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Game Mechanics That Tell Stories
by Francisco Souki on 06/25/09 10:11:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
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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Comments


Tom Newman
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Word! I aggree 100%. Ico may be one of the best examples of this.



MGS I do have an issue with. I agree that the entire MGS series does an excellent job in telling the story through the game itself, but it also adds much CG which I feel is unnecessary and takes away from the immersion you feel with the rest of the game. MGS4 had as much as 45min at a time of non-interactive storytelling between levels, which I felt drastically took away from the otherwise great game.

Sande Chen
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Great post! Loved your insights. I describe a similar yet slightly different way of imparting story through gameplay in a feature on Gamasutra:



http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3736/towards_more_meaningfu
l_games_a_.php?page=2

Don Langosta
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It's fascinating what Metal Gear has done with our expectations. That said, it seems to expect too much of the player. The Psycho Mantis fight pretty much required you to do that little controller trick, and no reasonable player would have any reason to assume that would work without being told.



I mean, at least the old X-Men game for the Genesis that required you to reboot put you in a position where rebooting (or turning OFF) the console was a reasonable response.

Don Langosta
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Oh, and by the way, there's another way to kill The End. Earlier in the game you see him in a wheelchair during an in-game cutscene, and if you can pull off a quick, accurate shot, you can put a bullet in his head. And that's it. He's dead. I think that was actually more interesting than just waiting for him to die.



...though I'd always sneak up behind him and stick a shotgun in his back. :)

Jeff Spock
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Strongly agree. There have been numerous instances where, as a game writer, I have had to take a 'pasted-on' and pre-defined story and flesh it out. The first questions I always have are about the game mechanics: What does the player actually do in the game, why does he do it, and how can we hang narrative elements on his actions so that they 'make sense' and drive the story?



Ico remains one of the great examples of this, and is one that I always cite. The stealth elements of the Thief series are similar; every single thing that you do reinforces who you are and what your role is.



I'm not sure I entirely agree with the Mirror's Edge example; for people who hate platformers (like me) it's actually a nice way to still be able to work through the game. So regardless if it has a 'story' reason to exist, for me it does have gameplay validity. YMMV, of course.

Francisco Souki
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As far as MGS goes, I feel like it always walks a thin line between gimicky and meaningful and I have personally learned to like that as part of their style. I think the game knows this about itself though, and at points doesn't take itself too seriously.



On Mirror's Edge, I always considered time slowing more as a help for combat than all the platforming. It's definitely valid as a help device, though. But I hope they could have figured out a way to help the player that was a little more consistent with the world and the story.



Thanks to everyone for stopping by and commenting!

Christopher Wragg
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The mirrors edge slowdown I think is really an ease of play tool rather than a mechanic to aid in the construction of its universe. On the other hand runners vision is a great mechanic that builds upon the story and concept. Not only does it aid you in navigating the world, but rather you are seeing the world now through faith's eyes. Without realising it you become used to this vision, and as corny as it sounds "you work in unison with it". You see a flash of red and your already leaping for it, your always sure where to go, you see the possibilities open before you to give you this wonderful feeling of flow.



But rather than building story, I would say that mechanics merely add a more sculpted context for it to exist within. They can do things like imply relationships, immerse the player in their character, view the world through a characters eyes rather than their own. They can demonstrate the rules this particular world follows and allow the story to by pass much of the dialog a book would take to describe such events.

Tjien Twijnstra
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Hmm, I wonder about Ico's example though. Don't get me wrong, it is a truly remarkable game and one of my favourites. But the example about taking the hand of Yorda, is it really the mechanic that makes it meaningful? Or is it how we perceive the mechanic? The animations, the sounds, everything connected to that mechanic that really creates the meaning we experience? If those animations where to be stripped away, and there would be a ball dragging another ball, would we experience the same thing? I'm not sure... and it maybe worth investigating if a more abstract recreation of Ico would make us feel the same things, or at least part of it.



I think that's what it all boils down to. Mechanics, like all thing human can interpreted, have meaning. When this meaning is emphasized by animation, sounds, etcetera, it will become stronger.



Cool article none the less, and there's an interesting buzz going around the web discussing the same thing... Gotta love it :-D

Tjien Twijnstra
profile image
Hmm, I wonder about Ico's example though. Don't get me wrong, it is a truly remarkable game and one of my favourites. But the example about taking the hand of Yorda, is it really the mechanic that makes it meaningful? Or is it how we perceive the mechanic? The animations, the sounds, everything connected to that mechanic that really creates the meaning we experience? If those animations where to be stripped away, and there would be a ball dragging another ball, would we experience the same thing? I'm not sure... and it maybe worth investigating if a more abstract recreation of Ico would make us feel the same things, or at least part of it.



I think that's what it all boils down to. Mechanics, like all thing human can interpreted, have meaning. When this meaning is emphasized by animation, sounds, etcetera, it will become stronger.



Cool article none the less, and there's an interesting buzz going around the web discussing the same thing... Gotta love it :-D

Tjien Twijnstra
profile image
Hmm, I wonder about Ico's example though. Don't get me wrong, it is a truly remarkable game and one of my favourites. But the example about taking the hand of Yorda, is it really the mechanic that makes it meaningful? Or is it how we perceive the mechanic? The animations, the sounds, everything connected to that mechanic that really creates the meaning we experience? If those animations where to be stripped away, and there would be a ball dragging another ball, would we experience the same thing? I'm not sure... and it maybe worth investigating if a more abstract recreation of Ico would make us feel the same things, or at least part of it.



I think that's what it all boils down to. Mechanics, like all thing human can interpreted, have meaning. When this meaning is emphasized by animation, sounds, etcetera, it will become stronger.



Cool article none the less, and there's an interesting buzz going around the web discussing the same thing... Gotta love it :-D


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