As part of what I hope will be a repeated, if sporadic, blog series, I'm looking at interesting game mechanics that I find worth discussing. My friend and I are in the design process of making a small game, and following advice from Yacht Club Games regarding how they began work on Shovel Knight, we're beginning by considering interesting moves, features, effects, and dynamics in our favorite games that make them unique, engaging, and fun. We both do a lot of writing and creative-type work, and we agree we'd be better off looking for a concept that would be simple and fun, and that designing a game around this concept would be preferable to launching into some indie opus (rest assured—this game, whatever the hell it is, is a long way off).
When discussing game mechanics, we're not as selective as an entry of Concelmo's "The Memory Card
;" our options for worthwhile game mechanics are innumerable. Every single game has *something* worth taking a look at, but alas, I'm only one dude. I use the term very loosely. For the purposes of my project (which is predominately a journal effort, but I hope someone else finds an interesting read here), I'm defining a game mechanic as a passive or active component of a game that affects player experience. By that I mean something that you, the player, either control or are required to react to in playing the game, so usually not something narrative. Max Payne being bald is not a game mechanic, but his movement, aiming, health regeneration, diving, and reloading are. By "active" and "passive," I'm referring to whether or not players control the mechanic. An "active" game mechanic would be Bayonetta's dodge. You hang the right trigger, she dodges. Every time. That's what the button is for. "Passive" would be something that operates independent of the player, such as Max's aforementioned regenerating health, the speed of the in-game bullets, or his tumbling animation when you accidentally dive over a chest-high barrier and miss the goddamn ground and I have to restart the checkpoint. Another slightly-common reference for what I'd call a "passive" mechanic would be what Tim Rogers called "Sticky Friction
Games are made up of tons of elements, but game mechanics here are simplified to the gameplay itself. The simplest games offer only a few mechanics (Canabalt, Super Meat Boy, ZiGGURAT), while more complex games (Max Payne, Bayonetta above) juggle plenty at a time. As this is exploratory for me, I recognize that this definition is fluid, and not only is it debatable, but it will likely change over time. If there is a textbook definition of "game mechanics" that I could have found via Google, so be it (yeah, I'll read the rest of the wiki article later). Ultimately, if I'm using the term incorrectly, that doesn't affect my ultimate goal of exploring the things that make great games great.
Some disclosure: I'm an action game fan first and foremost, so those tend to be the titles I focus on. Listing all the games I like would take longer than my intro's already gone on, so I'll keep this simple: Itagaki-era Team Ninja titles (I'm "that guy"- I will no doubt go in-depth into Ninja Gaiden 2 later), Platinum Games/Clover, Kojima's work, Epic Games, Rockstar, Remedy, any Mega Man game, fighting games, platformers, stealth, shooters, some racing (Burnout/F-Zero), and the occasional SRPG. I'm a student, I'm on a budget—I can't afford to play everything in terms of both time and money, but like the best writers that read voraciously, I hope to study what I can.
And an apology: I don't know of a good way to take screenshots off my consoles. I tend to write without any mind toward a visual element, but I'll do my best to accommodate some visuals whenever possible. If you’re aware of any simple software or methods short of taking a photo of my TV, I’m all ears.
Some planned topics for future entries:
--Environment and control (AC/3, MGS, MGR, Skyrim)
--Stealth Kills (Tenchu, MGS, Mark of the Ninja, Assassin's Creed, Halo Reach/Halo 4 Executions)
-Bullet-Time/Slow-Mo (Max Payne, Bayonetta/Vanquish, COD)
--Driving and objects
-Double-Jumping (Castlevania, Bayonetta, SSB, UT)
-2D/3D Fighting game movement
-Grid systems (Fire Emblem's "chess" to Disgaea's Warhammer)
--The Mega Buster (also Metroid, MVC2, ZOE lasers, Cave Story)
--The Iado (NG, MGR/Bayonetta/DMC, ZOE Burst)
--Timed Charges (Halo’s Spartan Laser/Railgun, ZiGGURAT, UT Rocket Launcher)
-The "Alternator" button
--Lock-on and aiming (COD, MP3, Gears, Bulletstorm, Halo 4)
---Body shots (Max Payne, Bulletstorm, GTA/RDR, MGS)
--Stance changing (Way of the Samurai, AC, RDR (1/2), SR3)
--Dodging, counters, ukemi (NG, SSB, GodHand, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta/DMC, God of War)
--Finishing moves (NG2, God of War, Bayonetta/MGR)
--Special Moves in Shooters (Gears of War, PD0, Max Payne, Halo Reach/4, UT)
--Reloading and QTE/bonus shots (Gears of War, Killer7, FFVIII, Legend of Dragoon)
-NPC's (Mario Sunshine, Mega Man Legends, GTA, Deus Ex/Skyrim, Zelda’s Cuccoos)
-Camera systems (MGS, Dead Rising, Halo’s theater mode)
-Free weapon control (Zelda: SS, Castlevania’s whip, MGR)
-Rule Breaking (Alan Wake: staying out of the light, MGS: Wearing a disguise, ZOE: Following Ken, GTA: Driving within limits, NG: Enemies countering/copying attacks)
-The Hunter (Mario 3D’s Shadow Mario, Super Meat Boy’s mutants, chase scenes in Uncharted, God of War, Alert mode in MGS, Wanted level in GTA, Bounty Hunters in Fallout)
-EX Mode (God of War, MGR/many Platinum games, new Castlevania, MVC3, NOT NG)
-Cover-based shooting (Halo, COD, Max Payne, Gears, RDR/GTA, Killzone, MGS)
-Taunts and Flourishes (Bayonetta, DMC, Zelda: TP, NG2, MGS3)
-HUDs (AC, Fallout, MGS)
Clearly, each one of these is its own miniature dissertation. I won't get to all of these, and I may discuss whatever happens to be sticking with me at the time. I'll focus on a few games that highlight the given mechanic, and I'll try to not only explore its functionality and effects on the player, but also look at unconventional ways a given mechanic is used, perhaps outside of its genre or typical field.
I've chosen to begin with Portal not because I think it has great mechanics or is a great game (though for the record, it's very fun and Portal is worth the time, but you know that by now), but because of the way the portal gun, as well as other game mechanics, are introduced to the player.
In short, you are given the clues and signals that tell you what's coming up next before you have to engage with them directly, then you are required to manipulate them in new ways without instruction. I want this entry to be something of an introduction to the use and function of a game mechanic as core to the game it's a part of, using Portal as the exemplar of this. I probably won’t look at puzzle game mechanics very often for two reasons: first, because I think every good puzzle game will invent some new mechanic (as Portal, Rochard, Braid, Fez, Quantum Conundrum, and lots of others have done), and second, because I’m not planning on making a puzzle game (side note: stealth games, by their function, are often a type of puzzle game, but that’s for later).
(For notable examples of games that introduce a new mechanic to the player in steps and implement it into the gameplay seamlessly, see Braid, just about any Mario game, and Egoraptor's excellent breakdown of Mega Man X
By now, just about anyone with a passing interest in puzzle games has given Portal a shot, and if you haven’t, you should. Its design has been commended 1,001 times, but I want to take a closer look at the opening of the game.
You (Chell) begin in a tube and the basic instructions on movement, typical first-person navigation, appear. Beyond the small cell you’re in, you see through the glass an unconnected Portal and a countdown timer. The cell is important, because as with the range of options granted to the player, the game is gradually opening up and expanding. Glados says some stuff and eventually counts down in sync with the timer to the opening of the other end of the portal on the wall next to you.
The player observes this happening: here’s the wispy orange portal on the wall, and suddenly the blue portal opens at your side. You can see the two portals together, and they’re arranged in such a way that you can see yourself at a 90-degree angle.
This is the game’s way of saying, “This is how the portals work.” One is blue, one is orange, and they connect to one-another. You step through and walk around to the door. In the next room is a giant button on the floor and a box. It’s also worth mentioning that the game, in keeping with its science experiment-motif, announces what’s up ahead with its giant light-up wall signs. The game broadcasts everything it's doing and everything it expects (until the end).
Here in this room, the game prompts you to lift the box with a button, and you place it on the switch. The lights from the switch to the door light up, the door has a check mark next to it, and it opens. It could hardly be more transparent. As you approach the elevator, Glados mentions the vaporization field in front of it that nullifies anything that passes through it, specifically the boxes—okay, noted.
In the first 3 minutes of the game, Portal has demonstrated several functions: movement and interaction mechanics, the usage of the portals themselves, and the general flow of the game (i.e. complete task and proceed). The following rooms test the basic abilities by combining everything you’ve learned up to that point. It builds upon this by slowly introducing, explaining, and modifying new rules. When you first approach the devices that shoot orbs of light, Glados mentions their dangerous properties. When you encounter water, same thing. When you first see the Portal gun itself, it’s placed on a pedestal of sorts and you are forced to remain in the observation room to see how it functions (so Glados can say something about the next test not being observed). You, as the player, clearly see how this element works. You solve the puzzle, you pick it up, and voila—phase two begins, with the player in charge. Now that you know how this mechanic works, you’re tasked with using it in a new, less formulaic way.
The qualities that make Portal a great game are many, but as a linear set of rules, it’s remarkable for the transparency with which it illustrates these rules to the player. Game mechanics don’t necessarily need to be accessible or easy to manipulate, but they should be consistent. You will never come across something in Portal that wasn’t first demonstrated to you in some way. Everything is there to serve the primary gameplay objective of allowing you to experiment but ultimately restricting you to a single solution.
When I think about “consistency” and certain game mechanics, I tend to think about the infamous “unblockable attacks” of various action games (and almost every action game, from Ninja Gaiden to God of War) has unblockable attacks. To be fair, this isn’t a straight-across comparison (from Portal to action games) but what Portal accomplishes with its mechanics needs to be spread more widely. The reason I bring up unblockable attacks in action games is because they, in my mind, negate consistency.
For example, look at the grab system in the Ninja Gaiden (Xbox) series. Ryu is not capable of grab-type moves. He has some that manipulate the enemy in interesting ways, but for the most part, Ryu’s move set consists of dodging, attacking, and blocking. The enemies, like the infamous Black Spider ninjas in NG1, can initiate a throw from a neutral position. These throws are unblockable and cannot be parried. You can dodge them if you see them coming.
Up to this point (depending on which iteration of NG1 you’re playing, this means anywhere from level 1 to level 4), the game has taught you that attacks can be blocked, and by and large, the enemies have roughly the same skill sets you do. Then you encounter enemies that break these rules. While it’s no problem for the skilled player that eventually learns to deal with this possibility and carries himself differently in gameplay, the fact is that the game established a rule and broke it.
This is not to suddenly cry out madly that all of the rules are in question, but it does de-power the player to a certain degree when the tools they’re given for the game are not always adequate. And we can also say that variety is important, but this is something that the player cannot effectively mitigate except through playing the game differently than the first few levels instructed them to.
The argument can be made that this mechanic, the enemy’s capability to grab Ryu, is being taught to the player via the enemy grabbing him—I agree with that, though I look at differently for this reason: the structure of the gameplay is centered around the player facing enemies, and whichever side does enough damage to the opponent is victorious; repeat this loop for every encounter. The enemy’s objective is to do damage to the player, and keep doing damage at which point the player is defeated. The player’s objective is to do damage to his opponents until they are defeated, at which point the player proceeds to the next encounter. Ignoring the in-game story of why these guys are trying to kill Ryu (like NG has much of a story anyway), once the player falls down dead the 1’s and 0’s that make up his opponents are finished with their objective and they cease to exist until the player restarts and enters combat with them again.
To aid the player, the game presents several rules that are in line with the game’s structure. The enemies will deal damage to the player with attacks, and the player can deflect damage with blocking. The player can move around the environment with dodging. The player may also deal damage to opponents with attacks. In symbolic form:
-Enemies deal damage to player
-Player’s block function stops damage
And this brings us back to the unblockable attacks (note: I’ve centered on NG’s throws in this case for simple examples, but there are other unblockable attacks in the game, mostly dealing with bosses and ranged attacks— I’ll address these in a later breakdown of NG itself). The enemy’s ability to use an unblockable throw takes priority over the player’s ability to block. This means that blocking is not guaranteed to prevent damage 100% of the time, and thus the combat rules becomes slightly more akin to Rock-Paper-Scissors than to an organized tier list.
So here are two game mechanics, from Portal and Ninja Gaiden, that operate differently. I don’t look to these individual mechanics as evidence of the superior game, though I think Portal has better design in this regard. In my opinion, game mechanics should be consistent, or should otherwise be instructed to the player that there are risks involved in a given technique’s use. At a later time when I break down action game mechanics, I’ll talk more about NG and how something like Metal Gear Rising teaches the player about blockable and unblockable attacks by having its enemies flash red and yellow, respectively. I think it’s important to note that, opinions aside, no two games are necessarily alike, and not all of them work perfectly on a set of game mechanics like Portal's. Ninja Gaiden would be a hell of a lot easier and perhaps a little more boring if it weren’t for the unplanned-for, surprise threat of an enemy’s unblockable attack. At the same time I feel it’s just as important to say that we should design the rules of the game and build the game up to something that complements the rules without working against them. A game that breaks the rules as part of its design (let’s not get stated on Disgaea) can be a great thing, but a game that breaks its own rules for the sake of doing so (e.g. harder difficulty modes that offer increased difficulty in place of increased challenge) is a game that seems like it has a shaky foundation, and is more flash than substance. Those tend to be the games we stop playing, because what’s the point?