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The mechanic is the message

Content of the article: "The mechanic is the message"

It seems like in most mainstream video games, the core gameplay experience is designed with a focus on fun. Even in games with a strong narrative, game mechanics are primarily used to add challenge and allow players to get skilled at the game or level up. Not that those mechanics don't contribute to the narrative but they often exist on a separate layer from the story. For example, in RPGs there is XP and level progression which contributes to the feeling of becoming a more powerful hero. But players usually don't say: "I was moved by the stats." Instead, they say: "I was moved by the story."

Could "fun" gameplay in fact distance the player from empathizing with the feelings of the character or the situation they are in? Eg. in terms of the story, the player has reached the climax and confronts the villain. If they are focused on stats, and thinking "do I have enough to defeat him?" they are not thinking or feeling what the main character is feeling, but instead calculating and thinking how to get what they want out of a system. Or if the player is focused on trying to find the weakness of the villain or detect a pattern, they are not seeing the villain as living-breathing character but a system they are trying to understand and gain mastery over.

Can you think of examples of games or specific moments in games where the mechanics were used, not to generate fun and challenge but instead to provoke an emotion or transport meaning?

Read:  Alan Wake and Alan Wake's American Nightmare - one concept, two outcomes

I'm compiling a list of specific techniques/examples useful for generating a specific emotion. It could be useful for making narrative-focused games.


In Cart Life, by Richard Hofmeier, game mechanics express the frustrating daily grind of work.

In Florence by Mountains studio, mini games express the emotional state of the characters. There is one mini-game with puzzle pieces that slowly become easier and easier to fit together as characters become more comfortable with each other. It expresses how the two characters are becoming more comfortable talking with each other. On their own, these mini-games, if they can be even be called that, are not fun at all. But as you "play" them, you feel what the characters feel.


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