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LBP Workshop: Contrary Motion

Back when I first covered counterpoint on this blog, I talked about a very important part of video games (and all games) called contrary motion. If the goal of a game is to reach the goal, then it's important that the player must go through some kind of challenge reaching it. If the challenge is designed to slow or stop the player's progression to the goal, then the challenge can be considered to be set against the goal-oriented motion of the player. This is the basic idea of contrary motion: the designed intent of game elements that are functionally set against each other. 

Super Mario in Motion

Let's look at Super Mario Brothers for a clear example. As I have explained in my comments on Brad Borne's 2D Mirror's Edge post, in SMB Mario's goal is always set to the right. Because SMB is a platforming game, the first, most basic, and constant source of contrary motion is the gravity. When players use Mario's primary mechanic, JUMP, gravity is always there to pull him back down. What goes up, must come down. Though many believe that real time physics is something new and exciting in the world of video games, the gravity in SMB has always been physics based. And it has always been exciting.

In fact, gravity just may be the most widely used and most dynamic feature in video games. All 2D platformers use it. All 3D shooters use it. All fighters with jumps use it. Even puzzle games use a it. Though sometimes simplified (Tetris) other times not so much (Meteos, World of Goo). Gravity is something that everyone on the planet experiences in more or less the same way. We've all dropped things, fallen down, and had objects thrown or fall on us. In other words, we know what it feels like. On the flip side, I've noticed that we are absolutely mesmerized by individuals who seem to defy gravity. Most sports use gravity and are designed in a way so that players must over come it in a physical and visual display of skill. I can't help but get excited when a 3 point shot hangs in the air or a football is thrown all the way down the field. And it's the acceleration due to gravity that creates beautifully smooth arcs as projectiles travel through the air.

So, Mario has gravity to fight against that's always bringing him down, but he also has enemies that generally move from right to left. This is the third example of contrary motion in Super Mario Brothers. If Mario doesn't JUMP (or throw a well timed fireball) there's no way players will beat any level in the game. When it's do or die, players JUMP. The interesting part of this set up is by JUMPing, players then move against gravity. In other words, to avoid one type of motion set against Mario, players enter another. When playing the game, the relationship of these two lines (groups of level elements with functionally similar contrary motion) of contrary motion forces the player to be aware of both the gravity and the enemies together to play successfully. After all, it doesn't matter if you JUMP the Koopa if you also leap into a pit.

There's one more interesting thing about the three lines of contrary motion (Mario/Player, gravity, enemies) in Super Mario Brothers . The gravity and enemies lines aren't just set against the player to create challenges, these two lines of contrary motion are also set against each other. Gravity can cause Mario to fall into pits as well as Goomba, Koopa, and other enemies. On the other hand, some enemies can fly and jump to defy the downward pull of gravity. Overall, this triangle of contrary motion gives the world of Super Mario Brothers a rich definition that communicates an interconnected organic world instead of an obstacle course designed only to punish Mario.

Why Motion?

 To understand why contrary motion is so important in how it influences gameplay, one must understand game design from the ground up or core outward. Here's a quick break down...(or is it build up?).

  1. The heart of the video game medium is also what makes it unique from most other forms of entertainment and art. Interactivity.
  2. With interactivity comes action, doing, and function. The abilities the player is given to interact with a video game are called mechanics
  3. Generally, when designing a good game, developers try to make their mechanics as intuitive, direct, and dynamic as possible. Doing this makes interaction in the game as (potentially) interesting as possible, which is a good thing considering point #1 and #2.
  4. To create function, designers create goals, levels, and sometimes enemies. The players must reach the goal by using mechanics to win.
  5. When the level or enemies elements are designed with a lot of interplay (depth) and/or there are many different ways to use, execute, and experience the core mechanics, designers then use variation and contrary motion to create a multitude of situations each with a different context for the player mechanics. The more dynamics, interplay, and contrary motion in a game system, the more emergence there is. The more emergencem, the more unique the plyaer experience will be. 

To sum up, variation and contrary motion are powerful tools that realize the potential designed into the core (mechanics, interpay, dynamics) of a game. If a game doesn't have much in its core, then there isn't much variation and contrary motion can do for the game.

2D Games With Gravity

Super Smash Brothers.

  • Gravity
  • level elements (platforms, stage)
  • level hazards (enemeis, spikes, explosions)
  • The player versus opponent(s)

If Super Mario Brothers was a fighter, it would play a lot like Super Smash Brothers. This innovative, next-gen fighter is a fighter and a platformer all in one. Ring outs are the only way to win, which means players have to push their opponents to the outer extremities with a strong enough force to overcome the downward gravity. The vast majority of attacks, weapons, and level elements are affected by gravity. Aditionally, up to three other characters on screen provide dynamic omnidiretional lines of contrary motion.

Street Fighter. The contrary motion in Street Fighter is similar to Smash Brothers but operates to a much lesser degree. There are no ring outs or any kind of platforming in Street Fighter. Instead of moving around the stage, players are only concerned with the single opponent. Though players have the ability to jump, with the lack of air control or a double jump, aerial assaults functions more like attack moves rather than a positioning/platforming move. Because the only threat comes from the single opponent who is always positioned in the direction you're facing, the main line of contrary motion comes directly ahead of you. In this way, the corners or invisible walls of the stage functions as a line of motion that brings the players together when one player would have otherwise continued to back up.

  • Gravity
  • Corners
  • Player versus opponent


2D Games Without Gravity

When a game doesn't use gravity as one of its core lines of contrary motion, creating enough contrary motion generally becomes more complicated. Gravity is very useful for creating a sense of suspence due to the limited control players experience as gravity pulls them back them down, a sense of timing as the time moving to the apex of a jump equal the time it takes to fall back to the same height, and naturally creating curved motion even in a blocky, angular, geometric game world. At the same time gravity pulls the player down to the very bottom of the screen/level and keeps the game traveling along the ground.

The Legend of Zelda: The 2D top down Zelda games use a variety of enemies and level obstacles to influence the player to move and fight in unique ways. In Zelda, unlike a gravity based game, players have the whole screen to move through freely. To influence the movement paths, obstacle are positioned on the map. Link can't move through these obstacles, so players much choose a path to circumnavigate. Along with the level element obstacles, enemies are added. Like the triangle of contrary motion for Super Mario Brothers, enemies and player alike must maneuver around the level obstacles. In this way, the safe paths open to the player can close dynamically and visa versa. Add in a few enemies that aim and shoot the player with projectiles that ignore the level obstacles and the game has all the contrary motion it needs to influence a multitude of unique gameplay. 


Neo*RPG. In the same way Zelda created contrary motion by opening and closing moving lanes, Neo*RPG does the same but takes things a bit further. The PUSH mechanic can knock around stunned enemies as well as the white blocks. By moving around the white block level obstacles, all the movement paths dynamic change. And because the PUSHed blocks are also attacks on enemies, the player can create setups that increase their offense, defense, both, or that limit enemy movement. This dynamic combined with the motion and variation design of the enemies (see above) is what makes Neo*PRG's combat work so well.


Without gravity, such games use a lot of enemy variety and numbers to create enough contrary motion to keep things interesting. The Geometry Wars series is a perfect example of the extreme side of contrary motion without gravity.


Games without Gravity or Game Worlds

But what about games that don't have gravity, characters, or game worlds to move around in? Games like Solitaire and Uno are good examples of games with contrary motion without using space, time, or gravity.

In a deck of cards each card (except for the joker) is given a number/face and a suite. When playing a card, that card is a part of multiple grouping/lines of motion depending on the rules. In Solitaire, players organize cards by shifting them around between piles. The way the rules work, the player must count down in some piles and up in others. At the same time players have to organize the goal piles by suite, yet organize their intermediary piles by alternating colors. In this way, no matter what kind of move the player makes, they're affecting their future moves and possibilities because of the types and contrary groupings built into the cards and the rules. 

  • color (black, red)
  • suite (heart, spade, diamond, club)
  • numbers (2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
  • face (jack, queen, king, joker)
  • 4 of each number and face card for matching sets

Uno is the same way, but in a very simplified way by using only 4 colors and numbers.

Contrary motion is clearly a powerful design tool. But what about creating contrary motion in a platformer without enemies? What about LittleBigPlanet? Though the core mechanics could use some tweaks, what's the best approach to bringing out LBP's best gameplay through contrary motion? Stay tuned.


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