10 Video Games That Broke the Rules

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Game makers sometimes feel like they can’t just make a fun product in today’s extremely competitive market. They need to make a fun game with a twist in its plot, themes or gameplay. They need to flip some significant trope or some other aspect of their game on its head. These ten games pulled that difficult task off.

10. Undertale (2013)

The Plot:

A child falls into an underground realm where generations ago monsters were driven to live by human armies. After being rescued from a villainous flower by a cow-like being named Toriel, the child has to go through an environment full of monsters to return to the surface world. But how much danger is the child really in?

How It Broke the Rules:

While the game has retro style graphics, it has a fully developed and three dimensional morality system. The combat sections are designed so that the player has plot-relevant options instead of just needing to attack opponents. There are various forms of communication the player can use with enemies instead of simply running away or fighting them to the death. There are clear advantages and disadvantages to either killing or sparing all enemy characters, but just the fact that there’s an option aside from killing almost everything encountered makes the game a breath of fresh air.

9. The Last Of Us (2013)

The Plot:

After human beings become infected with a fungus, civilization collapses and main character Joel tries to survive with a succession of companions, including a girl that has the potential to be a means to vaccinate against the infection.

How It Broke the Rules:

Many game critics have told us how great the graphics, gameplay, writing, performances, and pretty much everything else is about this game, but one aspect that doesn’t get quite enough credit is how it subverted one of the most common tropes in terms of parents and children in fiction. In the opening segment, when our protagonist Joel is in the midst of societal collapse in Austin, Texas, a very unusual thing happens as far as these game setups go:

Just when Joel thinks he’s escaped with his daughter the latter is gunned down. Most other games would go the opposite route in the opening. They want kids and young adults to be playing it, so they want a relatable protagonist. They want a hero who grows up as they go on an adventure. But not only is Joel not going on a traditional “hero’s journey,” he’s not even a particularly motivated person anymore. Between the opening scene where he weeps over his dead daughter and the twenty years that pass before the next scene, he’s clearly become a man with little to go on. Joel’s journey in The Last of Us isn’t to grow up, it’s to become whole again. It’s a gutsy approach for a major title to have such a hero.

8. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)

The Plot:

Daniel is an amnesiac who finds a note telling him to travel through the castle he just woke up in to kill a man named Alexander. He also sees in the note that he gave himself amnesia with a potion. Why must he kill Alexander and why did Daniel take away his own memories?

How It Broke the Rules:

Most horror games prior to Amnesia undercut their scares by providing their players with significant combat ability. When an opponent, monstrous or otherwise, is something you can defeat in combat it stops being a menace and starts being a regular bad guy. Players don’t feel helpless in the face of the thing, they try to think of a strategy to take away its hit points.

Amnesia got around that by making you flat out useless in a fight. The player’s only option when encountering a monster is to run and hide. This isn’t what most of us would assume a gamer would want to do for fun, but it certainly heightened the sense of horror the game provided. To keep players on their toes and prevent them from spending a frustrating amount of time hiding, the number of enemies is limited. That’s pretty far from the vast majority of games where the enemies are numerous and easily beaten so the player can feel a constant sense of accomplishment. It’s an excellent way of giving the player long enough to get comfortable before the next monster comes.

7. Braid (2010)

The Plot:

Main character Tim goes through widely disparate, non-chronological worlds on a quest to rescue a princess. Unfortunately, the princess seems to be trying to prevent herself from being rescued. Luckily Tim has the power to bend time, clone himself, and so on.

How It Broke the Rules:

Probably the most significant takeaway for most players, despite game creator Jonathan Blow’s intentions that there not be any specific point made by the game, is that Tim is not the hero of the game even though he’s the main character and on a quest. He’s clearly meant to be a stalker who’s a villain in denial. It’s the princess trying to keep herself from him, not a kidnapper. It’s a huge subversion of the hero fantasy that drives a lot of gaming.

6. Pathologic (2005)

The Plot:

A quarantined town with a vaguely-defined malaise is visited by three professionals. Their time to save the community is limited before the situation is changed from a quarantine to a liquidation.

How It Broke the Rules:

Even reviewers that liked Pathologic were clear that it isn’t a fun game and it doesn’t try to be. The combat is designed to be realistic in constraining ways. The player’s ammo and health is limited, injuries can get infected, melee weapons lose effectiveness if used extensively, etc. It even includes energy meters like “Hunger” and “Exhaustion” which further inhibit the possibility of a pure rip-roaring adventure. The music, mood and color scheme are all designed for a dispiriting atmosphere to match.

Fans held up the rich backgrounds written for the characters as a real selling point for Pathologic. Most games make many minor non-player characters only able to deliver small bits of dialogue to advance the plot. Here every single character gets some development and something of value to say. Even this can work against enjoying the game, because if the player loses (which is very likely) an animation of everyone dying plays. Seeing characters you’ve grown to like die off is much more of a punch in the gut than watching anonymous strangers being killed. Between the dour tone and the depth, is it any surprise this is a Russian game?

5. Harvester (1996)

The Plot:

We play as Steve, an average young man who wakes up in his pseudo-1950s, quirky small Texas town called Harvest with no memories of his surroundings or anyone else, including his fiance. He has a week to join a mysterious “lodge” or be killed in a “blood drive.”

How It Broke the Rules:

In 1996, the idea that video games were causing violent behavior and inadvertently training a generation to become killers was a much more credible notion than it is today. In Harvester, that psychologically unsound notion is played straight. Almost every other game at the time insisted that the player was a hero out to save the day. In Harvester, the player character is trapped inside a virtual reality machine. The machine was designed to turn you into a serial killer through desensitization to violence and misanthropy by exposing you to weird, unlikable characters. The storyline requires the player to commit plenty of evil to make progress, including burning down buildings and committing murder.

Harvester takes this dark idea a step further in that even if the player takes the moral path and refuses to become a serial killer, Steve doesn’t win. The people that plugged him into the simulation just kill him and prepare the next person. So it’s not as if you beat the game and learned a lesson about doing the right thing, at least if your morality is based on a system of rewards and punishments. Within the context of the story, the player not becoming a serial killer through the surrogate of Steve only means that the game failed in its mission to corrupt them.

4. No More Heroes (2008)

The Plot:

Travis Touchdown is an anime fan who becomes an assassin to pay for his various passions, most of which involve him sitting in his bedroom. Determined to rise from the 11th best in his association to number one, he goes after various enemies that symbolize contemporary issues.

How It Broke the Rules:

Whatever other commentary might be made within this game, the real point is that Travis Touchdown is a caricature of gamers. He has nonsensically over-the-top adventures with very garish graphics in a fantasy version of a crime-riddled world, but he still has to spend a large amount of time doing menial jobs like mowing the lawn and working at a gas station. In other words, he perfectly fits the gamer stereotype. Games often make little jabs like this at players, but it’s almost never so committed and specific, and it rarely makes the target seem so pathetic. This subversive point is made more and more explicit as the game goes on, to the point where characters essentially say it directly to Travis Touchdown so that even the thickest players can’t miss it.

3. Dark Seed II (1995)

The Plot:

Mike Dawson is suspected of murdering his girlfriend in a small Texas town. In the course of his investigation into what really happened he travels into a parallel dimension known as the Dark World.

How It Broke the Rules:

If Travis Touchdown seems like a mean-spirited caricature of gamers, check out Mike Dawson. He’s such a broken human being that he lives with his mother, is unemployed, still pines for his high school crush after meeting her at a reunion, and whines constantly. All this seems like it was a deliberate subversion instead of just bad characterization because in the original Dark Seed Mike Dawson was a normal, bookish person. It would have been easier to have him be the same for this second game rather than downgrade his heroism so much.

The Dark World portions introduce a number of traditional action game elements like high-tech weapons, aliens, etc., but they’re constantly deprived of their coolness. Mike Dawson is given a cybernetic machine gun and an electrical crossbow, but he only gets to use them to cheat at carnival games. He runs into numerous helpful cyborgs that are being oppressed and doesn’t help any of them. And ultimately, even if you beat the game, you still lose because Mike Dawson dies a meaningless, ignoble death.

2. Space Funeral (2003)

The Plot:

Philip is a bawling bald guy in yellow pajamas who lives in a world full of horror staples like blood and monsters. He hears that there are memories of a time when things were better and thus sets out on a journey to correct the world.

How It Broke the Rules:

It’s clear that Philip is meant to be a parody of the young heroes at the center of many adventures, from Luke Skywalker in A New Hope to Cloud in Final Fantasy VII. He’s basically a big baby. The world of Space Funeral is so full of grisly stuff like blood and amputated appendages that it makes the horrors seem mundane. The combat is so simple that the player can defeat all the enemies with ease all the way through the game. If you use special attacks the ways they inflict damage are often intentionally silly. For example, Philip can sing a song and give all his opponents heart attacks. The battles aren’t so much an afterthought as they are an attack on the way this style of combat really exists to just pad out games.

But the real subversion comes at the end. It’s revealed by the final boss that the world of Space Funeral was once a pleasant place because it used generic game design assets. The way the world looks throughout Space Funeral is ugly and absurd because it’s unique and has an author’s personal stamp. The game makes the point that creativity and uniqueness might not actually be all they’re cracked up to be, which subverts the argument most artistic games like this would usually make.

1. Papers, Please (2013)

The Plot:

The player is an immigration official for the fictional Eastern European country of Arstotzka in the 1980s. You check passports and other documents to see who will be allowed in. As the game progresses, new complications to the rules are added. That’s not to mention the threats of poverty, terrorists and the player’s commanding officers.

How It Broke the Rules:

Papers, Please is indeed about checking documents for most of its length, and those sections may well be it at its most tense. There are moments of violence, but they’re brief and hardly designed to be exciting. Papers, Please is more about the how the pressures of basic survival and the daily grind of an unpleasant job make people willing to do things like destroy families or allow people to be murdered just because routine demands it. If there’s something further from the concept of a fun game than going through shifts at a mind-numbing job so that the player can meditate on the banality of evil, we haven’t heard of it.

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2 Comments

  1. This title sucks…

    None of these games broke the rules; they introduced new elements to an existing genre. This title should be renamed to “Games that changed a genre” (but then you would’ve left off a lot of games)

    A game that breaks a rule should be something that happens in a game that doesn’t follow the game’s mechanism. For example, why does Cloud just revive Aeris with a Phoenix Down? Game Broken!

  2. Nicolás Reyes on

    The Stanley Parable. That’s the reason I’m here, this game defined what braking the rules means for me, and I haven’t played a game like it since. It’s a shame it isn’t on the list.

    The Stanley Parable is a videogame about videogames, it’s a story but it never ends, even though it has many endings. “When Stanley got to a set of two open doors, he took the door on his left” Wich door you’ll take? It’s up to you… or maybe it isn’t.

    “The Stanley Parable” is a masterpiece, if you want to play a game that really breakes the rules, play The Stanley Parable, and you’ll find out that you aren’t really playing the game but instead the game is playing you.

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