Mechanics as Theme and Aesthetics of Play

Mechanics as Theme

On the back of my choiceScript experiments, I started thinking about expanding the idea I was using to test the language and what stats I would use. I don’t want to try and force a story around a set of mechanics because the story won’t be very strong, nor do I want to try and add stats and choices to an existing story because then the stats won’t be particularly meaningful and there will be an obviously canon set of choices. What I want to do is to start with theme, genre and atmosphere and build a set of mechanics and narrative goals that align with these. I’m thinking of it more in the way I design content when I’m GMing a ttrpg than writing a novel or designing a video game.

Stats should:

  • Represent player’s relationship to their world
  • Be important for gameplay and have consequences
  • Express who the pc is as a person
  • Express the ideas and themes of the narrative

Mechanics and story should be so intertwined that you can’t separate them – one without the other is significantly weaker.

This extra credits video expands on the topic of mechanics carrying their own sperate – often opposing – meaning from the narrative themes. As an example it uses Pokemon. The plot appears rather fluffy – being friends with the Pokémon as your cute animal friends, but the mechanic is essentially about forcing animals to fight each other. You get rewarded for winning battles in exp and money. This is the sort of thing I want to avoid.

Aesthetics of Play

Another Extra Credits video talks about Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics – a paper I’m pretty sure I read about six years ago for uni, but I’m just riffing off the video here.

Mechanics = Rules and systems
Dynamics = Actual play
Aesthetics = Reason to play

Genre is explicitly defined by aesthetics in other mediums. It appears that game genres are mechanically focused, but really we are defined by aesthetics too.

For example, portal is a puzzle game, though it functions as an FPS. Fallout is an RPG though it also functions as an FPS. The genre truly defines what you’re getting out of the experience, rather than the physical mechanic.

Personally, I used to think that games should be defined by two genres – their narrative and mechanic genres. So ‘action shooter’ or ‘romance visual novel’. There’s some redundancy to this however – in the examples I’ve provided, the mechanics and narrative generally do go together and follow expected conventions. This format also adds to the perceived divide between mechanics and narrative, which undermines both game design and criticism – mechanics are a story tool and if they do not support the narrative themes of the game they are not successful.

As an example, if you used this two genre idea and had a ‘romance shooter’ – how does that even work? You’re posing your MC as a lover, then they gun down a bunch of people? Even if it’s to save the one they love, the message is irreparably changed by the mechanics. Killing one person to save the one you love is dramatic and shows how far you’d go. Mowing down armies just says that human life is worthless in this world and/or the MC is a psychopath.

Conversely, I worry that thinking like this just reinforces tired genre conventions. If the mechanics and the story must match, do we not get anything new? Its one I back and forth on.

Core Aesthetics:

  • Sense Pleasure – Good music, art etc.
  • Fantasy – Step into a role you can’t/don’t perform in real life.
  • Narrative – Game as drama.
  • Challenge – Joy in overcoming obstacles.
  • Fellowship – Social gaming.
  • Competition – Expansion of social gaming that is combinative.
  • Discovery – Uncovering the new, either through environment or mechanics.
  • Expression – Creative expression.
  • Abrigation – Pastime, disengagement.

Genres generally share a core aesthetic.

CoG will have narrative as the main aesthetic, with creation and discovery as secondary elements.


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