|The Tenth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2015
|Group Report: Contrary Game Design: Subverting Player Expectations|
|Toiya Kristen Finley, Schnoodle Media, LLC|
|Ideas and feedback from: Dan Cook, Ian Schreiber, Michelle Clough, Jeff Pobst, Jonathan Hamel, Victor Jimenez, Steve Meretzky, and Heather Albano|
|download the PDF|
Mechanics Are Clichés Too!
In mid 2015, I began noticing games that were adding a “twist” to their gameplay. Traditional mechanics, mechanics that gamers were very familiar with, were leading to unexpected outcomes. So, I became curious as to the nature of these “twists,” the effects they had on gameplay, and—more importantly—the personal experiences players had to these unexpected outcomes.
We think of stories having clichés and over-familiar tropes, but as I thought more and more about these twists, I realized the games in question were treating mechanics and gameplay scenarios as clichés and putting unique spins on them.
Some design mechanics have evolved and continue to innovate. Some are so typical that they’re now clichés. Players know exactly how they work and exactly what they need to do in order to be successful. They have an instinctual response. They’ve experienced these mechanics so many times that they don’t have to think about what they’re doing. So, if an undead horde spawns and comes swarming towards them, they’re going to press buttons in a twitch reaction to defeat them. If there’s something lying on the ground, they’re going to interact with it to loot it or examine it.
Additionally, scenarios have become cliché, and players can expect the outcome. For example, the world is in crisis. The player, the hero, is needed to immediately save the people from imminent death—but the hero can explore the town and chat up as many NPCs as they wish before getting to the world-saving business at hand. They’re not in any rush because the game allows them to explore before they progress to the next task or mission.
See? Typical mechanics and scenarios.
And there’s nothing wrong with these mechanics and scenarios being typical with very expected outcomes. However, because players are so well versed in them, there’s now the opportunity to do the unexpected with them.
The Definition of Contrary Game Design
There are games that use the subversion of mechanics or scenarios to troll players, or gameplay experiences like Spoiler Alert that are upfront about the subversion of their mechanics. Thus, it becomes clear quickly that contrary game design needs a definition to distinguish what it is not, as much as what it is:
The Case for Contrary Game Design
The potential for “throwing players curve balls,” for confronting them with outcomes they’re not expecting, is immense. Serious and educational games might use contrary game design as a learning tool. Simulations and other games used for training or teaching techniques might alter patterns or disrupt routines—things don’t always go according to plan, so players shouldn’t expect them to.
Providing players with Good Ol’ Entertainment Value in new experiences is reason enough, but beyond that...
Anticipating Player Behaviors
In order to subvert a mechanic, we need to understand how players approach them. A player’s understanding of a mechanic can change ever so slightly depending on the genre. This also means that if players are not familiar with a certain genre, the subversion of a gameplay scenario or mechanic typical to that genre will be lost on them.
Looking at the meanings of mechanics and scenarios can help us anticipate what players will expect. Mechanics, systems, and scenarios symbolize real-world actions and behaviors, becoming metaphors of them. Here are only a few:
Metaphors of Mechanics/What Mechanics Represent
I first became interested in what I’m defining as contrary game design when playing the following games and watching others play them. Each game has a unique take on subverting clichés.
Until Dawn plays with classic horror movie tropes, tasking the player with trying to save (or not) six teenagers trapped on a harsh, snowy mountain with monsters. It subverts two mechanics: environment interaction and twitch mechanics.
While most environment interactions help players gather information that will help the playable characters survive later hostile encounters or introduce them to lore, they’ll find that they shouldn’t just touch anything. There’s a trap set in one of the locations. If players have Mike interact with it, then Mike will get his fingers caught in a bear trap. This isn’t simply a “gotcha!” to penalize player curiosity. In the context of the world’s conflict, its existence makes sense. It’s a trap to catch wendigos, one of the game’s antagonists. That Mike can become injured is a logical circumstance born from the world’s conflict. It’s also contrary game design in that players are not used to player-characters suffering injuries during exploration and interacting with the environment.
One of Until Dawn’s themes is keeping nature in balance or throwing nature out of balance. Attacking non-hostile animals throws nature out of balance, making them hostile towards the player-characters or causing nature to retaliate against them in other ways. Early in the game, a crosshairs icon pops up on a squirrel, giving the player the choice to shoot it or not. This is quickly followed by the choice to hit a bird with a snowball. Later, a herd of deer surround a couple of characters, whose backs are to a cliff. The crosshairs icon pops up on the deer closest to the playable character (Matt) here, giving the player the chance to attack.
While the mechanics are the same, the three instances are set up differently. At a shooting range, the player is given the option of shooting a bottle or the squirrel. With the bird, the game introduces the idea that players don’t always have to react. Here, the bird is the only target, unlike the squirrel. The game even tells players that sometimes it’s best to do nothing. Finally, the deer is a completely different scenario. The herd can come across as threatening. The Emily and Matt are already in a precarious position. When the crosshairs appear, players may respond for several reasons: 1) they don’t realize the deer won’t harm Matt and Emily, and that they could die if they attack; 2) they’ve forgotten that they don’t have to attack, especially when they’re under pressure; 3) they want to attack the deer anyway.
In most playthroughs I watched, no one hurt the animals. However, that good old twitch reaction got a couple to attack the deer. They didn’t want to attack. It was an instinctual response to the appearance of the crosshairs.
Life Is Strange
At the heart of graphic adventure game Life Is Strange is exploration—something a lot of players aren’t interested in. If they do explore, they’re usually not thorough. Even players who want to explore everything often miss interactions, locations, and items. Maxine Caufield, the player-character, is characterized as nosy because she’s always going through people’s things. Here, Max’s characterization is used as a bit of narrative design to explain one of the game’s fundamental mechanics, and an essential mechanic in all adventure games, at that. If people are always exploring—poking around through someone else’s things, checking around in the environment as Max does—wouldn’t they be nosy?
But her nosiness is also a way to emphasize the importance of exploration. As is true in real life, if you don’t find crucial information, you may end up with unintended consequences. Finding the right information could be lifesaving. At the end of Life Is Strange, Episode 2, players are confronted with whether they’ve gathered enough information. If they’ve done enough snooping around, if they’ve had extensive conversations with the right NPCs, they can save another character’s life. If they haven’t, well...
We learn that good design takes into account all player types. All players need to experience the critical path’s crucial information. While developing Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2’s story, Evan Skolnick and Jonathan Mintz created a taxonomy of player types to describe how they’ll most likely experience the critical path: “‘skippers’...blow through the game; ‘dabblers’...stop and enjoy content if it’s presented well, and ‘explorers’...find everything the game has to offer.” Therefore, as we’ve been taught, content needs to be presented in a way that skippers and dabblers can enjoy it. Life Is Strange eschews the notion that skippers and dabblers need to be given crucial information.
I follow several Let’s Players. After I played Episode 2, I was pretty sure how their Episode 2 playthroughs were going to end, based on their play styles. I was right—except for one, and that’s because he made a lucky guess when given a choice between two answers. The explorers saved the character’s life. The non-explorers (skippers and dabblers) did not.
When Episode 3 was released, the non-explorers changed their behavior. They made sure to interact more with the environment and go through conversations with NPCs. That gameplay result, the responsibility for an NPC’s death, altered their play styles.
Most of SOMA’s monsters and bosses are nearly blind and attracted by noise. Before players reach Site Theta, they can evade monsters by sneaking and keeping their distance. If player-character Simon becomes injured, he can interact with pods. These pods cause a momentary power drain, as lights dim and machines whir down. However, at Theta, there are three “proxies” who are highly sensitive to sound. Even the act of healing Simon can attract them. This makes sense. If healing makes a noise, then creatures sensitive to noise should be drawn to it.
When Simon is injured, he moves more slowly. The screen shakes, and his vision is impaired. He has no way to defend himself and can only evade proxies by hiding from them, sneaking around them, or running from them. Oh, did I mention the proxies at Theta are also a lot faster than the others? Running may not save you, even if you’re at full strength. So, now healing at Theta may lead to Simon’s death. Changing the behavior of the proxies at Theta keeps them from being the same as all the other hostile NPCs at other sites. This forces the player to come up with new strategies to escape, and it intensifies the overall experience.
When the players’ expectations were flipped upside down, they were momentarily frustrated.
Case Study Subversions:
Until Dawn: twitch reactions, targeting
The Meaning Behind the Mechanics
Subversion Needs Purpose
Subversion for the sake of subversion is unproductive. While it can be fun, there’s nothing to take away from it. There’s no learning experience, whether what’s learned is “I can come up with a new strategy to beat this level” or “I can develop a new strategy to solve this problem at work.”
As I mentioned earlier, mechanics have underlying metaphors. Scenarios have specific problems that need to be resolved. We can use those metaphors and problems to give our subversive mechanics meaning, as is the case in Toby Fox’s Undertale.
Undertale: Literalizing Metaphors
Talking It Out
Undertale is a traditional RPG in many ways, but it’s turn-based combat system offers a twist—the choice not to be combative. The player-character, a young child who’s trapped within a world of monsters, can fight the monsters or talk to them. The player-character can still be injured, but the fight doesn’t end with the monster’s death. If we’re giving this a real-world analogue, we can say that sometimes we have to talk through difficult situations, understanding the person we’ve come into contact with.
This isn’t a new idea, but it reinforces something out of life experiences. It provides an option to being combative and suggests that working through a difficult conflict is worth the cost to save a relationship.
Whether we’re trying to open up players to unfamiliar perspectives, to give them new challenges, or simply to entertain them, we should have specific reasons for subverting mechanics or scenarios. Otherwise, the subversion can feel arbitrary.
True Pacifist vs. Genocide Routes
Beyond giving players options to avoid fighting, Undertale’s contrary game design takes the core mechanics of RPGs and literalizes their metaphors. The “True Pacifist Route” is when the player chooses not to kill a single NPC or boss throughout the entire game. Monsters become friends and even allies, and the story reveals important lore and backstory. However, the player can also choose to kill every single NPC and boss. This is known as the “Genocide Route.”
To complete the Genocide Route successfully, players have to grind by killing every monster in an area before proceeding to fight that area’s boss. This is grinding with a twist: it’s not just figting every monster in random encounters; it’s checking the save menu to see how many monsters are left alive in that area walking around to force a random encounter, and then making sure all of the monsters there are dead. The result is that monsters will evacuate other locations and flee to safety. Monsters who are left will comment upon the player-character’s murderous behavior.
Plenty of games have grinding, where players can kill many NPCs in an area. But the remaining NPCs won’t comment upon it or act like the player-character isn’t a hero. For all intents and purposes, grinding is genocidal (fictionally speaking of course, as genocide should not be taken lightly). Undertale’s Genocide Route even literalizes the leveling system as an accumulation of murderous acts—“LV” stands for “LOVE,” which is short for “level of violence,” not “level.” “EXP” doesn’t stand for “experience”; it’s “execution points.” The more “execution points” the player-character earns, the higher their “level of violence.” During the True Pacifist Route, the player-character earns no execution points, so their level of violence never increases.
It’s important to note that the game doesn’t judge the player for choosing the Genocide Route. The monsters respond logically to their friends and family being murdered, and the player is meant to get a sense of devastation in decimating the world. But the Genocide Route itself is there for players to experience another aspect of Undertale’s world. Players will see different aspects of character’s personalities, they’ll learn completely different backstory and lore than from the True Pacifist Route, and they’ll get easter eggs and in-jokes that aren’t available during the True Pacifist Route. Players have to run through the Genocide Route to get the complete story.
Undertale’s contrary game design uses the clichés of traditional RPG mechanics to create a unique experience in both its gameplay and story.
Potential Problems with Subversion
An arbitrary subversion—or a poorly chosen time to subvert the mechanic—can convey unintended messages.
“You’re Doin’ It Wrong”
Until Dawn doesn’t suggest a “right” way to play. In fact, there are achievements for saving all of the characters, saving all of the women only, saving all of the men only, and letting all of them die. However, some Let’s Players were getting a message that there was a “right” or “best” way to play. Markiplier, after a making a choice that got one character killed, decided that he would start over again to play the right way: “I’m going to start an entirely new game. I’m going to play through the whole game, and you know what? I’m going to play through it correctly. I’m gonna play through it the way that I’m supposed to play, now that I know what I’m supposed to do.” He also consulted a walkthrough on his next playthrough to make sure all of the playable characters survived.
It’s possible that players’ internal moral codes dictate whether they believe they’ve done the right or wrong things. However, subversions shouldn’t dictate to players how they should play or manipulate player agency. Once players think we’re telling them there’s a proper way to handle subversions, we’re robbing them of their unique gameplay experience. Whatever they take away from the mechanic’s subversion is lost with it.
We shouldn’t potentially come across as preachy or that we’re giving them the “right” answer, especially if the goal is to teach a new technique or skill, or provide a glimpse into another perspective. We should let players bring their own insights to their experiences with the subversions.
Additionally, when a game has multiple endings, we might rethink “bad” or “good” endings that could come across as judging the players’ choices or suggesting how “well” they played the game. While Until Dawn can end with every single playable character dead, the game makes it clear that this is a perfectly acceptable conclusion to the story by offering the “This Is THE End” achievement.
Players can also feel they’re being trolled when they’re expecting one thing, another happens, and the players end up feeling manipulated. If players expect that they can take their sweet time before they have to go and save the world, and the game says, “Nope! Now everyone’s dead because you took too long,” they can feel punished because they weren’t given a warning.
Contrary game design shouldn’t feel like it’s punishing players or catching them in “Oops! Gotcha!” moments, surprise for the sake of surprise. Subversions should feel logical and that there’s a reason for their existence, such as the trap in Until Dawn or Life Is Strange using the common-sense notion that people can’t know something unless they go searching for information.
An entire game can subvert all of its mechanics and scenarios, like Undertale. However, it might be best to map out when to use these subversions. (In Undertale’s case, the effectiveness of the Genocide Route is lost if a player chooses to kill potential allies before getting to know and care about them during the True Pacifist or even Neutral [selective killing] Routes.) Subversion can only be a surprise when it’s unanticipated. If it happens too often, players can get used to them and slip into similar instinctual responses, as they do with clichéd mechanics and scenarios.
Reinforce the Subversion
While playing Life Is Strange, non-explorers wanted to get as much information as they could once they understood the potential consequences they might have faced. After the harrowing end to Episode 2, several non-explorer Let’s Players were more conscious of exploring in Episode 3 and said things like “I want to make sure I don’t miss anything” before progressing. By Episode 4, the skippers and dabblers were back to their normal behaviors and play styles. There was no major event to reinforce the importance of exploration.
Life Is Strange has a “rewind time” mechanic as well. It’s often used to keep characters from being seriously injured or killed, but it can be used to rewind conversations and try out new dialogue choices. The mechanic is particularly useful in conversations when players learn new information, can rewind to ask the character something based on that new information, and gain new insight.
Earlier episodes remind players of the ways the mechanic can be used and why they’re helpful. Episode 5, however, doesn’t mention anything about the mechanic. Some non-explorers may not have explored anyway. However, since the episodes were released months apart, mentioning the feature again would have reminded them of the choice to rewind or not.
Until Dawn has a similar problem. Some players might choose to harm animals. However, because most players are used to twitch reactions, they might press a button to attack instinctually when they don’t mean to. Early on, the game instructs that players don’t always have to react, but the reminder would have been helpful later. We have to remember that instinctual responses are ingrained. Players are going to fall back into old patterns of behavior if there’s not some kind of communication to get their attention.
Feedback systems can be designed in order to guide players out of their patterns and learned responses. Text on the screen every once in a while is helpful, but there can be more elegant ways of doing this.
Immediate Feedback: Good or Bad Consequences
A good reinforcement occurs through the gameplay itself. If players connect an immediate result to their actions, they can decide if they want that result to happen again. This is true in Life Is Strange when players who didn’t care to explore made it a priority as a direct result of Episode 2’s ending.
In turn, attacking the deer in Until Dawn gets Matt walked off the edge of a cliff. Based on the player’s skill and execution of the quick time event, Matt will fall to his death or manage to pull himself back up.
The environment itself may respond to the player’s behavior. In SOMA when the player-character heals himself, lights dim and flicker. If players are conscious of the monsters around them and that healing could sound an alarm, they might wait to heal.
The electronics around the player-character also make noise when the player-character heals in SOMA. Sound alerts the proxies.
Music and sound effects can convey the emotional tone of happiness, it can be discordant, or it can change slightly to suggest a state change. In Undertale’s Genocide Route, the soundtrack switches to a macabre and creepy track when the player has killed all of the monsters in an area.
Ambient Dialogue (Characters/Creatures Respond)
Other characters can respond to a player’s actions, whether they approve or disapprove. We should be careful, however, to not make it seem as if these characters are stand-ins for the designers.
Physical Rendering of Mechanics
A visual can show players the options they have right in front of them, like the crosshairs appearing on the animals on Until Dawn. Health and attack meters can also suggest that players can choose to attack NPCs or creatures.
Developing the Concept of Contrary Game Design
This is a beginning in exploring the concept of “contrary game design.” The benefits of contrary game design in games and extending into real-world applications haven’t begun to be exhausted. Contrary game design can be applied to different genres and their mechanics, systems, and scenarios, and its application may be a learning tool for skill development, behavior modification, and rethinking strategies or situations.
The following worksheets provide designers brainstorming questions to think through their contrary game design. An example of a completed worksheet for a hypothetical scenario using contrary game design follows.
How to avoid “right” and “wrong” responses/choices?
How to avoid “right” and “wrong” responses/choices?
“Do You Really Want to Go Home?” Scenario Worksheet
How to avoid “right” and “wrong” responses/choices?
“Do You Really Want to Go Home’s?” Scenario Fleshed Out
After working on the report the first day at Horseshoe, I designed the scenario to help inform the content of this paper. This scenario takes place in a high-fantasy RPG.
The player-character is from a land inhabited by three ethnic groups. Before their homeland was occupied by a race of sorcerers, these ethnicities had been in conflict with each other off and on throughout the ages. However, with a common enemy and facing the same oppression, the ethnic groups have started to try to work together to overthrow their colonizers. They have not come close to being successful.
The sorcerers have robbed the land of their resources, and all of the ethnic groups live in extreme poverty. The sorcerers flaunt their wealth and always carry lots of money on them.
Hoping to make at least a little money, the player-character has traveled far from home to look for work in order to send what little is earneds back home.
At the beginning of the scenario, the player-character has traveled back to their homeland. Both of their very small children have almost died recently of starvation. The player-character is desperate to get home and be with them.
On the road to home, the player-character is faced with several pathways. The pathways will lead them either to a couple of NPCs, each of whom belong to the other two ethnic groups of the land, or sorcerers who are oppressing them.
The player-character is weaker in health and attack power than both sets of NPCs. There is a path that leads to a potion that will increase the player-character’s attack stats. This will make them strong enough to kill the sorcerers.
“Do You Really Want to Go Home?”: Gameplay Scenarios
Your homeland has been colonized. Your homeland is inhabited by three cultures. You used to fight amongst yourselves, but you’ve found unity in oppression. You have tried to overthrow your colonizers together. You have only been subjected to even greater cruelty.
The oppressors in this land are a race of sorcerers. They flaunt their wealth while they steal your resources, and your peoples starve. Just last year, you left home for a faraway land to find work. What little you make you send home.
You received word that your two young children almost died recently from starvation. You are desperate to get home and be with them. You are nearly there. You can see your home just off in the distance.
Ethnic Group NPC Scenario
You come upon Green and Orange. They’re joyous to see you, although they’re strangers. “The gods have sent you!” they say. They are supplicants of their gods. “One of us must be sacrificed. That spilled blood will finally bring us freedom!”
“We can’t decide whose blood that should be. We asked the gods to send someone to decide. The gods have sent you.”
“I’ve been young and stupid,” says Green. “Let this be my repentance for how I’ve treated your people.”
Choose to sacrifice Orange. Choose to sacrifice Green. Or Choose neither.
As [Green’s/Orange’s] blood muddies the dirt, Green/Orange rejoices. You make your way home.
You don’t wish to see either die. You tell them you must get home to your children.
“Your selfishness will not rob of us of our liberty! You will choose, or die!” they say.
Enemy Sorcerer Scenario
The sorcerers call out to you, “Well, now! Don’t you look like a right weakling!” The diamonds in their dagger hilts catch the sun and blind you.
Attack the Sorcerers. Talk to Sorcerers.
Attack Without Buffer
Your anger robs you of your good sense. The sorcerers immediately strike you down. Terror wracks you as you realize your family will find your corpse.
Attack With Buffer
A supernatural surge overwhelms you. You strike down the sorcerers. You gift your family with a bag of gold.
Talk to Sorcerers
The sorcerers fill you with dread and anger. “I only want to return to my family,” you say. “My children have nearly starved to death, thanks to you. They need me.”
The sorcerers look at each other, then back at you. “We haven’t seen home in years. We will be killed if we try to return to our families.”
“Do you really want to go home?” they ask.
Yes. Of course. That’s more important than your next breath.
They grab your hand and teleport you to your door.
 Nutt, Christian. “GDC Austin: Storytelling in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2.” Gamasutra. United Business Media., 15 Sept. 2009. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/116206/GDC_Austin_Storytelling_in_Marvel_Ultimate_Alliance_2.php>.
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