Asemblance and Inside are wonderfully haunting games that love to confuse the player. While this might be annoying to some, I think it’s pretty great. In this video, we’ll take a look at how games can design for confusion and how that can radically change the experience.
Note: I make reference to controller use in this piece, and I’d be remiss to ignore disabled gamers. The experience of using a non-traditional game controller might alter some of what I’m saying in this piece.
I like when games confuse me. When they truly and completely puzzle or bewilder me. For most people, this is a big issue. They want games to be clear and understandable. It’s one of the major cornerstones of game design; they seek to properly convey and express objectives and information to players because that information is crucial either to providing an understanding of how the player can complete the game or because it offers context for what they are doing. But I truly do think that the best experiences can come when we are robbed of context, unsure of what we are doing, and when games don’t explain their rules.
This is Asemblance, a first person adventure game where you take the role of an unknown individual diving into their own memories. The entirety of the game obfuscated; we do not know who we are, we’ve no real notion of our goal. The game starts off trying to confuse us: we are told there is an emergency but it is just a test. The entire game is predicated on confusion. This includes how you progress. In Asemblance, you mostly just move around and examine objects. Making associations between objects might trigger shifts in the environment or launch us into other memories. And while these associations might have an underlying logic, like looking at a clock to pass time, players have no foreknowledge of any potential effects their examinations might have.
Video games are tactile experiences as much as they are intellectual ones. You have to use a controller of some sort to navigate. This has odd effects when it comes to a player’s relationship to the character they control. In Asemblance, we have to embody and act out out confusion through obsessive culling of details and retracing of steps. This process allows us to share in the main characters potential confusion in a noteworthy fashion; their confusion and lack of control becomes our confusion and lack of control.
As they get caught up in an ever shifting and confused dreamscape, we also have to navigate that space in a far more literal fashion than if we were reading a book or watching a film. Asemblance has many endings, some of which are incredibly esoteric in their achievement; in the most dire circumstances, the game forces the player to perform a form of simulated obsessive compulsive behavior. Walk here, wait one minute, interact with this object, run down the hall, count to sixteen, and see if you’ve triggered the requirements. If you fail, run back, start from the top, and repeat over and over until you get it just right. These desperate actions, bordering on the irrational are something that we must perform and, in doing so, we act out the altering and potentially degenerating sanity of the main character as they are trapped within their memories.
Confusion can benefit games in less literal ways as well. This is Inside, the spiritual successor to Limbo. It is a game that relies on confusion to achieve emotional tone. Consider how the game begins, you hit start and are dropped into a forest. You encounter a truck loaded with people and venture on. The boy you are controlling takes a low posture as you sneak forward. These are bad people. But the tension is heightened by lack of context. It isn’t clear what is happening or why you are running. All you know is that you need to get away. Confusion about the scenario overlaps with player character’s visual apprehension and anxiety, allowing the player to not only feel more immersed in the moment but also facilitating a greater degree of empathy between the player and the boy. Hopefully.
Inside uses this technique quite a bit; creating confusion in the player in order to draw them into the game world itself. It continually introduces foreign elements such as contraptions whose functions are not entirely understandable. When we encounter these objects, our confusion helps to emulate the boy’s fear. More often than not, we are wandering into danger. We lack the same context as the boy, so the game opts to leverage our confusion and set us up to be shocked and terrified in different ways. We might try to examine the new objects only to die a swift and cruel death; our confusion is used to trick us into experiencing the horrors of the world so that we can better understand why the boy is running and what he is running from.
This isn’t to say that all games should be vague about their stories or obfuscate how to progress. However, from time to time, it’s alright to be confused. To feel the mounting frustrations that come with the notion of being trapped or uninformed. In games, facilitating this experience can be crucial to connecting us to the world and the characters we control. It can helps us empathize and aid us in truly diving into a game. Not everything can be map markers and rainbows. And sometimes? That’s for the best.