What is a diegetic mechanic?
I use this term to describe game mechanics that are experienced in the same way by the player and the player character.
I’ll explore this idea throughout this article but first let’s further break down the term diegetic mechanic.
Diegetic is a term used in media that describes things that exist for both the audience and the characters of a piece of media. An example in film is when you hear music that’s playing from a source in the scene where the character hears it and the audience hearing it is incidental to the music being in the scene with the character. In games this term is used almost exclusively for UI. For example when there is an ammo counter on a gun rather than just a number floating in the corner of the scene to indicate your current ammo.
The term mechanic is much more simple. It is the verbs you can do in a game. So if a game lets you jump,then that’s a mechanic. If you give input to make an action happen, that’s a mechanic.
How do these two ideas, what the audience experiences is what the character experiences and the idea of player actions, combine?
A good example of this is opening doors in Amnesia: The Dark Descent where you have to hold down the left mouse button on the door to “grab” it, then slide your mouse towards you in real life in a way that matches how you would move your hand when opening the door. This example is also what sparked this idea in me years ago and made me want to explore this idea more in my games.
Opening a door in Amnesia: The Dark Descent
I think the main thing that diegetic mechanics add is presence and pacing. Presence is more important to me than other common design goals like immersion. Immersion generally means that you are engrossed in the game, you’ve bought into the experience and you are ready to associate yourself with the actions and experiences on the screen. This is sort of an extreme state of suspending disbelief where the early experience of a game makes you feel respected and intrigued and so you’re now choosing to fully partake in the experience under the game’s terms because you now trust that you’ll have a good experience. Presence is an entirely different thing. Presence is you as a player feeling like you’re really in the situation the game presents. Presence to me is all about consistency, if something works a certain way once, it will always work that way. This incentivizes drawing from things the player already knows on an intuitive level, like physics for example, and trying to map how we think about actions in real life to an action in the game.
The other benefit I mentioned you get from these kinds of mechanics is pacing. Pacing is something that designers usually think of is terms of movement through the game’s environment and progression through the game’s features or story. These mechanics focus on the moment to moment and make the player be more deliberate in their actions or even let the players enjoy interacting with the environment for a moment instead of progressing at all. Maybe you’re making an action game and the idea of a door taking anything except the minimum time to open doesn't make sense, so you probably don’t want a system like Amnesia had. But maybe you’re making an exploration game, where the getting to new things as as important as the things themselves. A game that lets you pick up an item and look at it, even if it’s inconsequential undeniably feels very different than a game where actions like shooting or climbing is how you interact with the game’s environment.
A common practice related to both these ideas is the use abstractions and affordances to make gameplay feel good for players.
A common abstraction in games is pressing a button to have a door open via an animation, sometimes the door collision will even be turned off you you don’t break flow by bumping into it. Its abstracting the action of grabbing a door, turning the handle and pulling it open to one quick press of a button and then also abstracting our smooth articulation of our bodies into just passing through a door if we move through faster than the animation. Another example is health, where the health value you’re at is actually a approximation of your life, accumulating all localized injuries or biological issues into a single, easy to understand number or bar. These abstractions are what make game feel as smooth as real life, and they also let you do things you can’t do in real life in a way that seems on par with the mundane things I’ve mentioned like opening door or being healthy.
Affordances are something most commonly used with real world design. An example is that when you see a door handle that is a vertical bar, you’re more likely to pull on it, but a horizontal door handle is usually pushed. You don’t know why this is how you react, but it’s intuitive and this consistency allows our brains to figure out what to do without putting any active decision making into it. This is also why we sometimes pull on a door we’re meant to push, it’s often a design issue with the door rather than an issue with you. Games take this idea of affordances and run with it: taking the choices of similar games and building on top of those choices instead of making all decisions from scratch. This is things like W, A, S, D to move on PC, left stick move and right stick aim for consoles, or left click being how you shoot a gun in first person shooters. These commonalities make it so you can get right into a game and know the basics, then from there you’re only focused on what makes this game unique from other similar games rather than having to contend with the basics and maybe quit before even seeing what new ideas you may love about the game.
Diegetic mechanics tend to deviate from my examples of conventional mechanics, but they don’t have to. Dishonored for instance lets you open vices at the press of a button which plays an animation and releases anything that was in the vise grip. This is a mechanic that makes sense to both the player and player character and it’s using the same convention mentioned earlier with the door that plays an opening animation with one button press. It also has the intended effect of grounding the player in the presence of the environment exactly how we’d like to be using diegetic mechanics.
That’s an overview of what diegetic mechanics are and what they add to a game, but it may still seem a little vague. I’m going to go through a few additional elements of a diegetic mechanic that I use to add more of them into my games.
Characteristics of Diegetic Mechanics:
Low abstraction just means that you aren’t taking a 9 step process for a task and boiling it down to pressing a button. If you need to carry something somewhere, a diegetic look at this would have the player carrying it, not skipping them to when they use the item right after they pick it up, and likely not even having it be added to some invisible inventory. The idea of having low abstraction also dictates that you start from scratch when considering a mechanic. Don’t just copy what is usually done and don’t add mechanics just because they are common for the game type you’re working on it. Start with a task, for example like climbing a rope, and figure out how you want to implement that from the ground up. Many games just make forward movement get switch to vertical movement when you’re on a rope, but if you think about ways you could want it to impact your game, maybe the rope swings while you’re on it, maybe movement isn’t smooth and linear but lurches forward matching hand of hand climbing, or maybe you’re limited by how much you can look when grabbing the rope. All of these things are uncommon (except in in the Dishonored series), but could fit into your game. Accepting that rope climbing means “move up” is a huge missed opportunity for creating a unique feel and experience for your game.
Focusing on the action is the method I used when trying to make an existing mechanic give me the feel of being diegetic. If I have a verb in my game, I want it to be important and impactful. To achieve this I focus on the action itself and not the result. A lot of game are just worried about what function is being called and not what the player or player character is actually doing. In Prey (2017) you can spam a button to swing your wrench with a satisfying, quick animation, but to maximize your damage you need to hold and release the button to build up the energy you’d need with a real swing. It’s important to keep in mind that actions in games, especially those with a community element, always double as expression for the player. This can bleed into other fields such as animation and feedback, but as long as you are trying to give the player an action to do besides just a result to accomplish, you’re working towards your mechanics feeling more diegetic.
Meant to create an empathetic connection between the player and the player character means that you, the player, are sharing an experience with the player character. An example is in Far Cry 2 when you fall below a certain amount of health you need to do some emergency medical care on yourself to stabilize your health. This means you press a button to experience a rather grim view of a dramatic injury like pushing a bullet through a wound in your arm. They could have just had your health regenerate to a certain amount, but they wanted you to share this experience with the player character to add to the game’s atmosphere, give the player feedback on consequences they can have, and make things generally feel less like a game and more like a visceral battle for survival. Building this connection between the player and the player character is what makes players act like the imaginary player you have in your mind when planning game content. The player will be taking your game as serious as you do and enjoy things in the way you want them to.
Meant to ground the player in the environment is mostly about facilitating presence as much as possible. In the recent lo-fi indie thriller Paratopic they put you in the lobby of the character’s apartment waiting for the elevator. There’s a cigarette burning in an ashtray nearby, you can activate the cigarette to put it out, just like you might do when waiting a long time for a slow elevator. Waiting for the elevator is also a diegetic mechanic. Remember mechanics are just verbs and waiting is a verb that both the player and the player character are experiencing together. The waiting is what lets the player look around, notice the damaged floor, the desolate view from the window, and the cigarette smoldering nearby which implies someone was just there, waiting just like you are. Without these mechanics this lobby is just meant to be walked through and would likely tell the player nothing about this building the player character lives in.
Diegetic mechanics can cause emergent player experiences, give a slower pace more akin to daily life, let the player connect with the character in the game, and they can give the player a sense of presence in your game’s world, making the player act more natural and less like they’re “playing a game".
I love these mechanics because of how much more flavor it adds to a game world. It lets me focus less on progression and more on thinking about the game while I’m playing. I think these mechanics definitely work best in certain genres. They seem to work best with a first person perspective, in narrative or exploration focused games, and especially any game that benefits from a slower pace like horror games do.
Are verbs / actions
Exist for both the player and the player character in the game
Have a slower pace than common mechanics
Have low abstraction from their real world counterpart
Are focused on the action itself and not on the result of the action
Add a sense of presence
I'd love to hear what you think about this idea, any ways you've heard these kinds of actions described before, and any other examples that seem to fit this description. Comment below or message me on twitter @RTCinder
Thanks for reading!