The Intentionality Trap

Imagine this scenario for a moment. You’re playing Red Dead Redemption 2, riding your horse down one of the game’s many trails. As you pass by a carriage going the other way, you hold down the button to focus your attention on them, so you can bark out a greeting or warning.

Oh no! It turns out you were still holding your weapon. Instead of focusing your attention, you aimed your gun directly at their head. People don’t take kindly to that sort of behavior in the Old West, so now you’re in a firefight you never intended, with innocents you never wanted to menace. This is a failing of the game, right? You should always be in perfect control of your character, right?

To consider this question more thoroughly, we need to discuss how intention and action works in videogames.

Intention And Reaction

A good way to look at how people make decisions while playing games is to look at their intentions. Not the overall intentions of “beat this level” or “achieve this objective”, but individual mechanical intentions, like “swing this sword” or “throw this grenade”. If you perceive a game as a logical series of puzzles or scenarios that test a player’s skill (they are, at least for the type of game I’m discussing in this article), then the player must consider and react to those puzzles, both on a granular level of “immediate action” and the overarching level of “eventual goal”.

Typically, games seek to remove as many barriers between player intention and game response. If I press a button to attack, the player character doesn’t turn to me and say “Do I really want to attack?” They simply attack; my intention translates 1:1 to my game state. It’s practically law in some genres, like character action games, because having any delay at all between intention and action leads to a total dissociation from the player character.

But this isn’t always the case. Some games want you to embody a character, but don’t want you to control them perfectly. Rather than removing all barriers between intention and action, they erect a few, or leave existing ones standing. The result is an intentionality trap.

An intentionality trap is any game mechanic (particularly control-related) which subverts or requires player intention to perform, rather than player reflexes. If the player does not engage with the mechanic in the correct way due to carelessness, nerves, complacency, or some other inattentiveness, they are punished through a negative game state. The result is a mechanic that has to be engaged with, but not so much that you lose precision.

The purpose of intentionality traps is, paradoxically, to dissociate your intention from your action. This purpose, typically considered bad, can create interesting, thematically-appropriate behavior when utilized right.

Blow That Merc's Head Off

If there is any designer in games who is fond of intentionality traps, it is Hideo Kojima. Metal Gear Solid 2 in particular is full of them, and purposefully so, for it calls attention to the divide between what you want to do and what you actually execute.

In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can choke guards into unconsciousness. Doing so requires you walk up to them from behind and hold the melee button. They will squirm periodically, and if you don’t tighten your grip by releasing and then quickly holding the melee button again, they break free of your grasp. If you hold on long enough, they pass out.

Faced with such a system, you might spam the choke button to make sure you knock them out faster. But, unfortunately for you, that is an intentionality trap: instead, you break the guard’s neck, killing them instantly. Your impatience led to a preventable death.

Likewise, aiming a gun in MGS2 is a finicky affair. You must hold down the weapon button just enough that you raise your gun, but if you press too hard on the button, you fire your weapon. Unfortunately for you, gathering dog tags from enemy soldiers is a major game mechanic, and requires you “hold up” (get into close range and point your gun at) enemies. Press that button just a little too hard, and you blow their head off.

The result is that you must remain hyper-conscious of how much pressure you put on the fire button, which thematically emulates a nervous trigger finger. You have to look prepared to kill - if you lower your weapon, enemies immediately pounce on the opportunity to attack you - without actually killing. And if you want to get every dog tag, you also need to have the control to squeeze off shots on specific body parts at will, to convince more stubborn guards to give up their tags.

These intentionality traps exist to convey a particular theme. They require precision because combat is rarely precise, and Kojima both wants you to embody the perfectly-calm super soldier while understanding the pressure of combat. Removing the barrier between player intention and action - by removing the pressure sensitivity on aiming, for example - also undermines the theme of remaining calm under pressure.

We will call this type of trap a “negative” intentionality trap, because it relies on lapses in attention during a procedure, rather than before, and exists primarily to punish imprecision rather than inattentiveness. You meant to do the action, you just didn’t do it correctly.

A Snapped Twig, A Rustled Leaf

In Metal Gear Solid 3, the intentionality trap of strangulation is expanded upon, and another trap is introduced through the medium of sneaking.

When holding someone as Naked Snake, you may hold a knife to their throat to interrogate them. Doing so causes them to give up the locations of other enemies or items, so it’s a very useful action. However, pressing too hard causes Naked Snake to quietly cut their throat open, killing them as instantly as a snapped neck does in MGS2. It’s a combination of the strangle and shooting traps in one neat package, and the game has repercussions for accidental deaths (compared to 2, which doesn’t really) so avoiding killing a guard is actually important.

Sneaking, however, is a little different. You may think that the optimal way to sneak in MGS3 is to hold lightly in a direction on your analog stick, because Naked Snake moves slower and is thus harder to hear. Except that’s not the case; if you only use the analog stick, guards will always hear you before you get close enough to hold them up or grab them. You have to hold down the relevant direction on your dpad to move slow enough that you can get close.

Where the three previous mechanics we discussed would punish you for pressing a button too much or too hard, sneaking in MGS3 punishes you for not pressing a button. Thematically, this feels appropriate for a jungle setting; if you focus too much on your target, and not enough on the environment around you, you could rustle a plant or crack a twig and be spotted, no matter how slow you move. Thus, you have to specifically avoid doing this by indicating your character’s attention to sneaking through a button bress.

We will call this a “positive” intentionality trap, because it relies on a lack of attention before a procedure even begins, rather than on imprecision in execution. In simpler words, you press a button, rather than avoiding pressing a button too hard or much, to indicate your concentration.

The Edge Between Conversation And Combat

Finally, we return to Read Dead Redemption 2, and the question posed at the start: Is it bad that you can accidentally start a fight with random innocents?

While riding around and performing various activities in RDR2, you switch between two control modes. Let’s call them “combat” - indicated by having your gun drawn - and “conversation” - indicated by keeping your gun holstered. Some controls do the same thing no matter the mode, such as sprinting, while others change their meaning based on the mode. Notably, the control for “focus attention” in conversation mode is the same as “aim weapon” in combat mode. It does this for a specific cognitive purpose: the control is “look at” in both modes, but in conversation mode looking at someone allows you to talk to them, where in combat you shove your gun in their face.

This modal difference leads to the most common complaint about RDR2: accidentally starting a fight because you pointed your gun instead of looking at someone. It’s typically held up as an example of how bad the game’s controls are. After all, you didn’t intend to shove your gun in someone’s face, you simply wanted to talk to them. Accidentally drawing your gun in a conversation is another, but since it requires holding a control for a long period of time, it’s difficult to perform accidentally.

The ability to forget that you are in combat mode is a variant of the positive intentionality trap, because it requires players press a button (holster) to avoid a negative game state. The game could easily holster the gun for us between combat scenarios, but it doesn’t, and the result is a rash of player complaints.

This accidental “shove my gun barrel up your nose” experience of RDR2 clumsily conveys a classic Western theme: that anyone, at any time, is capable of being a killer. That the society around the classic gunslingers, cowboys, and deadbeats of the Old West was rife with casual violence, and confusion between a friend and a foe could happen for any reason. The distinction between a friendly encounter and a hostile one is rarely cut and dry in a world where everyone is armed and the law is spread thin, and something as small as the wrong gesture or a careless word could result in a gunfight.

Of course, drawing your gun directly into somebody’s face is hardly this nuanced. Nobody “accidentally” pointed a gun in somebody’s face in the Old West. This is why the intentionality trap here is clumsy; the trap is effective, and the way it relates to the combat/conversation dichotomy is accurate in the general sense, but the theme it conveys conflicts with the trap. Much like the rest of RDR2, it feels like an intentional and interesting system whose ramifications could not be adequately explored due to horrific labor conditions.

A Wider Look At Intention

In Red Dead Redemption 2, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Metal Gear Solid 3, how we control our character is as thematic and vital to our experience as the narratives we pore over or the levels we conquer. That dissociation between what a player intends the character to do, and what the character actually does, is explorable, thoughtful, full of nuance. Not every game needs to have perfect responses to input.

This isn’t to say that intentionality traps only exist within these games, or that all intentionality traps are control-related. Papers, Please crafts an intentionality trap by encouraging player complacence at their job as a border guard, which is the primary way it conveys the theme of a person's complicity in cruelty by simply doing their job. How designers mold and subvert player intention as they engage with games is a universally important concept. Many games implement some form of intentionality trap, because it is through the tensions revealed by such traps that players can form deeper connections with the games they play.

Rather than reflexively discarding such dissociations as “bad”, let us instead consider what they tell us about the games we play, and ourselves.