What do I mean by subverting expectations? It is a literary term and technique that has to do with using plot twists in a story to surprise and challenge an audience. It means to do something intentionally that people do not expect, but ideally, the twist or subverted expectation should make sense within the context of the story while enhancing character arcs and challenging genre tropes. You can probably already imagine some movie, series or game in which you have seen this happen. But I would like you to focus on games and their stories. Potential Spoiler warning in case you have never heard of the examples I describe.
Subverting Expectations in Game Tropes
Game Tropes can be anything from the way certain characters behave, to certain plot developments, to common game mechanics. Slaying monsters to get stronger and eventually defeat the villain? That is one of the oldest tropes in games, but does it really need to be like that? Do you need to slay and defeat monsters to have fun? Undertale is a 2D role-playing game in which the player controls a child and completes objectives in order to progress with the story. On the first playthrough players are expecting to defeat enemies by fighting them, the interface automatically highlights the “fight” option when in combat with a monster. However, at the end of the game, you will be asked the question: Who was the real monster? The game then encourages the players to try again, and it quickly becomes obvious that every encounter can be won “peacefully”. The game then takes a more laid back and happy tone, as the bare landscapes you once ran through are now filled with life you previously destroyed.
So, I invite you to think, maybe there is a trope you took for granted that had to be in your game, maybe you could do something different and innovative!
Subverting Expectations in Game Stories
To avoid telling the same story over and over the writers need to think about ways for the story to feel new and fresh. If the hero can always defeat the villain, does it make sense for you to be invested in their adventure if you know how it ends?
I will use The Last of Us as an example, we follow Joel, a broken man in a broken world. He is not a hero per se, but he is given the responsibility of helping Ellie who might be the cure to save the world from the virus. As you play you see these two characters develop a unique bond. And at the end when they reach their destination, Joel understands that to make a cure, they need to kill Ellie in the process. This would be the ultimate sacrifice a hero can make to save the world. What is one life compared to the many that could be saved? But throughout the game we learn that Joel is not a hero, he had problems and he did horrible things to survive. He makes the decision to kill everyone that knows Ellie is immune, and then lies to her. Joel tells her they could not make a cure, so she never has to think of sacrificing herself to save the world.
The surprise ending depends on balance. It must be an ending the player did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens. The surprise comes from misdirection and your own expectations based on the genre tropes.
To wrap it up, if you are going to attempt to subvert expectations and want to have a positive audience response, you should consider two things:
1. Reveal that you are telling an even better story than your audience thought you were telling and show that the new story is really the one you were telling all along.
2. Subversions should be interesting and surprising, but inevitable in retrospect.