Recontextualization

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Occasionally I post some mostly coherent Twitter threads on game design. Some of them are worth saving here. – Max

GameDesign rambles-
I love moments of “recontextualization” in game worlds.

This is part of why exploring in Zelda or Metroidvania games feels good, why you keep coming back to stages in Pokemon Snap… and why live-service games can struggle to give those feelings.

When playing thru an area the 1st time, you learn the layouts, the mechanics, how to think and feel about it.

Recontextualization occurs when a new piece of information or a new verb (tool) causes you to look at that area differently, and re-evaluate what you thought you knew.

A classic example is the hookshot, in a Zelda game. Before you get it you may see gaps you can’t cross and tantalizing goals that you can’t reach. Maybe you saw surreptitiously placed targets or objects but you had no way to interact with them.

Then you get the hookshot, and you use it on one of those targets. And you think back to all the previous places you saw those kind of objects: suddenly areas that you had finished exploring have new life, tantalizing new possibilities. You add new “?”s to your mental map.

This occurs in many ways: when you get the ability to move faster in Pokemon Snap, it opens up a WEALTH of new ways to get great photographs. When you learn a new piece of lore in Horizon Zero Dawn that gives new weight or meaning to the weird ruins you saw much earlier.

This must be a NEW piece of information to achieve recontextualization. In the hookshot example: experienced Zelda players don’t get experience it because they saw it coming. They already mentally marked “hookshot spot”, so no update occurs.

Novelty and surprise are vital here.

In my experience, the effect is most profound when players are taking note of something but don’t know how it works: a symbol they don’t understand, a weird object that looks decorative. And then “bam”, suddenly a surprising new tool that changes all those “?”s to “!”s.

This brings me to my final point: This is much easier to pull off in a game with a known beginning, middle, and end. It requires carefully seeding elements in earlier parts of a game, and then providing a surprising or novel new mechanic or story twist connected to them.

That’s why this is less common in live service games that update over years: it’s hard to seed those elements in a subtle way earlier on, and there’s only so much design surface area to add novel new mechanics or plot-twists in every update.

Not impossible. Just much harder.