Videogames Are Better Without Mechanics

This is a transcript of an article that appeared originally in the November-December 1992 issue of PC Prospect magazine, a relatively obscure microcomputing/gaming publication that published only two years of bimonthly issues before it went bankrupt in 1993. Brian Iagos, the original author, retained the copyright and gave me permission (through a mutual friend) to resurface it now, though he refuses categorically to be contacted by anyone else or to use the internet. This piece is provided for historical interest only; all opinions expressed here are Brian’s.

The cover of the 1992 November-December issue of PC Prospect.

A longstanding dream: Videogames will become complex systems of interactions adding up to a complete simulation of a real (or imagined) world. The history of hobby gaming, through wargaming, miniatures games, Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants, is a march towards ever increased precision in representing a world. The current version of D&D, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, features rules and tables to calculate the gross national income of medieval kingdoms, the growth rate of dragon hoards, the amount of time a dwarf can survive after losing a leg, or how long an archetypal adventuring party (fighter, magic user, thief, and cleric) would take to dig a trench.

Perfect simulation of the natural world, of course, is an impossible bar to reach. So instead, game designers have approached this by developing game mechanics; rules that when put together, form a simplistic representation of how the world works.

The early arcade game, Pong, was a representation of the real-world activity of ping pong. But the limited graphical capabilities of early Pong machines meant that you couldn’t display something that looked like a ping pong ball, let alone a paddle. The “paddles” are bars of white light; the “ball” is a dot, which is in fact rendered as a square.

Pong (1972)

To properly represent ping-pong, the designers of Pong were forced to make it clear that the square dot was a ping-pong ball, by making it behave like a ping-pong ball. The ball in Pong bounces in a mechanistic approximation of how a real-world ball behaves. And so, even though it’s square and not round, and it’s a two-dimensional image on a screen instead of a three-dimensional object in physical space, the square dot becomes a ball. In other words, the earliest video games had interaction so that they could be understood.

This approach raises many questions. Is a simulation truly a simulation if its rules are simplifications of the real thing? Are videogames really simulations, when they are actually a type of electronic film? And most of all, are those simulations better than actually playing ping-pong, or actually trekking through a jungle (as opposed to playing Pitfall)?

King’s Quest III, one of the first games to use EGA graphics.

This early assumption, that games need interaction to represent the world, quickly became infrastructural, and was forgotten. Games continued to incorporate mechanics even though, with the advent of advances such as CGA and EGA graphics, they could now represent the world with enough fidelity to make objects, and even characters, recognizable.

Transmedia approaches, too, transformed the issue of representing reality in games: Thanks to the text parser interface, games such as Zork (1980) realized that they could import and incorporate literary conventions into videogames. This led to the emergence of story, videogames’ obvious true vocation as a medium.

Should a modern Pong still simulate the motion of a ping pong ball, given that it’s so much easier now to just draw a recognizable image of a ping pong ball? With today’s 320x200 VGA video adapters, you could even show the manufacturer’s logo on the ball!

The very idea of video game simulation implies that the player should be able to do anything in the simulated world and see wide-ranging effects of his actions. The only serious effort at all-encompassing simulation was specifically (and solely) SimEarth, a sophisticated environmental simulation released by Maxis in 1990.

SimEarth; the only real attempt at comprehensive mechanics in games.

SimEarth worked remarkably well — for a videogame. But it was still easily undermined. One player, for example, chose to repeatedly hit their simulated planet with asteroids, until they got bored because life refused to develop on their planet.

Shooting games offer a solution to this problem. Instead of trying to simulate sophisticated emergent systems, the genre gives up on both, focusing exclusively on shooting enemies with a gun. Wolfenstein 3D, for example, is composed of nothing but shooting enemies with a gun. The payoff, if it can be called that, takes place when the player kills a mechanized version of Hitler armed with twin miniguns.

In Wolfenstein 3D, the game simulates bullet trajectories using a novel technique known as ray-casting. This allows the game to evaluate whether your shots are hitting the game’s enemies, portrayed as hordes of nazi soldiers. The game also simulates the state of the player character’s health, in a simplistic way, as a single number from 100 to 0. But it doesn’t simulate at all the player character’s morale or psychic state; there is no mechanic to simulate the trauma of mowing down dozens of enemy soldiers. Enemies, too, simply collapse when shot; there’s no mechanic for talking them down or having a discussion about the merits of Nazism as an ideology.

Wolfenstein 3D was praised for its shooting action, which I compare to a state fair shooting gallery. Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe nothing much nothing to praise, either. If the ultimate bar for visceral grip in video games is set at fairground games, then perhaps videogames will remain stuck as children’s toys even if they escape the stereotypical suburban tract home den. Other paths are possible, and perhaps the most promising ones will bypass gaming’s pointless urge towards simulation.

Night Trap, released in October of this year, both adopts and improves upon this model of simple, direct interaction. Instead of shooting enemies, you trap them, but this is basically equivalent to the shooting in Wolfenstein 3D. You see an enemy (in this case, vampires known as augers in the game’s fiction) and then you trap it. It simplifies this methodology even further in that you don’t have to aim in order to trap enemies, demonstrating how unnecessary the aiming controls in Wolfenstein 3D really are.

It’s set in a mansion during a slumber party, viewed through a set of CCTV cameras; to display this setting, it uses novel FMV (full-motion video) technology.

Night Trap on the Sega CD.

Because of its extreme simplicity, the mechanics are good, which is uncommon for videogames. It’s an effective version of the shooter. Yet, it leaves us with a question: Why is this experience tied down by mechanics at all?

The whole way through, I found myself wondering why I couldn’t experience Night Trap without having to trap enemies. What if enemies automatically trapped themselves, and I could simply watch the story unfold? After all, the setting, characters, and story are what I’m really here for, and they’re what is unique to videogames, now that the medium has advanced to incorporate FMV. Trapping enemies only gets in the way of experiencing the story.

One answer could be sports envy. The games industry has long dreamed of supplanting sports as a form of mass entertainment, leading to such fanciful notions as “electronic sports” that would be played with joysticks instead of balls. A more compelling (though still bad) answer is that by using interactivity, Night Trap makes the player complicit in the story. If you don’t trap a vampire in time, one of the girls having a slumber party might be attacked by them!

That is a remarkable achievement, but it’s not really an achievement of gameplay or mechanics at all. Rather, it is a novel expression of the ability to use affect combined with full motion video to tell sophisticated stories. Night Trap is a trap-em-up arcade game in the vein of Lode Runner, sure, but first and foremost it’s an electronic, multiplexing, digital, advanced form of television.

Think of a medium as the aesthetic form of common materials. Poetry aestheticizes mouth noises. Painting aestheticizes picture frames. Photography does so for celebrities. Film, for celluloid grain and Dolby Surround. Architecture, for acoustics and real estate development. Cable television, for time and coaxial cables. Sure, yes, those media can and do contain interactivity: staring at a painting, adjusting the volume on your television set. But that interactivity comes later, after the aesthetic.

What are games good for, then? Players and creators have been mistaken in thinking videogames can match the interactivity of shooting real deer in a real forest, or playing with the graphical equalizer on your stereo. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of electronic data, put to the job of representing real-world narratives and objects.

The true achievement of Night Trap is that it invites players to finally abandon the fantasy of simulation and systems in games, and instead replaces them with pure call-and-response interaction in a storytelling mode. Yes, you can make a game that simulates the real world, but what’s the point when the real world already exists. A greater ambition, and which games accomplish more effectively anyway, would be to use games to tell stories, supplanting films and novels as narrative media.

The wargamer’s dream of simulation is just a complication of actually doing things, and doing things has been thoroughly revealed as pointless in postmodernity. If there is a future in games, let alone a future where they are anything other than toys for children, they must embrace what they are already so good at: using full-motion video to tell stories.