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Designing Mechanical Narratives (Part 1)

A rambling entry, and semi- response to Jonathan Jones’s “Sorry MoMA”

Taekwan Kim

January 25, 2013

9 Min Read

Before I start, I must confess that a large portion of this is going to be a quasi- post mortem on my three Indie Speed Run entries (postscript note: I actually ended up splitting this post into two parts, so most of that will be in Part 2). I wanted to write about that experience in some capacity, but to be honest, since their development cycles were so short, there just isn’t all that much relevant or interesting to say about the experience itself.

(This is about as interesting as it gets: I use a standing desk with no chair. On my last entry, I ended up spending at least 18 consecutive hours standing [you don’t really notice, though, when you stand all day every day]—I was actually nodding off standing up 5 hours before deadline, though the panic of time closing fast killed that off pretty quickly. And that’s my experience in a nutshell: standing around all day panicking.)

So anyway, I’d like to use these games instead to examine something much more specific and hopefully also more practical: designer-driven mechanical narratives.


Firstly, then, what the heck do I even mean by “mechanical narratives”, let alone “designer-driven” ones? Simply put, by mechanical narratives I am talking about narratives formed through gameplay. I’m making this rather pedantic distinction, however, in that wrangling with “non-ludic” narratives to get a certain result is also gameplay, and I’d like to avoid that confusion/overlap/semantic quagmire as much as conceptually possible (that whole “Where does the ‘narrative’ end and the ‘gameplay’ begin?” trap and what not).

For clear, written examples, you can see mechanical narratives in playthrough diaries such as An Illusionist in Skyrim, or A Lone Farmer at the End of the World, etc.

In practice, mechanical narratives are always stories about the experience of adhering to a set of rules, be they the game’s default rules or a player determined subset within those rules. More specifically, these narratives are typically embodied by and narrated through the general methodologies required to “win”, and the behavioral patterns and verbs the player needs to adopt to realize them.

Moving on to the “designer-driven” part, then: when we think about ‘narratives arising from gameplay’, we have a tendency to think of them of as purely player-driven, organic, and completely dynamic. Not pre-determined. This tendency, however, somewhat obscures the actuality that these types of narratives, too, can be sculpted, designed, and pre-determined. (The claim that this is not possible was the argument behind Mr. Jonathan Jones’s recent assertion that games are not art, which hopefully this post will help thoroughly refute.) Not to mention, of course, that their dynamism is already a result of the set of possibilities furnished by the rules.

The important thing to note with designer-driven (versus player-driven) mechanical narratives (henceforth DDMNs) is that they are still procedurally generated—the narrative only emerges through the various interactions with and between the mechanics and rules. The difference is that, in player-driven MNs, the “win” goal typically has nothing to do with the win conditions of the game (or such conditions don’t even exist—the player always determines what constitutes “winning”).

Or, let’s put it another way. In DDMNs, while the individual behavioral patterns and verbs chosen may change from player to player, the general methodology towards winning remains the same. You can win Fallout through either speech or guns, but the requirement that you have to really specialize in a strictly limited set of skills, and thus commit yourself to the actions permitted by that specialization, remains consistent for every playthrough.

This is to say that DDMN games typically allow at most a handful of genuinely successful strategies (that is, chains of limited possibilities, as opposed to ordered exactitudes) for winning or even progressing. Consequently, you end up having to play the game in certain ways, which in turn leads to the mechanical experience, and thus the mechanical narrative, being relatively uniform and relatively pre-determined. Everyone knows to leave that last column free for an I piece in Tetris, for example, which accordingly leads to everyone knowing what it feels like to wait for an I piece. (For those curious about my take on Fallout’s mechanical narrative in particular, I have written about it previously here.)

Crucially, whether or not any sort of mechanical narrative exists at all (and this goes for both player- and designer- driven) depends on how deterministic the rule set is. Mr. Jones’s example of Chess is a case where a mechanical narrative fails to emerge because the variations for winning are too vast. If, however, the rules were restricted such that you could only win using one specific pawn, and every other piece besides the king must be sacrificed if that’s what it takes to queen that pawn, a narrative begins to emerge.

On the other hand, a game that has only one exact way to win (the aforementioned ordered exactitude) also does not contain a mechanical narrative (repeat: mechanical narrative).

There is a sweet spot, then, of determinacy and variation which gives rise to the most compelling experiences. Such a confluence gives us just enough agency within a pre-determined narrative to make experiencing it deeply real and personal, in a way not unlike how Duchamp’s Étant donnés actively causes the viewer to embody someone else’s experience.

(A strange coincidence there: Duchamp “quit” art to play Chess of all things, to work on endgames, only to come back post-mortem with a profoundly gamey installation—one that fundamentally employs rules and play to craft a narrative. It’s as if he grasped all of this earlier than any of us did.)

This is why we revel (at least conceptually) in games such as Day Z, because the existence of that sweet spot is so readily apparent. It’s why Civilization II, now almost two decades old, came back into the public eye in such a huge way through “The Eternal War”. It’s why Hotline Miami has such instant appeal (and why that hospital level dismays just as instantly). And it’s why just looking at something like Path of Exile’s passive skill tree can be fascinating and exciting (public service announcement: PoE is now in open beta). Etc. etc. etc.

Enough with the conceptualizing, let’s talk about making games.

The three games I’m going to talk about are terribly rough. But they are useful in this discussion in that their simplistic rules and variations, and their minimal to non-existent “in-game” narratives, should make this examination easier. Plus, with these I can actually describe the design process and thinking behind the attempt to craft their mechanical narratives. (Ok, that’s all BS and I just want to talk about my games, right?)

Each entry will proceed with a short description of the game, followed by a discussion of the narrative goals of each game’s ruleset. Along the way, I’ll also be talking about some of the games’ failures of design.


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Sola Scriptura
Theme: Idolatry
Element: Submarine

Briefly, Sola Scriptura is a game about identifying a saboteur within a submarine’s crew before the submarine sinks from internal and external attacks. To be honest, I think I rather bungled the mechanical narrative in this game. But I should probably talk first about how Indie Speed Run works, for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Indie Speed Run is a 48 hour game jam which has teams of up to 4 members produce entries for competitive judging. You get assigned two random variables: a theme and an element. The theme concept is pretty straight forward; your game needs to be about the theme. The element, then, is an object that needs to be incorporated in your portrayal of the theme. (Interestingly, ISR allows multiple entries per individual/team. Sola Scriptura was the last of three that I submitted.)

Getting Idolatry/Submarine was like running into a hard place after running away from a rock. By trying to avoid essentially copying HP Lovecraft’s The Temple (that mental association was nearly inescapable for me), I ended up essentially copying FTL instead. Well, that’s not entirely fair I suppose... but you can judge that for yourself.

This was my thought process: I wanted to keep the idea of paranoia within an inescapable environment (the submarine), as well as Lovecraft’s recurring theme of fear of psychological/genetic pollution. In the most reductivist analysis, Lovecraft’s writings are basically political. Especially in his early works, they are allegories about miscegenation and ideological contamination resulting in alienation.

The latter aspect of that (ideological purity) gave me a conceptual foothold. Sola would be a critique, then (more like a mild teasing, really), of the tendency in American political rhetoric to idolize/deify the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. The mechanical narrative was supposed convey the idea that dogmatic absolutism and ideological shutdowns (à la 112th Congress) are just as deadly as active sabotage and external attacks, and that the system only functions when all the parts operate concurrently. So, a submarine locked in a self-interrogative, self-destructive spiral, until the player realizes that circular accusation is the quickest way to die. At least, that was the idea.

To implement this mechanically, I needed to make every compartment of the submarine essential to survival in some form. I also needed to find out what compartments submarines even have, being completely clueless about them. The research into that, fortunately, helped define the role for each compartment, and thus the overall design process. Once that was all worked out, it was simply a matter of mechanizing paranoia induced dysfunction.

I say simply, but really that had me somewhat stumped for a while. Ideally, I wanted to implement interpersonal relationships between each of the crew members, causing interrogating or just questioning one to lead the other crew members into becoming suspicious of the subject. But, due to time constraints and the fact that I’m terrible at programming AI (read: can’t actually do at all), the end result was far more simplistic.


I had originally intended to make this a single post, but it seems that it has grown much longer than anticipated. Part 2 will pick up where this left off, continuing my analysis of my three ISR entries, and wrapping up with some general observations and applicable conclusions on mechanical narratives.

My ISR entries are now available online. You can play them while you’re waiting for Path of Exile to install/update, and then forget about them forever. Or at least, until the next post.

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