To many, mechanics are absolutely paramount when it comes to assessing or critiquing their favourite video games. And while the very basis of this article is to dismiss this as a somewhat ill-informed notion, it is easy to understand why. Every game, even the most narrative driven ones, all share a common trait in that they are interactive. Interactivity is what separates games from all other forms of art, and to many, also elevates them. So, it makes sense. It makes sense that people that would be harsh on games that they feel aren’t mechanically sound. Functionality is imperative. However, though I do agree that it is important that a game works as an inherently interactive experience, I don’t necessarily agree that mechanics are the be all and end all of achieving this.
A game does not have to be mechanically perfect to work. There are numerous examples of excellent games that excel in other areas. Let’s look at something like Shadow of the Colossus. An absolute critical darling, considered by many to be one of the greatest examples of video games as an art form and lauded as a masterpiece in the gaming community. Nonetheless, even the most ardent fans of SOTC will admit that it isn’t exactly perfect from a pure gameplay perspective. Sure, it functions fine, but there are moments when the gameplay can feel relatively stiff. Some moments are even frustrating. People who have played it know this, yet the vast majority of people who have played it still concur that not only is it an outstanding artistic work, but that one of its biggest successes is creating a sense of emotion within the player, not through its core mechanics but from the feelings it manages to evoke from being interactive. It would not work as well in any other medium.
Wander, the player character, is designed in such a way that seeks to make the player feel as if they are in his shoes. He holds his sword in a noticeably awkward fashion. He will stumble and fall as he attempts to fight a colossi. Wander isn’t some pumped up, muscle-bound badass, but an everyman that the typical player can relate to. Sure, he has his own very specific (not to mention morally ambiguous) motivations for undertaking his quest but it is the way he is presented to the audience that makes people feel cordially towards him. Wander’s stallion companion, Agro is likewise programmed to make him feel more like a horse in real life than one you would commonly find in a video game. The relationship you build with him throughout the game feels like a genuine one. (SPOILERS)… There is a reason that his death often ranks highly on the lists of the saddest moments in gaming.
This is just one of the many aspects from Shadow of the Colossus that are just as, if not more so, memorable than the core gameplay that the game possesses. To write about them all would be an entirely different article in and of itself.
Is Shadow of the Colossus an anomaly? While it is extremely unique in many ways, the fact that its popularity stems from much more than its mechanics is not. Take Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas for example. Both games were incredibly popular, but it was the giant, interesting and jam-packed sandbox world plus the sheer sense of adventure and immersion, that the games elicit in the audience, that got people coming back. The clunky shooting mechanics, stiff dialogue and wooden voice acting tend to be not as well-remembered, purely because of how engaging and indelible the setting was. There are numerous other examples of incredibly popular and/or acclaimed games where this is the case: The Last of Us? The mechanics are solid, but they are not the strongest aspect of the game by any stretch. Silent Hill 2? The atmosphere and associated lore are what generally sticks with the audience the most. Bioshock? Much like the aforementioned Fallout games, it’s the settings that tend to resonate more with players rather than the admittedly solid gameplay.
This can even extend to sports games, a genre where one would assume mechanics reign supreme. Take the outrageously popular FIFA games as an example. This is a series where describing the gameplay as unrefined would be an understatement. There are so many little issues that at times render the games a controller breaking level of frustrating. Yet, people still flock to it. Why? Is it because it’s an excellent simulation of what it’s like to play the world’s most popular sport? I would argue no, it’s because it’s an excellent simulation of the atmosphere and culture surrounding the world’s most popular sport. The games are impressively polished. People can put up with some maladroit mechanics here and there as long as they feel, consciously or otherwise, that they can project themselves into a convincing recreation of their favourite sporting environments. This was even the case back in the PS2 era, when Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series had a significantly more satisfying play experience to the FIFA franchise, yet the latter still regularly outsold the former.
None of this is to say that basic mechanics aren’t important. They absolutely are. They’re the bread and butter of the majority of gaming experiences. Nonetheless, the aspects previously mentioned in this article can, in some cases, prove to be every bit as important as the overall mechanics. Implementing these facets in an efficacious way can be the difference from a solid, enjoyable game and a true great of the medium.
What do you think reader? Let us know in the comments below.