I remember how stunned I was when I played through FINAL FANTASY VII for the first time and got to the part where, in a cutscene, the player-character and fan favorite Aeris/Aerith was impaled and killed by the villain Sephiroth. I had invested in the character both in terms of story and gameplay/RPG character development.
I didn’t think this was something an RPG was going to do to me – which is why it worked so well. When I’d pitch the game to friends who hadn’t played it, I told them the story was compelling but I avoided spoilers. This is not an uncommon experience – I hadn’t yet gotten involved enough in Internet discussion forums to know the phrase “spoiler alert,” but I had my own expletive-oriented term at the time for people who spoiled things movies, games, or books indiscriminately.
I’ve been thinking about similar moments I’ve had with games where it was not a plot twist but an unexpected or innovative gameplay mechanic that surprised me or blew me a way in a game. Examples of high-impact mechanics are easy to recall – the insanity-meter-based controller malfunctions in ETERNAL DARKNESS: SANITY’S REQUIEM; the time limit on making major decisions in THE WALKING DEAD; being forced to decide which crew member to rescue and which to leave to die in MASS EFFECT; yanking the motion-sensing PS3 controller around in a fight-to-the-death in HEAVY RAIN, a game in which you can “beat” the game even if you get up to half of your four playable characters while playing (and so in which the fights-to-the-death take on added meaning, because they don’t just force a restart – they mean that one character’s part of the story has ended early and badly).
As far as I can recall, all of these interesting gameplay mechanics were part of the advertising (or at least the word-of-mouth) for these games. They were not potential spoilers, because the game developers didn’t try to keep them secret, as is often the case with plots. I’ve been wondering why this is. The entertainment industry functions on the assumption that many people like to be surprised by plots – hence the mainstream awareness of the spoiler alert protocol. But there’s no similar assumption for gameplay mechanics – in fact, the opposite is usually true. If a game or system has a new gameplay mechanic, it’s usually a main selling point. The ad campaign for the Wii was mainly about the motion controller potential, and TV spots for MASS EFFECT focused on the mechanic of the player making hard decisions that would affect life-or-death plot progression, while not spoiling the story (in fact the ad misrepresents, the story, depicting a situation about the story-related planet Noveria that bears no resemblance to the actual missions there in the game).
Do we as players want to be surprised by story but not by gameplay? Or is it just that mechanics are such make-or-break parts of a game that we want to have a better sense of what the experience will be like before we buy a game? Is there a place for gameplay surprises in gaming? I can’t think of many gameplay mechanics surprises. SPEC OPS: THE LINE comes to mind, since depending on what you read/heard/saw about it in advance, I think many players may have been surprised by the way story and gameplay intersect in a MASS-EFFECT-like way uncommon for a first-person shooter (though BLACK OPS 2 does something similar by incorporating a player-decision-affected forking-paths storyline). Similarly, both INFAMOUS 2 and MASS EFFECT 3 surprised me by forcing me to weigh the survival of a player-character I’d played as for multiple games in the balance during key endgame decisions – this is a little more expected in MASS EFFECT 3 than INFAMOUS 2, I think, because the MASS EFFECT series had gone further in this direction earlier in the series (though INFAMOUS had also built up to this in some ways).
Can you think of gameplay mechanics that surprised you in a game that were intentionally or at least effectively kept secret until you got to that point in the game? Were they more rewarding than if you’d known about them in advance? Do you think gameplay surprises are less effective or less worthwhile than story surprises? Would you like to see more spoilable surprise gameplay twists in games? In which genres would this be (or is this already) most interesting?