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August 03, 2009

The Perfectly Executed Mini-Mechanic

As you know, I've been playing lots of games again, which is nice. My travels have included the planet Sera and two trips to the Middle East, albeit a few centuries apart, and lately I've been relaxing at the mall. In those travels I've noted down a few impressive "mini-mechanics" -- little bits of games that aren't the center of it but do a good job of reinforcing the main game.

The mini-mechanics that work best for me tend to follow a few guidelines:

  • They reinforce the main character. An old game development hand once said to me that characters in games had nothing to do with their personality, and everything to do with what they could do. In other words, while Mario's name was changed from Jumpman, that name almost exactly defines Mario as a character in his first game (and might therefore have been too limiting). Indiana Jones, in the context of a videogame, is his whip. Buffy Summers is a stake. Riddick is his vision. You get the idea. A perfectly executed mini-mechanic reinforces the gameplay traits of a character.
  • They are brief. Hence "mini". They should fit right in with the rest of gameplay.
  • They are infrequent, but hardly unique. If you're doing this every few seconds, it's not a mini-mechanic, it's probably the mechanic. Similarly, if you're only doing them once, in a boss battle, it's not a mechanic.
  • They aren't required. These are purely optional; more accurately, it might be better to say that any individual instance is optional.
  • They should be in situ, not apart from the bulk of gameplay. If you come out to another interface screen, as in many mini-games, you're really doing some other task, and not using a small mechanic to reinforce the main game.
  • It's not meant to challenge the player. You aren't doing it enough, probably, to be able to do it perfectly every time. So, it can't be a high skill proposition; the risk-reward ratio can't be too high. It should never be a game-ender.

The first of these that really struck me was the "leap of faith", from Assassin's Creed. In each of the game's 11 locations¹, Altair may ascend a set of towers and other high points to get the lay of the land below him. Now, having gone to all the trouble to make Altair able to climb up or down every vertical surface, I would have forgiven the designers for making me control Altair back down to a reasonable location. Instead, they turned a very real gameplay problem into an opportunity for a beautiful little mechanic. Generally speaking, the place I need to go next is way down there amongst the ants, so adding a way to get me down there quickly was an excellent choice. It's flawlessly executed -- the animation is fluid and frankly gorgeous, and got me every time. Finally, it reinforces the character -- this is a man who is able to do thrilling things with his body through years of training.

The next two worth mentioning from my recent games both come from Gears of War, though I think one of them was better executed than the other.

In a few years, when I look back at this first year of HD gaming, I'm going to remember the "roadie run" from Gears of War. For those who haven't played... oh, who am I kidding, I'm last to the party on this for sure. In any case, the opportunities to use the roadie run are somewhat rare -- in any large spaces where it would be most appropriate, you're often too busy with enemies to be able to use it for pure navigation, and in smaller spaces, it's less effective. But as a means of moving up in a sort of semi-cover (crouching to make for a small target), it's terrific. It accentuates the gameplay -- Gears is almost entirely a game about cover in combat -- and it furthermore reinforces the physicality and bulk of the character, as Marcus Fenix rarely looks as built as he does when he's running in a crouch carrying all his heavy equipment. And it uses up a resource, though a hidden one; there's some sort of fatigue going on, since Marcus can't use it indefinitely.

The other is the "active reload". I was less enamored of this mechanic, primarily because in order to get the feel for it, I was constantly drawing my eyes away from the action. The active reload mechanic involved exactly timing a button press to an on-screen indicator, but I found that you could train up on it. Early on, splitting my attention between the action in the center of the screen and the reload bar in the upper right was more than I could manage, particularly with a variety of weapons, and I think this is largely the reason why this mechanic didn't quite feel right to me. Later in the game, once I had taken a look at the achievements list, I spent a minute of relative calm just doing it a dozen times in a row to get the achievement, and after that it felt good and reinforced the character. It felt like the sort of thing that some Army grunt might know -- oh, if you bang the butt of the rifle at the right time, you can kick the first round into the chamber quicker, but watch out, the gun can jam if you misstep.

That all said, this was a mechanic I appreciated rather than loved, unlike the other two. The leap of faith would have gotten old if I used it to jump off every building. I would have wished for better running and gunning had the roadie run been constant. With the active reload, I would have been more impressed had they showed a little restraint and made it only available on the one gun -- the gun with which a Gear would theoretically be most familiar. At the beginning of the game, where I was switching amongst several weapons to find the one that fit me best, the reload was a hindrance more than a help. By the end of the game, I had given up trying to time any weapons other than the main assault rifle that you start with; it was simply too distracting and not worth the time to invest to learn each of them.

Finally, it's not necessary to always introduce a mechanic, or to make a mechanic more complicated than it need to be. I appreciated that in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, there was no special trick to place a charge or tank-buster or what-have-you on an armored vehicle or other target. In these cases, it was simply a "get near and press A" proposition -- an absolutely minimal implementation. Pressing the button on the controller was like opening a door or doing something else similarly trivial. More than that would have likely led to player frustration, which should be avoided like the plague in mass-market titles.

Well, that's about all I've got for now. Join me in the next week or so again for some discussion about "introductions".

¹Sure, it's an open world game, but there are three cities, each with three districts, your home town, and the "Kingdom". For purposes of this article, the modern office building to which Desmond Miles has been kidnaped can be dismissed, as it contains no actual gameplay. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at August 3, 2009 08:35 AM