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  • Subverting Player Expectation Part II

    [04.13.21]
    - Pete Ellis

  • Giving context after the event

    I was dismayed at the test results, so Alex and I went and talked to Anthony about what had happened, to see if he had any thoughts; I'd been working on it for so long I needed a fresh pair of eyes, and ears.  I explained how I thought it was important to give context prior to an event happening so it didn't feel unfair and too out of the blue.  He listened to my theory and guidelines that I had previously come up with and gave some great feedback.  I think I had mentally ‘ticked off' working more on the context after the ambush during my work early on in the blockmesh phase.  This was where I had moved the reward room to be the last section the player passes on the way out of the space, and I had felt that I didn't need to revisit it again.  Not only was his feeling that I'd focused too much on the prior context and my newest rule of the importance of prior context, but he had a great bit of insight.  He suggested it was more important to show the reason that something had happened after the event had occurred, as players would struggle to think back to before an interesting event.  This was especially important if the event involved combat, as that's great for wiping players' memories as it takes all the attention away from the previous situation.

    We discussed it at great length, throwing ideas back and forth, and with this post-event focus in mind, we leant heavily into emphasising the post context, and included some more elements to make it even clearer.  I went back to my artist, Ben Springer, and begged him for some alterations, but thankfully he not only understood the reasoning, he also offered great suggestions for stronger visual sells.

    The elements we included to help players realise what had happened - that the enemy had heard the player enter, went and hid in the locked room and then ambushed the player when their back was turned - were:

    • Opening the locked door outwards, rather than inwards, so it acted like a funnel for players into the newly opened room when they were exiting the apartment down the main corridor.  We also added a new element on the back of the door; a hanging green towel that grabbed the player's eye and further showed the door was in a different state, as the towel couldn't have been seen from the other side when it was locked.

    • Lured players to the open door with shiny pickups, something that hadn't been there previously.  Pickups are also great breadcrumbing to ensure players take desired routes.

    • We had environmental storytelling that the enemies had all been sleeping in one room, and thus why there were 4 of them

    • We added a note inside the room which further explained that they were deserters from the WLF and had been hiding in that apartment to avoid being found by soldiers who had been sent by Isaac (the head of the WLF) to find them.  Additionally, a note that you could pick up from the last infected in the bar encounter, a few gameplay beats earlier on the same street, linked to finding these deserters.  The infected had been the WLF soldiers sent to find these deserters and they had ambushed you assuming you were after them.  This was also mentioned by Aofie Wilson in her preview for Eurogamer, saying: "What was even more interesting is that what we found in that building had been previously hinted at by a letter dropped by an infected earlier in our playthrough."

    All these elements strengthened the context given after the ambush to explain what had happened, which is important for my original rule of making the subversion clear and concise to avoid confusion and maintain the drama.  They were really successful in creating the desired player experience and it was a pleasure to then see every subsequent tester enter the room and proclaim "Ah!  So THIS is where they were hiding!" before claiming their reward of an upgrade manual, sat nicely in front of them at the foot of the bed.

    Conclusion

    My original article on subverting player expectation had 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 during my talk at Develop I 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

    I tried to push this new guideline of prior context as far as possible in the development of "The Last of Us Part II" and I found that I went too far and crossed the line into foreshadowing, completely ruining the intended experience.  From testing the results and discussing with Anthony and Alex I wanted to add this new guideline/rule:

    • The most important context to give for an event is after it has happened, rather than before it happens.  This is because players will find it harder to think back to before an engaging event that grabs their attention, than to experience any context afterwards.  This is especially important if there is combat involved as it is good at wiping people's memories as to what had previously happened.

    I hope this has been insightful and useful for anyone interested in subverting a mechanic in their work.  I look forward to playing any future games that pleasantly take me by surprise and create an impactful drama that strengthens the game's world and narrative through gameplay.

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