In the previous post and peppered throughout the history of this blog, I’ve expressed my thoughts on how mechanics can drive the story of a game and how mechanics can add meaning to the story told by cutscenes. I’ve talked about how mainstream games waste or directly disregard the power the mechanics have to affect the story. I’ve talked about how many indie games have experimented with that power to varying degrees of success.
Basically, I’ve focused on what could be accomplished if the industry at large decided to experiment with this very subject, but I never sat down to think about the problems that games with “mechanics as meaning” have.
The short version:
Mechanics alone can’t work in and off themselves.
The long version:
For example, Rod Humble’s “The Marriage” is too abstract for its own good. Or in other words, I enjoy the explanation of it more than the game itself. It’s use of mechanics as metaphors was something unique at the time (2007), and so it got a lot of press and has been used as an example of what could be done with mechanics ever since. The problem is, as I’ve said, it’s too abstract. The only context provided is the title of the game itself. Without that, all the player sees is a bunch of squares and circles with strange spatial behaviours.
“Just like Tetris” you might say. Fair enough, there are similarities between the two, but the main difference here is that the purpose of Tetris is to provide challenge and nothing else. It isn’t trying to convey any meaning whatsoever, it’s a pure abstract game.
The Marriage certainly could be played as a challenging diversion but the focus of the game is nowhere near that. This game wants you to take the blue square and pink square and think of them as a married couple and that all the mechanics that surround them represent the nature of the relationship. The hardships they must endure, the sacrifices and so on.
It’s a very nice concept, the theory behind it is stellar, but the execution lacks any appeal as a game.
Other than for pure curiosity, there’s no other reason to play this game. In fact, given that it’s all explained by Humble himself, I find it more interesting to read about the mechanics than to play with them myself.
I’m hesitant to call the game a failure since, hey, I’m talking about it 5 years later, aren’t I?
Mmmhhh, let me put it this way then: It’s a failure as a game, but a success as an experiment.
But I’m left wondering … if The Marriage had mechanics that could stand on their own, could it be marketed as a “proper” game and be a success at it? My guess is that, yeah, why not? The problem I see with the game in its current state is that most players will become bored with it pretty fast. There’s no tutorial whatsoever, the mechanics are quite complicated and the context is almost non-existent. But if that weren’t the case, then it might serve it’s purpose better. Asking players to play and experiment just for the sake of play when there’s no apparent goal, there’s no context and no expressed challenge… well, not many people will be able to decipher what the game is trying to communicate.
There’s no reason why The Marriage can’t have more context to it. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a tutorial-like phase at the beginning as to make the player acclimated to the game before the metaphors and complicated interactions surface.
Mechanics alone can’t work in and off themselves. You need context. You need a tutorial. Basically, you have to acknowledge that the player exists and he/she has a minimum set of requirements that need to be fulfilled before they can actually enjoy the game they’re playing. Only then can an interesting conversation begin between the player and game designer.
As an addendum: Yes, I do know that this game was intended to be an experiment and nothing more. That doesn’t change my point though, and even then it helped me clear my mind about certain things I’ve talked about here.
If I get a little more inspiration on this topic I’m more than sure I’ll be talking about Passage next time around.