After a fairly productive July, I managed to publish nothing but a single review during all of August. While I don’t have an excuse for the first few weeks, my internet went down for a good week-and-a-half in the middle of the month and came back just in time for me to leave for a few days. At any rate, I’ve finally been writing again, which means I ought to return to this blog to keep up with myself.
In my latest article on PopMatters (“Existing Above the Law in Video Games.” Sep 4 2012) I talked about how games generally fail to include social laws in their mechanics. By social laws I mean something that the player can do but at the risk of adding greater difficulty in the long run. Looking back I’ve wondered if it’s not a little dry of a topic to cover but I still think that it’s an element to games that almost never gets covered to its full potential. The game’s tutorial tells the player how a game is to be played and, given time, the player figures out how to optimally go about achieving their goals. But what’s often missing are rules.
The big difference between mechanics and rules are that mechanics determine what the player can do while rules tell the player what they should do. Ideally, there will be times when the player will have to break the rules, or when breaking the rules is a tempting convenience.
A “game” has rules, but a video game doesn’t. Not really. There’s not often a system of risk/reward put in place that can deeply impact how a game is played. To speculate: what if getting caught with a 5-star crime rating in GTA 4 meant playing as Roman Bellic until Nico was released. Or if Nico had to survive a few prison missions while his connections got him out–which could only work a few times before reaching a permanent game over. What if the player had to keep up an increasingly complex web of pay-offs and bribes or threats to stay out of prison. GTA may be a bad example because so much of that series’ identity hinges on the limitless freedom it offers. But that freedom doesn’t come with any lasting consequence. There’s never an instance where short-term solutions might have a long-term consequence.
Instead, imagine a game where breaking the “law” came with more risk and more work, it would make the consequences of straying from the straight-and-narrow so much more meaningful. It doesn’t even have to translate in so direct a way as “getting caught while doing x may lead to consequence y.” It appears in a more abstract way with resource management. One of the most effective uses of “rules” comes in survival-horror. What made Resident Evil 4 (and its spiritual successors like Dead Space) such a great game was the way that kept the tension high by ensuring Leon had just barely enough resources to get through the next encounter. The mechanics demanded that enemies needed to be killed by well timed and aimed gunshots, but the implicit rule was that ammo was scarce, so one must never waste precious shotgun shells on minions, nor should one try to take on a chainsaw-wielding instakill peasant with a basic handgun.
Rules can add depth and nuance to games. They establish how the world works and the protagonist’s place in it. On a basic level, they’re often used, but they’re not often taken full advantage of. As with most of these little ludological theories of mine, it shouldn’t be a constant for every game, but it’s something I would like to see more developers consider. Restricting choices makes them have more meaning, and having a set of rules with just enough wiggle-room to occasionally squeak around them is a great way to keep the onus on the player. Food for thought, anyway.
Further reading: “Rules vs Mechanics.” Problem Machine. May 27 2013.
Krapta, Mitch. “Verbs.” Insult Swordfighting. Sep 25 2013.
Horvath, Stu. “The Rules of the Game.” Unwinnable. Mar 1 2013.