Why Game Mechanics and Story should Converge in Your Next Indie Game Project
Dig deep into your memory and find the very first game you ever played. Or the oldest one you can remember. What was the game’s story? Chances are there was little to no narrative focus, and even if there was the details are quite unremarkable. There are two possible reasons for this lack of story detail:
The lore was dumped on you unceremoniously in large batches
The overarching story had little to no importance to the actual gameplay
Gameplay and story often feel feel divorced in many of our favorite games. But most excellent, timeless games have a narrative through-line that serves to enhance the gameplay mechanics. It may not be immediately obvious in some of our favorite games, but there is a great deal of thought put into how the story interacts with every element of gameplay. I hope to convince you to put similar amounts of care into the games you design and develop.
Craft Great Stories and Great Gameplay
It has to be said — if your gameplay or story are objectively lackluster or rough, then your game cannot be saved by simply integrating the two components. But let it be said that bad gameplay alone kills a game, but a bad story merely cripples it.
Think of some games that you just love to play — they control well, you get a dopamine rush whenever you win or complete an objective, and you constantly come back to play them over and over. The story may not matter at all, in fact we outgrow many of the stories that appealed to us in our youth. But those games that we loved to play continue to resonate with the pleasure factor in our brains. I discuss the finer points of game feel and why this is the case in another article.
Knowing this, you can take your game to the next level when you integrate narrative through-lines with mechanics, but you cannot save a game that controls poorly or does not appeal to players. Let’s discuss a recent example.
Takeaway: Don’t neglect your gameplay for the sake of story, or vice versa.
Case Study — The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Death Stranding
Kojima Studios’ debut game “Death Stranding” is about a courier named Sam Bridges who must reconnect the disparate colonies of humankind after a catastrophe causes their communication networks to fail. Naturally the game has players traversing a vast and beautiful landscape while managing the weight of packages they carry, and building infrastructure to help both themselves and others via online play.
It is no controversial statement to say that where “Death Stranding” really struggles is with its story.
The story is all over the place and at times leaves the player behind for a fantastical cinematic world of allegory and metaphor. While being well crafted and whimsical, if players are not interested in following the winding thoroughfares between plot points they can be easily turned off by what the game has to offer.
However on the positive side of things, the desolation of the “United Cities of America” drives home the loneliness and solitude of the game’s primary mechanics. When fighting off BTs there is no expectation of help and your resourcefulness comes to bear in your weaponry. This must be why Death Stranding maintains a strong 87 metacritic rating at time of writing.
Takeaway: Be mindful of the impact your story will have on your game. It can have both good, and bad effects.
Appreciate Games as an Artform
Games as a visual medium have a powerful leg up over all others — and that is in its inclusion of input and reaction. Games have the ability to perfectly bind a game’s mechanics and its underlying story together in ways that are unique an interesting. In the Death Stranding example, it is to further the atmosphere of the game, to great effect.
Mechanics have the ability to set the tone, and add more to the narrative. Another example, “Shadow of the Colossus”, has the player scale behemoth enemies and hit vital points on the soft of their bodies in order to bring them down. You swim in the anxiety and peril of a lone human scaling a beast 1000x your own size. And you literally struggle in the shadow of the beasts as your work to bring them down.
It is hard to imagine Shadow of the Colossus playing in a different way. With the gameplay of “Legend of Zelda” or “Shovel Knight” for instance, the game’s scale would not feel nearly as massive, the stakes wouldn’t feel as high.
Takeaway: Craft mechanics that heighten the desired tonal and thematic elements of your narrative.
If you want your games to carry a narrative punch, you absolutely must carry them over into your gameplay. If your game has a narrative focus, even better as the choices your player makes will directly alter the flow of the game.
Want to make a unique game that uses story as a focus? Check out some of my tips on how to make fresh unique game mechanics.