Games that are more than they let on

Hey!
It’s my first post around here so I hope I’m doing this right.

I’ve been thinking about a certain category of games recently and was wondering if there are more games like these, what actually defines these games and what makes them great.

I’m talking about games that bring more to the table than they outwardly promise/advertise. They usually have some kind of twist, mystery or a second layer that isn’t obvious from the start. They are usually quite easy to spoil so recommending them beyond saying “Play it. Just trust me!” is quite hard.

Talking about games like these is a bit of a minefield of accidentally ruining somebody’s potential enjoyment so I’ll use spoiler tags liberally from here on to avoid this.

Examples of the type of game I mean & what makes them part of this category (I’ll try to keep it vague but read at your own risk. Game name and explanation are in separate spoiler tags):

  1. Doki Doki Literature Club (released 2017)
    Why is it part of this category?
  • “Unexpected” narrative horror/shock twist
  • Challenging/playing with players’ genre expectations
  • 4th wall breaking
  1. Outer Wilds (released 2020)
    Why is it part of this category?
  • While the game presents itself as a mystery from the start this mystery gets quite a bit more existential and serious than one would expect from the “cartoony game with quirky physics puzzles” impression you initially get from just the store page or a first impression
  • “Beating” the game is relatively easy from an execution point of view but learning and unraveling all the things you need to know to figure out how to beat it is what makes the game what it is.
  1. Inscryption (released 2021)
    Why is it part of this category?
  • It breaks player expectations multiple times in multiple ways (switching up game rules, presentation/graphics, medium)
  • Having multiple instances of “this is where the real game begins” moments
  • If I remember correctly it also breaks the 4th wall
  1. Void Stranger (released 2023)
    Why is it part of this category?
  • Of all the examples this game hides it’s deeper layers the most from just looking at the store page.
  • Unexpected narrative depth for the genre (sokoban). References/metaphors/analogies to other media one might not expect from a cute little puzzle game
  • Mechanical twists: Features/skills you learn can be used in more ways than is explicitly explained.
  • Puzzles other than the “just” the sokoban-style puzzles

What intrigues me about this category of games is that they are more than the sum of their parts and while they share common elements, they are different enough to keep the category diverse.

Some common traits I’ve identified:

  • Layers - There usually is a second (or third) layer hidden beneath what’s initially presented in game
  • Unexpected Twist(s) - While some of them present themselves as mysteries there is usually a twist to them that you would not expect even in a mystery.
  • Meta-Aspects - Most of them comment either directly or indirectly on games as a medium, the role of the player or game development.
  • You can only play them once - Or at least playing them a second/third time is a significantly different experience.
  • Understatement - These games don’t usually scream “look at our cool twist” in your face. I feel like this is crucial and separates them from “streamer bait”/“youtuber bait” games which I feel often try to imitate these games but in a less elegant way.

Games like these are in a bit of a weird spot/relationship with let’s players and streamers as having “the thing” spoiled kind of ruins the experience and sometimes even overstating that there even is a thing to begin with can dampen enjoyment but a lot of people love watching let’s plays of them as a form of reliving their first time with the game.

  • Are there games like these that you love?
  • What do you/don’t you like about these games?
  • What do you think defines this category? Is there already a name for this type of game and I’m just being needlessly complicated and roundabout?

I personally feel like this is a real hit-or-miss type of game and requires a high level of execution to get right. Otherwise they quickly feels like “I’m 14 and this is deep” fan games.

Don’t forget to use spoiler tags, please! :slight_smile:

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Cool post, welcome to the community!

… I’m gonna be keeping my eye on this thread in general, heheh

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The first game that comes to mind for me is Cookie Clicker (2013)… On the surface it is a happy little idle clicker game, where you have to click on a cookie to bake more cookies, then upgrade to add more grandmas who will automatically make cookies, and then grandma factories etc. it’s pretty standard stuff for the first couple dozen hours, but as the game goes on, things start getting weird, and you get subtle hints about the cosmic horror you have wrought upon this world by making so many cookies and so many grandmas. There’s a lot of subtle world building to enjoy as you keep clicking

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I didn’t know that! I played it way back when but after realizing that I would never be able to get any work done ever again if I continued playing, I quit it relatively quickly so I never got that far in the game.

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I think it’s a great thing to find in a game, but as you say, it has the unintended side effect of making it hard to talk about without ruining the experience for other people. A couple I enjoyed:

Frog Fractions is a simple browser game about math until you realise you can move down.

The Witness is about solving line puzzles on these square panels until you start seeing the shapes everywhere.

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I have trouble identifying what is sufficiently understated and unexpected as a twist. But I’ll try to think of a few I’ve liked that do some of the things you’re describing. Here’s one:

Legend of Grimrock.

  • On its surface, it’s a dungeon crawler that pays great homage to the classics. You fight, you find items, and you go down.
  • The puzzles gradually get more elaborate. Pushing buttons, figuring out clues, optional mechanics with good rewards, all of that. Not a twist, per se, but layered.

  • The twist: Whoops, the voice guide isn’t what they seemed; the mechanics you’ve been rewarded for go against you. And now you’re going through the tomb of the creators of the dungeon, a subtle meta-narrative nod.
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Immortality comes to mind. I won’t even dare talk about its twist, but suffice it to say it 100% belongs amongst this list, and might even be the best example of this trope.

Oh and keeping with the spirit of buy-frank-lewd-mags, it has tasteful nudity.

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I feel like this is a difficult subject to talk about because just giving the name of the game in this context can be a spoiler. That said, I think most of the games of this sort that I’ve played I’ve gone into because I knew there was more to it than it seemed - I wouldn’t have touched Frog Fractions without knowing there was something more to it, for example.

How about game boy Donkey Kong? I dunno what the box or manual gives away because I got my cart only copy as a kid when I lent it to a friend in exchange for Link’s Awakening and he moved away without giving it back. For years I barely touched it and thought I’d been majorly ripped off because it’s just plain ol’ Donkey Kong, but at some point I heard there was more to it and played past the recreation of the original game into the absolutely top notch platformer beyond it.

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I understand the need/desire to not spoil a game of this type when being recommended, but this particular style of suggestion is an anti-recommendation for me. I have promised myself to never again listen to this; if that is all one can say about a game, I’m better off just not playing it. There’s hundreds of other games I know I want to try out.


Sorry about the negative town in the above; in order to make this not an entirely unconstructive post, here’s a suggestion that I think fits: Fez.

It starts off as a pretty decent platformer with a neat 2D-3D gimmick, but expands in to a captivating (at least for me!) puzzle with the in-world obfuscated language, and bonus cubes, and tetris puzzles.

Another that maybe counts, perhaps @yeso can chime in (as the only other member here I’m aware of that has played (and/or liked) this game: The Fool’s Errand.

As the game goes on, some of the puzzles get considerably weirder, and then you end up needing to solve “The Sun’s Map” and discover a whole extra suite of puzzles to solve with clues unlike the first series that the main path of the game presented. – I may be drawing the proverbial bow a bit far on this one, though.

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Yeah agree about Fool’s Errand and related Cliff Johnson games. I appreciate that they don’t lean too heavily on the uncover-stuff-gimmick aspect. They’re just neat, mysterious, unpretentious games.

Would add a few others to this category:

Pathologic and Know By Heart both have narratives that expand from a modest starting point then expand and elaborate to some wild places. Crucially, the games do this in a consistent and maybe you could say organic way, so it’s not at all like the swerves and gotchas you get in other games mentioned itt

Azure Dreams might also fit by virtue of the design being a lot of different stuff unexpectedly welded together. It’s I guess a rogue-like but it also includes both pokemon and some harvest moon too somehow. Maybe the surprise in this case is down to the freer, more eccentric designs in the early 32 but/CD rom years than deliberate obfuscation by the developers, but I sure was surprised to see all that other stuff in what I thought was going to something like Shiren

Hareraiser and the book Masquerade is a videogame-coded book-irl puzzle that’s more convoluted than I can describe here. Worth reading up on, it’s cool. The video game angle is probably the least interesting part of it

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Would Astro Boy: Omega Factor fit the bill?

It begins and plays as a linear platformer/beat-'em-up, but upon “beating” the game, Sharaku’s Death Mask activates and destroys every robot on the planet. Following this, Phoenix revives Astro and gives him the ability to travel in time, meaning you can warp around levels in order to meet new characters and trigger events that eventually lead to the final battle against Pick and Garon and the true, heartbreaking ending. Making New Game +, for want of a better word, diagetic.

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Anodyne 2 is a game all about layers.

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@tombo I think those games fit the bill really well from what I know about them. And they are good examples that it doesn’t only have to be about narrative but also can be mostly mechanics driven.

@Taliesin_Merlin Yeah I have a hard time figuring out the boundaries of this category myself, that’s partly why I wanted to hear what other people think about this. I feel especially the part about the twist being unexpected might be more dependent on the angle the player approaches the game from. For example Doki Doki Literature Club as mentioned in the original post is by now so well known for what it does that it doesn’t really qualify as completely surprising anymore. I think the better the actual subversion of expectations is, the less it is impacted by being somewhat spoiled beforehand.

I might have to check out Legend of Grimrock now. I have it in my steam library but never got around to playing it until now.

@buy-frank-lewd-mags (10/10 user name btw) I heard a lot of good things about that game. I feel like I definitely should check it out.

@Yim Yeah I agree. The promise of a twist can also be a big selling point. I think I wouldn’t have checked out Void Stranger last year, were it not for some cryptic recommendations in this very forum and it was my personal GOTY of last year.

@rejj I completely understand why that sort of recommendation wouldn’t do anything for you! For me it probably wouldn’t either if it came from just some stranger and not somebody whose taste I knew and trusted/shared.

I think Fez is actually a perfect example! And (from what I’ve heard, haven’t played it yet) TUNIC might fall in a similar category?

@yeso That book sounds intriguing! I’ll have to read up on that.

@StuartGipp I can see that fitting into the category. I like the idea of New Game+ being diegetic and not “just” a goodie tacked on to the game by the developer.

@Mnemogenic I really enjoyed the first game. The second one completely flew under my radar. Time to put it on my list. I can totally see how that would fit!


Thanks for everybody’s input so far!

From your suggestions and comments I feel like the understatement aspect might be less important than I initially thought it was. Especially because it is really dependent on where the player is coming from when they start playing the game. I suppose one could even create this sort of effect for oneself by going into games completely blind more often. (Kind of like how Tim sometimes mentions not watching any movie trailers)

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was just gonna post this one! real great game, i just finished replaying it. all i can think to articulate the experience (from what i remember of my first playthrough) is feeling like the fourth wall slowly became transparent.

another one i’ll toss in is 13 sentinels: aegis rim. it does very heavily foreshadow itself as A Game Where Stuff Will Be Revealed, but how it gets there is such a blast - the narrative design is really phenomenally executed.

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well, just to say it: undertale

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13 Sentinels is actually the next game I will play once I’ve finished Unicorn Overlord! I’m really excited for it. I’ll use it as a chance to practice my Japanese. I hope that no important details get lost on me for language related reasons, haha

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god I love this kind of game, the kind of thing you can only really play once cuz once you know there’s no going back. excellent post

I love tunic for this reason - even though the game is from the outset about finding secrets and figuring out what’s going on with the meta layer of finding instruction manual pages, it goes many layers deeper than that, with a language to decode which points to a greater puzzle that has encompassed and infiltrated the entire game without your knowing, and beyond that there are secrets with a second coded language hidden in the music and sound design (!) and the insinuation of an even larger thing outside the game itself

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also evergreen comment from me is that I reaaallllly wanna play outer wilds and have kept myself unspoiled but I tend to get motion sickness from 3d games and I’m afraid to try it :(

even the newer katamari and tony hawk remakes make me all nauseated, it sucks. I should invest in some Dramamine maybe

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@phylaxis I actually managed to stay mostly unspoiled about tunic so far. Really want to play it someday.

Oh man. Yeah I can imagine that Outer Wilds would be tough with motion sickness. Newtonian physics in 3D can make the most motion sickness resistant people feel weird. Should you ever get the chance to play it without suffering I can only recommend it. The game has a special place in my heart! The DLC they released later is actually also quite good.

@MoH Oh yeah, Undertale definitely fits the criteria! I probably should’ve included that in my initial list, haha.

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OneShot might fit in here. It’s pretty upfront about what it is, but what it means to be what it is changes as the game goes on. The thing that I think might make it fit in this company is that it’s definitely a game you can only really play once.

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