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Happy April Fool's Day! While we here at Gamasutra do not have any fake news planned for you, (though...our Miitomo pics may still qualify...) we did want to celebrate the occassion by thinking about how and why developers choose to trick players in video games.
There's lots of reasons to surprise players---if anything it's one of the most pleasurable parts of a game experience, when a set of systems you thought you understood turns out to have a deeper layer, or their possible interactions create something unexpected yet inevitable.
Remember, if you're interested in participating in these conversations in the future, make sure to follow @Gamasutra on Twitter. The questions usually go out on Fridays in the late morning, Pacific time, alongside Tweets of our regular news, blogs, and original writing.
@gamasutra Being able to peek behind the 'curtain' that the game world is trying to keep you inside of. Portal series, Bioshock Infinite— Not That Doctor Phil (@MSico) April 1, 2016
This reader starts off by describing a bit of fiction-based sleight of hand employed by games like Portal and Bioshock Infinite---both games begin their adventures by putting players through a set of fantastic environments ripped from the pages of science fiction, but over time pull back to reveal a larger context to the space that reframes their actions up to that point.
Portal's setting shift is a bit less of a surprise, and more of a natural flow of the levels over time, while Bioshock Infinite's frames itself more as a plot twist--neither of these tools might be what you would employ using just systems or mechanics, but interactions, puzzles, and combat encounters can all be thematically tweaked to help players experience the change of the world state, not just be told it's happened. (See: Portal's increasingly fractured puzzles, Bioshock Infinite's increased invoking of teleportation dimensional tears).
@gamasutra Interface screws.— Alejandro Artiles (@VarlusMD) April 1, 2016
Alejandro brings up one of the classic tricks for upending players--messing with the interface or controls to incite confusion or a sense of unease. Reflex-driven games like platformers and combat games can use this to just throw off the player's skill, (such as the last fight of Beyond Good and Evil), but pushing it to extreme effects can contribute to the helplnessness or despair of a horror game or horror setting, such as the Scarecrow's segments in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Or if you want to really confuse them, copy Super Smash Bros. and throw a puppy on their screen during a fighting game.
@gamasutra Eternal Darkness with its "end of part 1" screen, the fake BSOD and in general all the sanity effects!— cute eni (@enistoja) April 1, 2016
And speaking of interface screws, another reader brings up Eternal Darkness's rightful place as a game that championed undermining player agency at every turn---its 'sanity meter' mechanics may need to be updated for modern context, but expanding its horror into the very systems players used to control the game helped set the bar for interactive horror in its heyday.
Michel returns to share a Monty Python-grade gaming gag---surprising players by having a seemingly innocent rabbit turn on them as soon as they open fire. This mechanic is interesting because certain games (including The Legend of Zelda series) seemingly use it as a gag for players too eager to attack everything in their environment, but it rarely seems to be sufficiently used as a punishment mechanic for when players commit acts outside a game's dictated moral spectrum. (The Witcher 3, Skyrim, etc might loose guards on players when they're caught committing a crime, but the only game that quickly comes to mind that uses this mechanic to actually enforce a moral code is Assassin's Creed or older Call of Duty games, when you target civilians.)
@gamasutra We used to have Booby Trapped crate drops in some of our previous Worms games...hehe.— Team17 (@Team17Ltd) April 1, 2016
The Team17 gang brings up some classic shenanigans from their older Worms titles, which saw players furiously compete to get crates dropping into the battleground---only to have them explode in their face. Not something you'd find in the hyper-tuned MOBAs of modern pvp games.
@gamasutra A good designer would add small changes to the bad thing, as well, like mimics looking slightly different from real chests.— That One Fruckert? (@Fruckert) April 1, 2016
And to close us out, Fruckert expands on the Worms example to show how Mimics (treasure chest-looking monsters that can surprise players) and other examples can make for a consistent part of the gameplay experience, not just something for isolated circumstances.