk through it. Some doors lock behind you.
  • You can also "open" bushes and hide in them, unscrew light bulbs, activate computer terminals, and take other actions to affect the map.
  • The Mole's digging mechanic is the same as opening a door, but he can use it on most (but not all) walls.
  • The Cleaner just runs over an unalarmed guard from behind to use his ability


  • This is a game about map traversal, not primarily about twitch. Remember what you learned in PAC-MAN.
  • Monaco is primarily a stealth & strategy game. Move slowly, keep the team together, and plan your movements from safe zone to safe zone.
  • You will very rarely use guns. They are distributed sparsely and have little ammo. Save them for a desperate moment, or a carefully planned attack.
  • This is a role playing job...everyone has to pick a good combination of roles for the map, and then actually play them. Let the Locksmith open doors, wait while the Cleaner runs out and neutralizes the guards, have the Mole strategically create new passages for you, etc. Do not "Rambo" and run off on your own.
  • When one player is in a bush or the exit, it is held open and others can run in without a timer.
  • When one player has unlocked a door and is standing in its doorway, the other players can run through it. Have the locksmith open doors and then hold them open so that others can go through.
  • You can hide in the exit, a bush, or a catwalk until things calm down, and then leave it again.
  • You can't hide in a bush while a guard is watching you...break line of sight first
  • Guards display their state with icons, which slowly fill up as they change state:
    • ZZZ (Sleeping): you can sneak in front
    • No icon: you can sneak past behind
    • ?: the guard is looking for you, but not yet alarmed
    • !: the guard is alarmed and actively seeking you to attack
  • When you're going to "die", run to some place that will be easy for the team to revive you. Avoid dying right in a patrolled hallway or in a bank vault covered with laser trip wires because it will be hard for someone to stay there long enough to heal you.
  • You should be able to complete most levels in 5-10 minutes one you have a good plan. Assume that your first play through on each level is just to explore the map and make a plan, and that you'll have to play each one twice.


Some high-level ideas to consider as you play Monaco are:

  • Implicit design
    • Player communication + cooperation as a mechanic
    • Time as a resource
    • Fiction explains the rules
    • Fiction in place of (vs. requiring) assets; the game in the mind
  • Emergence
    • Complex scenarios from simple rules
    • The players' experiential stories vs. the games' explicit narrative
  • Minimalism
    • Complex interactions from simple controls
    • Less-is-more graphic design
    • Dynamic and tiny user interface for significant state

Cooperative Multiplayer

Each player in Monaco controls a character on the (cooperative) heist team. As in cooperative games such as Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, and Overwatch, each character has a specific role created by their unique abilities. This increases cooperation through interdependence.

Aside: this style of game is sometimes called an "action role-playing game" (ARPG) to distinguish it from theatre-exercise style "role playing" of inhabiting a character; "pen-and-paper role-playing games" such as Dungeons & Dragon use "role" in both senses.

For example, the Redhead charm enemies and the Mole can break through walls. All characters can perform the basic functions of manipulating weapons (which are sparsely distributed), picking up loot, and opening doors.

As with the Left 4 Dead series, the mechanics of Monaco particularly reward teamwork and make players feel dependent on one another. Many levels are best accomplished with a plan and each player filling a specific role. Player characters can't be killed...but they can be knocked unconscious and must be revived by each other. Player communication is one essential mechanic for the game, and it interestingly is a mechanic that is implicit instead of coded in the game's rules and software.

Monaco's style of multiplayer fits the game's theme and has a specific socially valuable effect. It was also chosen intentionally. There are many different kinds of multiplayer game. Some elements that affect the style of play are:

  • Are the players physically in the same space, as I recommend for Monaco, or in different locations connected by the internet?
  • Cooperative vs. teams vs. everyone-for-themselves competitive
  • Are players sharing a screen? Some mobile and "LAN party" games are intended for players on different computers who are still in the same physical location. This allows private information for each player.
  • If the players share a screen, do they also share a view, or are there multiple small viewports on the screen (e.g., as in Halo)?
  • Do the players have distinctive roles?
  • Are the abilities of opposing players/teams symmetric or asymmetric?
  • How many players are in a game? Halo co-op supports two, Monaco supports four, Rocket League supports eight, Overwatch supports twelve, Battlefield 1 supports 64..., EVE Online supports tens of thousands.
  • Is play real-time or turn based? If turn based, is it synchronous or asynchronous?
  • Can artificial intelligence ("bot") players be substituted for humans?

Cooperative play in Monaco


We know from "PAC-MAN DX" that the game medium relies primarily on mechanics to create the experience, with visuals, audio, story, and characters in supporting roles. These supporting elements are broadly called "content" or "assets" by game developers during production.

For analysis purposes, the content is often referred to as the "fiction," "frame tale," or "theme" (in the sense of "theme park", not literary theme) of the game.

Monaco has an overarching narrative motivating each game level, which is primarily explained by loading screen text. The writing and music are superb. This fiction serves its traditional game roles:

  • Make game mechanics concrete and intuitive (we pick up "gold," use "weapons" to attack, are slowed in traversal by "doors," etc. which need no explicit explanation compared to abstract "points," "powerups," and "zones")
  • Provide a MacGuffin (artificial and irrelevant motivation) for in-game goals
  • Draw together
  • Enhance engagement by stimulating more senses and modes of thinking

This is our first game with human characters. Each has a distinctive personality appropriate for their ability that is brought out on the loading screens. The storyline and characters are banal. That is intentional, and not a flaw.

For a game with complex mechanics and emergent gameplay like Monaco, the players' attention needs to be on the mechanics and strategy. (This will be taken to an extreme by XCOM later in our series.)

Ocean's Eleven (1960)
The cliched story and characters allow players to instantly understand the motivation, key game elements, and setting so that the game can get underway. If the game instead dropped players into a complex and novel narrative, they would not have enough information to make choices without significant exploration of the game world...it would become a game about discovery, and not a game about strategy and rapid tactical maneuvers.

Even ensemble movies, TV episodes, and plays have a protagonist whose storyline and viewpoint frame the experience. One interesting aspect of Monaco's couch-multiplayer, coop, shared-view approach is that there really is no protagonist. The viewpoint and story are shared. The story elements introduce the Locksmith as the protagonist, but this isn't mirrored in the mechanics and gameplay.


The characters are all white Europeans, and only two of eight are female. One of the female characters has a sexual theme and the other a passive, "den mother" role (the Lookout is the most useful character for the team and the least fun to play). There appears to be some age range, from teenage hacker to the late 50's Gentleman.

Penny Arcade's interpretation of the Monaco
characters. The actual in-game silhouettes from the
storyline are at the bottom with their colors.
Monaco clearly inherited these sterotypes from classic heist films such as Ocean's ElevenItalian Job, The Great Train Robbery, and Heat, with a dash of James Bond thrown in. The game isn't about the characters and they are represented as a handful of colored rectangles in actual gameplay. So in this case, I think this lack of diversity is a disappointing statistic and missed opportunity more than something worth analyzing further.
The playable characters in Left 4 Dead 2

For reference, the Left 4 Dead series that I mentioned earlier provided a more ethnically diverse cast of playable characters that might be easier for more players to identify with. Although there are still only 2/8 female characters, they are not restricted by their gender.

After Game Exercises

You may want to look at the PAC-MAN DX responses below before moving on to this week's exercises.

  1. As with any game, analyze the objective state and rules of the game. List these explicitly. Focus on the state of the player characters: health, inventory, position (in 3D, due to catwalks!), and then move on to the map.
  2. Draw the mechanical connections between "PAC-MAN" and Monaco. Can you think of other rich modern games that draw heavily on more abstract 1980's games?
  3. An elegant mechanic in both board and video games is to use time as a resource. Monaco does this in several ways. Name and discuss them. Why is this "elegant" compared to an explicit resource such as ammunition?
  4. Explore the mechanics of a single character. Speculate on why the design has the abilities and restrictions that are present for that character to balance its utility (there is no "best" character) and enjoyment. For example, for example, some walls are unbreakable by the Mole.
  5. Consider the medium-specificity of works. I contend that Monaco is the loose equivalent of The Usual Suspects or Ocean's Eleven as a game. If the designers had pressed a script directly into the gameplay, how would a literal transcription of a heist film into a game succeed or fail in a the new medium?
  6. Stories are essential for human communication, including entertainment. The key for emergent games is to note that the real stories are emergent, regardless of the framing narrative. For example, players don't talk about "the twist right after the Hacker was revealed" in Monaco. They talk about "when I was knocked out right under the laser trap and you walked unnoticed right behind the guard to rescue me, timing it with the trap's phases..." How do the mechanics of Monaco create unique and powerful emergent stories?
  7. Review the different ways that multiple players can engage the same game from the multiplayer style list above. Discuss how Monaco would be affected by changing the style of multiplayer. For example, it could have been asymmetric multiplayer with one team controlling the guards. Why is this mode not offered? (N.B. The game can be played single player and multiplayer using separate computers across the internet. I find these vastly inferior.)

Recommended Reading

Monaco does a nice job of minimizing the controls and user interface required for a relatively large number of actions and per-character state. Swink, Game Feel: A Game Designer's Guide to Virtual Sensations, Morgan Kaufman, 2008 is the canonical text on control design and how it affects the player experience. The introduction alone is worth the read, even if you don't get much farther.

A core idea that most game designers (and probably many theorists) ascribe to is that the actual game exists in the player's mind, not on the screen. The abstract art style of Monaco combined with the evocative fiction allow players to imagine the world of the game more vividly than could be depicted with current graphics. Shell, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, CRC Press, 2008 explains this concept in the early chapters (see chapter 2 specifically) and then moves on to analyze game mechanics.

Monaco contains graphic elements and sounds that are clearly "in the world" and observed by the characters (e.g., gold, walls), others which are clearly not visible to characters (e.g., health bars, timers), and some which denote the characters' knowledge but are represented differently to the players (e.g., the map blueprint). This happens in film as well, but less frequently. For example, characters are clearly not aware of voice over, on-screen location titles, and theme music. Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, MIT Press, 2011 presents tools for analyzing these different levels of representation and reality in games.

PAC-MAN DX Responses

Sample responses to the PAC-MAN DX discussion questions from last week are below.

1. The state of PAC-MAN DX, organized hierarchically, is:

  • pacman
    • x, y position in pixels [not grid squares...pacman can appear at any pixel on the screen and isn't snapped to the power-pellet grid]
    • moving direction: up/down/left/right/still
    • speed in pixels/second (more likely, pixels/frame)
    • direction to turn at next intersection: up/down/left/right
    • list of previous positions, used for ghosts that are trailing
    • animation frame index
  • maze is a grid, storing at each square:
    • obstructed by a wall: true or false [this is tricky. As in the original PAC-man, walls appear to be two "squares" thick, counting pellets. But the walls actually are drawn pushed forward and back slightly from the real grid]
    • contents: empty/pellet/power pellet/fruit
  • ghosts:
    • x, y position in pixels
    • moving direction: up/down/left/right/still
    • eatable? [you can tell that this is per-ghost state instead of global because new ghosts that spawn after you eat a power pellet are not themselves eatable]
    • awake?
    • animating being sent to the center via bomb?
    • how far behind pacman on trail (0 = not trailing)
    • holding: nothing/power pellet/bomb
    • color
    • ...and some animation and artificial intelligence information
  • game
    • number of bombs left
    • number of lives left
    • index of the current dot pattern on the left
    • index of the current dot pattern on the right
    • speed
    • time left
    • score
    • last ghost score (used for chaining bonuses for eating lines of ghosts)
    • ...plus some animation and collision slow-down information

2. The choices are interesting. The only literal choices proscribed by the rules for inputs that the player can provide (ignoring pausing and such) are when to push the four direction buttons and the bomb button during the game. If we step back, we see some higher-level choices that are more useful for analysis.

First, the player can choose the graphics. These add some variety and some help a little with reading the map, but there's not a significant strategic value there.

Second, the player can choose the starting speed. This is very significant. Because the game runs on a fixed timer (in the starting modes), a higher speed allows the player to earn more points in fixed time. It also reduces the time to plan and think.

A player with sufficient knowledge of the map and reasonable experience with the controls should always choose the highest speed if their goal is to maximize points (it is reasonable to have a different goal--playing as a less-stressful pastime--and choose a different speed to better satisfy that.)

Once inside the game, the player has a strategic choice in the map traversal. I suspect that there is an optimal path to collect all pellets and eat the most ghosts in the least time, and the patterns are predetermined so it is possible to learn this path. Falling short of optimality, there are broader strategic choices such as whether to trail a large number of ghosts or avoid them outright, whether to turn and eat those ghosts at the first opportunity or leave them there to build a larger bonus, etc. There are small tactical choices (which mostly arise when the player fails to execute the intended strategy perfectly) of how to respond to ghosts: bombs, allowing PAC MAN to lose a life, or attempting to dodge.

Let's not forget the ultimate choice: whether to play at all. For many media, the only choices are whether to watch/read/play the work (possibly: again), the ambient conditions for experiencing it, and whether to finish. Many of the tools of analyzing games can be applied to these choices.

3. The rules are something like:

   If the player presses a direction button:
       if the direction button is opposite the current moving direction or the current moving direction is still:
             Immediately set pac-man's moving direction and next turn direction to match the button
             Set pacman's next turn direction to match the button

   If pacman is at the center of an intersection:
      change the moving direction to the next turn direction

   If the distance between pacman and a ghost is less than 1/2 the sum of their widths:
      if the ghost is eatable:
            destroy the ghost and increase pacman's score
      otherwise, if pacman has more than one life left:
            destroy all awake ghosts
            reset pacman
            decrement the number of lives
            game over

I'll omit responses to the more subjective critique questions.

Next in this series: Understanding Games #3: Inside

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.