Games lie to us all the time. Recently, some developers took to Twitter to share a few of their ones, revealing design tricks used in games ranging from Surgeon Simulator to Bioshock.
In the latter, for instance, the first bullets fired at you by enemies always missed. You might have thought you were just an ace at dodging machine gun fire, but really the designers were giving you a head start because, let's be honest, getting nailed from behind by an enemy off screen is never fun.
To this point, Bioshock 2 director Jordan Thomas said that the series' Big Daddies move slower when you aren't facing them to prevent players from dying in utter confusion as to where that giant drill arm came from.
The thread came about when Jennifer Scheurle, the design lead on Opaque Space's Earthlight, called on other developers to share examples of the small ways they tried to manipulate players' perceptions, citing the way Assassin's Creed and Doom make your last shred of life slightly more durable than it should be in order to keep things tense without triggering defeat.
Hey #gamedev, tell me about some brilliant mechanics in games that are hidden from the player to get across a certain feeling. Example:
— Jennifer Scheurle (@Gaohmee) September 1, 2017
The instances designers came back with varied from small things like how bullets in the Serious Sam games favour hitting enemies over objects in the environment to how the dog in Fable 2 will respawn off-screen running towards you if it ever gets left too far behind or trapped in some weird pathing maze.
In Surgeon Simulator we hid many features to incite curiosity: for instance, if you dial your real phone number in the game, it calls you.
— Henrique Olifiers (@Olifiers) September 3, 2017
Red Faction: Guerrilla
At low alert levels only the nearest few enemies actually fire bullets at you, though further enemies will take note.
— Dana Fried (@leftoblique) September 1, 2017
HL1 - if facing more than two enemies, only two would actually attack. The rest would run to random locations and bark lies e.g. "flanking"
— Tom Forsyth (@tom_forsyth) September 1, 2017
Dark Souls 3 bosses follow a specific time signature along with the music for their attacks, the hardest boss in the game breaks this flow.
— Sean Likes Bees (@OxyOxspring) September 1, 2017
We have a term called "coyote time" for when the player walks off a platformer ledge and presses jump too late, but the jump still works
— Chevy Ray (@ChevyRay) September 1, 2017
First few LUFTRAUSERS enemies deliberately miss you to give you the feeling of being really good at dodging.
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) September 1, 2017
So we started you off with some major advantages (like additional damage bonuses) that tapered off with your first few kills.
— Lee Perry Yo! (@MrLeePerry) September 2, 2017
In System Shock we made your last bullet do double damage, similar trick to the last bit of health thing.
— Rob Xemu Fermier (@xemu) September 1, 2017
In Shadow of Mordor, designer Rick Lesley said he started out adding health back to Uruks during duels in order to try and make the fights last longer. Since a well timed combo from the player could end things in a few seconds, Lesley wanted some way of prolong the tension and make the duels feel more epic.
Extending the taunts/cheering intros for Duels/Riots, instead of extending it during combat. Seeing an Uruk's health get refilled...
— Rick Lesley (@Rick_Lesley) September 2, 2017
Of course, a trick like that that's transparent to the player understandably might make people feel cheated, so for the final game the Shadow of Mordor team decided to stick with less intrusive fixes like adding intros and giving the fights cinematic flourishes.
Games are in many ways elaborate illusions, and like any good magic trick, revealing the secret rarely makes it better. After all, who wants to play through their favourite game like Neo from the Matrix, seeing the world broken down into purely mechanical terms where nothing's surprising or special?
I went into Hellblade expecting another fast, fun action romp from the folks at Ninja Theory, who previously made Enslaved and DmC. Devil May Cry. After playing for about 20 minutes, I had to put the controller down. I was so stressed out that I couldn't take it any more.
One of the things that kicked Scheurle's inquiry off (which she's subsequently incorporated into a developer talk she'll deliver later this week) was Hellblade's in-game declaration that dying too many times will erase the player's save data.
This turned out not to be true, leading some to call it a lie or hoax. But Scheurle's point was that every game tries to play with people's expectations and instincts in order to shape a more interesting and fulfilling game experience.
And in Hellblade the threat of permadeath does just that, making otherwise not super difficult fights into an anxious struggle for survival. Even after dying several times, I was always worried that the next one would be my final undoing, helping to replace my frustration over failing to progress with a sense of drama and suspense.