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Counterpoint: The Depth of Interplay pt.1

When I started the Mario Melodies series about a year ago, the first topic I covered was interplay. The purpose of this series is to take a closer look at the various types of interplay, examine its effect on the game design/gameplay, and chart out some examples of deep interplay in high level strategies. If you're new to the concept of interplay read here first.

Interplay is the essence of gameplay. Because video games are an interactive medium the concept of input-output or call and response is how the player and the computer system can be aware of each other and respond accordingly. In a game system where a player attempts to reach a goal, the challenge is created when there are elements of contrary motion, or elements that try to slow and/or otherwise prevent the player from reaching the goal.

Like in many real life games/sports/and situations, the nature of a challenge changes with every action you make whether the sakes rise, your body grows more tired, or someone/something adjusts to stop you. When the challenge changes (push) you in turn respond to these changes (pull) and the cycle continues. Interplay in video games is this inevitable push and pull between the player and the gameplay elements that exists because the elements of gameplay are all bound by the same rules (time, space, turns, etc).


Interplay: A counter and/or the continual chain of back and forth counters between any two gameplay elements.

Counter: A forced/influenced change in the line of motion of a gameplay element by another gameplay element.

Line of motion: The functional intent/potential/action of a gameplay element.


With interplay being such an important quality in interactive games, the building blocks of strategy, and the foundation of counterpoint, it's about time that we examine the different types more closely. Below are the different types of counters that can exist in a gameplay system.


Special Case Counter: A counter that is designed outside of the range of the core player mechanics. The rules or mechanics of these special case counters generally cannot be extrapolated to apply to any other part of the game. Special case counters include quicktime events or QTEs.

  • Resident Evil 4 & 5 use quicktime events as counters. It doesn't matter what the situation is, during specific moments in the game, players only have to worry about hitting the right button quickly enough or rapidly enough. Whether you're running from a boulder, engaging in a knife fight, or dodging a grid of deadly lasers, surviving each scenario requires inputs that are special cases in that they're separate from nearly all of the other rules and mechanics of the game.
  • Heavenly Sword
  • God of War
  • Prince of Persia.
  • For a continued list click here.


Abstract Counter: When a counter is designed that blatantly ignores the rules of form fits function, it can be considered an abstract counter. Many times, these counters are designed to balance gameplay and are "last minute" alterations. In such cases, fixing the forms of the game would take too much work, time, and/or resources away from development. And so we're stuck with simply memorizing how these counters work individually despite how they look. In this way, abstract counters are very similar to special case counters.

  • In Ikaruga, it's possible to play through the entire game without firing a single shot. To do this there there are times, like on the second level, where players must pass through solid barriers. Normally, players crash and explode if they run into these barriers. But in this special/abstract case, you can pass through the barrier unharmed. See video above @ 1:10.
  • The Street Fighter series features many attacks that allow characters to pass through projectiles uninhibited as they advance forward. According to how the game appears, the projectiles simply pass through these attacking characters without effect. To learn which moves can pass through which projectiles, players have to memorize each case. In other words, you can't understand the rules simply by watching and extrapolating a general rule of thumb. For example, in SFHDRemix, Ken and Ryu's Hurricane Kick special attack can pass through/over Guile's Sonic Boom projectile. But, the Hurricane Kick can't pass through/over Ken or Ryu's fire ball projectiles. Though both projectiles look like they come into contact with the Hurricane Kick animation, one hits and one doesn't.


Natural Counter: A natural counter is created from the limitations of time and/or space. This counter includes everything from dodging out of the way of an attack, taking advantage of "laggy" animations, to positioning elements in such a way as to prevent immediate retaliation. For games designed around spaces 2D or 3D, natural counters are the most prevalent, automatic, and dynamic type of counter. We generally don't even think about natural counters as being anything too special. Still, using and hitting any kind of attack that moves through the game space requires timing, spacing, and positioning game elements into optimum range. This fact alone plays a significant part of making spatial games inherently dynamic and engaging.

The videos below cover how spacing/zoning, the controlling of space is an engaging and dynamic activity that stems from creating and maintaining advantages out of the potential of gameplay mechanics.

  • Reloading. In general, you are vulnerable when you're reloading in an FPS because reloading takes time and during this time, you can't shoot back. When life or death can be determined in a second, even the small amount of timing spent reloading or switching a weapon can be costly.
  • Recovery animations. In general, using stronger more versatile moves in fighting games leaves you wide open to counter attacks because your character must recover from them. This simple balance plays into the risk-reward balance.
  • In an RTS or Advance Wars, it doesn't matter how many strong units you have against your opponent on one side of the map, if they manage to destroy your last building (Star Craft) or capture your HQ (Advance Wars) on the other side of the map it's game over. Even if you want to prevent this from happening, moving all of your units takes time. And whether time is measured in seconds or in turns, in general, the stronger and more versatile the unit, the more time it's going to take to move it from one point to another.
  • In the Mario platformers as well as many other platforming games, falling down in a natural part of JUMPing up. Once you're in the air, you're committed to landing. You may be able to adjust your position in mid air by using different abilities, but those ability can't save you from every situation.


Decay Counter: In games with mechanics with limited resource, counters of decay are possible. Whether you put an opposing element/player in a situation that influences them to use a limited resource, or you force them to use a limited resource, the idea is that by doing this enough the opponent's resources will run out and their strategy will no longer be as viable of an option.

  • Advance Wars: This game features a lot of decay. A unit's offensive abilities decay with their health/defensive abilities. Also, units have limited movement resources and weapon ammunition. Forcing an opponent to move around you or even to shoot you can be used in strategies that waste their resources. 
  • Neo*RPG: At the start of each battle, the player only has 5 rocks to throw. To get more, he/she must move around the field and pick up rocks from the ground. In this way, though the player has a large advantage over most of the enemies with the long range rock throw attacks, he/she must be on the move to keep the rock resources from running out. 
  • Super Smash Brothers Melee/Brawl: In addition to stale move negation, many dynamic moves in this game decay with repeated use. ROB can only fly around for so long before he must refuel by standing on solid ground. Pit must rest his wings for a few seconds after using them to fly around. Diddy's jet pack falls faster and faster through the air when charging with repeated use without rest. The list goes on and on. 
  • SmashBOARD: Like in Advance Wars and Chess, SmashBOARD features a decay system that encourages player, especially players with more HP, to boldly attack weaker players. Also retreating consumes more mobility resources
  • In Street Fighter 4, one player can pressure the other player into situations where they're influenced to use special EX moves to defend themselves. With a full super meter, a player can only use 4 EX attacks where each attack reduces the meter by 1/4. Also, without a full super meter or a nearly full rage meter, that player cannot use their super attacks. Knowing this, you can temporarily disable your opponents range of powerful strategies by playing to the decay. Or, if you're being pinned down with powerful EX attacks, at least you know they can only use 4 of them against you in a small period of time.


Cause and Effect Counter: Some counters occur when game elements change from one state into another. With each state comes new effects, lines of contrary motion, and nuances.

skip to 4:15

  • Zelda Wind Waker: The Armos Knights are statues that hop around trying to run into Link. After 3 hops, they open their mouths. If players throw a bomb inside, the Knights will explode and switch to their secondary berserk state. In this state, they spin around rapidly and then explode violently. In this way, when the first state is countered, the second state is activated. See video above @ 4:15.
  • Super Mario Brothers: The flying Paratroopa has 3 states; flying, walking, and shell. Each state is designed with its own tricks that are desigend to create contrary motion against Mario. The dewinged flying state will land and move in Mario's direction. The shell state can either wake up (turning into the walking state) or rebound off of solid objects to try and hurt Mario. Without a pit to drop Koopa into or powerups to destroy them, these enemies will remain a threat to Mario by changing states.
  • BioShock: When you set a Splicer on fire, they sometimes run around searching for water to put out the flames. While burning and running around, these enemies switch into a defensive state. If they reach the water, the player can counter their counter by electrocuting them for a devastating combination attack.


In addition to the different types of counters detailed above, each counter can also be described as one of these two types: preventative and reactionary. Preventative counters are when a player or game element stops a force of contrary motion from ever affecting them according to the aims of their functional intent. For example, a preventative counter to a fighting game kick attack would stop the kick from doing damage or knock back. On the other hand,  reactionary counters are the measures a game element can take to "stop the bleeding" after an element of contrary motion has succeeded in its functional aims. In other words, making the most out of the situation by influencing things back in your favor. Naturally, depending on how you consider the functional intent of an action, there's a Quasi Counters that fall in the middle of these two types.

Preventative Counters

  • Marth's Counter, Super Smash Brothers Melee/Brawl. This move is only active for a small window of time. If the player activates it just before an oncoming attack hits Marth, the attack does no damage or knock back and Marth swings his sword in retaliation.
  • Bubble Shield, Halo 3. By activating a bubble shield, players can completely deflect all incoming projectile attacks. Rockets, snipe shots, grenades, and lasers are all blocked by the bubble shield. 

Quasi Counters

  • Focus Attacks, Street Fighter 4. In this fighter, players can charge a special move that allows them to absorb the impact and damage of one regular attack and still unleash their focus attack for devastating results. The reason why this move falls in the quasi zone is because when you absorb the damage of an incoming regular attack, you automatically heal back to your original HP before absorbing the damage. However, if you're hit at any time while healing, the healing stops. Also, if you absorb enough damage at low HP, you are KOed without even getting an opportunity to heal. In other words, you can use this attack to counter some moves and strategies, but if the intent of your opponent is to get you to take the damage (even temporarily) then the focus attack fails as a preventative counter.
  • Glance Grabs, Super Smash Brothers Brawl: If you time it just right, you can successfully grab an attacking opponent out of their attacks, but you still take the damage from the hit. Like focus attacks, glance grabs are a counter, but not for all situations. For example, if you absorb the damage of a massive hit (20%) for a grab that the opponent quickly breaks out of you just took 20% damage for nothing.  This is not a positive trade off (at least for this limited scenario). Super armor is the same way.

Reactionary Counters

  • Ukemi, Viewtiful Joe: After getting hit by an enemy attack and taking the damage, players can time the ZOOM IN mechanic right before Joe hits the ground to perform an Ukemi. Doing this recovers some of the player's health. You may not be able to dodge all incoming attacks, but after each hit, you can make the best of the situation by recovering as much HP back as you can. 
  • Directional Influence, Super Smash Brothers Brawl. The moment after being hit, players can influence the direction they are knocked away with the analog stick. This small bit of control goes a long way for giving the defensive player a way of mixing things up so they're not trapped in long, devastating, guaranteed combos.


In the next part of this series, we'll look at what effects depth (interplay) versus complexities have on gameplay and game design.

« Counterpoint: The Depth of Interplay pt.2 | Main | Counterpoint: Functional Blind Spots »

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