The Devil You Don’t: Hidden Antagonists As A Game Design Concept

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I feel like few people have hated me quite like my freshman year roommate in college, who we’ll call Fred. You see, Fred’s bedroom was situated directly in between my bedroom and that of our third roommate, an old friend of mine who we’ll call Nate. The walls in UTD’s dorms were paper thin, and while normally this meant you’d hear your roommates doing the horizontal mambo or just blaring trap music real loud, in Fred’s case, that meant that he heard me, at 2 AM, screaming obscenities and rapidly oscillating between glee, terror, and fury, every night for about a month. And he heard the same thing coming from Nate’s room as well.

The reason for this was the fact that Nate and I, as well as a fair portion of our other friends, had gotten very into a gametype for Garry’s Mod simply called Murder. The rules of Murder are fairly simple: every player is thrown into an enclosed space, their names replaced with NATO callsigns. One person is secretly selected as the Murderer. They are given a knife which instant-kills everyone it hits, and the task to, as the name indicates, murder everyone in the game. The rest of the players are bystanders, and except for a gun randomly given to one of them, they are completely unarmed. Their goal is to find and kill the Murderer. Of course, all weapons can be hidden, so the Murderer’s identity is unknown unless you see them, y’know, murder someone.

Murder is a pure distillation of a game design concept I’ve commonly heard called “hidden antagonist”. The concept is fairly simple: a small number of players is designated the “antagonist”, and are set up against every other player, with their lack of numbers made up for by the fact that team labels are not public information, leaving all players left guessing as to who is “innocent” and who is an “antagonist”. Hidden antagonist games are unfortunately uncommon in video games (although the concept has had great success in Garry’s Mod gametypes, between Murder and the extremely popular Trouble In Terrorist Town). The concept has, however, been a common mechanical concept in tabletop games for decades.

It’s understandable that hidden antagonism is popular in board games, because its strength as a mechanic aligns well with the strength of board games as a whole: it is something that feeds off of the creativity and individuality of your players, rather than limiting them. When I play hidden antagonist games with my friends who ended up in political science and government, the games are often rife with alliance-forging and silver tongued-deals, with fearmongering and blatant lying at the helm as players attempt to win via Lord of the Flies-style groupthink manipulation. Other friends of mine will simply keep to themselves, allowing paranoia and tension to rip apart the innocents without needing to lift a finger. Others yet will adapt a scorched-earth mentality, operating under the assumption that the antagonists’ identities are meaningless if simply everyone is dead.

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Wipe that smirk off your face you smarmy shit

Hidden antagonism is the rare game mechanic which feeds heavily off of social cues, meaning that its particular manifestation is as varied as, well, social situations themselves. Maybe Dave just killed Greg in cold blood because Dave is the murderer, or maybe because Greg was a murderer, or maybe just because Greg yells really loud in the Skype call when he gets murdered and Dave thinks it’s really funny. Not to mention the fact that this game mode relies heavily on lying, and simply trying to figure out when your friends are lying is a tried-and-true mechanism for good game design on its own merit (see B.S, Coup, Sheriff of Nottingham).

Of course, hidden antagonism has its downsides, as well. Because the hidden antagonist/s typically start off the game weak and over time gain power through the collection of resources, sowing of discord, and panic of the innocents, such games are really susceptible to lucky shots in the dark at the very start. I remember a game of Spyfall, a game in which one player, the Spy, has figure out a common location known to all other players, while all other players are trying to suss out the Spy by asking each other questions about the setting. Ideally, the “innocent” players will ask one another vague questions in order to try and verify one another’s identities, while the Spy spends their time trying to piece together what little information is given in each answer. However, I, as the Spy, was selected as the target of the very first question: “So, what do you do here?” With no information available and a 1 in 32 chance of guessing the location successfully, I just had to shrug and say “Espionage?”

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The other big problem comes from a major assumption I’ve been making: that you’re playing a hidden antagonist game with friends. If you’re playing with a bunch of randos, a number of potential problems arise, from a lack of good communication to an unawareness of each other’s personalities and social quirks to just a weakening of the unspoken social contract to not be dicks, which is usually much stronger in an established group of friends.

Hidden antagonism is still, nevertheless, a powerful mechanic to make a game’s multiplayer more interesting, because it forces players to not just analyze the state of the game, but also the players themselves. In a game with a hidden antagonist, a player simply analyzing the game state is missing critical clues that can help them win: a player’s mood or level of stress, the group opinions of certain individuals, as well as the situation as a whole, the gullibility and manipulability of players. While certainly paying attention to opponents as players can be helpful in just about every multiplayer game, in hidden antagonist games it’s a part of an optimal strategy, causing all players to naturally gravitate towards doing it.

This focus on the players as much as the game has some key benefits. An obvious one is that it creates a personal connection with the game, since playing the game is deeply connected with playing with the fellow players. While a regular multiplayer game of Call of Duty is largely a mechanical struggle, one in which players simply use mechanics against other, faceless antagonists behaving similarly, a game of Secret Hitler or Murder is deeply interpersonal: not only do you have to really analyze and get familiar with your opponents, you also become extremely aware of the way you are interacting with the game, finely tailoring your moves in order to create the appearance of innocence.

Furthermore, the social nature of hidden antagonist games can help extend replayability, simply because the game can take on different tones and directions depending on who exactly is playing. Secret Hitler, a hidden antagonist game in which the table attempts to successfully run an abstraction of pre-WWII German government while a subset of the table is secretly fascists, and one person is, well, secretly Hitler, can be played for hours if you have a rotating group of people at the table. The game shifts as the players change, morphing from a bloody game of vengeance and paranoia, to a deeply calculated game of probability, to the aforementioned George R.R Martin-esqe game of alliances and betrayals, all within the same mechanics. I should know: at PAX South 2016, I spent an entire day at a single table playing Secret Hitler, and watched this happen before my eyes.

This is not to say that hidden antagonism is the only way to create such a social game, but it is merely a way. Truly clever game designers should look at those fundamental building blocks of social interaction, at lying and desperately wanting to be believed, at friendships and betrayals, at paranoia towards the other and trust towards the familiar, and use these to fuel multiplayer game design. Ultimately, I think we’ll find, while players definitely love to play our games, they like to play with their friends a lot more.

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