If you ask a Game Designer, “What came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” about 60% of them will tell you, “The Mechanic” and about 30% will tell you, “The Story.”
Now, I am not here to dispute which of them is right. I’m here to shed some light on why there is an important element of truth in that percentage bias.
Looking back now at my choices in games so far, I realise that most of my favourites are narratively driven games.
I will even go a step further than that and say that a lot of the games that we as a community have come to love and hold dear are narrative FOCUSED games. And as a game designer, I find that just more than just a little bit disappointing.
It exposes the extent to which we as a community are willing to be forgiving with games that fail to challenge or engage us in new ways but have compelling narratives.
As I am writing this, I can almost sense some of you reading it and clenching up, becoming defensive about all of your favourite titles. But don’t hate me yet; I assure you that I had the same initial reaction.
But as I gave this more and more thought, I began to realise how naked and embarrassingly similar our games look when we strip them of their narrative, their art, their sound, and imagine playing them with just placeholder art.
In fact, let’s actually take a minute to do that as an exercise. Imagine playing early developer versions of Castle Wolfenstein, Half-Life and Halo-5. To do this, just imagine regular gameplay but turn off the sound and replace all of the artwork with basic game engine assets like cylinders, capsules, spheres and boxes.
Do any of our examples look significantly different? Okay, forget that. Let’s take it a step further and ask ourselves an even deeper question. For the majority of gameplay, do any of these games challenge us differently at all?
My question then is, WHY NOT!? With all the progress that we’ve made in the realms of graphics rendering and game engine capability, why are we STILL making derivatives of derivatives of derivatives?
It seems like a difficult question, but ultimately the answer is not all that complicated. And it is what you would expect:
Tried and true genres and mechanics work. They sell and they keep our industry well fed. And no one is saying that that’s a bad thing. A lot of good and compelling titles with familiar mechanics have come out of our industry and we are all grateful for them.
But for every game that is worth more than just a passing mention, there are at least four of them that would be better off forgotten in the void of mediocrity. And the reason for this, as much as it pains me to say it is,
“The story is secondary to the mechanic.”
Using story well in game design is like using salt while cooking. If you do it right, a good game will come alive with depth and flavour. But if a game has none of that to begin with, no amount of story is going to salvage it.
And that is why, when writing for games, I think it is much more beneficial to take a “Mechanics First” approach to the design.
Let’s take a closer look at a few games that are lauded both for their story and their mechanic:
Unravel is a 2D puzzle platformer in which you control Yarney, a little character made of yarn through a world full of challenges and obstacles. Yarney is made from a single strand of wound yarn, which unravels as you play the game. You can use the yarn as a rope, toss it around to latch onto things like a grappling hook, and build bridges and slingshots. The core challenge of the game is to use the yarn you have intelligently and make it last until you can find a new reserve of yarn (checkpoint). You can click on the image above to see some of the Physics based gameplay.
As you play though the game, you unravel the memories of a person that are tied to the level you are traversing. You get tangled up as you experience phases of this person’s life through their memories that are seamlessly interwoven in the design of the levels in game, and once you traverse all of it, as a consequence of the mechanic you invariably leave an important part of you behind. Looking back at the tangled and complicated path you took to get to where you are, you are left a little unsure how you managed to do it. But all said and done, you are happy that you did and you are better for the experience.
Braid is a game all about controlling time. And it achieves this is many more interesting ways than the typical rewind mechanic that allows players to undo mistake that they made.
The rewind mechanic in and of itself is “cool” and has been used in AAA games before. But Braid goes a step further and makes the mechanic meaningful. From a narrative standpoint, it explores the consequences of having the ability to rewind your mistakes and structures puzzles around giving the guests that realization instead of beating them on the head with a stick about it.
It also explores other meaningful ways to interact with time, such as slowing it down, being immune to its reversal, and tying it’s movement with spacial progression. The game’s puzzles explore a slew of other mathematical relationships between objects that are tied together with each other by time, like Amplitude, Frequency, and Phase. The guest is tasked with understanding and appreciating these relationships and using them to their advantage as they solve each puzzle that in some significant way acts as a commentary on how we approach our relationships with ourselves, our work and each other.
If you click on the image, you can see some commentary on the mechanics first puzzle design approach that went into Braid.
Portal is a game that explores the ability to cheat spacial differences and create doors between two disparate spacial locations. It’s a novel and very interesting mechanic and there is a lot to be said about the level design of the game. But that isn’t what I want to talk about here.
Ask any Portal fan what they love about Portal is, and almost ALL of them will talk about GlaD0s. Yes, the mechanic is novel, and yes, the puzzle design is spectacular. But the most memorable part of Portal is GlaD0s, an artificial intelligence that for the most part acts only as an omnipresent guiding voice!
That sounds INSANE. If you came to me and pitched an idea for a game that hinged on a sarcastic, condescending and passive-aggressive narrator being compelling enough to carry the entire game, I would roll my eyes and tell you that it would never work.
And, I would be wrong. But that isn’t the point.
So what IS your point?
All all of the games I just talked about had enough going for it in terms of novelty of mechanic and compelling puzzle design to succeed on their own without any additional layers of narrative. Without a mechanic that challenges the player and demands some meaningful form of interaction, our games are no longer games; they are films with buttons.
But compelling and memorable experiences are two entirely different things. We as human beings cannot empathize and associate ourselves with abstract puzzles and interesting mechanics. What we see instead is an interesting problem and an fascinating set of tools to solve the problem with. And for some reason, our species finds solving interesting problems a satisfying and compelling experience.
But to make an game truly memorable, it needs to be rooted in an experience that we have all had in our actual lives. And the telling of memorable experiences that we have had with a dash of flair and fantasy is at the very heart of good storytelling.
None of the games that I mentioned above would have gotten anywhere near the kind of following that they have, had they not taken the time and the effort to use narrative to bring their mechanics into context and enrich their experience beyond being just interesting and compelling challenges.
As Designers, when we make games we must bear in mind that the mechanic must ALWAYS come first. Once the mechanic is in place, if an interesting story begins to emerge that helps put the mechanic into context, then you have the golden nugget of a compelling and memorable experience on your hands.
So as a Designer the next time someone asks you, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” what will you tell them?