Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. His research investigates various aspects of computer-based art and entertainment, focusing in particular on interactive stories. His recent work has explored the role of defamiliarization in gameplay, and motivations for replaying story-focused games.

Contact information:
alexm at

Liting Kway

Liting Kway completed her MA in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. Her research explores how the player, playable character and non-playable character in a storygame can impact the perceived agency that a player feels as these three entities interact.

Contact information:
litingk at

Tiffany Neo

Tiffany Neo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. Her current research revolves around the impact of interactivity on storytelling in comics. Her other research interests and involvement include storytelling and poetic effects in games and other forms of interactive stories.

Contact information:
neo.yuhan at

Yuin Theng Sim

Yuin Theng Sim completed her MA in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. Her research explores the ways in which gameplay is involved in the process of narrative reception, focusing specifically on wordless storytelling in games.

Contact information:
E0013224 at

A Preliminary Categorization of Techniques for Creating Poetic Gameplay

by Alex Mitchell, Liting Kway, Tiffany Neo, Yuin Theng Sim


This paper explores the idea of "poetic gameplay": gameplay that is deliberately made strange, or defamiliarized, to create a poetic effect, drawing attention to the form of the work as a way to encourage reflection. We do this by identifying, through a series of close readings of games that contain poetic effects, a set of "literary devices" that are used in these games to create poetic gameplay. We categorize these techniques in terms of how they defamiliarize player expectations for interaction, gameplay, agency, time, and boundaries. The techniques we identify can provide a foundation for future analysis of the role of defamiliarization in creating meaningful gameplay and can act as inspiration for designers of poetic games.

Keywords: defamiliarization, poetic gameplay, art games, literary devices, close readings



Some games are "difficult" in ways not normally associated with games (difficult to know how to play, difficult to know what they mean, difficult to determine whether they are even games in the first place). By means of this interpretive and affective difficulty (Jagoda, 2018), these games encourage reflection on their form in a manner similar to poetry. These games are often referred to as "art games" (Bogost, 2011; Sharp, 2015). To understand how these games work, we look for techniques in games that are analogous to the "literary devices" used in literature. Through a series of close readings, we identify and categorize the techniques used in these games to create a sense of defamiliarization (Shklovsky, 1965).

Shklovsky proposed the notion of defamiliarization to explain the process of undermining expectations so as to slow down perception and "impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known" (1965). This results from the "[s]ystematic disturbance of the categorization process [which] makes low-categorized information, as well as rich pre-categorial sensory information, available to consciousness" (Tsur, 1992, p. 4), drawing attention to and encouraging reflection on the form of a work. Although there are many variations on the translation of Shklovsky's term (Berlina, 2015; Pötzsch, 2017), here we use "defamiliarization" for consistency with Mitchell (2016), whose notion of poetic gameplay is the starting point for our current analysis.

In addition to questions relating to the translation of the term, there has also been much debate about how exactly to interpret the concept of defamiliarization (Pötzsch, 2017, 2019). It is unclear whether Shklovsky intended the term to refer to "a play of form for the sake of renewing form", or "a context-oriented notion that sees a de-habituation of readers' and spectators' relations to the world as its main task" (Pötzsch, 2019, p. 236). The latter interpretation is often seen as having some similarity to Brecht's (1957) concept of Verfremdung or V-effect. Addressing these issues, Pötzsch argues that Shklovsky's concept is "not only directed at formal conventions, but always also implies a changed relation to the world". In addition, defamiliarization focuses on "rediscovering an... original relation to things", whereas Brecht's Verfremdung attempts to uncover "invisible power relations... with the immediate purpose of facilitating change" (2019, p. 241).

Pötzsch (2017) argues for the usefulness of a neo-formalist approach to game analysis grounded in the concepts proposed by Shklovsky. Myers (2009, 2010) also points to defamiliarization and formalism as a possible approach to game analysis. However, unlike Pötzsch, Myers claims that all games are defamiliarizing, a position that Pötzsch takes issue with. We follow Pötzsch, seeing defamiliarization as a technique used in specific games for a specific effect, in a manner similar to the use of poetic language in poetry and literature.

A number of previous studies have used defamiliarization as a framework to understand the nature of "art games". Asad (2011) compares modernist poetry and videogames, suggesting that game mechanics can be expressive in similar ways to language in poetry. In particular, game mechanics can be structured so as to encourage players to re-evaluate their playing practice. Similarly, Sezen (2015) draws parallels between Valéry and Guenther's (1954) notion of poems as machinery and game mechanics, suggesting that in a game such as Fatale (Tale of Tales, 2009), the gameplay changes through the course of the game, "from familiar to unfamiliar and to the almost inactive", thereby defamiliarizing the gameplay experience. Ensslin (2015) argues that certain videogames can be seen as a form of unnatural narrative (Richardson, 2016). In particular, Ensslin is interested in "literary games", which she defines as "games that seek to defamiliarize and innovate the gaming experience through highly idiosyncratic ludonarrative mechanics" (2015, p. 13). These studies tend to focus on specific works, exploring how the identified poetic devices encourage players to reflect on the form of the work. The exception is Ensslin (2015), who argues for adapting Richardson’s (2016) notion of unnatural narrative to games through a series of examples, but does not go further than suggesting the usefulness of this approach to a broader range of games.

Closest to our current work, Mitchell (2014, 2016) applies defamiliarization to the analysis of art games, introducing the notion of "poetic gameplay", which he defines as

the structuring of the actions the player takes within a game, and the responses the game provides to those actions, in a way that draws attention to the form of the game, and by doing so encourages the player to reflect upon and see that structure in a new way. (2016, p. 2)

Mitchell's work also views defamiliarization very much as a means of encouraging player reflection on the form of the work itself, with only an initial indication of the potential for meaning-making beyond the work. This approach has been applied to the analysis of interactive life stories (Chew, 2018; Chew & Mitchell, 2019) and games such as Save the Date (Paper Dino Software, 2013) that defamiliarize the process of replaying (Mitchell, 2018). Empirical studies have also been conducted to explore player response to games that incorporate poetic gameplay (Mitchell, Sim, & Kway, 2017). These works provide a clear starting point for a broader, more systematic formalist analysis of defamiliarization in games.

Taking a similar approach to Mitchell but drawing instead on Pötzsch's (2017) discussion of defamiliarization as an approach to game analysis, Gerrish (2018) presents a detailed analysis of Nier: Automata (Taro, 2017), arguing that defamiliarization provides an appropriate framework for analysing the formal elements of games. Finally, Pötzsch (2019) applies defamiliarization to the analysis of This War of Mine (11 Bit Studios, 2014). Pötzsch refers to this game-specific form of defamiliarization as procedural ostranenie, a strategy that "deploys formal devices to slow down and complicate the acquisition of play skills thereby bringing otherwise internalized frames for interaction with game-worlds to the sudden awareness of players" (2019, p. 246). Interestingly, Pötzsch suggests that, in This War of Mine, procedural ostranenie "not only formally challenges received habits of play, but in doing so, also creates a V-effect... that re-positions players as active political subjects" (p. 246).

While there have been a number of attempts to bring the concept of defamiliarization to bear on the study of games, most have involved the analysis of individual games, attempting to adapt concepts from formalist criticism to game studies. Other than Chew's work on interactive life stories (Chew, 2018; Chew & Mitchell, 2019), there has not been any comprehensive attempt to understand how games make use of defamiliarization for poetic effect. In this paper, we are attempting to do what Pötzsch (2017) has called for: identifying and analysing the various devices that have been used in games to create a sense of defamiliarization from the perspective of games and play. This is part of a larger project, drawing on our earlier work on defamiliarization and poetic gameplay (Mitchell 2014, 2016, 2018; Mitchell, Sim, & Kway, 2017) and directly extending Chew's work on interactive life stories (Chew, 2018; Chew & Mitchell, 2019) to address digital games more generally.

To develop this collection of poetic gameplay devices, we conducted close readings (Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum, 2011) of a series of games that were selected due either to our own experience playing them and noticing something "unusual" about the play experience, or because they had been mentioned in other academic papers or in online discussions in the context of unusual or "art" games. Close reading involves repeated play of the games under consideration, paying close attention to specific "analytical lenses". Here, we make use of Mitchell's (2016) concept of poetic gameplay quoted above as our main analytical lens.

By adopting a close reading methodology, we are starting from the experience of play, and from there attempting to identify the moments of defamiliarization and work back to the devices used to create poetic gameplay. In line with Van Vught, we feel that "formalist scholars in game studies do not ascribe a wholly determining role to games but simply aim to find a way to study the game's formal components through their analytical play experiences" (2016, p. 4). To identify these components, we follow Bizzocchi and Tanenbaum's approach of playing first as a "naïve" player, and then later as specific "performed player" types. To determine how to play as a naïve player we look to Van Vught and Glas (2018) who, drawing on Iser, suggest engaging in "instrumental play" as an attempt to determine the "implied player" (Aarseth, 2014). This resembles Van Vught's "cooperative player", who plays according to the "predispositions laid down… by the text" (Iser, 1980, p. 34). To move beyond the initial, naïve player's perspective, we follow Van Vught and Glas's concept of free play, engaging in transgressive play and pushing the boundaries of the formal systems of the games, attempting to understand how a player would respond to the undermining of their initial expectations by the poetic gameplay devices. Through the strategies of the naïve and the performed player, we identify the various elements within a game (the poetic devices) that are creating poetic gameplay and interrogate their function within the form of the game.

Following from Mitchell (2016), but splitting Mitchell's "control" into three separate categories, we identified five categories of techniques for defamiliarization of player expectations: interaction, gameplay, agency, time, and boundaries (see Table 1).





Unfamiliar interface controls

Brothers, Bounden

Unexpected change of controls

Akrasia, Brothers

Extreme granularity

QWOP, ProgressQuest

Slowing down the interactive loop

Shadow of the Colossus, Vesper.5, The Graveyard

Uncomfortable feedback



Game objective is not what it seems

Akrasia, Shadow of the Colossus

Core mechanic is not what it seems


Multiple, conflicting game objectives


Multiple, conflicting core mechanics


Unexpectedly high or low difficulty

Getting Over It, Dear Esther


Imperfect information

Kentucky Route Zero

Inability to act

That Dragon, Cancer, Shadow of the Colossus

Only provide the inevitable choice

The Walking Dead, The Killer

Subverting the inevitable choice

The Killer

Broken illusion of agency

The Stanley Parable

Failure is success


Success is failure

Gravitation, Shadow of the Colossus


Non-causal game sequences

Firewatch, Tales from the Borderlands

Abrupt scene transition

Thirty Flights of Loving

Repeat play within a session

That Dragon, Cancer

Repeat play across sessions

Save the Date, Undertale

Repeated refusal of closure

Save the Date, Doki Doki Literature Club, Nier: Automata


Reference to player's world inside the game

The Stanley Parable, Save the Date, Doki Doki Literature Club, Undertale

Reference to game from the player's world

Kentucky Route Zero, With Those We Love Alive

Import of other forms into the game

Thirty Flights of Loving, The Stanley Parable, Kentucky Route Zero

Ludic Intertextuality (blurring the boundary between games)

The Stanley Parable, The Beginner's Guide, Kentucky Route Zero

Table 1: Poetic Gameplay Categories and Devices

Defamiliarizing Interaction

At the most basic level, players expect a game to listen to them (input), to think about their input (processing, or change of game state), and to speak in response (output) (Crawford, 2002). Players expect this interaction to be understandable (Norman, 1990): interfaces normally provide affordances for users to determine how to use the interface, a clear mapping between user action and the system's interpretation of that action, feedback as to the impact of the user's action, and visibility of the system state both before and after the user acts. Finally, players expect interaction to follow conventions used in other games (Chimera & Shneiderman, 1993; Kellogg, 1987). Note that this does not mean that the interface is always easy to use (Juul & Norton, 2009). All of these expectations can be defamiliarized.

Unfamiliar Interface Controls

One way to defamiliarize interaction is to purposefully use controls that do not follow conventions. This draws attention to the controls and encourages the player to reflect upon the nature of the interaction.

In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios, 2013), the player simultaneously controls the two brothers using the left and right joysticks on a controller, with each joystick controlling the movements of one of the brothers. This need to simultaneously control two characters is initially disconcerting, but as the player becomes familiar with the interaction, the process of controlling the two brothers comes to mirror the relationship between the brothers, encouraging the player to reflect on this relationship (May, Bizzocchi, Antle, & Choo, 2014; Sim & Mitchell, 2017).

Bounden (Game Oven Studios, 2014) requires two people holding opposite ends of a mobile phone to twist the phone in various directions to move an on-screen object around a virtual sphere. By engaging the player's entire body in a way that requires awareness of the partner's movements and the relationship between the two players' bodies, the interaction draws attention to the embodied nature of play, something often neglected in other games.

Unexpected Change of Controls

In a variation on the above technique, some games use an initial control scheme, which may or may not follow conventions, and then, once the player has adapted to this interface, unexpectedly change the controls for poetic effect.

In some cases, the initial set of controls may follow conventions, and then later be subverted. In Akrasia (Gambit Game Lab, 2008), the player uses standard controls to navigate a small blob-like character through a colourful maze, eating "pills". If the player avoids eating pills for long enough, the world changes to a grey "sober" state, during which the controls are suddenly reversed, mirroring the struggles for control experienced by an addict undergoing withdrawal (Chew & Mitchell, 2016).

In other cases, the game can use an unfamiliar control scheme, something the player will learn during the game. The game can then unexpectedly change the controls, further defamiliarizing the experience. In Brothers, after the death of one brother the player suddenly finds she is only required to use one joystick (May et al., 2014; Sim & Mitchell, 2017). Having become used to the dual controls, this loss of one half of the control scheme mirrors the emotional loss of the surviving brother. In addition, there are instances where the player is confronted with situations that normally require both brothers to work together. Here, the player must use both dead and living brothers' controls, representing how the surviving brother is drawing on his lost brother's strength, creating a poetic effect by drawing attention to these unfamiliar controls.

Extreme Granularity

Actions in games are often represented at a high level of abstraction (Juul, 2007). For example, a single button press can trigger a jump. Another way to defamiliarize interaction is to provide unexpectedly detailed controls for actions that would usually be represented at a much higher level of abstraction, or conversely provide extremely abstracted controls where the player would normally expect a finer granularity of control. This focuses the player's attention on the role of abstraction in game controls.

In QWOP (Foddy, 2008), the player controls a sprinter running a 100-metre dash. The controls are mapped to specific body parts: Q and W move the thighs, and O and P move the calves. This fine granularity of control makes it difficult for the player to make the character "run", highlighting how games usually abstract controls into a single button press.

This can also go the other way, with some games using simplified controls for actions that normally require multiple inputs. ProgressQuest (Fredricksen, 2002) only requires a single action -- generating the character -- at the start of the game, with everything else happening automatically. This foregrounds the extreme granularity of interaction required in some roleplaying games.

Slowing Down the Interactive Loop

Another way to create unfamiliar interaction is to slow down the interactive loop, something Marsh (2016) calls "slow interaction". Players usually expect almost instantaneous response to actions, and that actions should be performed as quickly as possible. Breaking this expectation highlights the assumption that games often rely on speed and reflex action.

Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, 2005) does this by breaking the actions used to trigger the core mechanic, stabbing, into two steps (Sicart, 2008). Rather than repeatedly pressing a control to stab, instead you press a button on the controller once to raise your sword and press it again to perform the "stab" attack. By undermining expectations of how a sword-wielding hero will behave, the game draws out this simple action, and encourages the player to reflect on whether this is the right thing to do. This approach is taken to an extreme in Vesper.5 (Brough, 2012): the player is only able to make one move per day, turning interaction with the game into something resembling a ritual.

The Graveyard (Tale of Tales, 2008) takes a slightly different approach. The way the walking controls are implemented is familiar, using the "WASD" keys, but also unfamiliar: if you walk too fast, the character you are controlling, an old lady, will stumble and limp (Papa, 2013). Rather than explicitly slowing down interaction, the game shows the consequences of not slowing down. This effectively conveys what it feels like to be an old woman trying to walk and needing to rest.

Uncomfortable Feedback

A final technique for defamiliarizing interaction involves making feedback, something that is usually taken for granted, unfamiliar and therefore explicitly visible to the player. One way of doing this is to make the feedback uncomfortable, often at an almost physical level. This can be seen as a form of abusive game design (Wilson & Sicart, 2010).

Lim (Kompas, 2012) uses uncomfortable feedback in the form of a violently shaking "camera" and loud audio, mimicking real-world violence, both physical and psychological. The player controls a coloured square that must navigate through several rooms containing other squares. These squares react to squares of differing colours by blocking the way and possibly attacking, resulting in violent shaking of the viewport. The only way to pass is to press "z" to imitate the colours of other squares. If the player "blends" for too long, the viewport shrinks and shakes violently, accompanied by loud audio feedback. This is very uncomfortable, mimicking the discomfort felt by someone who must pretend to be something they are not.

Defamiliarizing Gameplay

Designers also use techniques to make gameplay unfamiliar. Following Juul and Norton, we differentiate between a game's interface, "the software and hardware tools that the player uses to understand and affect game state", and the gameplay, the "core activity of the game which is accessed through the interface" (2009). Specifically, after Sicart, game mechanics are "methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state", and core mechanics are "game mechanics (repeatedly) used by agents to achieve a systemically rewarded end-game state" (Sicart, 2008).

According to Juul, a game involves "a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, … and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable" (2005, p. 36). This suggests players expect games to have an outcome or objective for the player to move towards, some difficulty or challenge in the way of reaching that objective, and a means to overcome that challenge and move towards the objective, in the form of a core mechanic. These are all areas where gameplay can be made poetic.

Game Objective Is Not What It Seems

One way to defamiliarize gameplay is for the game objective to be something other than it initially seems. This can be done through, for example, unreliable framing of the game objective, or a twist or change to the objective during gameplay.

The first approach can be seen in Akrasia, where the player initially thinks the goal is to collect all the "pills", but these pills, while keeping the player in the "high" state, actually negatively impact the character's life. The "true" objective is to stay "sober" by avoiding the pills. Only through interaction does the player realize the game objective is not what it seems (Chew & Mitchell, 2016). Note that, as will be discussed below, here the core mechanic is also not what it seems, with the two devices working together to undermine the player’s expectations of how to play the game.

In Shadow of the Colossus, the main character, Wander, embarks on a quest to defeat 16 "colossi" to revive a slain girl. Initially the player believes this is a noble quest. There are, however, hints that all is not what it seems, as the colossi tend to be passive until attacked, and Wander gradually changes in appearance, sprouting horns and becoming more ragged and threatening looking. This culminates in a reversal in the final scene, with a band of warriors appearing to demand the return of the sword stolen by Wander. The final battle is between a transformed version of Wander, now himself a colossus, and the band of warriors. This twist completely undermines the player's understanding of the game objective.

Core Mechanic Is Not What It Seems

Closely related to the above technique is the defamiliarization of the core mechanic by which the player moves towards the objective. Here, the game makes use of a familiar core mechanic and changes some aspect of that mechanic into something other than it first seems.

In Akrasia, the core mechanic first appears to be "collect pills", whereas in fact the core mechanic is "avoid pills" so as to achieve the objective "stay sober" (Chew & Mitchell, 2016). Here, both the game objective and the core mechanic used to reach that objective are defamiliarized, undermining expectations for how the game should be played.

Multiple, Conflicting Game Objectives

A somewhat different approach is to provide the player with two objectives, both known to the player and equally "true" but conflicting as it is impossible to achieve both. Tension is created by requiring the player to accomplish both objectives, foregrounding the impossibility of achieving both simultaneously.

In Gravitation (Rohrer, 2008), a conflict exists between the player character's need to play with their child by returning a red ball, and to pursue his creative work, represented by a collection of "stars" in a platformer-like game space. It is impossible to pursue both game objectives. One involves maximizing points by jumping on a series of vertical platforms to collect stars. The other involves maintaining the happiness of the child by continuously returning a ball. Collecting stars causes the player to miss the ball, whereas returning the ball takes time, costing points. The resulting tension conveys the meaning of the game, that it is impossible to balance these conflicting objectives, through play (Chew & Mitchell, 2016).

Multiple, Conflicting Core Mechanics

Another way to create a sense of defamiliarization is to include multiple core mechanics that meet the player's expectations individually but taken together are in conflict with each other.

Gravitation's conflicting game objectives are supported by two different core mechanics: collecting stars and returning the ball. While not directly conflicting in the sense that they do not have opposing impacts on the game state, the time limit in the game, when combined with the fact that the two mechanics cannot be performed simultaneously, creates a tension between carrying out one mechanic or the other. This mirrors the tension the game is trying to portray between focusing on work (collecting the stars) and spending time with family (returning the ball). The conflict between the core mechanics effectively foregrounds this tension (Chew & Mitchell, 2016).

Unexpectedly High or Low Difficulty

Designers have also defamiliarized the difficulty and challenge placed in the way of the player. This foregrounds the nature of games as activities "where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means" (Suits, 2014, p. 36).

Players generally expect difficulty to gradually increase in proportion to their increase in skill (Cowley, Charles, Black, & Hickey, 2008). Games can undermine this by introducing a jarring change in difficulty, either by making the game suddenly much harder, or unexpectedly, perhaps temporarily, decreasing the difficulty. This can be seen in Getting over it (Foddy, 2017), where the combination of extremely fine granularity of controls, a very steep difficulty curve, and lack of checkpoints makes it very difficult to progress.

The opposite can also defamiliarize: by drastically decreasing or completely removing difficulty, players will feel their expectations are being undermined. For example, "walking simulators" such as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012), with minimal game mechanics and little mechanical difficulty, tend to break expectations for what a game is (Juul, 2018).

Defamiliarizing Agency

According to Juul, in a game "the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome" (2005, p. 36). This is similar to Murray's concept of agency, "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices" (1998, p. 126). Further refining this definition, Wardrip-Fruin et al. argue that agency is a "phenomenon, involving both the game and the player, … that occurs when the actions the player desires are among those they can take (and vice versa) as supported by an underlying computational model" (2009) (emphasis in original). This suggests players expect to be able to form an intention, act on that intention, and see the outcome, and expect this process will be supported by the game system. This builds upon expectations for interaction and gameplay. Here we describe ways agency can be defamiliarized. Note the focus is not simply on lack of agency, but rather how designers use this expectation to draw attention to the concept of agency. Some of these techniques are similar to those Chew and Mitchell (2019) discuss in the context of interactive life stories. We indicate similarities where necessary.

Imperfect Information

Players expect to be given enough information to form an intention, based on which they can act and see the outcome of their action. This suggests agency can be defamiliarized by deliberately failing to provide sufficient information to form an intention. This is similar to Mawhorter et al.'s (2014) "blind choice", and Chew and Mitchell's (2019) "uninformed choice".

In Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013a) there are several occasions where the player is presented with choices without enough information. In Act III, Scene II, the main characters Conway, Shannon and Ezra are stranded when Conway's truck stalls. They call a tow truck, and Shannon talks with the tow truck company's operator. Rather than being able to choose what Shannon says, the player has to decide how the tow truck operator responds. To further complicate matters, the tow truck operator's responses are not shown clearly. This highlights the fact that, in many adventure games, players do not have enough information to make decisions, suggesting that in other adventure games, whether they realized it or not, the player had a similar lack of agency.

Inability to Act

Once the player forms an intention, they will expect to act on that intention. Another way attention can be called to the concept of agency is to emphasize the player's inability to act where there is a clear motivation for the player to act. This is similar to Chew and Mitchell's (2019) "irrelevant agency".

This can be seen in the chapter "Dehydration" of the autobiographical game That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016). In other parts of the game, the player's inability to do more than walk around and unlock information can feel limiting. In this scene, however, the removal of agency reinforces the meaning of the scene (Chew & Mitchell, 2019; Mitchell, 2016). The setting is a hospital bedroom. The player can walk around and look out the window, but nothing else. Movement advances the scene, which consists of a voice-over conveying the player character Ryan's thoughts about Joel, his son who is undergoing cancer treatment. Throughout the scene, Joel is conspicuously absent but can be heard crying. This absence, and the player's inability to act, is a convincing representation of the frustration Ryan must have been feeling.

A similar approach can be seen in Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, 2005). As Wander is approaching the final colossus, there is a moment where Wander, riding on his horse, comes to a bridge across a chasm. As they cross the chasm, the bridge collapses. Just when the player expects to have the horse jump to safety, the game switches to a cut-scene. What is unusual here is this happens at a moment when the player likely expects to be able to act. By removing agency at this crucial moment, the game ensures that the horse plunges to its (apparent) death, heightening the dramatic tension of the final battle.

Only Provide the Inevitable Choice

To satisfy agency without providing any actual choices, some games attempt to "script the interactor" (Murray, 1998) such that the only option available matches what the player wants to do. Tanenbaum and Tanenbaum (2010) refer to this as "commitment to meaning". A variation is what Mawhorter et al. (2014) and Chew and Mitchell (2019) refer to as an "unchoice": only providing one option and emphasizing that the player must take this action, whether they want to or not. In the poetic version of this technique, there is usually a dissonance between what the player wants to do and what the game allows, undermining any expectation the player may have of making the choice they desire.

In The Walking Dead: Season One (Telltale Games, 2012) the main playable character, Lee, is confronted with a situation where he needs to get into a locked room, the key to which is in the pocket of a zombie (Mitchell, 2016). Unfortunately, the zombie is actually Lee's brother, and the only way to get the key is to "kill" the zombie. This resemble Mawhorter's "dilemma", where the player is faced with two choices, both having positive and negative consequences. The difference here is there is only one choice. The player must perform this action, and simultaneously wants to (to get the key) and doesn't want to (since the action requires repeatedly plunging an axe into Lee's brother's head). Unlike "inability to act", here the player is forced to act (or quit the game), making the player complicit in the action.

In The Killer (Magnuson, 2011), you play a Cambodian soldier taking a prisoner to the killing fields (Mitchell, 2016). The only action available is to continue walking by pressing the "space" bar. Whenever you stop, a message such as "continue to the fields" appears. Much as would have been the case for a soldier forced to serve in the Khmer Rouge army, your only choice is to continue forcing the prisoner to walk. As with The Walking Dead, there is only one action to take, and the player has not been "scripted" to feel this is the "correct" action. On the contrary, most players probably do not want to take this action.

Subverting the Inevitable Choice

An interesting variation is to provide what seems like an inevitable choice, and then reveal that there actually is a choice.

Throughout most of The Killer, the player only has one, seemingly inevitable choice: to keep forcing the prisoner to walk. Upon reaching the fields, the soldier stops walking, and a "crosshair" appears together with the instructions "Use the mouse to aim". Having experienced several minutes with no choices, the immediate response is to take the seemingly inevitable action: position the crosshair on the prisoner and click (Mitchell, 2016). However, it is actually possible to position the mouse anywhere else on the screen before clicking the mouse. If the player does this, the prisoner escapes. Coming after a long sequence where it seems the player had only one, inevitable choice, the realization that the player does have a choice (and perhaps had one all along?) foregrounds the limitation of agency in games.

Broken Illusion of Agency

Some games, by foregrounding choice, draw attention to the fact that players have very limited agency within a game, restricted by what the game designer has chosen to include. Here, the illusion of agency is built up and then broken to foreground this lack of choice.

The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) involves the player controlling Stanley, an office worker who discovers all his officemates have disappeared and begins searching for them. The game features a narrator who constantly describes the player's actions, always one step ahead of what the player is doing. For example, when Stanley reaches a set of two doors, the narrator states that "When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left". This happens just before the player enters the doors. Deliberately entering the right door builds up the expectation that the game supports a strong sense of agency. The narrator comments on this action, reinforcing the expectation. Only when the player reaches the end of the game -- and the game restarts with Stanley back in his office as if all the player's actions had no impact -- does the player realize that in fact they only had an illusion of agency.

Failure is Success

Another way to defamiliarize agency is to allow players to act, but have that action ultimately result in failure. However, it is then revealed that only through failure can the player progress in the game. This is similar to Chew and Mitchell's (2019) "losing is winning".

In Dys4ia (Anthropy, 2012), there is a scene where the main character, who is undergoing gender reassignment therapy, is trying to wear a woman's shirt, but the shirt does not fit the current shape of her body, and the player is doomed to fail. It is only through this failure, however, that the player can progress and achieve some degree of success.

Success is Failure

Finally, there are cases where games give players the feeling they have succeeded at an action, but their apparent success is actually a failure. This is similar to Chew and Mitchell's (2019) "winning is losing".

This often works together with "game objective is not what it seems" or "multiple, conflicting game objectives": the player may be working towards one objective, only to realize the objective is different, with what first seemed to be success is actually failure at the actual objective. This can be seen in Gravitation. As described by Chew and Mitchell (2016), the player may be focusing on collecting stars to score points, only to discover that their child has left, having been neglected. This turns success at one game objective into failure at the second objective.

In a slight variation, throughout most of Shadow of the Colossus the player assumes Wander is supposed to defeat the colossi. However, throughout the game there are hints that something is wrong with this assumption, as Wander's visual appearance becomes increasingly disturbing with the death of each colossus. Each death is portrayed to elicit sympathy for the fallen beast. After defeating the final colossus, Wander transforms into a colossus himself, and a troupe of warriors appear to fight Wander-as-colossus. This reversal turns the previous success into a failure, removing any sense of agency the player may have felt at defeating the colossi.

Defamiliarizing Time

A player taking action and seeing the outcome suggests temporality is a key element of the formal structure of games (Zagal & Mateas, 2010). Juul distinguishes between play time, "the time span taken to play a game", and fictional time, "the time of the events in the game world" (2005, p. 142). The relationship between play time and fictional time can be seen as a projection between the action the player takes when manipulating the game's interface to trigger the game mechanics (in play time), and the influence this action has on the game state (in fictional time). Similarly, Zagel and Mateas (2010) distinguish between real-world time and gameworld time. Coordination time determines the relationship between entities and actions, similar to Juul's projection. Finally, fictive time establishes a conceptual framework for the player to make sense of the passage of time within the gameworld.

As Juul argues, "time in games is almost always chronological" (2005, p. 147). There are a number of conventional ways that games disrupt the projection between play and fictional time which do not undermine player expectations. These include pausing, accelerating or slowing down fictional time, cutscenes, loading screens, and save functions that "allow the player to chop up the game time" (Juul, 2004, p. 138). This suggests that another way to create poetic gameplay is to disrupt the chronological flow of game time (Mitchell, 2016) in unconventional ways.

Non-Chronological Game Sequences

One way to undermine player expectations of game time is to defamiliarize projection, or the relationship between the order of events in play time and the order of events in fictional time.

In Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016), the player controls Henry, a new fire lookout just starting his job in the forests of Wyoming. At the start of the game, play alternates between a first-person 3D view of Henry hiking to the location of his firewatch tower, and a textual choice-based flashback detailing Henry's relationship with his wife. In the flashback the player makes choices about Henry, choices likely to impact the "present". This is defamiliarizing both due to the unusual "interactive flashback" temporal structure and because the player has little information on which to base these choices.

A more extended flashback occurs in Tales from the Borderlands (Telltale Games, 2014), as described by Roe and Mitchell (2019). Here, the initial framing narrative is followed by a second layer of narration, where the two main characters, Rhys and Fiona, tell the story of how they came to be captured by an unnamed character. It is in this third layer, a flashback within a flashback, that gameplay takes place. There are instances where the player characters may die, at which point their captor in the second layer will interrupt, saying "And then you died? Are you sure you want to stick with that story?" The game then reloads just before the death, and fictional time resumes. This foregrounds the unnaturalness of the ordering of the events, highlighting that the player character’s death took place in a flashback within a flashback and raising the question of whether any of the player's actions really matter. There is defamiliarization not just of the projection between play and fictional time but also of agency and the repetition of fictional events -- things players usually take for granted.

Abrupt Scene Transition

Another way to defamiliarize the experience of time in games is to abruptly jump from scene to scene without any conventional transitions such as a loading screen, which draws attention to these conventions.

In the first scene of Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games, 2012), the player navigates through a criminal hide-out and into an underground hanger. The player character boards a biplane, which begins to taxi out of the hanger. Suddenly, with no on-screen indication of the pending transition, the scene shifts to a completely different location, showing one of the player's companions seriously wounded and pointing a gun at the player. Mitchell (2016) sees this as disrupting the player's sense of control. However, it also disrupts the projection of play time onto fictional time: although the player can assume this event comes after the previous, it is not clear how much later. The conventions for signalling a jump in time, such as a loading screen, are completely absent.

Repeat Play Within a Play Session

Players are used to repeating fictional time through features such as a save function. The above example from Tales of the Borderlands, where a character dies in a flashback and the game reloads before that death, serves to foreground and defamiliarize this convention.

Another example occurs in the chapter "I'm sorry, guys, it's not good" of That Dragon, Cancer. As Mitchell (2016) describes, this scene recreates the moment when the doctor explained to Amy and Ryan that their son Joel's cancer had returned. The player's view is focused on a "See 'n Say" toy. Each spin advances the sun across the sky towards the clouds. Once the sun passes behind the clouds, the toy disappears and the two empty seats across from Amy and Ryan are occupied by the doctor and a care worker. The toy reappears, with the arrow pointing to one of the adults. Spinning the arrow shifts the camera to the perspective of that adult, with the scene moving forward as the doctor describes Joel's condition accompanied by a voice-over of the adult's thoughts. Spinning the arrow once again advances the scene, this time showing a different perspective.

This scene breaks the linearity of fictional time. Most games either move the player forward in time or allow "save points" where the game can be resumed from an earlier point. Here, the fictional time of the game is rewound, but at the same time there is a progression -- as the scene is replayed, it begins to rain, and water starts to rise. Eventually it is no longer possible to rewind the scene. The repeated playback of the scene effectively captures how the parents much have mentally revisited this scene, with the rising water mirroring their rising despair.

Repeat Play Across Sessions

As Juul (2005) argues, players are generally familiar with the concept of a save point, and of replaying sequences of events in fictional time. The assumption, however, is that when a sequence of events is repeated, this sequence is not a continuation of the previous play session. Repetition to overcome challenge is repetition in play time, but not in fictional time.

This expectation can be violated through cross-sessional memory (Koenitz, 2014), where events from a previous play session have consequences in later play sessions. This violates the expectation of self-contained play sessions, and defamiliarizes the notion of repetition. In Save the Date (Paper Dino Software, 2013), actions the player takes in one play session unlock menu items in subsequent sessions (Mitchell, 2018). Similarly, in Undertale (Fox, 2015), actions the player takes in one play session will impact the way the game is played in later play sessions. In fact, the only way to "replay" the game in the usual sense is to explicitly delete the saved game in the computer's operating system (Tan & Mitchell, 2019).

Repeated Refusal of Closure

Finally, in addition to expecting play sessions to be independent, players also expect a game to come to a clear conclusion. Games can violate this expectation by encouraging the player to replay the game and eventually revealing that each replay is a continuation of the previous play session, effectively resisting closure. This is similar to "repeat play across sessions", but here the focus is on the refusal of closure rather than breaking barriers between sessions.

This occurs in Save the Date. Initially the game appears to be a fairly short puzzle game about finding a way to successfully go on a date with Felicia. However, it quickly becomes clear that the only way to progress in the game is to make use of cross-sessional memory, which allows new menu items to be unlocked on repeat play. In fact, each ending of the game is not the really an ending, but instead the repeat play sessions can be thought of as part of a longer, continuous play session (Mitchell, 2018). Similarly, Doki Doki Literature Club (Team Salvato, 2017) requires the player to repeat the game several times to progress to the "true" ending. This is taken to the extreme in Nier: Automata (Taro, 2017), where the player must replay the game multiple times to "really" complete the game (Backe, 2018; Gerrish, 2018; Jacevic, 2018). This need to repeatedly play a game to progress can be seen as a form of metagaming (Kleinman, Caro, & Zhu, 2020), an explicit breaking of the magic circle as part of the play of the game. This leads us to our final category.

Defamiliarizing Boundaries

According to Huizinga, "all play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course" (1955, p. 9). Despite this foundational definition of play, the concept of the "magic circle" is one of the most controversial concepts within game studies (Calleja, 2012; Consalvo, 2009). As Juul argues, although the magic circle "is clearly not a perfect separation of a game from the rest of the world, but an imperfect separation that players negotiate and uphold… [g]ame scholarship should be about analyzing the conventions of this boundary" (2008, p. 62). This suggests that player expectations about these conventions can be deliberately violated for poetic effect.

Reference to Player's World Inside the Game

Although the boundaries of a game are somewhat fluid, there is usually an expectation that most aspects of the game are "in the game", and that there is a "real world" that is separate in some way from the game. When a game breeches these metaleptic boundaries (Bell, 2016) it can create a sense of strangeness or defamiliarization.

In The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) there are a number of ways the game either makes reference to the player and her world, or directly addresses the player (Ensslin, 2015). This can also be seen in Save the Date, Doki Doki Literature Club, and Undertale, where references to the player and to the playable character become blurred, creating a sense that there is no longer a clear boundary between the game and the player's world, or between the player and the playable character (Mitchell, 2018; Roe & Mitchell, 2019).

Reference to the Game World from the Player's World

Another way that games blur boundaries is by having aspects of the game manifest in some way outside the perceived boundaries of the game. Rather than reference being made to the player's world from within the game, here some aspect of the game makes a direct appearance in the player's world.

To accompany Limits and Demonstrations (Cardboard Computer, 2013b), a virtual art exhibition by fictional artist Lula Chamberlain that serves as the first "interlude" in Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013a), curator Lee Tusman staged a "retrospective" art exhibition highlighting the Chamberlain's artworks (Tusman, 2013). The third interlude, Here and There Along the Echo (Cardboard Computer, 2014), consists of a virtual telephone used to dial an interactive voice-response menu system providing information about the fictional Echo River. To accompany this, Cardboard Computer auctioned off several modified physical telephones that reproduced the experience of the interlude in a physical device (Etown_phone_lady, 2014; Video Game Art Gallery, 2015). In both examples, elements of the game world were manifest as actual events or objects outside of the game.

A more extreme example appears in With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, 2014). The very first line of the game states: "Before living this life, have a pen or sharpie nearby, something that can write on skin." Later, the narrator addresses the player, asking her to "Draw a sigil of new beginnings on your skin." As O'Connor observes "at key points, we have to draw our reaction to these things somewhere on our body with an icon of our own creation. By the end, we're marked with the decisions we've made" (2014). This marking breaks the expectation that the game is separate from the player's world.

Import of Other Forms into the Game

Games also make use of non-game forms inside the game, by either directly representing the game as something other than a game, or by including non-game elements within the game.

The first approach can be seen in Thirty Flights of Loving. The multiple, unsignalled "cuts" between scenes give the work a very film-like feeling. This is enhanced by use of film-like imagery and paratext, such as the film-like title sequence. The game also introduces a radical change in the game in the final scene, in which the player is thrust into a museum-like space containing artefacts from the gameworld itself, exhibited as if they were objects in a museum (Mitchell, 2016). A similar "museum" can be seen in The Stanley Parable. Both sequences highlight the artificiality of the experience, disrupting player expectations of what a game is.

A subtler use of this technique can be seen in Kentucky Route Zero. In Act IV, Scene III, "The Rum Colony", Shannon watches several tapes on an old video cassette player. The selection and "viewing" of the videos is done entirely through text. This not only breaks the visual point-and-click nature of the game but does so in the context of interacting with a simulation of a visual medium, a video cassette recorder. There is a blurring and swapping of modalities here: Shannon is viewing a video tape, but the player is "seeing" this through text.

Ludic Intertextuality (blurring the boundary between games)

Finally, games make use of what can be seen as a form of ludic intertextuality to blur the boundaries between games. Players expect games to be self-contained, and don't expect one game to appear inside another. Unlike other forms of intertextuality, which generally involve verbal, visual or auditory reference to other works, this involves reference to another game through gameplay, what de Vasconcellos et al. (2016) refer to as "interprocedurality".

In The Stanley Parable, at least 2 other games are introduced by the "narrator". At one point the narrator says "since my game was so awful, why don't we play someone else's game, just to ease the pain?" This is followed by the opening scene from Minecraft (Persson, 2009). Later, the narrator complains about Minecraft and swaps it with the opening scene from Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007). This encourages players to question the proceduralist nature of the game (Fest, 2016).

Similarly, the gameplay in The Beginner's Guide (Wreden, 2015) is repeatedly replaced with a series of other games, each designed by "Coda", a game developer that the in-game version of Wreden claims to have met at a game jam. Here there is an additional layer of defamiliarization: although Coda's games are presented as if they are "real", they, together with Coda, are all part of the fiction (Gaynor, 2016). When encountering these intertextual references, the player is confronted both with the unfamiliarity of having the "main" game replaced by another game, and the further strangeness of realizing that, although the narrator claims that these are "real" games, they are also part of the fictional world of the game.


This paper has explored the notion of using poetic gameplay to create a sense of defamiliarization, a process which draws attention to the form of games and encourages reflection. Building from and expanding upon our earlier work (Mitchell 2014, 2016, 2018; Mitchell, Sim, & Kway, 2017) and extending Chew's work on interactive life stories (Chew, 2018; Chew & Mitchell, 2019), we outlined five categories of poetic gameplay: defamiliarization of interaction, gameplay, agency, time, and boundaries. Each category focuses on a specific aspect of what makes games a unique medium and explores how games can been designed to foreground and draw attention to these aspects by deliberately violating player expectations. This categorization provides a solid foundation for further exploration of how games can encourage reflection by making gameplay strange to draw attention to their form, and how this relates to the use of defamiliarization in other media.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that this categorization is entirely provisional. We recognize that while these categories may appear ontological, they can only, in fact, ever be heuristic. There will always be examples that blur the boundaries of the categories, encourage the merging of two or more categories, or suggest the need for additional categories. In fact, it is the problematic, distinction-defying examples that are likely to be most interesting. It is also important to note that, while our interpretations of the use of the various devices may appear unequivocal, they are not intended as such, and are in fact meant to indicate just a few of the many possible uses of these devices. We expect, and hope, that other researchers will challenge, and ideally extend, both our categories and the list of devices we have presented.

Here we have largely focused on how these formal devices draw attention to the work itself to encourage players to see the form anew. However, these techniques can potentially be used for more than simply a "struggle to retain, or regain, an original relation to things now apparently lost" (Pötzsch, 2019, p. 247). There is also the potential for these techniques to evoke emotions and empathy in the form of subjective experience (Chew & Mitchell, 2019), and to enable players to see new perspectives and the possibility of cultural and societal change (Pötzsch, 2019). This is something that should be explored further.

In addition, as Mitchell et al. (2017) have suggested, it is often not enough to simply include poetic gameplay devices in a game for it to create an aesthetic response. Future work should involve empirical studies of player response to these techniques, both to refine the list of techniques and to better understand how and when they successfully create aesthetic response in players. It would also be worth exploring whether and at what point these poetic devices become assimilated into the set of conventions that players expect, possibly losing their effectiveness. Finally, it would be interesting to explore whether these techniques can be used as design knowledge to guide future development of poetic games.



We would like to thank our reviewers for their valuable input and feedback. This research was supported by the Singapore Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 1 grant FY2015-FRC2-004, "Exploring 'Literary' Devices for Poetic Interactivity".



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