After trying many different approaches, we found that this process worked for us and helped us to make informed decisions for our mechanics.
Our major project is a narrative-driven adventure game that follows the coming of age journey of the protagonist, Aurelia. This is the first major project for our team, so we’ll be sharing our learnings as we progress through to its release. Article co-written by Alisha and Jez.
We’re currently designing gameplay for our first major release, and after only really working on game jam type projects, we found that this mechanic-first approach wasn’t effective when trying to design mechanics for narrative-focused games.
It may seem simple – but setting some goals and constraints at the start makes design a little less daunting. Because we’re a team on a very minimal budget, we’re all about constraints. Setting these ahead of time can help to make difficult or charged decisions, particularly when we might love an idea (even though it might not be practical).
Below is the process that we found worked well for us – particularly when iterating over the course of a few two week sprints. Our approach is to start very small and work outwards if there is the time to do so.
1. Research and refer to inspiration
Spend time together as a team playing games that are relevant to your project – it’s not only heaps of fun, but everyone interprets themes and actions differently. Discussing various aspects of the design, narrative, mechanics, and themes of different games (and other media as well) can help to open up new avenues for exploration, and also gives you a good baseline for things that work and those that don’t. Games like Oxenfree, Inside and Journey have all been major reference points for us for this project.
2. Immerse yourself in the story
Consider the context in which the player character finds themselves. What would they want to do to solve x problem? How would they interact with the world? How does the characters’ personality influence the type of actions they would take in this world? Does their ability or power grow/change over the course of the story?
Walking through a part of the story (or a basic idea) and extracting the actions that need to be performed is a great place to start, for example:
In our context, if I were the main character in a harsh environment, what would I do? I need to escape my sheltered little village so that I can go and find my sister, how would I do that? First I’d need to sneak out of the village so that I don’t get taken back inside. I can see myself crouching behind buildings as villagers walk between houses holding burning torches – I can’t be seen so I’m crouching as I sneak about, timing my movement. Once I escape the village I feel exhilarated, like I’m on an adventure! But first I have to cross this frozen river. I know how precarious this feels; as I cross I’m careful to watch my feet and any sign of cracking – I need to move faster so I don’t fall through the ice! As cracks start to grow, I race across; timing my runs so I can escape the largest cracks in the ice. Reaching the far side, I collapse in relief as I realise there’s no way to turn back. I look up at my goal – the small lean-to that hunters use to wait out blizzards before returning to the village.
At this stage of the design process you also want to be focusing on what things you could do that aren’t immediately obvious – reviewing the story multiple times, thinking about what you could do differently is very beneficial.
3. Extract player actions
As you can see, a tiny slice of narrative (with very little context) can already give us some mechanics for our game. Sneaking, running, and camera focusing are all mechanics that we can extract from putting ourselves into the story. They might seem like extremely simple mechanics, but that’s also a benefit and nice constraint associated with narrative games. Because the mechanics need to support the story, they cannot be too specific – they need be applied to more than one part of the story, or be simple enough that the don’t take much time to develop and test.
4. Filter out mechanics
Simple mechanics can easily be applied to any part of the game and can also be combined with other mechanics to give a sense of progression, extra difficulty, or simply to keep the player interested as the mechanics combine to create a different puzzle or challenge.
Once you have a list of potential mechanics, it’s helpful to ask the following questions:
Is this mechanic reusable in different contexts?
If you’re on a tight budget, be wary of customised mechanics for specific scenes, because unique functionality increases development time and also requires the player to learn more new behaviours (which may cause frustration or pull them out of the experience).
Does it help portray the core themes (or pillars) of the game?
There may be times where a contextual mechanic can be a very effective tool for adding complexity, interest, or progressing the narrative – but being on a small budget means there’s little time for lots of unique functionality. We only allow for exceptions to the above question if the mechanic ties in very closely to our core themes or pillars of the game, and helps to portray a concept or allow for an impactful moment in the story.
For example, one of the core pillars of our game focuses on showing the growth of the main character, and in our story there are spirits that you can interact with. So a useful question in this context is: How can these spirits interact with her? Would she have engaging conversations with these spirits? What topics would she want to ask about? What rules are associated with these spirits? Would she perform actions that affect the spirits in some way? What actions could these be? Would they vary?
This helps to envisage interactions in the story, seeing how they add to the context of the game world and to help portray our core themes. Ticking all of those boxes means it will be a strong candidate for inclusion into the final design.
Would this action be modified or changed throughout the progression of the story?
Consider how much variation the mechanic can have and how this affects both the experience and development. What are the rules associated with this action? Is there room for this type of functionality in the project scope?
Does this mechanic cater for our target audience?
Would our audience really like to have a complex combat system or inventory management? It may seem obvious, but having a defined target audience is an incredibly useful tool for making design decisions. Knowing the behaviours, motivations, and preferences of your intended audience helps to meet expectations and encourage interest in the game. Cut features or ideas that don’t fit!
5. Prototype + Review
The final step (and historically the most difficult for us) is prototyping and reviewing our mechanics and deciding whether to keep them; but using the approach above allowed us to make decisions quickly and confidently. We schedule our work in two week sprints, and found that this was a perfect timeframe for us to design, prototype and then assess new ideas for mechanics. The short timeframe ensured we could explore ideas quickly and not get too caught up on details.
The review stage is crucial to producing mechanics that suit your game, as the initial excitement of design and new ideas can often overcome the suitability of a mechanic. Reviews should be conducted a little while after initial concept and should be done with an open mindset – don’t get attached to a mechanic because you designed it, instead go through a check-list of all the requirements it needs to meet. Narrative pillars and core themes are your sources of truth at this stage!
Designing the core mechanics of your game can be a long and drawn out process (leading to decision paralysis) if you don’t set some requirements and constraints first. After trying many different approaches, we found that this worked for us and helped us to make informed decisions for our mechanics. Following this approach should result in a small number of basic actions that the player can perform in the world, forming a toolbox that you can utilise throughout the design and development of the game.
Check these out! Necessary reading for those interested in games + narrative design: