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Mechanics and Abstractions part.3

Now that we have talked about mechanics and abstractions and ranked the various levels of mechanics by their design, I want to discuss specific games.

Many are willing to admit that concrete mechanics are superior to abstract mechanics for a variety of reasons the most important of which being that concrete mechanics tend to evolve into emergent gameplay and encourage self expression while abstract mechanics tend to reduce gameplay to trail-and-error and simple optimization. But, at the same time these gamers might not be aware of just how much they dislike abstract mechanics.

When given a choice of playing with a soccer ball or memorizing a computer data/coding system, my preference is the soccer ball. With a little gravity and other physics interactions, I can experience an infinite number of outcomes. To help shed some light on this situation, I'll use an example. Though we may be gamers of different ages and backgrounds, I personally believe that we should all play and beat Super Mario Bros. for the NES. This game provides such an exemplary example of game design and was so influential and important in the history of gaming, I find that it is only appropriate to continue to give it credit. Also, I reference it often in my blog posts. It's only 5 dollars if you buy it on your Wii.

In Super Mario Bros. players are awarded with points. You get points for grabbing coins, smashing enemies, beating the level with extra time, and nabbing powerups. But, when playing this game, are you ever concerned with your score? Does anyone care? Would anyone have missed it if it wasn't included? And if you're thinking that the points were just a convention of the games of that era, even Mario's latest 2D platformer New Super Mario Bros. has a point system. For the most part, all the factors that affect the gameplay in these Mario games are contained within the game's form. If I'm terribly ignorant to the gamers that go for score in Super Mario Bros. please let me know. Otherwise, it's fairly safe to say that Super Mario points aren't worth much.

But that's just one example. Every game is different. So I did a little thinking, and I've found a few pairs of games that have a lot in common. Each pair of games features similar gameplay elements, but one game focuses on concrete mechanics at high levels of play, while the other relies on an abstract system. If you have experience with any of these pairs, consider what level you played the games at, and ask yourself which game's gameplay you prefer.

Super Mario Galaxy vs Donkey Kong Jungle Beat

  • Both games are stylized, highly polished, unique platformers. Both Mario and Donkey Kong wall kick, back flip, ground pound, collect golden objects (coins & bananas), and punch enemies through diverse locations. And both of these games were made by same same team of developers.
  • While both games challenge the player to get to the end of each level, Mario creates an environment filled with elements where the player is free to play around or challenge themselves. Nailing tricky jumps, going for all the coins, or triple jumping everywhere keeps things exciting.
  • In Jungle Beat, players are encouraged to play to the abstract combo system. By chaining jumps, wall kicks, and rebounding off of enemies players can travel around without touching the ground. The more special moves the player does without touching the ground, the higher the combo multiplier grows. The higher the multiplier, the more points are earned from each banana collected. At the end of every level, the player is evaluated on how many points they've earned and are awarded a medal based on their performance.

Ninja Gaiden (Sigma) vs Devil May Cry 4

  • Both games feature male characters who fight through hoard after hoard of demons. The combat system for each is complex featuring an impressive amount of well animated moves consisting of projectiles, sword slashes, and grabs. Both games also feature a variety of weapons that can be used to combat evil.
  • Ninja Gaiden keeps the combat concrete. Each enemy is a contained deadly force that intends on taking your life. When the odds are stacked against the player, efficient kills and tactics are essential for claiming victory. Also, there is a strong sense of environment from the interactions and dynamics between the characters and the rooms/areas. Players can run along walls, wall kick, and do a variety of other ninja jumps and attacks that move the player around through the 3D space. And at the end of the battle, survival is the reward.
  • In Devil May Cry, players don't fight the seemingly lethargic enemies as much as they fight against the abstract combo system. By mixing up the combat moves between punches, gun shots, and sword attacks players can build the style meter. Sure, using the powerful moves repeatedly gets the job done efficiently, but that just isn't cool... or so that's what the game's abstract system wants me to believe.

Mario Kart Wii vs Excite Truck

  • Both of these racing games feature hills where the player can perform tricks off of to earn speed boosts. Both games encourage crashing into other racers to gain and advantage, using drifts, and playing on the edge by driving through trees or drafting other karts. And both games use the Wiimote motion controls for steering.
  • Mario Kart uses the concrete mechanics built into the vehicles, bananas, turtle shells, tracks, and off road terrain to add a high level of variation for players to adapt to on the fly. Everything that is dangerous to the player is out there on the track. At the end of the day, Mario Kart is still all about who makes it across the finish line first.
  • Excite Truck relies on on their abstract point system to challenge players and keep things exciting. In a race, players are rewarded with stars for holding onto long drifts, doing tricks in the air, taking crazy jumps, narrowly avoiding trees, and crashing into other trucks. According to the system, earning anywhere from 1 to 4 stars for a single activity will help your final score. But earning 5 stars in a single activity gives players an extra bonus on top. In Excite Truck, racing is still important but points are more important. Lagging behind into 2nd place to get more points could result in a higher rank. It's because of this that the abstract, arcade mechanics in Excite Truck are pushed to the forefront.

Halo 3 vs Call of Duty 4

  • Crouching, Spawning, shooting, sniping, melee attacks, grenades, team play, and first person perspective. These are just a few elements that Halo and COD have in common.
  • Halo pits players in an arena of concrete combat mechanics. Cars and other vehicles have momentum and can ram other players to deliver crushing blows. Grenades have blast radius that can push around items on the ground, send players flying, over turn vehicles, and even veer a rocket off its trajectory. Bullets act like bullets. Walls act like walls. Everything acts and reacts according to their form. For the most part, the elements of the combat are contained within the arena. Powerups, guns, grenades, vehicles, and equipment are all located somewhere in the playing field. When a player finds that their favorite vehicle or gun is missing, they know that someone must have picked it up. The combat features a high level of emergent gameplay that is similar to a sport.
  • The multiplayer in COD4 is more abstract and cluttered than in Halo. In the majority of online game types, there is no friendly fire making it to where players can't hurt their own teammates. Though this design choice keeps the saboteurs at bay, it also adds an abstract property to the players attacks. Somehow, bullets and grenade explosions don't hurt your teammates, but then magically hurt the enemy seconds later. Instead of putting an array of weapons and powerups in the field for players to pick up and use, players can customize and equip themselves with guns, explosives, and perks (power ups) that they'll spawn with. This design choice keeps the action at a constant high pace because every player is deadly "right out of the box." With the ability to change custom confirmations every time a player spawns, it's virtually impossible to use the form of the game to gather information to make informed decisions. Without having the power rooted to the arena, the flow of the match is high and arcade like.

In all of these examples, I prefer the gameplay of the game on the left compared to their counterparts. It bugs me when actions betrays form, and it can be exhausting memorizing special case after special case for a game filled with abstract gameplay mechanics. Tomorrow, I'll talk about a new DS game that has been gaining a lot of popularity that is the most abstract game I've played in recent memory. Keep it real (as opposed to abstract).


« Mechanics and Abstractions part.4 | Main | Mechanics and Abstractions part.2 »

Reader Comments (3)

Super Mario Bros has one abstract thing that I noticed though. The timer. I can see it as a mechanism to prevent the player from taking too long in the game, and add some tension but its kinda abstract. Why does Mario die when the time runs out? It's not like he runs into a Goomba or falls into a pit—he just dies. Is the timer supposed to be a metaphor for how long it would take him before Mario would be too late to rescue the princess from Koopa?

September 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDall

@ Dall

Yes. Peach is killed if Mario isn't fast enough. And because their destinies are linked, Mario dies.

No. I just made that up. You're right. The clock is an inorganic timer in the 2D Mario platformers.

For more on tension and timers see this post.

September 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

That's a good post. Thanks for replying.

September 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDall

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