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.
By the way, if you’re interested in playing these yourself and haven’t done so, SPOILERS are most definitely ahead!
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. 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.
However, they still had fun, even though the subversions confronted them with unanticipated challenges.
Case Study Subversions:
Until Dawn: twitch reactions, targeting
Life Is Strange: non-explorer play styles
SOMA: healing and enemy behavior
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.”
*I’m aware that there’s controversy over this name. I’m using it because it is the most widely known.
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 fighting 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 the “level of violence.” During the True Pacifist Route, the player-character earns no execution points, so the 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.