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Evolve Your Mechanics, Not Your Narrative

Randy thinks progress in games needs to come from mechanical innovation, not narrative innovation, as important as that is to the maturing of the industry.

Randy OConnor, Blogger

April 19, 2013

5 Min Read

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)

Triad (Anna Anthropy)

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.

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

He helped make Waking Mars with Tiger Style Games which is totally available on everything.
Randy also made Dead End, an iOS game, which you should buy for two dollars!

You can also follow his ramblings on twitter, like him on Facebook, go to his deviantArt, or I dunno. Maybe you wanna read some of his poetry?

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