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Game Mechanics That Tell Stories

There is a particular kind of interactive storytelling that I find more compelling than the others, even though I do not really think it holds the key to the zenith of interactive storytelling: game mechanics that tell stories.

Francisco Souki, Blogger

June 25, 2009

7 Min Read

Even though we are all still searching for the ultimate interactive storytelling experience, it is hardly arguable that video games have made progress in bringing slices of interaction into storytelling or, given their nature, storytelling into interaction. They have managed to do this in many ways, some of them definitely more effective than others, including examples such as Indigo Prophecy, KOTOR or Story Machine games such as Civilization or any sports game.

But there is a particular kind of interactive storytelling that I find more compelling than the others, even though I do not really think it holds the key to the zenith of interactive storytelling. I am talking about game mechanics that tell stories: player interactions that are charged with meaning and go beyond simple button presses – they are translated into story elements that bring us closer to the characters and closer to the story.

Let’s look at the Metal Gear Solid series for an example. This series tends to place huge emphasis on story and usually makes a good job at creating enticing storytelling experiences, excelling particularly at creating unforgettable boss fights. One of such fights is the face-off against Psychomantis, a character with psychic powers that claims he can read our minds.

But what makes the battle against Pychomantis memorable is the way his abilities translate into game mechanics. When each and every move we make is anticipated by our enemy, frustration starts rising; each gunshot is blocked, each attack thwarted.

And then, most probably because the game itself tips us off, we understand that our minds are being read through the controller – our only physical port into the virtual world itself. When we unplug the controller from the Player 1 port and plug into the Player 2 one, the channels through which our mind was being read become disconnected. Our mind is safe now: we are free to kill him.

Something similar happens in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater when Snake faces a boss named The End. This game went out of its way to theme the bosses, and this one in particular was a very old man specialized in sniping. We face him in a vast forest area composed of multiple scenes, and the battle is basically a sniping showdown. But The End is old. So old, in fact, that if we turn the system off and wait for seven days he will die of old age. Gimicky? Maybe.

But this aspect of the game is not widely advertised, nor is this the only way of beating this boss – it is actually an obscure and hidden way to do it. The fact is that when a player unknowingly stumbles into this situation he becomes, in a way, a victim of the game’s story. “You waited so long that the poor old fella just could not take it!” is what the game seems to tell us. And this mechanic, as simple as it is, is enough to get the point across.

These simple mechanics are loaded with meaning – they represent a very good way of translating the world’s and character’s nature to the player. In these cases, the player is not directly using the game mechanic to advance the story or to interact with it. Instead, the game mechanic itself is telling the story. And by cutting the middle man, the message gets across in a much stronger way. Especially since the experience seems much more hands-on in a way.

It is important to stress the difference between these examples and, say, the core mechanic of a game like Indigo Prophecy. This difference lies mainly in the fact that even though this game is completely driven by the story and by the role each character plays in it, the mechanics rarely feel like they are telling the story themselves; they are merely mediums through which we interact with the story.

They are completely tangible and act as an intermediary between story and player. This is not to say that the game does not do a great job of placing the player in the middle of the story, only that it is not telling that story through its game mechanics.

The complete opposite of game mechanics that tell stories are game mechanics that wreck stories. Sometimes it is because they reveal inconsistencies in the story, sometimes because they feel tacked on or maybe it is that they make the game’s seams show. Either way, these mechanics make us disconnect from the story and question exactly what is going on with this world. A good (bad?), example of this that I experienced recently is the time-slowing mechanic in Mirror’s Edge.

A friend of mine actually started playing this game in my system and then left it at Chapter 1, so I missed the tutorial altogether. Later, probably in Chapter 4 or so, I accidentally pressed the square button and slowed time. At first I had absolutely no clue of what was going on – when I realized it, it did not really make much sense to me. I could not even think of a place where I would have been better off with the mechanic. As of today, I’m playing the final chapter and still I have not used this mechanic; it is so irrelevant to me that I forget it even exists.

It was not until recently that I started considering this fact that game mechanics can actually be strong storytelling devices, and the reason I started thinking about it was I questioned myself about what made some of my favorite games particularly great.

The first game that struck me as full of this kind of mechanics was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This game is a classic for an infinite number of reasons but again, I had never really thought about how it made use of mechanics as storytelling devices. One of such occurrences takes place when Link has just awakened in the future and he goes to get the horse, Epona, at the ranch.

She does not recognize him initially, just like almost every other character, but they are tied through time via a song that Link has played for her in the past. When the song is played the connection is made, and so she understands that Link can be trusted. This is the way we learn that in this world that allows for time travel, music is a constant we can safely fasten ourselves to.

But my favorite example of a mechanic that tells a story probably comes from Ico, a game charged with a high emotional content. Ico is all about two characters that forge a relationship through the game, and almost every core mechanic is used to reinforce that relationship. The two characters usually coexist in the same space, which would usually make us think of a sidekick type of interaction for movement.

But the way these characters will usually move around is that the player, controlling Ico, will take Yorda’s hand and bring her along with him. It could have easily been implemented as a simple “press X to have her follow” mechanic, but the designers chose to link the two characters in a gesture of obvious affection. In this way, the amazingly simple act of moving through space takes on a completely new meaning.

Game mechanics are the best means for designers to get a point across. The mechanics are the basic points of interaction between the player and the game, the hinges that hold games upright. As such, they are the most powerful mediums for communicating with the player. If we are capable of designing a game mechanic in such a way that it tells a part of our story, not only will it make for more a compelling experience, but our story will strongly benefit for it, since it is connecting with the player in a truly primal level.

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