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  • Subverting Player Expectation Part II

    [04.13.21]
    - Pete Ellis

  • The inspiration of an idea

    One of the aspects I loved about the original "The Last of Us" was the backpack menu and how it didn't pause the game.  It was perfect for keeping the tension raised during combat as the player could be attacked at any moment; it is such a simple but elegant feature that upholds the game's core pillars, even during its menus.

    I had an idea from thinking about this tense menu experience and how it could also be extended out to the workbench menu as well, as this also didn't pause the game when the player was using it.  I felt there was an opportunity to emphasise loneliness by creating an impact through subversion, as if I interrupted the player in this menu it was still consistent with the rules of the Last of Us world and game mechanics.

    My idea was to ambush the player during the workbench upgrade menu so that it would support two aspects.  The first was for referring back to the brief of emphasising loneliness; if the player wasn't alone, Dina would have been able to warn or protect Ellie and she wouldn't have been ambushed whilst her back was turned.  The second was that it emphasised that you were never safe in the Last of Us Part II world; you should always be on your toes and tense about whether you're ever safe.  I've read many a tweet from people saying they didn't feel safe at a workbench after this encounter, and despite it being stressful for players, it meant to us that it was successful - our world was supposed to be tense throughout.

    One menu I knew I didn't want to touch was the pause menu; that should be used when people want to pause the game so they don't need to interact with it.  I particularly wanted to make sure that the ambush happened within the first few seconds of going into the workbench menu so that it accounted for players who assumed it was ‘paused' in the traditional sense.  This was because if they took their attention away from the game momentarily, the ambush would happen within a short enough time that they would still be able to react to the game, even if that action was just to pause the game for real.

    Established pattern

    I wanted the player to go into an apartment that was currently being occupied, take all the items from these people, then get ambushed whilst Ellie's back was turned and she was vulnerable; something that wouldn't have happened had Dina been with her.  I didn't want it to just be a random jump scare out of nowhere, but rather subverting player expectation of a learnt mechanic (the workbench upgrade menu) in order to create a memorable moment that strengthened the Last of Us Part II world and narrative through gameplay.

    One of the rules that I discussed in my first article was:  

    • You should have established a pattern before considering subverting the pattern

    My original article talked about 3 being the smallest pattern you can have, so the earliest time you could consider subverting expectation was on the 4th interaction with the pattern.  This workbench was the 8th workbench at that point in the game, so it was well within the established pattern rule.  At this stage players had also got complacent that the workbenches were ‘safe', so it was a good place to introduce something that would ensure they were engaged.

    Initial Development

    I knew that to have the biggest impact when pitching this event it had to be playable.  To give someone the desired reaction from subverting their expectation of a learned mechanic they needed to experience it first hand.  The safest course of action would have been to pitch it on paper first, but I knew this wouldn't have anywhere near the impact I was aiming for in the final game.

    I did the very risky thing, and usually not recommended, of asking people on the team to invest time and effort into work that hadn't been approved.  I approached my scripter and my animator on this section at the time, Banun Idris and Jonathan Cooper, and pitched to them my idea, what I wanted to achieve, why, and what I needed them to do to help me prototype it.  Luckily, they were both on board with the idea and keen to help as they thought it was really interesting and something worth testing, given how it supported the initial ‘loneliness' brief.  We also talked to Derek Mattson, the scripter on the workbenches, and he supported us too by providing us with a unique workbench that would show the initial menus, but let us run a custom ambush setup afterwards.

    I created a small environment that was a hide-out inside an abandoned office building.  It had evidence of people living there, such as hanging clothes and repurposed structures like makeshift toilets and tents.  It had lots of scavenge items including parts to use at the workbench.  I asked some other designers to play it and act exactly as they would if it were the real game; pick up ingredients, craft items, upgrade weapons at workbenches and upgrade player abilities with any upgrade manuals.  I was getting great reactions for the ambush moment itself, so I knew I was on to something impactful, but the initial testing showed some interesting discoveries about how clear it was.

    Another one of the rules from my original article was:

    • The reveal of the subversion must be clear, concise and sudden to avoid any confusion and maintain the drama

    The ambush animation itself was very clear and very sudden; the player was grabbed by an enemy and entered into a button mash struggle that filled the screen.  It couldn't be missed and it was very understandable as to what was happening.  Nobody had any issues understanding what was happening in the moment, but after the attack was completed there were confusion issues.

    People were spending time clearing the area completely before using the workbench, and so when they were ambushed they were confused about where the enemy had come from.  I had added a hole in the roof near to the workbench from which, once the ambush had been triggered, there was a rope hanging.  The story was that the enemy had been hiding up in the roof and had pulled the rope up with them so no one could follow them, and thus the player couldn't initially get to them.  In order to get down to the workbench to ambush the player they'd let the rope down.  Once they were defeated the player could climb the rope to get into their hiding place and receive some bigger rewards, including an upgrade manual, so they didn't feel so hard done by from an attack, given the valuable item they received as a result.

    I had moved the camera to face the rope during the ambush and had enemies coming from that direction, but I found players were either getting turned around during combat, pushing further into the environment to give themselves some breathing room, or naturally moving around the environment during combat, so that by the time the fight was over they had left the rope behind and missed the reward area altogether.  This led me to make the reward area a room that was further away from the workbench and subsequently the last thing to pass on the way out of the space.  This positioning remained as it is in the final game with the open door to further encourage players to find the room and make the discovery.

    I had also locked the door before the ambush in the final game so that when players tried to open it and found it locked, they'd understand that the entire space hadn't been cleared.  This helped people to realise after the ambush that as they hadn't cleared the whole apartment they'd left people alive in the locked room, even if they couldn't have done anything about it - apart from laying trap mines down outside the door for super cautious players!

    When we made new hires during the project, my scripter on this section, Banun, moved to a different level and I was then teamed up with Alex Stewart for the last 18 months of the level's development.  He scripted in the behaviour that if you lay trap mines either outside the locked door, along the corridor leading to the workbench, or just around the workbench itself, it will trigger a different scenario of blowing up the ambushers.  It's super satisfying and I love that we supported it for either cautious players, or second play throughs.

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