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Uncertainty in Games | Pt.1

Hey fellow gamers!


If you are a gaming enthusiast or even a game developer, this will undoubtedly be a very cool topic for you! This is Part 1 of the two-part blog series on 'Uncertainty in Games'. It will provide you with unique techniques to enhance your own games and equip you with an impressive analysis tool so you can brag a bit at your next game talk.

Not that I ever did that... :D

Uncertainty in games is an essential part of the gaming experience and a way to differentiate one from another, whilst also often being a source of inspiration and challenge in game development itself. (Almost) every game contains sources of uncertainty. Gerg Costikyan categorizes these in his book 'Uncertainty in Games' into 11 categories. Understanding the concept of uncertainty can be an invaluable tool when analysing, comprehending, and developing games. You’ll see that games often include many different sources of uncertainty at the same time, with some of them being more influential on the player experience than others but all of them are a core part of the pacing, immersion, authenticity and many more elements. If you like analysing games or even enjoy building your own prototypes, this might be a very interesting point of view to implement in your processes. So, let’s dive into these different sources of uncertainty.

1. Performative Uncertainty


'The uncertainty arising from the player's physical ability to master the game.'


Digital games exhibit this strongly in First Person Shooters, Action/Adventures, Platformers, Driving Games, Sport Games, so that analogue activities (like most of all the hand-eye coordination, clicks-per-second, …) are simulated without completely losing physical exertion. Games with high 'performative uncertainty' are typically 'forward-leaning' and 'not casual' – 'less casual'. This btw also affects nearly all games with high physical or mental exertion in the analogue realm.


With this type of uncertainty, however, it is often difficult to gauge the resulting uncertainty as all players have different abilities


Games characterized by 'Performative Uncertainty':

• Super Mario Land (Nintendo, 1989) [Link]

• Tetris (Nintendo, Game Boy, 1989) [Link]

• Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Valve, 2012) [Link]

• Darts (19th century, likely originating from England)

• Football (fun side not: a football-like game called Cuju was played in China in the second millennium BCE)

Screenshot of Tetris (google play store; by playstudions)

Tetris (by Playstudios)

2. Solver's Uncertainty


'The uncertainty arises from the player's mental ability to solve a puzzle/riddle.'


This form of uncertainty is driven by curiosity about the correct solution and was indeed rarely used in games before the digital era - exception Cluedo (Pratt, 1948). The challenge is predetermined by the creator and does not arise situationally from the gameplay! With games like Exit (Kosmos, 2016), this form of uncertainty also experiences great popularity in analogue form. As you might guess now, this concept is frequently found in puzzle games, mystery games, point & click adventures.


The replayability decreases massively when the solution is known, and uncertainty is resolved. Moreover, it is often very difficult to balance difficulty. In non-factual puzzles, the solution can be imaginative but must never appear arbitrary.


Games characterized by 'Solver's Uncertainty':

• Exit (Kosmos, 2016) [Link]

• Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019) [Link]

• Untitled Goose Game (House House, 2020) [Link]

• Sudoku (originally Number Place, Howard Garns, 1979)


Screenshot of 'Disco Elysium' with protagonists walking towards the camera.

Image: ZA/UM | Disco Elysium

3. Narrative Anticipation


'The uncertainty about the outcome of a narrative and the associated curiosity about the further course.'


It's not just about the outcome, but also about the moment-to-moment developments, the twists, and turns of a story. The goal is to link the playful and narrative arc of tension. If one wants to work with 'Narrative Anticipation,' much can be learned from methods in dramaturgy (theater, literature, film, …).



The connection between story and gameplay interaction must fit. Sometimes the story isn't captivating enough, sometimes the interaction is too monotonous and sometimes there's just no ending. And when we once know the outcome of a story, we lose curiosity about it. Some developers tend to counter this with multiple endings, but meaningful branching of narrative threads is complex and often reduces the conciseness or coherence of a narrative. Additionally, players may miss significant portions of the elaborate plot.

Games characterized by 'Narrative Anticipation':

• Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019) [Link]

• Witcher 3 Wild Hunt (CD Project RED, 2015) [Link]

• Lifeline (3 Minute Games, 2022) [Link]

• Dungeons & Dragons (Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, 1974) [Link]



4. Semiotic Contingency


'The ambiguity of the cultural significance of a game and its cultural & moral meaning (partly unconsciously).'


Let’s start this with some examples: Take e.g. Celeste (Extremely OK Games, 2018, [Link]) and you’ll quickly see that it is interpreted and seen as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and uncertainties. The game Papers, Please! (Lucas Pope, 2013, [Link]) can be seen as a critique of autocratic systems or the opposite. And if we take a look at the analogue realm again, Backgammon is a kind of national game in Greece with high cultural significance. It is common practice there, to say 'You’re a Greek now', if you are mastering this game.



As creators, we can only indirectly influence the meaning of our game as it will be interpreted in countless ways. And also, meaning is subject to various external factors, it can change over time or within different cultural contexts.


Games characterized by 'Semiotic Contingency':

• Train (Brenda Romero, 2009) [Link] - The transportation of passengers reveals itself as a gruesome act.

• Metroid (Nintendo R&D, 1986) [Link] - Statement on gender roles and stereotypes (or a fun surprise).

• Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, 2017, [Link]) - Journey into the world of myths and madness.

• Durak (Card game) [Link] - Traditional Russian card game


Screenshot of the Game 'Hellblade: Senua's Scrifice' with Senua looking directly at the camera.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

5. Player Unpredictability


'The uncertainty that arises from not knowing what other players perceive, think, decide, and do.'

'Player Unpredictability' refers to human (living) players. It is easily implemented in analogue games and a major source of diverse player experiences (from humorous to philosophical). This concept most of all exists in indirect interaction between players but can also be a driving force in cooperative games like 'The Mind' (Warsch, 2018, [Link]).



Implementing 'Player Unpredictability' in a digital game will always increase development effort. But there’s also NPC Unpredictability. Non-random but unpredictable characters in digital games are a tough nut to crack. And this also doesn’t end at the game itself: Even as game developers, we can never predict how our game will eventually be played.


Games characterized by 'Player Unpredictability':

• Project L (Adam Španěl, 2018) [Link]

• Azul (Michael Kiesling, 2017) [Link]

• Counter-Strike (Valve, 2000) [Link]

• House of Influence (unidice) [Link]

• World of Warcraft - "Leeeeeeeeeroy Jennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnkins!!!!!!!": The best example of player unpredictability! [Link]

6. Analytic Complexity


'The uncertainty that arises from not knowing how to react to a game state.'


Analytic complexity is predominantly pronounced in games with few decisions that have far-reaching temporal consequences, with a huge range of decision possibilities, and with strongly interconnected game systems. 'Player Unpredictability' and 'Analytic Complexity' often go hand in hand: 'You think that I think that you think...'.



Analysis Paralysis - If the analytic complexity is too high, thoughts go in circles, and players can no longer make meaningful decisions. How players deal with complexity depends heavily on themselves. If one has little experience with a game system, complexity can overwhelm quickly.


Games characterized by 'Analytic Complexity':

• Dwarf Fortress (Bay 12 Games, 2006, 2022 on Steam) [Link] - Highly interconnected and deep game system.

• Sid Meier's Civilization series (MicroProse Software, Firaxis Games 1991-2018) [Link]

• Noita (Nolla Games, 2020) [Link] - The state of each pixel has complex effects on its neighbours.

• Texas Hold'em Poker - (Perceived) complexity arising from betting strategy, bluffs, and attempting to guess the intentions of other players. Check out our blog post about it if you want to know more.


Let’s maybe take a break here and reevaluate what we have learned so far. Actually, I have a fun little exercise for you at hand, that my professor gave us one day!


Take a very basic game. Like chess. Yes, let’s just stick with chess. How could you change the rules to increase to level of uncertainty? You don’t need to visually redesign it; this is just about the rules. How would a change of XY feel to the players? Make it exciting and new! Go crazy on your ideas, collect them and if you want, follow the WIDE&DEEP concept of the last blog post.

I’m so curious on what you are coming up with!

See you soon,

Eva 😊


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