Counterpoint: The Depth of Interplay pt.1
Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 4:09PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Advance Wars, BioShock, Halo, Interplay, Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros., Super Smash Brothers, Zelda

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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

Quasi Counters

Reactionary Counters


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

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
See website for complete article licensing information.