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What’s up designers, welcome back to Rempton Games. One of the main things that separates games from other forms of entertainment is interactivity — the player has some power to guide the experience, although the exact amount of control can vary from game to game. This interactivity can be a huge benefit to games, as it can draw players in and make them feel much more immersed and invested in the characters and world of the game than a passive experience, like watching a film, ever could. However, it can also present some unique challenges from a design and storytelling perspective.
A film director has influence over every single frame of a film — from how it is shot, to how it is edited, what type of music is included, post-processing, visual effects, and more. A game designer, on the other hand, does not have this same level of control over the experience, because they are giving up some amount of that control to the player. While a director can decide where there characters go, what they do, and where the camera is pointing, in a game all of those decisions belong to the player, and each game will player’s experience will be different — sometimes drastically so.
Most of the time, this is a very good thing. But occasionally there will be points where, in order to improve the experience of the game, designers need to take back a bit of control — without the players necessarily realizing that it’s happening. Maybe this is a mechanic that doesn’t quite work how you think it does, or an entire system that runs quietly in the background. It is these unsung heroes that are the topic of today’s video — without further ado, let’s get started.
#10 — Paranormal Activity (Pac-Man)
While these mechanics aren’t necessarily “ranked” in any particular order, I did want to start with one of the oldest and most well-known examples of a “hidden mechanic” — the behavior of the Ghost enemies in Pac-man. For a game that came out in 1980, the Ghost behavior is actually surprisingly complex. Each of the four ghosts — Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, have different “personalities”, and actually behave differently during gameplay. Blinky, the red ghost, simply attempts to follow behind Pac-man, while Pinky, the pink ghost, will attempt to get in front of Pac-man to surround him. Clyde, the orange ghost, will follow Pac-man but will run away to his home corner if Pac-man gets too close. Finally, the blue ghost, Inky, has a very erratic behavior that seems to cycle through the behavior of the other ghosts — sometimes following, sometimes getting in front, sometimes running away.
In addition, the ghosts aren’t always even trying to chase Pac-man, but actually alternate between chasing and “scattering”. When chasing they all behave as previously described, but when scattering they simply run away to their home corners, giving Pac-man a bit of a breather. While this behavior might not seem too impressive to modern gamers, it really did stand out at the time and is one of the earliest examples of a mechanic that is doing a lot more than it seems on the surface.
#9 Creepy Stalking (Amnesia)
While Pac-man may have been one of the first games to experiment with enemy AI, it was far from the last. One surprising example of this can be found in Amnesia: Dark Descent. Amnesia could be considered the game that kicked off the horror gaming revolution, and for good reason — it has some of the creepiest moments and enemies of any game. These enemies are disgusting to look at, can seem impossible to escape from, and it often feels like they are simply appearing out of nowhere.
It turns out that all of this is due to a very clever application of hidden mechanics, specifically regarding the behavior of these enemies. Instead of simply following the player around, these enemies actually have the goal of getting as close to the player as possible while staying outside of their line of site. They aren’t appearing out of nowhere, but they are specifically programmed to remain as unseen as possible until the moment when you turn around and OH GOD IT’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!
#8 — What Loading Screen? (Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland)
If you are into films, then you already know that one thing movie critics love is a good “one-er” — that is, a long scene or even an entire film that looks like it’s done in a single take. However, while occasionally those scenes actually were shot in a single take, more often they are simply edited together so smoothly that you can’t tell where the cuts are.
This desire to “hide the edits” is not only found in film, but in games too. Traditionally, moving from level to level requires a long loading screen while the game gets rid of old data and loads all of the new assets into memory. However, load screens tend to be boring and can grind the momentum of a game to a halt, so some designers try to “hide the edits” by loading without the player knowing that it’s happening. Sometimes this can be pretty obvious (like if you’ve basically ever ridden an elevator in a game it’s probably actually a loading screen), but other times it can be more subtle.
If done well, the game can trick the players into not even notice that the loading even happened. While there are many examples of this, I chose to highlight Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland because it’s lack of loading screens was actually a major selling point for this game. However, like any game it’s still necessary to load between levels, so how do they pull it off? It turns out that each level is connected with a “loading tunnel”, and the game can subtly control how long it takes to skate through the tunnel to allow the new level to finish loading by the time you get to the other side.
#7 — Fatal Attraction — (Half-Life 2)
While you might expect the laws of physics in a game to work similarly to real-life, often this isn’t the case. Designing a game world allows you to have complete control over every aspect of the world, including things like gravity. Gravity in games is often different from Earth for a number of reasons, most of which have to do with providing snappier, more responsive controls with less air-time.
Some games, however, get a little more creative with their gravity, such as having bullets slightly attracted to explosive objects to create more explosions. However, for this entry I want to highlight Half-Life 2. In this game enemies will become ragdolls after you kill them, and these ragdolls will be ever so slightly attracted to ledges and cliffs to fall off of. Why? Because it’s funny watching ragdolls flop around, that’s why! Do you need any other reason?
#6 Please Look Up (Portal)
Have you ever tried using somebody else’s computer, and found that when you tried to scroll the mouse the content didn’t move how you expected it to? It can be really difficult to adjust your brain to the new control scheme, and you may wonder why anybody would do it THAT way when the way YOU do it just makes so much more sense? It turns out that it’s just one of those things, like whether you wipe standing up or sitting down, that you intuitively do one way without even imagining the possibility that a whole bunch of people do things the opposite way.
Using an inverted control is another one of those things — you know intuitively how you think the camera should move when you flick the control stick, and nobody wants to have to dig through the control settings to fix it when the game gets it wrong. That’s why a number of games, such as Portal, secretly test the player’s Y-axis preference without them realizing it. Often this is done by simply asking the player to look up, and then setting the control scheme based on how the player responds. The player probably thinks the game is teaching them how to play, but they are actually teaching the game how it should behave!
#5 Perma-Death Threat (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice)
Death in games generally isn’t that frightening — when you die you’ll generally just respawn at the last save point, dust yourself off, and try again. However, not all games work this way. Some games have permanent death with no save points, and if you die you will have to start all the way back from the beginning. This mechanic is usually found in games like Rogue-likes, where the iterations are relatively short and each time you start over your experience will be a little bit different, and such a mechanic generally would not be found in, say, a 100 hour RPG. After all, no player would want to risk investing so much time only to lose it all and have to start over from the beginning.
This is why it was so shocking when the game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice introduced a feature that threatened to completely erase a player’s save file if they died too many times. This, in itself, was not a hidden mechanic — every time the player dies, Senua’s “dark rot” takes over more of her body, and it is clearly stated that if it reaches her head it is permanent “game over”.
In this case, the hidden mechanic is actually the absence of a mechanic — it turns out that it is actually impossible to die enough to cause permadeath in Senua’s Sacrifice. This isn’t a mistake or a bug — the designers never intended for this game to actually have permadeath — but they didn’t want the players to know that, as the mere threat of permanently losing your progress was enough to significantly increase the tension of the game.
#4 On the Edge of Death (Doom 2016)
Imagine this — you are fighting a boss, and you are pretty evenly matched. You have almost taken them down, but you only have a sliver of health left. If you take one more hit you are done for, but somehow you manage to stay one step ahead of them and are able to take them out just in the nick of time. How do you feel? Pretty good right! Maybe you even feel like a bit of a badass?
There is nothing that gets the adrenaline pumping more than narrowly escaping death with your last bit of health, which is why some games deliberately try to make these situations happen more often. How do they do this? By making your last sliver of health actually worth more than it appears. Players will assume that all parts of their health bar are equal — I take x amount of damage, and lose Y amount of health. However, behind the scenes it doesn’t necessarily work like this, and games can stack things in your favor to keep you just on the edge of death more often than not. While this mechanic can be found in several games, I want to highlight the new Doom remake because of just how well this hidden mechanic works to enhance the feeling of being a badass demon slayer.
#3 I Didn’t Have to Miss (Bioshock)
If narrowly avoiding death is something to be encouraged in games, then it makes sense that the opposite is something that should be avoided. In this case, that would be getting killed from full health out of nowhere before you even have a chance to respond. Nobody likes getting shot by an enemy you can’t see, or getting attacked from behind by an enemy you didn’t know was there.
To avoid this, some games such as Bioshock ensure that an enemies first shot at the player will always miss, to give the player time to realize that they are being shot at. This gives players just enough warning to try and locate the enemy and protect themselves BEFORE getting gunned down.
#2 Wiley Coyote Jumps (Celeste)
There is a common gag in cartoons where a character will run off a cliff, but instead of falling right away they keep running until they realize that there is no ground beneath them. It’s a classic joke, but clearly the real world doesn’t work that way.
Luckily, video games aren’t the real world, and you have probably performed a Wiley Coyote jump yourself without even realizing it. In many platforming games there are situations where you want to get as close to the edge of a platform as possible before you jump to maximize your distance. However, if you press the button a fraction of a second too late your character can no longer jump because they are no longer on the platform, and you end up falling to your death. This can clearly be frustrating to the player, especially because the lag between when they press the button and when the input is actually received could be long enough to make the difference between successfully jumping and falling to your doom.
To avoid this, many games give the player a little bit of extra leeway to jump after walking off the edge. Most of the time this window is small enough that the player doesn’t even really notice that it’s there, but large enough to avoid most unfortunate close calls.
#1 The Last Round (System Shock)
For our final hidden mechanic, I want to take a look at ammunition. Shooters are such a popular genre these days that they are basically the default, and whenever you have guns you also need ammo. Generally these games are designed to make sure the player always has a steady stream of ammunition, but there is always the risk of running out of bullets and feeling pretty much helpless as your primary weapon is just dangling uselessly in the foreground of the screen.
The terror of running out of bullets can only be matched by the triumph of eliminating the last remaining enemy with your final round. To give you a bit more of a chance, some games — such as System Shock — make your last bullet do significantly more damage, which increases the odds of clearing out your enemies with your last shot.
That’s all I have for today. If you liked this video please leave a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more please check out my other videos, like my last one on how to become a Jeopardy Champion. And join me next time for the next entry in my “History of Game Design” series on Dungeons and Dragons. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.