When Games Break Their Implicit Contract

Every game has a context that determines certain expectations about how it’s going to behave under certain conditions. Sometimes this context is the genre to which it belongs: for instance, the majority of first person shooters ship with a well established default control scheme that allows regular gamers to start moving around without even having to think. Sometimes this context is an explicit design philosophy set out by the developer: for example, the manual for my copy of Day of the Tentacle set out the basic principles of a LucasArts adventure game, explaining that you couldn’t die or get permanently stuck because of failing to pick up an obscure item at just the right moment.

This context, however implicit it might be, forms a loose “contract” between the game and the player: the game is expected to behave roughly consistently with the gamer’s prior experience within that context. Sometimes developers can employ this to great dramatic effect by defying those expectations, leaving a lasting impression on the players. On other occasions, a failure to stick to those conventions can leave gamers feeling frustrated and betrayed, ruining their experience of an otherwise great game.


That’s what happened in the case of the example puzzle mentioned here from Monkey Island: the user interface of a Point & Click adventure game leads you to believe that no movement is required to solve a puzzle; you assume that you can just stand still whilst you have a think and try different things out, like “use sword with seagull”. Also part of the implicit contract the game makes with you is that it will clearly identify points of interaction when you hover the mouse over them. When a puzzle comes along that breaks this contract, by behaving unexpectedly when your character walks over a certain spot (one that you have no obvious reason to visit if you’re not explicitly looking for it) then the potential for frustration runs high, and you run the risk that players get stuck for hours like my friend did at this point.

I felt the effects of this big time when playing LucasArt’s later game, Full Throttle. For those who don’t know it, Full Throttle is the creation of Tim Schafer, someone I greatly admire as a game designer. FT completely defies many established conventions of the Point & Click genre, mostly intentionally. For one thing, you play a character that players might actually want to be: the rock hard biker, Ben Throttle. A consequence of that is that many of the puzzle solutions involve a departure from the purely cerebral, such as the application of brute force, kicking down doors and such like. For me, the set of possible solutions to any given puzzle was established by my experience of prior LucasArts adventures like Monkey Island, so I found myself constantly getting stuck because I wouldn’t deign to try certain things – “*that* would never be the answer!” Thankfully I played it through with a friend who had no such qualms, or we’d never have completed it. But it just goes to show what baggage each and every gamer brings with them to every new game that they play, something which thoughtful game designers have to contend with to deliver a truly satisfying experience.


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