What does Mario’s jump and Kratos’ Axe have in common? They both are usable actions that have a wide variety of uses. For example, in the original Super Mario Bros., your jump can kill goombas, break boxes, and leap over obstacles. The Leviathan Axe from the most recent God of War can be used to fight enemies, break items in the environment, and solve puzzles. These varied uses for single actions is what makes these actions great mechanics.
According to GameStudies.org, game mechanics are constructs of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state. That’s all in all an academic way of saying that mechanics are actions. For example in Shadow of the Colossus, there is a climbing mechanic, a stabbing mechanic, and a horse riding mechanic (Which I love, always). Mechanics shouldn’t get confused with systems which are more so, sets of rules found in games. Breath of the Wild has a weather system that affects how you play and interact with the world of Hyrule. The combination of it all gives you gameplay.
In this video, I want to focus on game mechanics. And before jumping in, I want to give a shout out to Austin Gantner. Austin donated $150 to OK Beast’s 2017 Extra Life campaign. Extra Life is an organization which benefits children’s miracle network hospitals through the power of video games. Because of Austin’s generous donation, he got the chance to pick the topic of this video. So thank you Austin, and if you want more information on Extra Life and OK Beast’s 2018 Extra Life campaign, follow OK Beast on Twitter and visit Extra-Life.org for more details.
So I mentioned earlier that varied use for single actions is what I believe makes great mechanics. That’s what makes Mario’s jump so iconic. It’s simple, yet versatile and it’s an action that a whole franchise is built around. Mario’s jump is the primary mechanic in the NES Mario games, Mario 64, and even in the modern games of the franchise such as Mario Odyssey. It’s a game mechanic that’s stuck around for generations and has defined the character. With each iteration of Mario, Nintendo finds ways to keep the “Jump”, interesting. However, that’s just one example of how mechanics can be used in unique, varied ways and like Mario’s jump, the implementation of video game mechanics can be diverse.
For example, mechanics can be layered on top of one another. In fighting games like Tekken 7, you’re provided with a slew of options. Your face buttons correlate to left punch, right punch, left kick, and right kick. You can then aim those attacks while jumping and crouching in order to use high and low attacks. You can press nothing to dodge. Or, you can even use button combinations to grab or use alternate attacks. Tekken gives the player a variety of different mechanics at their disposal to create a very mechanic-driven experience. These different actions layer on top of one another to provide almost endless options and outcomes.
Another example is 2016’s Furi which is a boss rush game where the player has the option of dashing, parrying, long range shooting, and up close melee attacking. These primary actions are how the player is able to react to phase switches, varied types of combat, and levels morphing and changing. Furi is an example of how these same mechanics can be used for varying situations and as a player, your mastery of these mechanics is what drives the game.
There are also times in games where mechanics evolve via leveling up systems. In God of War for example, you can upgrade your Leviathan Axe to become more powerful or allow for extended combos. Here, the hard coded systems become a gate on what mechanics the player has access to. This is an example of mechanics and systems interacting.
There are examples throughout the years of simple video game mechanics rising up, and being so innovative, that they completely change a genre. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for example introduced Z-Targeting which we’ve seen repeated countless times in 3D games. Z-Targeting was the first 3D lock-on system which allowed for focus on one enemy at a time. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Devil May Cry, and many more adopted this mechanic in their own iterations. Another example of an innovative mechanic is capturing enemies in the Pokemon games. This is a feature which found its way into games like Persona, and the recent Octopath Traveler.
Mechanics such as the grappling hook in the Arkham games, climbing in Breath of The Wild, swinging in Spider-Man, and more, individually change how the player navigates around the environment. Mechanics can serve the purpose of movement, combat, puzzle solving, and more. They are pretty much the base of what makes a video game, actually playable. I’ve mentioned the diversity of mechanics, layering of mechanics, the interaction between systems and mechanics, and innovative mechanics, but my favorite thing a developer can do is to give their mechanics meaning. For example, in Ocarina of Time, Z-Targeting of course was an excellent lock-on system, however it was characterized by Navi, Link’s partner during his adventure. Making mechanics actual characters is a common solution for Nintendo, for example Cappy in Mario Odyssey characterized the mechanic of throwing your hat and capturing enemies. Controlling the camera in Mario 64 is characterized by Lakitu, and so on and so forth.
In God of War, your Leviathan Axe is not only a tool that you’ll use for combat and throwing. It is an axe forged by elves passed down to Kratos by a character he has a connection with. It’s also beautiful, has great sound design attached to it, and at the very basic level, is an axe. That is meaning. In a game like Tekken, the mechanic of throwing a punch is attached to the meaning of a fist fight in a tournament. The meaning of game mechanics range from simple to complex and it’s how developers often dress up these mechanics, which will make or break an experience.
So there you have it! Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface of video game mechanics, their varied permutations, and characteristics, however, I hope I’ve provided sort of a top down look of what game mechanics are and can be.
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