John Rose recently wrote an article for Gamasutra titled “Fewer Mechanics, Better Game,” a look at what makes games not just enjoyable, but objectively identified as good. I found the article thoughtful and interesting. I also (almost) completely disagree with it. It fits neatly into the recent posts I’ve been doing on game narratives, appeals, and play styles, so I thought I’d take a moment to analyze another person’s perspective and explain how our opinions differ.
John begins by suggesting that a game’s play mechanics are its main source of aesthetic achievement:
Interactive media even have their own distinct form, the play aesthetic. This is the overall feel and character of the gameplay, and it too must seem cohesive. Where painters use their brushes to create a unified composition, designers use gameplay. Where artists need to generate a harmonious color palette, game developers should engineer a set of congruous mechanics.
I haven’t even gotten to John’s major argument yet, but I need to stop here because this is at the root of why I disagree with him, and why I think most narrative games aren’t achieving what they could.
Narrative games are a hybrid form, kind of like comic books or film. They have more than one aesthetic consideration to deal with. “Artists need to generate a harmonious color palette,” but when that artwork happens to be the illustrations for a comic book or the shots for a movie, it’s not enough to just have pretty colors. You need to also make sure those visual decisions work in concert with the story being told. You might even have other considerations, like music and acting. I would contend, then, that the argument presented here is based on a reductionist understanding of what videogames should and could be.
Based on this understanding of game aesthetics, John offers his main argument: that videogames today offer players too many mechanics. This leads to wasted time (because most players will never use a substantial number of the game’s mechanics) and confusion (because most players won’t know what to do with the many choices before them).
A recent trend in games is the ability of players to “play their own way.” It’s a design choice that includes more mechanics than any particular player will explore in a single playthrough. While superficially this seems like the Holy Grail of game design, the idea merely passes on the entertainment responsibility to the player. [â€¦]
Most players will only experience the game’s core concepts, and everything else is effectively useless. We simply can’t afford to pander to the few when the mainstream is unsatisfied.
When applied to game mechanics, this fact supports the inclusion of only strong ones. Any mechanic that is underutilized by most players is a waste of developer and player time.
He doesn’t seem to realize it, but what John is suggesting here is that videogames in general need to be more like so-called “casual games,” such as free Flash games on the internet. These are games that focus on very few gameplay elements at a time, distilling the gaming experience into something very simple and approachable. And, that said, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that “the mainstream is unsatisfied” with so much survey data coming out every month about the huge numbers of adults who play games.
Here’s the tricky thing, though: Most of those “casual games” have no further artistic pretensions. They exist for amusement, which is a great thing, but not exactly what John’s really arguing games are capable of. You do see a few very simple games with artistic aims, like Passage and (so I hear) Braid, but games with different ambitiousâ€”such as in terms of storytellingâ€”are trying to find their way onto consoles.
Let’s go back for a moment, then, to John’s contention that letting players “play their own way” is an example of “too many mechanics,” a move that “merely” puts the role of entertaining into the player’s hands. I’m not sure what “merely” is supposed to mean here: I’d say this move is groundbreaking. A lot of players want that, and that is why Mass Effect and Bioshock were so well received by players and critics alike.
What that mixture of mechanics and abundance of choices provides is the illusion of player agency. This adds a whole new dimension to storytelling that other media simply can’t offer. The trick to making an impressive game, I think, is to recognize that different aesthetic elementsâ€”storyline, graphics, music, challengesâ€”can actually complement one another. Arguably, having a bunch of content in Bioshock or Mass Effect that the player never gets to is not a waste so long as those choices along the way strengthen the illusion that the player got to choose how the game progressed, which can have strong implications for how one reacts to the plot and characters.
When I started this post, I made sure to put the word “almost” before the words “completely disagree.” That’s because there are a couple points on which John and I see eye to eye, or at least close to it. At one point, we actually suggest pretty much the same thing:
Multiplayer functionality is a great example of a risky feature whose inclusion or exclusion should be obvious from the start. Titles like Halo 3 really benefit from both single-player and multi-player modes; their mechanics are built around it. But Half-Life 2, while an excellent single-player experience, simply can’t compete with other multi-player titles.
Compare this to my suggestion (in the penultimate paragraph) that some games might profit from being specifically designed as multiplayer or single player experiences rather than trying to shoehorn both into one interface.
I think there’s a difference, though, between arguing that games should focus on one cohesive experience and arguing that that experience should focus above all else on one channel of aesthetic engagement. While I agree with John that such simplification would invite “the mainstream” to play games, I disagree that that’s what good games are necessarily like.
As we’ve discussed here already, people play games for a variety of reasons, and sometimes game designers overdo things a little by trying to appeal to players in too many ways with a single game. Simplifying the game to just one or two mechanics is one way to deal with this, but other ways might involve focusing game design more on other sorts of appeals. Fewer mechanics might be appealing to players like John, who believe that “Fun is in the learning, and the payoff is in our influence over these systems”â€”what we’ve previously called the appeal of “mastery”â€”but for those who are looking for other sorts of gameplay experiences, that may not be a “better” game.