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Mechanics vs. Motif

In this post, I look at the difficulty of teaching people to design with both narrative and mechanics in mind, and describe a method of integrating both in design.

Whenever I ask students what games they wish to design, they often begin by telling me what story they wish to tell or what theme they wishto use.  However, whenever I ask them what their gameplay mechanics will be, or what type of control scheme theyenvision will be used, they stop dead and argue for their narrative vision, since that is what they believe makes their game.  In contrast, ask most within the industry, and they will tellyou that they design from a core mechanic, and then fill in the story later.  In the book Game Writing Handbook by Rafael Chandler, he laments how most game designs add narrative in at the end of production as almost an after thought. The debate on whether or not story is even important in games is still raging among some studios.

The point of this story is not to argue for or against narrative as an important part of game design, quite the contrary.  I love designing both from narrative and mechanics.  However, what I take from these discussions with students and developer testimonials is that the connection between narrative and mechanics must be an integral part of design from the conceptual phases onward. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman would say this is an element of a much larger game design principle they advocate called “meaningful play”; the concept that all elements of a game’s design must form a cohesive whole and be discernible as such by the player. I would argue that it is simple common sense. 

For example, one student of mine had an idea for a music game with beat-em-up aspects…or so I was lead to believe.  “Oh yeah, the game is going to be awesome, it’s about musicians who fight rival bands and other villains” he said to me during one of the first sessions of my game design class.  In reality, he envisioned something more along the lines of a beat-em-up game where the characters were musicians, but did not actually play their instruments.  “Well…the music thing…it’s just a style…I really dig the rock and roll style.”  I was told.  While this is good for some, I decided to push him harder: “Okay so how does the music these characters play come into the game?  Does the player use a music controller from Rock Band to move their avatar?  Do the players somehow use music to do special attacks?” He responded, “no…they’re just weapons and I don’t think they should be anything else…isn’t that cool?”  I had him scrap the whole idea and start over.  Could it have been a cool concept? Of course!  But he was simply not willing to take it far enough so the mechanics and controls would meld meaningfully with the world he was trying to create. 

Pete Townshend smashing guitar

Pete Townshend demonstrating my student's game 

When I begin designing a game, I look at two elements:  narrative and rules; or as I like to say, “mechanics and motif.”  My point is that when you come up with an idea for a game based on one; you begin thinking about how it can influence the other as soon as possible.  I like to think of game design conceptual ideas being on a scale like this: 


I find it useful to see where my game fits on this line

On the left side is motif; the rules of play of a game that create a user’s experience. On the left is motif; themes and narrative that give the mechanics of agame narrative context and meaning. Examples of games that can exist on pure mechanics and not lose any presentation value include puzzle games like Tetris, though many like Bejeweled and Dr. Mario, have used visual or narrative motifs.  Games that can exist mostly on narrative include RPG’s, games such as Heavy Rain, or Lucasarts/Travelers Tales-style adventure games (I say “mostly” because a game with no mechanics and all narrative is called a movie.)  Sure, there are games that could exist solely on mechanics if you took away their story and art, and a lot do, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

One of my favorite homework assignments to give students and demonstrate this severance between the two is to have them take a popular game such as Halo and imagine that it has the exact opposite art style than the developers gave it, while keeping its exact mechanics intact.  For the Halo explanation, you could give it, for example, the art style of Strawberry Shortcake or My Little Pony.  One of my students once described how Cooking Mama could become Hannibal Lecter’s Cooking Funtime…fantastic.  The classic example of this is of course, the relationship between Wolfenstein 3D and Super Noah’s Ark 3D on the Super NES.  As fun as these exercises are, they point out how disconnected mechanics and narrative have been within the gaming industry. Instead, I find that it is more meaningful to begin with either mechanics or narrative, but immediately decide how the other fits into that concept, that way your design decisions from that point on reflect the duality of your game idea:  mechanics driven to proceduralize the story or story used to educate new forms of mechanical interaction. 


"An IGN editor tried to review me once..."  

I remember an independent project that a few friends of mine and I were working on.  One of our designers came up with the core mechanic of “destruction.”  Our story, of course, would have to be about something that destroyed other things.  Military shooters and sci-fi have of course been done to death, so those were out.  We instead thought that it could be fun to play a game as a computer virus.  From this we devised a side-scrolling shooter/platformer concept similar to Mega Man, but with much more sinister goals.  From that came the mechanics of finding hidden caches of data within the computer, which would provide the players with opportunities for extra destruction points, and having the virus change his capabilities in response to the abilities of the anti-virus software army. 

On the flip side, I have been on-and-off working with an RPG idea that takes the typical Joseph Campbell heroic myth structure (the monomyth), and presumes that the “call to adventure” element that begins most games (in this case the typical “home is destroyed” theme) happened years ago, and that in the meantime the protagonist has been enslaved, escaped, and become a violent outlaw.  The story then has him finding friends from home, whom he thought long dead. The boon that would, in most versions of the myth, allow him to defeat his enemy also requires him to redeem himself and become a less-selfish character.  With these story themes in mind, I devised an experience system where the abilities of party members were dependent on how you interacted with each one and who you accomplished side-missions for separate from the main narrative.  Likewise, these side-missions would be integrated into the way that story missions are revealed by the supernatural powers guiding the player, making the theme of redemption and morality essential to the gameplay mechanics. 


These two theoretical game examples illustrate how game can be conceived from one side of the scale or the other, but should be moved progressively into the middle during the design phases of the game.  Will either game be exactly in the center?  Probably not.  But at least the games’ mechanics SHOULD (they are theoretical at this stage after all...) fit neatly into their stories and vice-versa. 

“Well, most players don’t care about story, they only want to get straight to the action.” 

That’s true, in some early versions of Half-Life 2:  Episode Two, the character Arne Magnusson was placed in the center of the room when he was giving the briefing to resistance soldiers of how to fight the soon-to-arrive Combine soldiers.  Playtesting found that the less-story focused players would run by Magnusson and into the next area, where there was more action. These players soon found themselves killed, not having waited to hear the vital battle information that the character was giving them.  Being a Valve game, story and narrative were intrinsically linked, and steps were taken to put Magnusson in a more attention-getting place.  However, many games don’t operate that way. While a lot of players would probably run through the story areas, the ones that do care about narrative will stay.  Design for the story people:  if an action player runs through the parts they don’t care about they won’t really miss anything; the people who want a more rounded experience, however, will know when something is falling short of its potential. 

  Arne Magnusson

The players that cared to listen knew how to use that thing...  

“But it’s cheaper to not put in story at all”

That’s also true, but let’s face it:  with the display power of most modern video game consoles and computers, theatrics and story are slapped onanyways…so why should they be an afterthought?  When new game concepts are thrown out, chart your initial idea on the “mechanics vs. motif” scale, and see how the other element can enhance that initial idea so it begins to move towards the middle of the scale. 

Ultimately, the argument of mechanics vs. motif is a value judgment to be made by your design team at the conception of the game.  However, a lot of the games that seem to reach true critical acclaim and become classics meaningfully integrate both in some way:  the Koopa enemies in Super Mario Bros. don’t have to be turtles, but then the mechanic of kicking their shells might not exist.  Portal doesn’t need GLaDOS and nothing would have to be TRYING to kill you with fire…yeah I didn’t think you’d like that…

It’s not how everyone likes to operate, but finding ways of making mechanics and narrative meaningful to one another can help make more expressive and interesting games.  

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