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  • Toiya Kristen Finley

Contrary Game Design: Subverting Player Expectations Part Four: My Process for Contrary Game Design

In case you missed them:

I designed the following scenario to help inform the paper I wrote at Project Horseshoe (which informs the content of this series). I developed a process of thinking through the scenario to take advantage of contrary game design’s strengths, and to avoid its weaknesses:

The 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 earned 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.

Potential Outcomes:

• The player can choose the path leading to the two members of the other ethnic groups. This will automatically gain them the attack boost. The members of the other ethnic groups will tell the player-character that they are supplicants, and one must be sacrificed to end the sorcerers’ tyranny. However, they will leave that fate up to the gods. They believe the gods have brought the player-character to make that decision. The player can choose who dies or choose neither. If the player chooses neither, the NPCs will tell the player-character they will kill them if they don’t choose. After the player-character chooses, they make their way home.

• The player can choose the path leading to the sorcerers without getting the boost first. The player-character can choose to attack the sorcerers or talk to them. If the player-character tries to attack, they will die. If they talk to the sorcerers, they will discover that the sorcerers sympathize with them because they are not allowed to return home to see their families—they will be killed if they try. The sorcerers teleport the player-character home to be with their family.

• If the player-character gets the boost and then approaches the sorcerers, they can choose to attack them or talk to them. If they attack, they will kill the sorcerers, loot their money, and take that money home to their family. If they talk to the sorcerers, the sorcerers will teleport them home as above, but they player-character will not loot their money.

Here’s my design process using the scenario worksheet above:

How to avoid “right” and “wrong” responses/choices?

Give players several pathways (choices) to get home. Players may never see all of the choices and may be satisfied with their choice.

Players can attack enemy NPCs, kill them, and loot them without knowing enemy NPCs will empathize with them and teleport them home.

“Do You Really Want to Go Home?”: Gameplay Scenarios

Trashcan-as-potion provided by Balsamiq Mockups.

The Script

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.


• Choose a path. • Make choices. • Attack or talk. • Loot.

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 had a good, long life,” says Orange. “My children and grandchildren are ready to release me.”

“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 the 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.

Final Thoughts and Special Thanks

I’m curious to see where future examples of contrary game design go. There’s great potential in subverting the design and narrative tropes to which players have become accustomed. I think players are eager for these experiences, as Undertale, Life Is Strange, and SOMA were well received.

I want to thank the following designers for their ideas and feedback. They helped to shape the content of this series:

Dan Cook, Ian Schreiber, Michelle Clough, Jeff Pobst, Jonathan Hamel, Victor Jimenez, Steve Meretzky, and Heather Albano for their ideas and feedback.

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