Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Subtlety. Or Not.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 23, 2011

A few years ago, at a Utah Indie Night we got into a discussion of subtlety in video games. Herb Flower (of LinkRealms) half-jokingly said, “Subtlety in games is a sledgehammer against a baby’s skull.”

In other words, video games don’t do subtle.

Or rather, they don’t do subtle for anything that the player is expected to recognize on a conscious level. 95%+ of the players just will not get it. Half of the players won’t get it when it’s spelled out to them. Video games have traditionally bombarded players with sensory information. Lots of things moving, lots of sounds, explosions, things happening.

AI programmers regularly complain about how the subtly intelligent enemies don’t get recognized as such – they have to throw in some really stupid and artificial hints to the player that the AI is actually being clever. They will have to say loudly enough for the player to hear, “I’m sneaking around behind the player, so I can shoot him in the back!” or something. Brilliant. But otherwise, the player is just going to get annoyed that he was suddenly shot in the back by an enemy that wasn’t there a few seconds earlier, and will assume it was either a bug or the game being cheap.

There are several subtle tricks games use to encourage player behavior without the player needing to be conscious of them. There are some rules of architecture that encourage movement in particular areas. A nicely-lit, open area will be more encouraging for the player to go there than a dark, cramped spot. So the latter is better for optional areas, and the former is better to marking the “main route” so the player doesn’t get lost.

I’m one of those players who usually won’t get subtle, either.  So I thought I’d just ask readers – what kind of subtle (or even subversive) elements have you discovered in games. Little nuances or hints that were not intended to be obvious?  Shades of meaning? How has it been employed successfully in the past? Or perhaps veiled references?


Filed Under: General - Comments: 10 Comments to Read



  • BellosTheMighty said,

    Oh! Another one: REDDER. A simple exploration platformer, but with some interesting tricks that become apparent as you progress.

    How about the climactic sequence of Super Metroid? Possibly one of the most famous uses of storytelling in-engine in gaming history.

  • Corwin said,

    I think the best opportunities for subtlety come through text, either dialogue, signs, or perhaps books/notes. You can make all kinds of subtle references and allusions in this way which at least some players will ‘get’ and appreciate. Action sequences do not tend to support the use of subtle.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    I think PS:T did subtle well. There was the whole sly reference to the convention of bringing a dead PC back to life: why does the PC keep popping up in full health once he’s been killed in front of us? The Old Woman who gives you an apparently nonsensical series of fetch quests would seem to be a comment upon gatekeepers in RPGs. The woman who comments acidly about adventurer questions (What’s your name? What’s your profession?) is a dig at the old Ultima titles. There are many more. Few games had quite as many self-referential comments as PS:T, I think, though I could be wrong in this.

    But I agree, subtle isn’t what game creation or playing is about, especially nowadays when it seems the average Industry title is squarely aimed at 10-year-olds. They’re not noted for subtlety.

  • Fez said,

    The final boss battle in Portal 2
    *spoiler*
    I’m not sure what they did, but without any obvious cues i instantly recognised that i had to shoot a portal onto the moon. It was very well done.

  • Califer said,

    I dunno. I can’t even get people to read three lines of text in an unskippable tutorial. How many players have I watched stare blankly at the screen as “Press start to select a skill” slowly moved by only to look up at me right before the text vanished and ask why they can’t do anything yet.

    Gamers are hopeless!

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    That’s all right, Califer, I’ve had people miss a single line saying “Press any key to close dialog” that wasn’t even going anywhere. Interestingly enough, if you aren’t there for them to look at, they often figure it out by themselves. And then there are the players who will figure it out without any help, with a little poking around… just like we used to back in the day. But those are increasingly rare. Have we grown spoiled?

    Back on topic (somewhat), I tried subtle in Buzz Grid. The thingies you are supposed to pick up are round and green; those you are supposed to avoid are red and spiky. Subconscious hints FTW! Judging by the feedback, some players *still* went by trial and error…

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Kind of tied to yesterday’s topic; shorter games tend to do subtle better than longer games.

    This is mainly because they allow frequent replays while the knowledge of earlier levels or gameplay is still fresh in the player’s head.

    The Stanley Parable is a Source engine mod game that makes excellent use of replays to reinforce both subtle and not so subtle ideas and thoughts.

    I love games that let ideas and comprehension dawn on their own. Those moments where you realize or figure something out that has never been explicitly pointed out or told to you. Those are such powerful moments. Not to mention the fact that because YOU deduced the information it will stick with you for a LONG time.

    Subtlety is also good for introducing hard to accept ideas or information, or knowledge that would seem silly if simply told to you. Thief does this to great affect in the Cradle level. The player knows the building has a long and sad history – it has been an asylum, an orphanage, it is rumored to be haunted, etc. Through a series of small and subtle clues scattered throughout the level the player can come to the stunning realization that the Cradle was an insane asylum and an orphanage at the SAME TIME.

    If simply told this fact most players would consider the idea silly at worst, or a case of developers trying too hard at best. But because no one tells you or confirms this theory and you are made to reach it on your OWN – the idea is arresting and shocking, because the creepy possibility has germinated in your own brain, fed by drops of disparate but significant pieces of information, only to blossom out of your mind as a thing of terror full-formed. “But wait, that can’t be right . . . unless that other thing meant this instead of that, and – OH, MY GOD! They were keeping children with the criminally insane!” Sound outrageous? What are you going to do? Call yourself a liar?

    I like games that reward careful observation, and subtle clues can enhance the mood, story, or both. Bioshock has environmental clues that tell little mini-stories in most levels – you can trace the final days or last moments of an individual or family. Many players will run through shooting, sure, but how many stop and regard the corpses lying on a bed, spilled pills on the floor and booze on the nightstand? How many will listen to the audio diary in a nearby room of parents looking for a missing daughter? How many will connect those things to the Little Sister Program going public? Those two parents dead on that bed must have certainly made the connection. You can see the scene play out in your own mind – the parents finally seeing their daughter again, only she’s an unnatural thing, sucking from a corpse. They have no recourse, no escape from Rapture – except suicide. A sad and personal tragedy that might make you think again about the Little Sisters not simply being a source of ADAM, but someone’s little girl. Or you can run by it all in a second while shooting dudes – your choice.

    Fallout 3 and New Vegas have a lot of these mini-dramas of the environment. A child skeleton wrapped between two adult skeletons on a bed, radio nearby. A skeleton in a bathtub – with a toaster. Or they can go even darker – a raider den with a bar, stage, and stripper pole on stage . . . with a teddy bear and toy blocks. Then you go backstage and find cages with beds inside . . . and toys, and stuffed animals, and tricycles . . . and a cash register and counter prominently in the middle of the room, with no goods anywhere around for sale . . . except what was in the cages.

    I doubt many games could get away with having a child brothel or a pedo gang of killers in a game, at least not blatantly. But if they set it up so you draw that conclusion on your own? Impact.

  • Silent said,

    Subtelty or not ? The answer is not. Mostly because you can’t trust video games. A frustrating illustration is sleuth games. A very difficult genre, because, as a player, you have no way to guess which strange detail is a graphic glitch and which one is an in-universe hint. You end up either overthinking about irrlevant things, or overlooking little details as design clumsiness. n general, you are trained to forgive “subtle details” as technical limitations to the videogame’s realism, and not pay attention to them. Treating them as significant requires a huge leap of faith. A leap of faith that may lead you to over-interpret actual glitches or involuntary details. Real-life subtlety doesn’t apply to the crude simulations of computer games. This is related to that “uncanny valley” issue : the more you ask to treat videogames stuff with real-life subtlety, the more visible you make the crudeness of your game and its shortcomings. The fact your AI is so bright on some aspect makes it look urealistically dumb on another. The fact the player shows forgiveness to your AI and lowers his expectations to realistic standards makes its subtlelties invisible – and even out of place.

    That said, a lot of different things can be called “subtle”. From dialogues (clever social commentaries in NOLF, clever humour in Portal) to mechanisms (generally the small-causes-big-effects of Hammer & Sickle or, so I’ve heard, in Alpha Protocol). From atmosphere (the unsettling parts of Penumbra and Bloodline’s ghost house, as opposed to in-your-face action horror monsters sequences) to design (the psychological basis of Silent Hill creatures). From strategy (cunning fps or rts or chess AI) to complexity (the amount of important details in economy-diplomacy based strategy games). And of course, the tale itself : subtle characterisations, subtle moral dilemmas, etc. For each of these, you can question whether it’s actally “subtlelty” or not (and relatively to what). It’s often a matter of perspective. A huge over-the top violent game can be more subtle than a dead-serious game devoid of any self-conscious irony – are Dawn of War, Serious Sam and Duke Nukem more subtle than Doom and Call of Duty ? Possibly, and possibly precisely because they’re less subtle in form.

    One of the most subtle franchises I’ve played had you gunning down mimes while chasing them mounted on a tricycle-riding scotsman’s back. This makes me question the meaning of that word. It’s very contextual. I still dream of a subtle sleuth game (maybe Colonel’s Bequest could postulate), and in the meantime I give up on Sherlock Holmes the Awakening and Post Mortem. And I’ll never take a videogame crime investigation as seriously as I ridiculously, naively, did that one time in Morrowind…

  • erratio said,

    I can’t believe no one mentioned Shadow of the Colossus here. I only had trouble finding the Colossus once, every single other time I felt like I was just organically riding in the rough direction of the Colossus, checking out a cool landscape feature, and then next thing I knew there would be the cutscene opening the battle. If only the battles themselves had been as well-orchestrated..

    Another game that comes to mind is Arcanum, where the developers put a huge amount of thought into their worldbuilding, and it shows, with old newspapers scattered around, chains of sidequests that reveal interesting facets of the world, and a few parodies that play on real-world people and events transposed into a magical setting (at one point there’s a sidequest you can go on that involves replacing PT Barnum’s fake yeti-skin with the real thing)

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