Contrary Game Design: Subverting Player Expectations Part Three: Please Don’t Break the Player
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Potential Problems with Subversion
Contrary game design has the potential to give players new perspectives by placing them in unexpected gameplay scenarios. Its intent can confuse players if the design isn’t implemented carefully. An arbitrary subversion—or a poorly chosen time to subvert the mechanic—can convey unintended (and/or unwanted) messages.
Once again, watch out for SPOILERS!
“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 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.
Image courtesy of septicplier.tumblr.com
It’s possible that players’ internal moral codes dictate whether they believe they’ve done the right or wrong things. However, subversions shouldn’t manipulate player agency or dictate to players how they should play. 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 to catch monsters in Until Dawn or Life Is Strange’s common-sense notion that people can’t know some things 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 a character something based on that new information, and gain new knowledge.
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 developers.
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.
Next Up: Designing a hypothetical scenario using contrary game design.
[Crossposted at https://plumedeomnomnom.tumblr.com/]
 Markiplier. “BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER MADE: Until Dawn – Part 13.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Sept. 2015. Web. 7 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72cmuAjEjM4>.
 Markiplier. “BACK FROM THE DEAD: Until Dawn – Part 14.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Sept. 2015. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72cmuAjEjM4>.