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.
The instances designers came back with varied from small things like how bullets in the Serious Sam games favor 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 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.
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 favorite game like Neo from the Matrix, seeing the world broken down into purely mechanical terms where nothing’s surprising or special?
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.