Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop

It’s been a while since I talked about an “Extra Credits” video. For the most part, this has been because I’ve generally had other things to talk about when it came to video games, but it’s also due in part to the fact that after the main presenter left the videos have focused less on more controversial issues in gaming and instead on pretty standard gaming things, which don’t leave me with a lot of things to say one way or another.

At first glance, “Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop” seems like another one of those videos. After all, that mechanics and story can interact in good or bad ways isn’t controversial and many, many people have examined in many, many discussions just how the mechanics and the story can interact with each other to improve the experience or to hinder it. So is there much to say here?

Well, as it turns out, there is, because how the video talks about their interaction ends up overstating the impact and through that ends up discussing the influence of the core gameplay loop in a way that is a shallow representation of that loop and suggests loops that, in fact, are poor ways to implement what they want to implement.

The big thing that they use to drive the point home is Pokemon, pointing out that it was influenced heavily by JRPGs which were heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, and the main gameplay loop in that one is essentially get character skills and equipment, go out and kill monsters for XP and loot, use that XP and loop to increase the skills and weapons of your character, go out and kill more monsters, rinse, repeat. As such, despite the fact that Pokemon presents it as trainers and Pokemon developing a friendship and the actual combat as being friendly competition, at its heart the game still has that violent underpinning that they imply it can’t really escape.

Before delving into that question, I think it makes sense to look at the example that they say broke this main gameplay loop, the tabletop game invented by their guest, called “Pugmire”. The original design wanted to keep the underlying D&D mechanics, but wanted to remove the more violent aspects of the core gameplay loop. And so the decision made was … to remove all XP and gold/loot from the game. Levels were only gained by doing things in the world and learning something, and not from gaining enough XP to level up. This, the video claims, makes options like bluffing and fleeing an encounter more feasible and so changes the overall dynamic of the game.

The first thing to note about this is that “Pugmire” is not the first game to use that sort of model. Amber Diceless, for example, does not give out XP for killing things nor do characters generally gain loot, and any additional character growth after character creation is at the whim of the GM. In one game of that that I modded, characters asked me to give out some points so that they could expand their abilities, which I did, but I had added items in the original character creation that could grant abilities but really were supposed to be used as plot and character points. The idea of removing XP and loot is not a particularly original one.

In addition, to get the effects that “Pugmire” wanted, you don’t even have to remove XP and loot. To use a video game example, “Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines” keeps XP and loot, but does not reward XP simply for killing things in the world. You gain XP for achieving things and completing tasks. In the game itself, in general completing tasks by stealth or by social skills gives the player more XP than doing it through combat. Also, the player has to manage their Humanity and Masquerade stats, and in general engaging in combat and killing things too frequently results in lowering those stats. If they fall too far, the character dies and the game is over. Thus, there are massive benefits for not engaging in combat and doing things like bluffing them, intimidating them, seducing them or sneaking past them, while keeping loot and XP in the game. So you don’t need to remove loot and XP to break that core gameplay loop.

Which allows us to return to Pokemon and note that it, itself, actually does break that core gameplay loop. Or, rather, it takes what that core gameplay loop actually is and applies it to a differing world or story. While most D&D games, at least early on, were all about killing things and looting their corpses, that was just the gloss on top of the actual gameplay, which was instead about characters going out into the world, facing challenges, using what they gained from those challenges to improve themselves, and then using those improvements to face more difficult challenges. JRPGs used that, in general, in service of their stories, where as you went along in the world you leveled up so that you could face the next challenge. Thus, the player grows in power, but they in general have to grow in power because as the story advances the stakes become higher and the threats become greater. You aren’t going out there to kill things and take their stuff, but to eliminate a threat to the greater community, a threat that keeps increasing and as you go along you learn things that make you better able to eliminate that threat. Sure, you do that by killing enemies and taking their stuff, but that’s only because they are directly in the way and, in fact, place themselves there. Your purpose is not, in fact, to do that. This is why D&D was able to evolve relatively seamlessly to a model where you can get the bulk of your experience from completing quests rather than from killing enemies in the world.

Pokemon takes that core gameplay mechanic and makes it family friendly, by stripping away the murderous gloss and recasting it entirely as competition. The goal for any trainer is to find Pokemon and train them in various ways for competitions, and then have them go out and engage in those competitions, learn from it, and so be able to participate in greater competitions at higher and higher levels. While the competitions themselves involve fighting and sometimes injuries and fatigue, the point is still the competition and not the violence. That makes the Pokemon model similar to Olympic level boxing, wrestling or martial arts. Your victories give you rewards, not loot, and you gain XP from winning competitions, not from killing enemies. This is in fact the core gameplay mechanic of D&D stripped of its war game gloss, and the failure to identify that makes them misinterpret what Pokemon is doing as well as misunderstand what needs to be changed to produce a game that doesn’t have its main rewards be on the basis of killing things. You don’t need to eliminate XP and loot, but only need to make it so that those things are given out on the basis of accomplishments and not simply for killing things.

When they try to give an example of a creative way to marry the gameplay mechanics to the story or feelings of the player, they again make a mistake because their analysis is too shallow. They use the example of the horror tabletop game “Dread”, which uses a Jenga tower as its main gameplay element. To take an action, players have to draw Jenga blocks and place them on top, and if they tip the tower then, at least, the character fails their action and probably dies. This does increase the anxiety of the players and provides a progression where later actions are more likely to fail disastrously and so are seen as more risky and, again, more tension-inducing.

The problem is that it’s increasing the wrong sort of tension and anxiety.

Shamus Young talked about this in talking about how killing players in horror video games might not be the best way to generate fear:

Consider these two types of fear:

  1. 1. Oh no! The grue is going to eat me! How horrible!
  2. Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven’t saved in half an hour.

Now, if your goal is to just create a serious challenge for tenacious players to overcome (and some people really do like that sort of thing) then routine player death is a required component of that. But I think in most cases the extreme difficulty is part of a misguided attempt to make the game more frightening. You feel the first kind of fear when you’re immersed in the game. You only feel the second when you are not immersed. The first kind is the thrilling kind. The second is an immersion-breaking killjoy.

The Jenga tower’s tension is, in fact, an example of the second type of fear and anxiety. You aren’t feeling anxious because your character is in trouble and you’re hoping that they can overcome it. You’re feeling anxious because the tower is looking pretty rickety and you aren’t sure that you can move the required blocks to complete the action. At that moment, your anxiety is all OOC anxiety, not IC anxiety. The anxiety is not being caused by the situation inside the game itself or by the atmosphere it conveys, but simply by how you aren’t sure if you, as a player, are skilled enough to help your character avoid disaster. You aren’t really worried that your character will die, but are worried that you’ll pull the wrong block and knock the tower over.

Ironically, dice rolls work better for maintaining the right sort of anxiety and fear because they are nothing more than a mechanic for resolving the encounter, and so their anxiety level is determined entirely by the context. If you’re examining a dead body for clues, you may not care very much about the outcome of a roll, but if that’s the difference between life and death for that character you are probably going to feel very anxious about the result of the roll. With the Jenga tower, trivial actions might be anxiety inducing if it might tip the tower, and crucial ones might induce no anxiety if they are early enough in the game that you’re almost certain to be able to place all the blocks safely. This goes against what a horror game should be going for.

A video game that does this well, in my opinion, is Fatal Frame. The game involves a young teenage girl going to look for her brother, who has disappeared, in a haunted mansion. The character isn’t supposed to be some kind of combat veteran, and so the game doesn’t actually give the character any weapons. As Miku has the ability to see spirits, the game focuses on that by giving her a camera that she can use to see and capture the images of spirits to aid her in her investigation. As the camera can capture spirit images, it can also capture spirits, and thus is her primary means of defending herself against the ghosts. In order to use it, Miku has to drop into a first-person mode by raising the camera, which also limits her field of vision, which means that the ghosts might disappear from that and so be able to sneak up on her. This adds to the tension and fear of the game without making the enemies either heavily armoured or armed, and Miku can advance without having to find better weapons and so ending up a one-person walking ammunition dump.

Horror games that make the primary method of defense running away and hiding like “Clocktower” and “Haunting Ground” also do this, by making it so that the character and the player, in general, all want to do the same thing: run away from and hide from the monsters that are facing them. In real life, people aren’t going to be likely to see zombies, ghosts, or hideous monsters and demons and decide that the right thing to do is draw their guns and calmly target their weak spots. When the only choice is to run away, then players will be running away just as the characters would, which then does better align the gameplay and what feelings the game is trying to get the player to feel.

7 Responses to “Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    That critique of pokemon is so old the games actually addressed it in-universe in generation 5. It was always a dumb critique. In-universe they make it extremely, abundantly clear that pokemon love battling. It’s a SPORT. It’s not actually hurting them in the long term.

    • Lino Says:

      Yes, but acknowledging how an apparent issue is addressed in-universe won’t get nearly as many clicks as a title like “Pokemon is about kids making animals brutally murder each other, all your favourite characters are sociopaths TROLOL!”
      It’s just an unfortunate side-effect of how the Internet works…

      • verbosestoic Says:

        To be fair to EC, I do believe that they really do think that this violent underpinning is there and not clickbait. It’s consistent with things they talk about in other videos.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        It is violent, obviously, they are doing things like electrocuting each other and using powerful lasers and other such things.

        But the games put a strong emphasis on forming bonds with your pokemon and treating them as partners, with great respect. Battles are not forced, the pokemon WANT to do it and trainers are expected to treat them well.

        Again, it is a sport and the people who drive their pokemon to the point of injury are always the villains. Forcing pokemon to do things they don’t want to and mistreating them are evil, and battles are never expected to and don’t cause permanent damage.

        There is no dissonance because the games have made all of this very, very clear from gen 1 and even addressed it bead on in gen 5. It is and always was a non-issue.

    • malcolmthecynic Says:

      The villains all tend to be people who force pokemon to do things against their will.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I haven’t played the game and only watched part of the cartoon translation of the anime, but I even think that Team Rocket’s move towards becoming more sympathetic characters in large part involves them getting their own Pokemon that they actually seem to care about.

  2. Lino Says:

    I stopped watching EC a while ago (after their episode defending lootboxes), and I’m very sad to see that they haven’t improved much. I haven’t watched the video in question, but just reading your criticisms of it is more than enough for me. I started following them during their early Escapist days, and I used to consider them the smartest show about game design, but the only thing I can think of them now is “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”
    Seriously, I have no idea how their quality dropped so low…

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