What is a game mechanic? I talk about them a lot here. Sometimes I worry I’m throwing the term around a bit lightly. Since getting more interested in board games, I’ve discovered “mechanic” is one of the more misused terms in games writing. I don’t know why this is. It’s probably because the word itself is so weighty; a good solid Greek root, it catches attention and conveys importance better than saying “rule” or “feature”. But what is a mechanic? Is it anything you do in a game? What else is a game besides a series of mechanics? I believe there are three elements to any game: environment, rules, and mechanics. To illustrate, I’m going to talk about a board game so seemingly simple, it nearly defies explanation. That game is Go.
Go is a simple game. That’s a lie, but it seems true if you look at the basic information needed to play it. It is played on a square board with a grid drawn on it. You take turns placing little black and white stones at the intersection points, and if you surround your opponent’s stones with stones of your color, they are removed. The player in control of the most open spaces at the end of the game wins. That’s it. That’s all there is to Go. And there’s that nasty lie again.
Playing go is not so simple. From start to finish you have virtually limitless possibilities. At the start you can place a stone anywhere on the board. The game ends when there are no more legal moves, or both players pass on their move.
The learning curve this presents is astounding. Empty spaces next to a stone are called “liberties”. A stone with no liberties is “captured”, and is removed from the board. Stones placed next to each other are called groups, and share liberties. From these rules, a number of patterns arise that form the heart of the game. Spotting the patterns, and applying them correctly, is the key to success.
In my understanding, a mechanic is a means by which the player interacts with the environment. In go, the mechanics are the placement and capture of stones. The rules govern those mechanics. You alter your game environment by putting stones down. The rules determine what effect that has on the environment. The goal is to alter the environment in such a way that you control more territory than your opponent; surrounding bits of the board with groups that cannot be captured.
The rules, then, are the limitations placed upon your ability to put a stone down. To my current knowledge, there is only one- you cannot place a stone in a position in which it will automatically be captured. If an opponent has a space surrounded, you can’t place a stone there unless you are capturing with that move. Consequently, if you have a group of stones that surrounds two separate open spaces, that group cannot be captured, as no single move can occupy both liberties.
This gets very very complicated. There are any number of patterns that will produce these open spaces, called “eyes”, and make capture impossible. The depth of gameplay this offers is immense. The game is so simple that it leaves the environment open as a vast desert inhabited only by the possibilities afforded by the imagination of the player.
Let’s compare this with the old school first person shooter. Back before the puzzles of half-life, and the reactive environments of Duke Nukem 3D, an FPS was a maze with a series of NPCs that served as obstacles. The goal was to get to the end of the maze. You could run, shoot, jump, and maybe push a few buttons. In short, you had four mechanics.
Pretty doggone simple, right? Then you get to the rules.
Rules tell you how fast you can run. Rules tell you how much damage you can take, how much ammo you can hold, how many guns you can carry, and what kind of damage they do. Rules tell you how the baddies react to you, how barrels explode, and if you drown in water or if you burn in lava. The rules are the thousand little things you never think about in a game because they are tacitly implied by your environment. A new player in go will have to have the rules explained. The only thing a player needs to know when sitting down with an FPS is what the controls are. There may be other mechanics stuck in there if it’s a squad based thing, or has some RPG stuff thrown in there, but as far as classic shooters go, it’s all pretty intuitive. “Here is a gun. Shoot things. Don’t die.” No one has ever needed that much instruction.
When we say the mechanics of a game feel off, we are almost certainly talking about the rules. People complaining about a stealth mechanic are almost always (I say almost because there may be an exception I don’t know about) talking about the rules governing that mechanic. They mean there is a mechanic, and the rules did not connect it to the environment in a way they found convincing or enjoyable. Why are all those useless items you pick up in RPGs so frustrating? Because the mechanics allow you to have them, but there are no rules let you use them through the existing mechanics. It means there is something in the environment you should be able to manipulate with the tools you have, but the rules don’t let you. That is nothing short of poor game design.
If we stopped for a moment and thought about the best games we’ve played on the PC, it should become apparent that they’d work pretty well as a board game. In fact, most of them do have something of a board game equivalent. The trouble is that so many games you get in the computerized world don’t really cut it as games, or are the same game played on a different board and with slightly different rules. The joy of video games is that they allow the game itself to fade into the background and the environment to take center stage. When designers forget what their mechanics are for, or have arbitrary rules that prevent you from using those mechanics to participate in the game world, it all falls apart. Games are about new environments, new worlds to explore. Mechanics are just the handle on the door to that experience.