Thoughts on Design: Perception Part 1: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

by Dr Taliesin Coward

Games play with your perception. Whether by words alone, such as early games like Zork, or via audio-visual stimuli, they help create an experience for the player, whether it’s a moment’s emotional or intellectual engagement, or the illusion of being another character from another universe. While games engage in an obvious level of player manipulation in order to create their experiences, there are other, often deliberately hidden means by which they seek to control players’ experiences. In this two-part series, we take a brief look at some of these hidden methods of perception manipulation.

First up is what games tell you, either directly or by implication. In this instance, the most obvious way to manipulate the player in a covert manner, is by bald-faced deception. This can be a risky tactic, as demonstrated by the controversy and backlash surrounding Destiny 2 – where players realized that the amount of experience points (XP) the game said players were getting for completing actions, and the amount they truly were differed. However, deliberately misleading players can be used in surprising and fun-enhancing ways.

One of the most obvious is to put the player off-balance. In Nuts 2 (a mode for 1993’s DOOM), weapons and monster have had their appearance deliberately changed. Players may pick up the BFG, the ultimate weapon in DOOM, and fire it only to discover that it is in fact, a relatively weak shotgun in disguise. Or they may rush to collect a much needed power-up, only to find that they are really disguised foes. This of course leads to a certain level of paranoia on the part of the player.

While Nuts 2 changes the player’s experience by revealing how it deceives, some games’ deceptions are meant to remain hidden. An example of this is how X-COM 2 lies about its statistics. As lead designer Jake Solomon puts it, humans tend to think about statistics emotionally, rather than rationally. With genuine randomness, it’s more than possible for a player with an 85% chance of hitting a target to miss multiple times in a row. However, human brains tend to see that 85% and think ‘it’s so close to 100% it should hit’, and get super frustrated when it doesn’t play out that way. According to Solomon, they solved this in X-Com 2 by ‘tweaking’ things behind the scenes, so an 85% chance to hit is, in reality closer to 95%. That is, the game lies to you. In fact, the only setting in X-Com 2 which disables the hidden assistance, is the super-punishing, legend difficulty mode.

Another hidden mechanic designed to enhance game experience is the ‘misleading healthbar’ manoeuver, employed by Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and 2016’s DOOM. In both games, players will often experience ‘by-a-knife’s-edge’ fights, where they only just manage to survive combat. This is because these games deliberately mislead players with their health bar. While players will reasonably assume that each point in the bar is equal, this is not so. In these games, the first 75% or so of the health bar will deplete rapidly, whilst the last 15% won’t (in fact, that last 15% may be worth double than what it looks likes). In games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins, this induces the ‘I only just made it’ thrill of a tough fight, whilst in DOOM it pushes players to play more aggressively and use the game’s health-replenishing melee kills. Oh, and DOOM also secretly limits the number of enemies that can attack at any one point, to stop players getting quickly overwhelmed.

Similarly, in Bioshock, if players are in a low health-state, the first shot of an ambushing enemy will never inflict damage. This alerts players to the enemy’s presence, giving them a fighting chance and avoiding player frustration at having been ‘unfairly’ defeated. Likewise, in the Arkham series, to avoid breaking the fantasy that Batman is incredibly stealthy, enemies patrolling an area will avoid turning 180 degress, so they never do an about face and catch the player sneaking up on them.

The award for subtle manipulation has to go to the BAFTA-winning Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game revolving around Norse mythology, and mental illness. Fair warning: this contains spoilers, so some readers may wish to skip to the last paragraph. During gameplay, Senua (the player’s character) is infected by ‘dark rot’, a corruption that the game tells players will grow each time she fails. If the rot reaches her head, her quest is over and all progress will be lost.

Many have taken this to mean that each time Senua dies, the game inches closer to wiping all saved progress, forcing players to start from the beginning again. However, this is not the case – no matter how many times you die, the dreaded ‘game wipe’ will not occur. This has lead to some accusing the game of out-and-out deception, whilst admitting that it’s a clever way to induce tension in the player, and investing all battles with an ‘edge-of-your-seat’ quality.

The fact is that Hellblade’s manipulation of the player is far more sophisticated than it first seems, as careful reading of the wording reveals its meaning to be ambiguous: nowhere does it explicitly state that ‘to fail’ means ‘to die’, or that saved games will be lost. The chief creative director of Ninja Theory (the developer behind the game), Tameem Antoniades, stated that the wording was carefully chosen, as they didn’t want to lie to players. They just couched it in terms which would lead players to a wrong, and stress inducing, interpretation. As Antoniades stated “’s your interpretation as a player that taints the meaning behind it. That’s something we wanted to do on purpose, because with mental illness it’s your frame of mind that interprets the world, and that can cause you distress.”

In this first part of the series, we looked at some of the ways that developers can deliberately set out to mislead players. In part 2, we will look at some of the more subtle ways developers can manipulate gamers. ■


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