Sometimes is a good idea to take a high-level look at game design. Following Chris Crawford’s big game design question:
What do players do in your game?
Leaving aside specific details, players do repeat a series actions or mechanics during gameplay. From a strictly gameplay perspective, gameplay actions/mechanics are just all what player do in your game. It’s fairly possible that in your favorite shooter game players just move, aim, shoot and reload. And it’s OK from a gameplay perspective.
But from a story perspective, most players do absolutely nothing in the game. The game conveys a linear story where players can only sit and enjoy the movie. So we need another big question for game designers:
What do players do in your game story?
That is my big game and story design question. Try to answer this big question only using gameplay actions/mechanics. In other words, try to use gameplay actions for story purposes. Try to build your game story using gameplay mechanics. That’s the whole interactive storytelling problem. It’s difficult to build a story with such limited actions as moving, aiming, shooting and reloading. We need more meaningful gameplay mechanics in order to expand game story interactivity.
Let’s put a very simple example. Let’s say we’re designing a shooter action game with a strong emphasis on player’s control over story. Instead of just shooting, our game allows players to shoot enemies or let them go with a cool phrase and a kick in the ass (I know it’s cliché but anyways). Now we can build a story around two gameplay-story mechanics: killing or forgiving enemies. Let’s say the game has 5 final bosses who are sinful protagonists in a vengeance story. Players can choose which bosses to kill or which bosses to forgive, making or breaking alliances in their road to the final vengeance. And maybe players can team up with forgiven final bosses!
Game actions/mechanics can serve both gameplay and story purposes leading to a fully interactive game where players control both action and story. It’s like a 2D coordinate system where gameplay and storytelling are two orthogonal dimensions. Each action represents a point in this action-story 2D space. Some mechanics are fully action-oriented (move, aim, shoot, reload), some are fully story-oriented (talk, choose character) and hopefully some actions lie somewhere in between (kill, forgive), serving both purposes: they’re fun to play and meaningful for story.