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Opinion: The narrative vs. mechanics circus

Opinion: The narrative vs. mechanics circus

February 17, 2012 | By Tadhg Kelly

February 17, 2012 | By Tadhg Kelly
More: Console/PC, Design

[In this opinion piece originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer Tadhg Kelly examines the definition of "narrative" and how it relates to game mechanics.]

Last month I contracted what seemed to be a simple cold which progressed into a bronchial infection combined with asthma that knocked me out for three weeks.

It was really bad timing because around the same time, Raph Koster posted a blog bombshell when he said 'Narrative is not a game mechanic'. A fair few commenters arose in support or ire. Posts flew about whether the meaning of narrative was too broad or limited, whether this was really about a limited formal view of games versus their possibilities, and so on. Exciting stuff, but I couldn't really get into it.

I'm still recovering, but being ill has given me the chance to reflect and remember that there's a reason that I don't normally use the phrase 'mechanics'. There's also a reason why I tend to dismiss broad narrativism. It's because both of them are part of a pretend debate over correctness, and each – in their own way – is just circular flame-bait, an ever-burning meme that goes nowhere.

What Is A Game Mechanic?

Nobody knows. Or rather, everybody knows what they mean when they use the term, but nobody agrees. To some it describes an emergent black box of interactions and rules that determines some pattern of play in the game. Raph uses that sort of meaning in his article, describing how Arkham City often has series of quick-time events that are large on content, but low on black box interaction. In this sense, the mechanic is a fluid structure that emerges from a number of smaller actions and rule resolutions, like a storm from a gathering of clouds.

To others, 'mechanic' means something finer. A few years ago, my friend Dan Cook (he of Triple Town) wrote a very influential article on the subject of the chemistry of game design in which he discussed 'skill atoms' that can be mapped in chains, leading to an overall skill diagram for the game. In this view the mechanic is a cyclic action, resolution, state change and feedback loop that may be repeated or branched during the course of the game depending on outcomes.

Yet another take on mechanics, this from Jesse Schell, thinks of them as factors that influence all games. Schell identifies space, objects, attributes, states, actions, rules, skill and chance all as 'mechanics'. The mechanic is part fundamental law, part tool that you can bring into any game, but the exact demarcations are left intentionally vague. What he's describing is everything non-aesthetic about the game and placing them all in the same big toolbox.

Gamification people have a different understanding. On the wiki they maintain a list of 24 (so far) 'mechanics' that they have identified, from 'points' and 'urgent optimism' to 'infinite gameplay'. They see a mechanic as a behavior, an expected response from a kind of rule structure which is supposed to increase engagement and loyalty. Other people might call this feedback, but the seed of confusion is out there thanks to tools like their 'mechanic decks'.

And there are others. In a recent review on Zero Punctuation, Yahztee Croshaw refers to a timer in the Amy survival horror game as 'a mechanic'. How about the idea (from Mattie Brice) that a mechanic is 'to provide players with experiences such as fun or anxiety', and therefore a driver of emotional outcomes. Or how about mechanics as 'the various actions, behaviors and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context' (according to Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek)?

The point is not to construe these different meanings as either right or wrong, but simply to show that they don't match up. While there exists a rough understanding that 'mechanics' equates to 'machine parts', how individual writers scope them quickly leads to fuzziness, debating at cross-purposes and terminology wars.

Holistic Narrative or Content Narrative?

While mechanics may be fuzzy, narrativists pretty much understand one another when they use the term 'narrative'. They mean the game as an involving experience that immerses, inspires, enchants and artistically resonates with the player. They don't necessarily mean plot or the normal conventions of drama, but rather use a holistic understanding of the idea of narrative itself.

Actions can have meaning, players can be actors in their own narrative, and so on. And that being the framework as narrativists understand it, they can extrapolate on what games should be. It is this grander interpretation of the narrative idea that permits the inclusion of many other aspects of games as a part of the narrative experience. It also allows for some sense of what games would be like if they weren't just about fun, like the difference between Orson Welles and Benny Hill.

As I've written before (a couple of times), the problem with this holistic view is that it has no verifiable existence in reality. It is pure conjecture, derived of an idea of what players should be rather than what they are. This is not to say that players are mere fun-consumers who trash everything they see, but rather that the archetype of the player wandering through game instantiating a tale for themselves and experiencing narrative as they go is not a real person.

Players do have the ability to feel the numinous presence of art through playing a game, but they do so on their own terms. Like an audience member regarding an Eames installation, or a driver behind the wheel, the experience of the player is not reliable, and therefore the art of games is more of the model of a playable gallery rather than an interactive drama.

Hard-core narrativists tend to become very defensive when this is pointed out, and try to change the argument to one of closed- versus open-mindedness, or limited thinking versus unlimited possibilities of games. They also tend toward inclusion, pulling in everything that is interactive as a game and every moment of experience as 'narrative', but this reaches a logical tipping point very quickly: If everything is narrative then nothing is.

The more ordinary understanding of 'narrative', and the one that Raph uses in his article, is content that exists as a part of the fantastical layer of the game, enhancing and informing the mechanical aspects. It has a function, which is to move the game along from task to task, but is less vital to the playing experience than the actual play. The story is not so much drama as storysense. And, as Raph described, part of the feedback process.

Holistic narrative is really just a way of saying 'high minded' as contrasted with some ill-defined 'low-minded' embarrassment over games as they are. While this arguably results in a set of games that are really just having an internal conversation with one another, the outside world doesn't really care.

Moving Past Mechanics

I don't believe that the term 'mechanic' can be saved. Its complicated layers of meaning are already out there in the world, like threads than can never be un-spun. One more definition will not solve that, nor one more attempt to seize the high ground. It will remain forever fuzzy, so I sidestep the issue by treating each meaning of the term as a different entity, and give each its own name.

Jesse Schell's definition of mechanic means basically all the machine parts in the game. I just call it the 'frame' of the game. Like the framework of a building holding the girders and wiring that make it work, the frame holds the environment and levers that make the game function.

Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek's actions, control methods and behaviors? 'Levers'. Levers are a subset of the frame. Mattie Brice's descriptions of mechanical intent is called 'pressure', or 'picking up the gun' as I wrote back when this blog got started. A frame is not a frame without some form of pressure and levers have no purpose without it. Without the prospect of loss there can be no wins, so without pressure a game is instead a toy.

I call Dan Cook's skill atoms 'loops'. You take an action, there are rule resolutions and states change, and then feedback. And you take another action. This is easy to explain without involving 'mechanics' because it is grounded in things that players do, like pass a ball, play a word, slot a tetromino or hit an orc. Loop also ties in with the psychological use of the word ('open loop') as a question that the mind wants answered, which is very relevant to explaining how games can be so engaging.

Raph Koster's black boxes I call 'dynamics'. A dynamic is a cluster of loops which build toward more decisive wins (like completing a level, scoring a touchdown etc). If completing a pass to a teammate in soccer is a loop, then the corresponding dynamic is completing a bunch of passes toward scoring a goal. Each set of interactions in Arkham City is a movement of the game's dynamic. Each comprises one or more loops, and a win which plays the next bit of content

By naming the components of play as separate things then they can sit together more comfortably. Some sit as subsets of other components, such as loops within dynamics or levers within frames. And that's perfectly fine. Just as you wouldn't try to describe an engine by mangling 'piston' into 100 different meanings, identifying the super- and sub-structures of games as separate entities makes it much easier to be clearer about what you mean. Sanity prevails, and so the discussion of game design becomes less mystical and more pragmatic. (In a forthcoming project I plan to expand on this tendency by the way. Stay tuned.)

And Holistic Narrative

I'm also not interested in winning the holistic narrative debate because I think it's become theological. There is no harm in thinking of games in the ideal as well as the real, but this particular conversation has become internal and self-referential. Its participants simply believe that their ideal player is a real thing, or may one day be, and will not be convinced otherwise.

Crafting thaumatic experiences is something that requires perception more than belief, just as crafting a great poem requires more than a written-down form of your indignation for your literature class. You have to bring the audience in and work with them, which means if they they want to play then you have to work with that. There's no getting around it.

My sense is that the holistic narrativists want to reject that whole line of thinking and instead encourage the audience to become someone else. Hence the meaning-of-narrative argument and the endless restatement of the 'I believe the player is a hero on their own journey, I believe Tetris has a narrative, I believe Chess has a plot'. It's just a belief statement, and it can go nowhere unless human nature itself changes.

While that may happen one day, my sense is that it is a conversation that will simply run and run. So, for different reasons to the question of mechanics, it too is to be sidestepped.

(Today's image is one of Alexander Calder's toy circuses.)

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