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Gamasutra's Best Of 2008: Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics
Gamasutra's Best Of 2008: Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics Exclusive
December 11, 2008 | By Chris Remo

December 11, 2008 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously, we tallied up 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, and overlooked games.

Next, we'll cover this year's top five gameplay mechanics (with ten other honorable mentions), calling attention to a number of innovative, novel, or particularly well-executed individual elements of game design from throughout the year.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PC.

For these broad purposes, "gameplay mechanic" can refer to an input method, a character action, rules affecting the game world, and so on.

Generally, features were considered only if they were meaningfully implemented in their franchise for the first time, which in most (but not all) cases excluded sequels. They did not need to represent the first time any such feature has been implemented in a game, if they demonstrated particular excellence or importance.

Games are listed alphabetically; no order of preference is implied.

Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics of 2008

Braid (Jonathan Blow/Number None; Xbox 360)
Mechanic: time manipulation

Braid is not the first game to incorporate a time manipulation mechanic, but it is surely the first game to integrate one so crucially, permeating every moment and puzzle to a degree usually reserved for basic actions like running and jumping. And each world was treated as a gameplay variation on the theme of time, taking that central mechanic and expanding it in elegant ways.

The pervasiveness of that mechanical theme even extended to the game's narrative and protagonist, putting a gameplay property front and center in the kind of thorough way that remains surprisingly infrequent in game design, which makes it all the more impressive on the part of designer Jon Blow that the mechanic itself is so unusual.

Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South; PC, Xbox 360)
Mechanic: cooperative player assistance, AI director

Cooperative play has been undergoing a welcome renaissance lately, and Valve's recent zombie-themed shooter has reached a new high in the balance between genuinely necessary cooperation and individual agency.

Some games simply drop multiple players into an otherwise single-player campaign, and some become cumbersome in their devotion to constant cooperative acts, but Left 4 Dead's simple player-to-player assistance interactions -- not to mention the inherent benefit of cooperation engendered by the setting -- make group coherence eminently rewarding and manageable, even with random online players.

To cheat another mechanic into this entry, the game's AI director -- which oversees item and enemy spawning based in part on player behavior -- is a brilliantly seamless method by which to not only promote replayability, but to feed into the intrinsically frantic nature of a four-player close-quarters FPS.

And after all, if you start to suspect the game is out to get you, the urge and ability to fight back is all the more intensified by having three comrades-in-arms on the other end of a headset.

LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule; PS3)
Mechanic: real-time level editing

LittleBigPlanet is as much about enabling gamers to participate in level design as anything else, which means its user design experience needed to at least approach the level of accessibility seen in more traditional gameplay.

Certainly, creating a LittleBigPlanet level requires more investment of time and creativity than playing a LittleBigPlanet level, but it is telling that the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred.

It is perhaps even more telling that, thanks to the game's intuitive, real-time nature of level editing, Media Molecule has shipped a creation mechanic that has proved enormously usable for end users while remaining standard issue for the studio's professional designers.

Mirror's Edge (Digital Illusions CE; Xbox 360, PS3)
Mechanic: first-person parkour

The demo for Mirror's Edge generated considerable gamer hype based on the surprising fluidity and elegance of its central hook, first-person freerunning amidst a cleanly-defined urban setting.

Despite taking criticism upon full release for inconsistency and certain presentational elements, developer DICE nonetheless achieved an impressive feat with the implementation of the game's character control.

Combining a simple control setup with the immediacy of the first-person perspective, DICE translated a gameplay idea that had previously been well-explored in other formats into something extremely fresh.

Spore (Maxis; PC)
Mechanic: procedural character creation

Arguably the most significant gameplay feature of Will Wright's latest offering isn't even a direct part of what gamers would traditionally call its core gameplay, but Spore's procedural character creation mechanic can become an entire game unto itself.

Incorporating dynamic skeletal systems, animation, texturing, and more, Maxis achieved astonishingly robust results in an area of game design that in practice often ends up stilted and too-obviously artificial.

The tens of millions of diverse creatures and structures that have been generated demonstrate the diversity of Spore in particular, but the successful implementation of the technology should be encouraging to the development community at large.

Top Gameplay Mechanic Honorable Mentions

Audiosurf (Dylan Fitterer; PC): dynamic music-based level creation

Bangai-O Spirits (Treasure; Nintendo DS): auditory level sharing

Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): enemy limb dismemberment

echochrome (SCE Japan Studio; PS3): Escher-esque perspective manifestation

Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): VATS combat

Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): day/night and weather cycle

NHL 09 (EA Canada; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): fully human-controlled teams

PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games; PS3): swing-based movement

Tom Clancy's EndWar (Ubisoft Shanghai; Xbox 360, PS3): unit voice control

World of Goo (2D Boy; PC, Wii): physics-based lattice building

Amusing Gameplay Mechanic Special Mentions

Army of Two (EA Montreal; Xbox 360, PS3): congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers

No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture; Wii): suggestive waggle-based sword recharging

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

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Daniel Ferlise
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Left 4 Dead - Well deserved.

Gregory Austin
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I think the Zero-G mechanics in Dead Space deserved a mention, but otherwise an excellent article.

Rayna Anderson
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ha! I love the honorable mention for No More Heroes, it made me laugh every time I played! With the added 8-bit sound effect when it was full, that never got old.

Tom Newman
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Great choices! LBP would be my #1. ...and a hats off to the PSN title The Last Guy. I found the mechanics of this game to be both unique and addictive!

Trent Polack
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The top five are a pretty good list with very valid reasons, but the honorable mentions have a couple of oddities:

"Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): day/night and weather cycle"

That's a gameplay mechanic worth mentioning at this point? Of all of the things to point out about Far Cry 2, I think the day/night and weather stuff would be near the bottom. It had a pretty dynamic narrative, good buddy system, dedication to its perspective (the low health healing animations were brutal), and the fire propagation and weapon degradation were huge factors in combat scenarios.

"Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): enemy limb dismemberment"

I think the in-game interface, despite arguably being a mechanic (I argue at length on my personal site), is just as crucial to Dead Space as the "strategic dismemberment" gameplay.

Chris Remo
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Far Cry 2 was a tough one for me. You know how much I love the game, and how progressive I think it is, but I had a lot of trouble nailing down particular specific mechanics that really made that the case--it was really more about the execution of the savanna itself, with all the world mechanics feeding into it. Individually, the buddy system itself or the fire propagation itself or the weapon degradation itself didn't seem fitting and self-contained as most of the other mechanics in this article.

But the more I thought about it, the time and weather system really stood out to me as a mechanic that, individually, had an absolutely massive effect on my overall immersion and investment in a way that most of the game's other mechanics mainly have collectively.

As far as Dead Space--yeah, I went back and forth on that one. I decided the interface was fantastic from a presentational standpoint, and still would have been a worthy inclusion, but wasn't nearly as meaningful to gameplay as the dismemberment, which I thought was an extremely elegant way to ratchet up tension and player concentration through natural, not artificial, means.

(I wish I could have written stuff for each of the mentions!)

Tom Kammerer
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So the sword charging in no more heroes was basically him jerking it off. HAHA.

I Feel Metal Gear Solid 4's stealth mechanic deserved a honorable mention.

Michael Sitter
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Excellent list, but I'd like to second the opinion of the poster above me, with regards to zero-G combat in Dead Space. Very interesting twist to the tried and true FPS genre. I definitely found it confusing and difficult at first, but I don't think this makes it a bad mechanic. It just definitely requires some re-learning of the fps to adjust to.

Overall, Dead Space was a huge winner for me this year because of how it simultaneously brought in so many new and interesting mechanics.

Sean Parton
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Props for the No More Heroes special mention.

Given the specifications for eligibility (needn't be the first, but did it well), I agree with the list and the honourable mentions.

Alex Homer
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I thought Valkyria Chronicles would at least make it into the honorable mention.

Btw, a lot of Kudos goes to Electronic Art for delivering multiple games (Spore, Mirror Edge & Dead Space!!) that are original, fun and with tons artistic value.

Victor Bunn
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Gravity Manipulation in Mario Galaxy doesn't get a nod?

8 player Co-Op in Resistance2 is ignored?

Jonnathan Hilliard
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tip my hat to Dead Space and Left 4 Dead, totally engaging games.

Christian Nutt
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Mario Galaxy came out in 2007.

Chris Remo
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As stated in both the headline and the story itself, these awards were for games released in 2008, so no, Super Mario Galaxy is not awarded.

Jason Seabaugh
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I feel that Army of Two's co-op design elements deserved a larger nod than just for congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers. Almost every aspect of gameplay is built around co-op, especially the Aggro and Step Jumps. When you compare Left 4 Dead to Army of Two, L4D's co-op feels just like 4 people playing a single-player game at the same time.

Chris Remo
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Army of Two was the main game to which I was referring in the Left 4 Dead entry when I said "some [games] become cumbersome in their devotion to constant cooperative acts." Army of Two was an admirable attempt, but in my opinion didn't come close to matching the cooperative achievement of Left 4 Dead. It tried to impose too much teamwork through hard-coded systems, whereas Left 4 Dead succeeds cooperatively by way of its very dynamics and flow.

jaime kuroiwa
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Alone in the Dark:

- fire physics

- fast-forward feature

- blinking mechanic

- unique inventory system (a step up from Grim Fandango)

Yannick Boucher
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Tip of the hat to Dead Space as well. Dismemberement is interesting, but the anti-G + vacuum parts are also worth mentioning.

Samit Sarkar
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Great article, Chris, and I'm so glad (as Destructoid's sports editor) that you included NHL 09 on the list of honorable mentions! It easily gets my vote for sports game of the year -- in fact, it may even be the best sports game I've ever played.

Sadly, I've yet to take part in a full six-on-six game online, but I hope to do so someday. But even just playing with one other guy on your team and yelling at him to get open in the slot -- man, that's beautiful.

Tom Newman
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1 more nod in this category - Galaga Legions. The gameplay mechanic of being able to drop each cannon anywhere on screen in any direction is awesome, impressive, and unlike any shooter I have played personally.

Aaron Lutz
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I haven't played Far Cry 2 yet, but I'm pretty sure other games before it have implemented this gameplay. One game that specifically comes to mind is Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. They had day/night and weather cycles also (rain, sandstorms, various stages of cloudy). Now, like I said, I haven't actually played Far Cry 2, and the article above doesn't go into any sort of depth as to WHY the day/night and weather cycle mechanics were so cool as to be an honorable mention, so for now I'll just say again that Far Cry 2 wasn't the first.