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  • Subverting Player Expectation Part II

    - Pete Ellis
  • In March 2016, whilst working at Guerrilla Cambridge, I wrote an article titled ‘Subverting Player Expectation' which was a discussion about making a game engaging and impactful by altering established mechanics and gameplay.  This focused on examples from the original "The Last of Us" and "Batman: Arkham Knight".

    My original article on subverting player expectation raised these points:

    • You should have established a pattern before considering subverting the pattern
    • You should not foreshadow the event, otherwise it makes it predictable and removes the potential for drama
    • The reveal of the subversion must be clear, concise and sudden to avoid any confusion and maintain the drama

    I continued with this subject and did a talk at Develop in Brighton, in the UK, later the same year and furthered my thinking with this additional guideline/rule:

    • You should give context before the event so that the player doesn't feel cheated by something that doesn't fit into the world

    Shortly after I gave this talk, and now 4 years ago, in March 2017, I was lucky enough to join the incredible team at Naughty Dog and work on my dream game, "The Last of Us Part II" as a Designer.  Furthermore, I was fortune enough to get an opportunity to create something of my own that subverted expectation, where I could implement my previous thoughts and findings from the original article.

    It is particularly exciting that I get to create a follow up article using some of my own work (the original article was about the inspiring work of others) as I discovered some new things that I wanted to add in order to further a conversation on the topic.

    WARNING: This contains spoilers for "The Last of Us Part II".

    If you don't recognize this street (below) I would recommend not reading this article just yet.

    If you do recognise the street, but don't recognise this optional building, then I wouldn't read the article just yet if you don't want spoilers.

    If you recognise the optional building, but don't recognise specifically this workbench, then please stop reading until you've played this section, unless you're fine with this event being spoiled!

    Level Brief

    I worked on 4 levels in "The Last of Us Part II", one of which was called ‘The Seraphites' where Ellie left the theatre by herself in search of a character named Nora whom she wanted to exact revenge on.  I had a brief for this level that Ellie should feel alone as she had left Dina behind in the theatre and we wanted to emphasise what Ellie would sacrifice in order to pursue revenge.

    I started to think about ways I could emphasise the player's loneliness through game mechanics as I believe the strongest way to tell a story is through engagement with the gameplay mechanics and the gameplay beats themselves; a particular strong point of Naughty Dog games.

    I thought about the mechanics we had that involved a buddy character and how I could use them to make the player directly feel firsthand the drawback of being by themselves.  I initially thought about showing a ‘buddy boost' opportunity to reach a higher ledge that the player couldn't use on their own, which would require a dumpster to progress, which then led me into thinking about how I could emphasise loneliness in a puzzle.  The physics dumpster puzzle was created as a twist on the buddy mechanic of opening a garage door together.

    This was a good starting point, but I felt like one moment wasn't enough, so I looked for other opportunities throughout the level where I could keep referring back to the brief of emphasising loneliness.


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