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Evolve Your Mechanics, Not Your Narrative
by Randy OConnor on 04/19/13 02:17:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I want to express the weird headspace I've gotten from this overwhelming argument on the definition of games.


Defining "game" is a fascinating and impossible task. My girlfriend is a linguist and could tell you how impossible it is to assign a universal definition to anything in language. (Even ignoring that "game" is an English word, so this particular discussion can't be anything but English-centric.)


Our brains are into categorization, and we are designed to drop ideas and concepts and people and foods into various categories. Tasty vs. not tasty, friendly vs. douche-y, fun vs. not, meaningful vs. shallow. So, though I think no one can ever find complete agreement on the boundaries of what's red vs. what's orange (one of my eyes sees things slightly more blue than the other), I recognize that we want to assign definitions. It's useful to assign definitions and we do it constantly.

And in comparing those internal definitions we often find conflict. 


I don't think that is the important discussion we should be having. I think we need to be asking how to express mechanically the new narrative themes we're seeing in games. 


As the form matures (should I call it an art-form, an industry, a scene, all of the above?), what has bothered me over the years is not what is a game or isn't, but that games seem to be exploring everything except mechanics.  This seems as true for zinesters as it is for AAA and everyone between.

I have always been expecting the narratives that we're now seeing proliferate.  The thought of a first-person romance game was never odd, it had just never been done when I was a teenager.  Maybe because I grew up with games this seemed obvious, but any story can go around a game.

Many of the "zinester" games I've tried are stretching these narrative boundaries, but that is not what excites me about games. Don't get me wrong. It is refreshing and wonderful to see games about these subjects. I am glad we're exploring new art styles, new audio, and new stories, but rarely do we see new mechanics.

-Picture of the game Triad by Anna Anthropy (people sleeping on a bed as a woodblock puzzle)

Listening to the FTL creators' postmortem at GDC, they remarked that they left in bad art because no playtesters ever complained. What mattered was the game.

Bioshock: Infinite and Triad (by Anna Anthropy) are the now of games. And they are both firmly rooted in 20+ year old mechanics. The lineage is short and obvious. When you play Bio:Infinite you can draw an immediate line to 15-20 years back with Quake and the fundamentals are unchanged. Play Triad and you will find a block-puzzle. That's not to say they aren't solid games.

The question though, should be, are they using the space of games to express something meaningful? The games are vastly different in terms of scale, but Triad has taken an idea built around love and relationships and fit it neatly within a poem of a game. The mechanic of moving people around a bed to where they won't impinge on each others' sleep is sweet and endearing and uses mechanics and aesthetics coherently. I think it's the right way to think about the whole and move us forward.

Bioshock has taken a gorgeous vibrant world and lofty outspoken commentary on many subjects, and then placed it around Doom. AAA continues to make fascinating worlds where you dream of what you might do, yet the mechanics remain limited to moving and attacking. Does it move us forward?

Picture of a man in Bioshock:Infinite being dismembered

Someone explained to me that zinesters haven't pushed upon mechanical boundaries partly because of their tools, and that makes sense.  Using Twine or RPG Maker or other such tools, it's easy to explore narrative space when you have a preset mechanical system. We are now in the time of games where the tools, the graphics, the whatever else, you can make anything happen. 

There have been meaningful explorations of mechanics within the zinester scene (such as Lim), but my point is that the landscape of mechanical innovation does not seem as strong as it could be.  I want new systems. New ways of looking at love and life and purpose and frustration through mechanics, not narrative.

The aesthetic and narrative framework of a game is very important to its meaning, I don't want to discount that. I am glad that we are seeing all these adventures into new narrative and aesthetic space. But I think the narrative/aesthetic is only part of the system.

And, well, I believe that it will be mechanical innovation that will carry the aesthetics and narrative and the entire meaning of "game" the furthest.  It's the potential that every part of the industry should be striving for.

 is an indie developer who most recently released Distractions on iOS (it's free!)!

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Ozzie Smith
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Well said. I always felt like the game design community needed to focus more on making newer and more interesting mechanics. To me mechanics are by far the most important part of making a game: they are what make games "games" and not just movies or virtual spaces. They are the verbs, and games are all about the verbs.

Instead of trying to create new interesting mechanics, it seems like many narrative-focused games of the past few years just strip away mechanics instead (Walking Dead, Proteus, Heavy Rain, etc), leaving them barely interactive (and thus for me hard to consider "games").

I believe that the important stories in games are the stories about what happens to the player through the mechanics of the game ( IE every professional sport) and not the designer-written linear story that is the same for every person. I think game design is definitely about figuring out what sort of feelings you want your players to feel through the mechanics of the game, but it's not about (or at least shouldn't be about) "I want to tell this story about X".

I'm not saying there should be no narrative in games, but I definitely feel that designers should make sure their "message" should be delivered through the mechanics, and not through non-interactive elements. Bioshock: Infinite had a cool story but that story probably would have been better delivered as a novel, whereas Shadow of the Colossus or Cart Life (maybe, I haven't played it myself yet but it seems very mechanically-driven) convey feelings/emotions/empathy through their mechanics that you just can't quite replicate as well with other mediums.

Matthew Downey
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Bioshock: Infinite has one of my favorite new mechanics: the rail system. Although it is derived from roller-coasters and it's by no means avant garde, the rail system is fresh, well polished, and fun.

I would definitely play a game that has Bioshock: Infinite's rail system with more depth.

FPS's as a whole have been cooking up new ideas very slowly however. I think half of the issue is that marketing, business, and executive staff think correlation is causation. They seem to believe if you make realistic shooter with nice graphics it will sell, when customization in first person shooters is an essential part of why Call of Duty 4's multiplayer became popular.

Despite this, customization is cryptically similar between FPS titles.

Jonathon Green
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With no intent to downplay the validity of your own opinion. But I personally would also say the rail system in Infinite was a "weak" gameplay mechanic, more inline with being a gameplay gimmick as it's actual value in comparison to the overall experience was stifled.

Which leads me to agree that a game based almost entirely on an expanded rail system itself would be very desirable - to the point that I believe that 'mechanically' a game based on the rail system would be a better game than Infinite is with it's relatively lack luster, watered down, refined and iterated gameplay.

I think Infinite is a prime example of a design choice that resonates across many modern games, and their customisation... where the choice is to hone and refine and in doing so simplify the mechanics of games ... which leads up to a plethora of "industry standards" in game design rather than the rich and fleshed out game mechanics that best suit the individual game.

But alas, instead we have the tired and familiar that is less likely to confuse those who games tend to be primarily marketed toward these days.

Tom Aram
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Not only are the current crop of AAA games mechanically stunted, i also feel as though the industry at large, the press and also the players lack the understanding and even the language required to simply talk about and recognise interesting game mechanics when they appear.

It's easy to write about stories, we've been doing it for a long time. According to metacritic quotes Heavy Rain is:

"An emotionally engaging thrill-ride from start to finish"
"makes groundbreaking strides in storytelling and character development"
"a bit Saw, a sniff of Se7en, a big dose of Fahrenheit"
"blazes a beautiful, artistic trail with a psychological thriller that features shades of Hitchcock."

Films and novels are established mediums, we've all had ample experience with them and there's a long running and articulate art critic scene that disucsses and appraises their value. By this point there is nobody in any field that hasn't absorbed some of that language - we teach it in school to 13 year olds for christs sake.

By comparison the art of game rules and mechanics is a relatively new beast and is still very much in development, my worry might be that we are abandoning it entirely in favour of simply cramming more ambitious narratives ontop of what we already have.

I do not think it would be a stretch to say that the majority of people involved in the gaming industry at all levels, from producers to developers, artists and gaming press, down to most of the players themselves, are more familiar with what makes a good book or film, and how to talk about what makes a good book or film, than a good game. This does not mean we cannot appreciate a good game when we encounter one, however when we do stumble upon a game that we clearly enjoy for reasons that have nothing to do with its narrative, we seem to be stumped as to why exactly we keep playing it.

The press will say 'the controls are really tight'. That old chestnut, but most people really aren't able to articulate in detail what makes one game feel much better to play than another. It's a quantum science of milliseconds and subtle inputs, and deceptively simple systems that lead to emergent gameplay. You can read a review for a game like Street Fighter, and hear the mind of the writer cracking as he struggles to explain why the game deserves the score it's about to recieve, when he knows it's a great game but can't begin to understand why other superficially similar clones don't compare.

Tim Rogers ( has made attempts to develop that language, inventing a bunch of silly terms like Crunchy Chunky Swishy and Juicy, which he very vaugely attributes to different types of control and how they feel, but we definitely need some better thought on the subject. We need new ideas and language to filter through all parts of the industry, so that next time a producer talks to a designer/artist about the animation of a main character, they'll both understand that we don't want an overly elaborate animation that takes control away from the player in the middle of combat, because that doesn't feel STICKY enough.

Tom Aram
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Oh and another thing:

"When you play Bio:Infinite you can draw an immediate line to 15-20 years back with Quake and the fundamentals are unchanged."

I dissagree, actually i think Quake was more interesting mechanically, on several points:

- It accidentally included a whole host of physics exploits related to movement that turned out to have incredible depth to them. The emergent gameplay from these tricks was so interesting it kicked off its own scene of players who either raced eachother around maps or tried to outdo eachother with ever more elaborate tricks, like freestyle skateboarders.

- The 'small map and scattered powerups of varying strengths' multiplayer design was originally just a natural expansion of the way Id Software did single player. Powerups and weapons on the floor of the map were just the way of advancing character power in Doom. Carried over to the Quake multiplayer however, this design accidentally created a deep strategy game within the 1on1 and TDM gametypes. Experienced players played the map like a chess board controlling key points and predicting their opponent's movement.

- The ability to mod the game allowed players to develop the rules and mechanics of the game as they saw fit, and the community that took up this challenge are responsible for ideas which made their way into various new commercial games. In particular, modders of Quake invented class based multiplayer first person shooters as a genre, and the sequel to a Quake mod is currently one of the most succesful games on the PC.

Interestingly, most of that has nothing to do with the developer. Quake 'accidentally' had the most interesting movement physics of any first person shooter ever, and the most advanced multiplayer gameplay in the genre. It became what we now call an eSport, and commanded a gigantic player base which wasn't properly monetized. Id Software certainly knew what they had, as they carried all of those elements across 2 sequels.

Ok admittedly, Bio isn't a multiplayer game so the multiplayer design point is a cheap shot, but i would take the movement of Quake above any modern quirks like customizable guns or the ability to crouch behind crates any day of the week. Bunnyhopping was the sort of ingenius accident that apparently only comes along once a decade, it rewarded on a gradual curve that could never be perfected, you could always do better. There was always someone who could move faster or more accurately than you could, and there are literally people who have been working at their Quake engine movement for 15 years and still compete with eachother.

The 'game' of movement was ever present, as every millisecond of time you spent moving from one place to another in game could potentially be sped up if you worked at it. Moving felt good as it played on concepts of inertia and elements of real physics, moving faster increased your turning circle like a racing game and became progressively harder to control.

As a part of the Quake engine the mechanic carried over to several other games and even jumped developers, but Valve crippled it by removing a jump buffer that meant players would have to use scripts or unusual control schemes in order to properly exploit it. As a result, most players who entered the FPS scene after Counterstrike only know of the mechanic as 'that cheat which uses a script to make you go faster' and have no experience with just how brilliant an accident it was.

Now thematically, bunnyhopping can't be plonked into a modern warfare shooter, we can't simply copy Quake physics and expect it to go down well with players. However it should serve as an example of what constitutes a good game mechanic - ever present, offering limitless possibility for the player, rewarding on a gradient but impossible to completely master, playing on familiar concepts like weight and inertia and giving the player complete control to manipulate them.

It is a mistake to think that Quake's mechanics are similar to those of Bioshock, it is only superficially comparable, as are the majority of current first person shooters, the move to the console market being partially to blame. But that's my 2p as a jaded competitive gamer in the 90s who cannot understand the appeal of these slow, crouch+zoom+click with auto aim console FPS games that seem woefully devoid of 'game'.

Bart Stewart
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I don't disagree at all that a growth of new mechanics would be a healthy thing for computer games. But let me suggest that there's even more that can be done.

Consider the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics model. Aesthetics as integrated narrative we've seen, and mechanics as noted would benefit from new things for players to do. What about dynamics?

If (very loosely) mechanics are what players do, and aesthetics are why, then dynamics are what create an interesting and reactive world that reflect the action and meaning back to the player in interesting ways. So if we're thinking about innovation to keep gaming fresh, what about innovation in dynamics as well?

Where are the games that really harness the power of today's computers, not just to move 4K textures around, but to breathe more interactive life into the world and characters of a game? What amazing new dynamics could be tried to make gameworlds feel more like living places and characters more like living people, not because simulationist enhancement is valuable in and of itself but because more responsive world-systems and characters create more opportunities to make more interesting choices with all those new mechanics?

There's still a lot of undiscovered country left to explore. :)

Wendelin Reich
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Great food for thought!

What interests me is *why* mechanics appear to be evolving so slowly. Games with innovative mechanics - if executed well - can be smash hits. Infinity Blade (I) is a good example; Epic stated last year that it was its most profitable game back then. So why doesn't such innovation happen more often?

I don't know but I'd like to know. Maybe mechanics (especially real-time mechanics) are more technology-sensitive and interface sensitive than other aspects of a game. Think about all the innovations in AI that people have dreamed of for years but that still seem light-years away because the tech just isn't there yet. (Remember when the first presentations of Mass Effect 3 for Kinect suggested that one could talk to one's sidekicks to give them commands during combat? Turned out to be a slight overpromise :) ).

Kheper Crow
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I don't really agree with this. There has been way more support for innovations with mechanics than in innovations with narration. Actually, this is the first year I can recall that field getting any real recognition. For as long as I've been in the industry though, we have been praising games due to their mechanics. Have you ever been to the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC? I tried to get in many years ago with an experiment on narration and minimal mechanics, I was never even given a chance.

I think the stalwart defense of the mechanics of a game is holding the medium back. I wish that we didn't have to label everything with a game aesthetic as a game. But we do (currently). Which means those exploring the narration of the space must shoehorn in game elements to be accepted. Maybe, as writers become frustrated with their limited mechanics, mostly action verbs, they will actually be the ones to innovate with new mechanics?

Something to consider, while a game may use a mechanic that has been done before it can still be innovative in the context of which the mechanic is used. Context can drastically change an experience.

Philip Minchin
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Great post, and great comments!

I'm not entirely with Kheper Crow on this - evolving mechanics is critical, and the explosion of input methods in recent years has been wonderful precisely because it enables this - but the last point is absolutely correct. It's not just about "new" mechanics, it's about expressiveness and framing of mechanics, and I think you're underestimating the value of zinester experimentation in innovating new mechanics.

One of the (admittedly many) things that makes the Thief games such great stories AND games is that the stealth mechanics (hide somewhere unseen, venture out into danger but find somewhere safe as soon as you can) so beautifully express Garrett's psychology. The moment-to-moment gameplay is a microcosm of his character arc (starting off deeply guarded, having to venture outside his own selfish concerns).

Similarly, you could potentially make a game that was mechanically identical in its input and even display to a shooter (use controls to align symbol of visual focus to another object's location, activate) while totally changing the meaning of that mechanic. There was a (? Flash) game linked from Gamasutra some years ago that used something like this to simulate the politics of gaze and eye contact on a crowded bus. It was a great little game - I can't find the link again though :( And of course Halflife 2 occasionally did this as well - it paid attention to where you directed Gordon's gaze in a couple of narrative scenes, becoming one of the few ways you could have the character express himself to other characters.

And that change in framing may well produce the kind of mechanical innovation you're looking for. Something that doesn't make sense if mouse movement=aiming a weapon might be totally logical if mouse movement=move your head. (For instance, if your head is cut off and you're a zombie, maybe you can use head movement to roll around? It would work better with a thumbstick than a mouse though, which kind of brings me back to the value of varied input methods :-) )

Hierarchy of mechanics matters as well. What Tom Aram's talking about with the Quake jump mechanics is arguably just a rhythm game (albeit an emergent one), and part of its fun was probably rhythm's general power to induce trance/flow. But the fact that it's subordinated to the larger Quake systems of navigating 3D space in pursuit of tactical and strategic competitive goals means it feels very different from anything we'd traditionally call a "rhythm game".

And then there's the difficulty of defining "mechanic" - some might argue that not everything I've listed here even qualifies as one! Is it just the relationship between player input and system feedback? Is it the idea that "click" = "shoot", which is already venturing into symbolic/narrative territory? (In fact I'd argue that except in the purest of abstract games, mechanics inextricably depend for their effect on the player upon their narrative definitions.) Etc etc.

So, yeah. I think you're underestimating the value of small (or large!) tweaks of meaning or variables within existing mechanics: games are complex systems, and what emerges from such changes can be far more different than you'd expect. But you're spot on that we have whole new vistas of possibility opening to us with new avenues for input and feedback. So I agree that we should be heading outward into some of those new possibilities... but I also wonder whether deeper mining of our existing mechanics might not produce tunnels into some of those new possibilities as well.

Tom Aram
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"What Tom Aram's talking about with the Quake jump mechanics is arguably just a rhythm game"

It doesn't actually fall into that category, although i can see where you'd get that impression. Quake allows the jump command to be buffered, so there isn't any timing or rhythm required to repeatedly jump, and the act of jumping isn't where the speed or the interesting gameplay comes from. I'm going to elaborate because i think it's a brilliant mechanic and deserves more credit.

Jumping immediately whenever you land means you are considered to be constantly airborne, this removes ground friction from your character, so you conserve momentum. It also disables ground movement in favour of the game's air control mechanic. The details of the air control vary between each of the Quake games, but as an example Quake 1 has practically no air control at all unless you press in a direction that opposes your motion, it has 'air brakes'.

The exploit involves applying momentum in a direction that only just counts as opposing your motion, so you strafe to a side, and then turn the camera slowly towards that side to change the angle of your strafe vector. This creates a strong pulling force to your side that has the effect of swinging your character around in the air, like a ball tied to a post. While turning through the air you also accelerate, and the rate at which you accelerate varies depending on your turning circle. Fast smooth turns will gain speed, but turning too sharply will 'oversteer' slowing you down and unlinking your movement from your camera direction.

Any speed you generate while in the air is carried across to the next jump by bouncing to avoid friction. So the ideal way to move is to curve around the map, trying to hit the optimal turning angle at all times, which of course is impossible to do perfectly as it requires inhuman mouse control. This also means the fastest route from point A to B in Quake is not a straight line.

It's a system of movement where momentum is built up over time and can be redirected, you could liken it to driving a car that speeds up when it turns, depending on how good your racing line is. It feels far more natural than it sounds.

As you mentioned in your post, this becomes even more interesting in the context of a shooting game that also encourages rapid movement around a map, but it's an interesting small mechanic by itself. In the same way that aiming a camera at things and interacting with them doesn't have to involve shooting a gun at a Russian soldier, this system doesn't have to involve a bouncing space marine. Actually a bouncing space marine is a bizzare thing to attach this mechanic to, but it WAS an accident after all. You could just as easily use a system like this to make a game about gliding, or literally a racing game where you speed up by turning.

I will agree that there is much to be done with existing mechanics, so much depth can emerge from what we consider to be minor systems. Simple control elements can interact with each other and produce new kinds of gameplay. Ideally we should be designing these interactions instead of randomly stumbling upon them, and to do that we have to care about these 'minor' elements.

And apparently we don't. The minute details of control and combat mechanics in Irrational's new title were of little consequence to them because those details didn't relate to their narrative. They are telling a story and presenting a world, but even with so much of their game dedicated to running about and shooting guys, they were not trying to make an interesting FPS. This is why Bio is a generic, mediocre shooting game in a beautiful setting.

Randy OConnor
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Wow, a ton of great comments and thoughts, everyone! Thanks for getting into it.

A few comments.

@Tom: I agree the resulting mechanics in the quake series do create a whole additional level of depth, which essentially ends up making such titles a sport when there are so many subtle ways to toy with player control.

I was admittedly oversimplifying, and mostly making the point that with a deeper aesthetic world such as bioshock:infinite appears to have, it would make sense for a player to be able to yell at people or do any additional things that would add systemic depth and weight to Booker's actions. The idea of rifling through garbage cans before any shit hits the fan and not being judged for it, is so strange to me. The mechanics don't make much sense, whether or not they're better.

This was a major problem I had with Far Cry 2, actually. The intro is this interesting presentation of tensions between people without any actual violence. Then the game itself presents an incredibly black and white interpretation of people. It felt off. (Though gamewise I liked it.)

@Wendelin: I would say that mechanics don't evolve mostly because they are so hard to do well. A system has to last, it has to endure, and a designer has to be willing to push and pull to get the right result. It's time-consuming and requires a good intuition and lots of playtesting to make a good system, even when it's been done before.

@Kheper: What I want is more mechanical attempts at things like love. The strength of games lies not in telling the narrative, but creating the space and mechanics that create those narratives.

With that said...

@Philip: You're right on my criticism being a little extreme, that was mostly intended. But I also agree from experience that most shifts in mechanics come piecemeal. I often start a game with a lofty new ideal, but find by the end of the project that the majority of the game is derived from other proven elements because we do generally innovate on one axis over many.

Anyway, this blog post was mostly my attempt to reconcile the interesting space between zinesters and formalists, and that I think they could find common ground to work upon, which is mechanics that create or enhance the aesthetics of these more thoughtful narratives.

David Wilson
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What I really like is when mechanics and narrative mesh. For Example Final Fantasy 13, the game is linear and the narrative is all about being chased and no one in the world talking to you (no sidequests).