Maybe there will be another Titanfall game, maybe not, but it's abundantly clear that Titanfall 2 is worth a closer examination. No level underscores the game's narrative and mechanical surprises better than the "Effect And Cause" mission halfway through the game. To learn more about how it came together, and how its origin stretches back years, I spoke with the chief architect behind this time-bending mission, senior designer Jake Keating.
Warning: We're about to spoil the crap out of Titanfall 2's "Effect And Cause" mission.
Most missions in Titanfall 2 have a unique hook, one that's discarded when you move onto the next one. It's what keeps the game fresh. Most of these hooks involve jumping, shooting, and fighting in badass mechs, and it's what allows "Effect And Cause" to catch you off-guard. As players approach a wrecked science facility, signage teases a space-time experiment gone wrong. Soon after, the game warps players into the past, when everything was shiny, bright—and less wrecked by time fuckery. Whereas most games would simply make this part of the story, Titanfall 2 gives players an item that lets them swap between the past and present at will.
The device lets players exercise god-like powers on the world around them. If soldiers are giving you trouble in the present, you can swap to the past, sneak behind where they're hiding in the present, seamlessly swap timelines, and execute an ambush they can't see coming.
"It's like you're Nightcrawler from that opening scene in [the movie] X-Men 2," said Keating, referencing a cinematic touchstone that he'd return to multiple times during our interview.
(An early version let enemies keep moving in alternate timelines. In the finished game, they're frozen in place when you're swapping—not for technical reasons, but because it's more fun.)
Though "Effect And Cause" is a mission in Titanfall 2, Keating's original idea goes back years, pre- Titanfall. After Infinity Ward's much-publicized falling out with Call of Duty publisher Activision, a significant number of Infinity Ward employees left and reformed under Respawn.
And for the first time in long while, Keating and others weren't making a Call of Duty game.
"We were all throwing out random, cool ideas," he said. "We were leaning towards a sci-fi universe because that opened up more design space for us. We didn't know we were going to do giant robots or anything like that, but wanted to get away from the restrictions of what a lot of us had been doing earlier, which was the modern military setting."
The original germ of an idea came from a History Channel series called Life After People, which depicted what life on Earth would be like if human civilization suddenly disappeared. The show would regularly swap between the pristine nature of modern society and the decay that would set in when no one was left to maintain it. Keating was drawn to the stark contrast, and he pitched a level where players entered a facility after a space-time accident and tried to rescue a scientist from the past using a device that allowed you to leave your current timeline.
The accelerated and experimental nature of Titanfall's development, however, meant that Respawn didn't have time to build a proper single-player campaign. (Technically, Titanfall featured single-player elements, but they were sprinkled into the multiplayer. It was weird and didn't really work.)
So, Keating sat on his idea and waited until Titanfall 2 came around. In the early days of making Titanfall 2, Keating grabbed one of his old Titanfall multiplayer maps, made a "dirty" version of it, and worked with the team to develop the time swapping mechanic.
"I did some puzzles, did some combat encounters, just to show it had some design legs," he said. "Then we just played it and had a blast with it. People saw the potential."
It was important that people within Respawn saw the potential in "Effects And Cause," as finishing the level took longer than anything else that found its way into Titanfall 2. Whereas Keating focused on this one stage, other designers worked on two, three, or four other stages. "Effects And Cause" went through at least two major revisions before Titanfall 2 shipped, and due to its unique setup, required more people than usual to chip in and make sure it worked.
How it worked is what bugged me while playing the stage, too. When I asked about the technical tricks driving the mission, Keating paused for a moment, and inquired to the other person on the call whether he was allowed to reveal how they did it. Thankfully, he was.
"It's actually a lot simpler than a lot of people have theorized online," he said.
Keating and his team built two maps for "Effects And Cause"—one map for the present, another for the past. If you were to zoom out, you'd see the levels are literally stacked on top of one another. Getting this right required a ton of tweaking; early on, it was easy to swap timelines and end up in a room that didn't exist, if the map designs were just slightly off.
"The past is on the top and the present is on the bottom," he said, "and what I'm essentially doing is making sure that those two levels line up perfectly. […] Every time you use the device—whether you're walking, running, wall running, or mid-jump—I just teleport you the exact distance to the other level."
Another reason the level took so much time is because of concerns over whether people would get it. "Effects And Cause" does very little handholding with the player, allowing them to figure out the various ways to use time manipulation. This part stressed Keating out for years.
"We have these focus tests very early on. No matter what state your level is in, it's going to get played by someone off the streets," said Keating. "It gets kind of stressful because you're surrounded by your peers and you're watching this guy not know what to do. He's stuck and he's at a dead end and he doesn't know what to do. You just want to overcompensate and handhold him like crazy and throw up tutorial messages, or have BT chime in with 'Hey, pilot, I bet if you did this, this would happen!' It's really hard to resist that temptation."
Keating was able to resist that temptation because major parts remained in flux for lengthy periods of time. Respawn tends to leave levels in an unfinished state, as Keating put it, "probably longer than we should, probably longer than the audio guys and the artists would like." But this process allows Keating to go in and make both sweeping and subtle changes to the level without having to suddenly tell other teams their art or sound work has been trashed.
There's a section of the stage, for example, where players must quickly swap timelines to avoid being slashed up huge fans. In the final game, the timing feels juuuuust right, where you're narrowly avoiding death without feeling like the game is requiring ridiculous timing.
Clip courtesy of SG Gaming
"That particular spot was a good example of that," he said. "It was these placeholder fans that I'd created just out of simple geometry, and the room looked really ugly and had these grey textures. But it was all very simple, so things could be moved around really easily. So when a player mistimed a jump or something needed to be moved just a little bit to make it perfect, we were able to do that up until pretty late in the game, before we really had to just say 'Okay, we gotta lock this down so that the art team can make it beautiful.'"
Part of what makes "Effect And Cause" so delightful are these (and other) small touches.
Like the way a tiny blue flash stays behind when switching timelines, letting you know where enemies are located. "It actually came online really early, even back to that original [prototype]," he told me. "When you watch people play it, we end up not giving players enough credit; they end up figuring it out pretty quick intuitively and that's always kinda nice."
Or how it's the only stage with audio logs because of time travel jokes. "If you explore around," he said, "you'll find some funny nods—someone will say 'Wow, a vanguard class titan just appeared out of nowhere! What's going on?' Or someone else saying 'Oh, some guy with an advanced cloaking device just slaughtered a bunch of people by a set of elevator banks!' Later, the player would go on to those elevator banks and slaughter a whole squad of people."
But what's really crucial is that the game doesn't limit the player's imagination; there's no cooldown timer on the device that lets them switch time. "Having it for that one mission," he said, "ends up putting you in a situation where, by the time people have figured out how to exploit it, or how to truly game it, or god forbid, it becomes boring, we take it away and leave you wanting more. It sorta ends up solving itself by being in a small, discrete mission like that."
That's definitely how I felt when "Effect And Cause" ended: I wanted more.
Though "Effect And Cause" is certainly a highlight of Titanfall 2, it's one of many in what's quickly becoming one of this year's most overlooked games. Play it! And whether we get another Titanfall or not, stages like this suggest we have plenty look forward to from Respawn.