Video games are a wonderfully unique art form because of the way they create experiences. Because you, the player, control what happens it creates a level of immersion and investment that cannot be matched by any other medium. You aren’t just watching something happen – you are making it happen.
Shaping these experiences is what game design is all about. Every twist in the story or adjustment of the mechanics help shape the experience that players are going to have, for better or worse. While most of these changes are obvious to the player, sometimes creating the experience that you want requires a little bit of trickery.
Often, in order to give the player a better experience developers will hide certain mechanics from the player. They are there, working in the background, but the player is never informed about it. Whether these mechanics are designed to give you a feeling of narrowly avoiding death or simply compensating for poor AI, hidden game mechanics are everywhere.
Much of the information for this article comes from this classic twitter thread by Jennifer Scheurle, where she asks game developers to spill the beans on the hidden mechanics in their games. While that entire thread is quite large and has hundreds of examples, In today’s article I am going to be looking at some of the most common or surprising types of hidden mechanics I have found.
Tricking the Player into Feeling Like a Badass
One of the most common types of hidden mechanics described in this thread are those that are designed to make the player feel like a powerful, unkillable badass. This category is very popular because combat is such an integral part of so many games, and by slightly tweaking some of the combat mechanics designers can make players feel more powerful than they actually are.
A great example of this can be found in games such as Assassin’s Creed and Doom, where the last few points of health are treated differently than the rest. Naturally, when a player see’s a health bar they assume that every point of health is equal, but this isn’t the case. Instead, the last few points of health have a higher value than the rest, which can cause the player to spend more time in a low-health state and create a feeling of just barely escaping death by the skin of your teeth.
System Shock takes a similar tactic, but flips it. In this game your last bullet does extra damage, which can increase the chances of a player just barely being able to defeat an enemy.
You know what doesn’t make you feel awesome? Getting randomly killed out of nowhere with no chance to respond. This is why some games, such as Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed and Luftrausers have systems where in certain situations the enemy AI will purposely miss their first shot, to give players a better opportunity to react.
Finally, in the first Halo game the player’s shield is designed so that it takes about a full clip of bullets to run out – so the player will often run out of health at the same time their enemy has to reload. This forces players to make quick, split-second decisions to take out their enemy’s last bit of health before it recovers.
Creating a Feeling of Suspense
These tricks are somewhat the opposite of the previous. Instead of trying to make the player feel cool and powerful, these hidden mechanics are designed to create a feeling of fear, unease or suspense. These types of mechanics are often used in horror and survival games, and are designed to enhance the threatening atmosphere.
A great example can be found in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. At the beginning of the game players are told about a “dark rot” that would grow as the player dies, and if it reaches the character’s head would force them to start the game over again. However, it turns out that it is impossible to die enough times to actually cause permanent death in this game. Instead, the threat of losing all of your progress is simply there to enhance the feeling of suspense.
Another example can be found in the Uncharted games, where players must escape from locations that are falling, crumbling or collapsing, such as a train falling over a cliff. In this situation it feels like the train could fall at any point and doom the player to start over. However, the animation of the falling object is actually connected to the player’s progress, and will speed up and slow down based on how far along the “path” the player is. These levels are designed so that the player will always just barely make it out in time, with the train fall just moments after you escape.
Another example can be found in the Alien vs Predator game. This game actually uses the autosave feature to create a feeling of suspense. Generally, games autosave when a player reaches some sort of checkpoint – whether that be completing an area, or defeating a difficult boss. When the autosave icon pops up right before entering a room, without any obvious reason, players will naturally assume that they are about to be attacked. This helps drive up the tension and keeps players on their toes.
AI That Doesn’t Act How You Think
AI in itself could be considered a form of hidden mechanics, because you never know exactly what they are going to do. Most video game AI are pretty simple, however, and can easily be predicted by the player. This category is for AI in video games that behaves in a secretive or unintuitive way that the player might never notice.
The earliest example of this can actually be found in Pac-man – each of the ghost characters actually has a unique AI that controls how they move. The red ghost simply chases the player, while the pink and blue ghosts are actually trying to get in front of Pac-man’s mouth. The movement of the orange ghost is, apparently, completely random.
Something similar can be found in the Amnesia series. While it may seem like the enemies are simply stalking the player, the reality is a bit more complicated. The enemies are actually trying to get as close to the player as possible while remaining outside of their line of site. This can create a feeling of being watched, and make it seem like the enemies are coming out of nowhere.
Sometimes the AI actually changes as the game goes on. In Alien: Isolation the alien can apparently learn the player’s habits (such as where they like to hide) and adjust its behavior. Another example is Enter the Gungeon, where the AI takes time to “warm up”, and gets better the longer the player plays!
Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment
This is probably the biggest, and most hidden, of all of these mechanics. It’s not fun to lose over and over again to the same challenge, so many games have ways of adjusting the difficulty of the game to match the player’s ability. They can give the player a little bit better “luck” when they need it, and up the ante to give the player additional challenges if the player is advancing too quickly.
However, because this category is so large, and there are so many different examples, I think this category is worthy of it’s own article (which will be next week).
And the Rest
The hidden mechanics in this category are examples that I find really interesting, but don’t fit clearly into any of the previous categories.
One of the most interesting examples of a hidden mechanic, which can be found in games such as Halo 2, Portal, and Infamous, is automatically inferring the player’s Y-axis preference. This is done by asking the player to look up at the beginning of the game, and determining the direction of the Y-axis based on their input.
Some games adjusted the physics to make the game more exciting, in small ways. In F.E.A.R bullets would be slightly attracted towards explosive objects to cause more explosions. Similarly, in games such as Doom and Half Life 2 ragdoll enemies are attracted towards ledges, to make them more likely to fall over.
Finally, some games try to cover up loading new areas organically through in-game actions. Occasionally this is silly, such as accidentally “tripping” to allow an area to load in Jak and Daxter. Or it can be more thematic, such as in The Suffering, where the character is slowly going mad. The character will occasionally hold their head in their hands while the environment loads around them.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for a close look at the hidden mechanics around difficulty adjustment!