Huh? Whose footprints are these? – an Essay

It’s 1998 (but you’re pretending it’s 2005), you have made your way onto an island full of hostile soldiers without much commotion. You reach the surface and see the snow falling gently through the night for the first time. After a few hushed words with HQ over the radio you push onward.

“crunch, crunch, crunch”.

Your steps leave little footprints behind you. You might have realised it sooner, but this drives the point home; this is a well crafted game, it’s special. You haven’t played a bad game that had footprints left in the snow. Amazing set dressing, it really speaks to how much the artists cared about this world.

“Huh? Whose footprints are these?”

Holy fucking shit. Just like, freeze everything what the fucking fuck. This has never happened before, what the hell is going on? This motherfucking toy soldier has noticed the pretty set dressing and is using it to hunt me down, holy shit am I going to die?


These days in games it’s not uncommon to joke about enemy AI characters vocalising their current AI state. We’re well aware that “Did you hear something!?” translates to “I heard the player and now I’m announcing that I’m going to go look for them”, the AIs that are usually out to kill you, are kind enough to tell you where they are, where they think you are, what they are doing, when they are doing it and so on.

It’s laughable and if you’re trying to take a game seriously the absurdity of this feedback will really ruin the mood (not necessarily in a bad way, but I don’t feel like it’s much of an accomplishment, outsmarting a group of soldiers who move slowly and tell me what they are doing each step of the way). So why was this time on Shadow Moses Island any different?

Because it had never happened before. I expected the enemies to follow their little paths until I got close enough and that would be that. That was what always happened, I expected one thing and I got another. The AI surprised me, but it wasn’t some cheap “AHA I UNEXPECTEDLY SPOTTED YOU!” surprise, it spotted some secondary part of me that I had thought was nothing more than nice graphics. It communicated immediately what had happened and I had time enough to both be shocked and think up a way to deal with the problem.

I’ve talked about surprises in games before, how a game can use a player’s existing expectations (or instill new expectations) and subvert them for great effect. Link here so I don’t have to repeat myself.


SO that expectation that footprints mean nothing, that enemies will never suddenly suss you out by a trail you’ve left behind no longer exists. “Whose footprints are these?” and all other related phrases that have been used in games since, don’t *feel* the same because we now see them coming. They are just a part of a standard problem presented to gamers and games don’t seem to ever try and subvert this new expectation.

Which would actually be really easy! For example you could still have stupid “you search that way, I’ll search here!” dialogue, but what if the other grunt responds “Fuck you, I’m tired of your shit! I’m doing this my way!” and barrels down the corridor right towards where the player is. “No! Caleb!” screams the other grunt. BOOM you just had your expectations subverted and a memorable gaming experience. Or how about another? invert that stealth shit; the enemies already know where you are and they are trying to sneak around you (to surround you or something) and it’s only when you see them (or their footprints!) that they make a noise “Shit, they spotted me!”

“Huh? Whose footprints are these?” is not memorable or remarkable because it’s the first instance of AI verbalising their current state that most players experienced, it’s because for a little moment when you heard it; you didn’t know anything anymore. This little clump of polygons on a playstation had just become sentient and you had some skynet motherfucker alive in a videogame and hunting you down. You had this expectation of what a game was and for a few glorious seconds after hearing that audio-clip, a videogame could be anything at all.