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?
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