Where You Put The Subversion

So there’s this post by Andrew Haining called “Outer Wilds critical analysis” but what I find most interesting about it is a digression that has little to do with Outer Wilds.

Haining discusses what he terms a game’s “core loop” - the direct interactions with the game that take up most of your time - and the “metagame” - the long-term progression and goal framework laid on top of the core loop. I’m not a fan of using the term “metagame” in this way since it’s commonly used with a very different meaning, so I’m going to use the term “progression” instead.

What I found interesting is that he points out that games that want to be enjoyable but carry dark or difficult messages can generally choose between two major approaches. He gives Frostpunk and This War of Mine as examples of games that have engaging and enjoyable core loops but progressions that he terms “subversive” and describes as deliberately unsatisfying. You do fun stuff but you do it in service of an unsatisfying goal. I’d probably add Spec Ops: The Line to this list.

The other approach is that taken by, for example, Pathologic. It inverts the arrangement - the core loop is subversive and unsatisfying, but it’s in service of a more traditionally-satisfying progression. Haining notes that this is a much riskier approach, as the vast majority of players will be turned off by the core loop before they get any satisfying progress. And indeed, my sense is that many more people found Pathologic unpalatable than the other mentioned games.

I just thought that was interesting, and something to keep in mind when trying to make a game with dark themes or messages.