So, designing games for kids is different than writing kids television in a lot of ways, but the one thing that I’ve always grappled with the most is how story marries to game mechanic. If you’ve read pretty much any of my blog posts before this one, you’ll know that I’m a little obsessed with this topic. It’s a tension that’s core to how I approach design, and one that Carla and I grapple with all the time.
It’s even a hard issue to talk about, because if you ask a dozen people you might well get a dozen different definitions of what the words “story” and “mechanic” mean. For the sake of this discussion, here’s how I define these terms, using the game Cut the Rope as an example.
Story is the narrative and emotional rooting position of a game. For me, it encompasses the narrative structure of the game, any characters that are featured in it, and the world in which the game is taking place. So, in Cut the Rope, the story is that this adorable little monster has shown up in a box at your door and you need to cut the ropes in the proper way to feed him candy, his beloved favorite food. I think of the story as the “Why?”
Game mechanic is how the player is using the things that the device can do to interact with the game, as well as the rules of the game. In Cut the Rope, this is largely swiping your finger across the iPhone screen to cut the ropes and drop the candy to the monster. (I won’t get into the higher level dragging and bubbles and all that for the sake of brevity, but those levels are fun too!) So mechanic, then, is the “What?”
So, when we design, where do we start, with the why or the what? The story or the game?
There’s no easy answer. Given my background in storytelling, I tend to want to start with the why first. It’s hard for me to understand why a jumping mechanic is compelling until I can imagine a bunny hopping through a sunny glen in search of carrots. And a bunny hopping through a sunny glen in search of carrots to give to his hamster sweetheart – now we’re getting somewhere. Without the integration of story and character, mechanics can seem, well… mechanical.
But there’s a compelling argument to work from the side of mechanics first. Until you know what the affordances are of the device you’re designing for and what usability issues there might be for your target audience, you’re essentially coming up with ideas in a vacuum. Whether it’s tapping on a touch screen or jumping with a Wii-Remote, knowing that (1) kids can do it and (2) the device can reliably be programmed to read the input are, of course, core issues to a successful design.
The answer, for Carla and myself, has turned out to be as enigmatic as the answer to the chicken or the egg question. We start with the story… except for when we start with the mechanic… except for when we start with both. The important thing we’ve figured out is to keep an eye on story and mechanic throughout the design process and, even if one leads for a while, to make sure the other catches up at some point. There are myriad other concerns, from curriculum content, to the quirks of the particular property, to publisher constraints, to a host of other things that are going to influence how a game is designed. The key thing is to recognize that both story and mechanic are important, really important, and that both need to be satisfying or the game won’t reach its full potential.
This is another big advantage of working with a design partner, especially one with a different background, because we keep each other honest. As a television veteran, I tend to think of myself as the defender of narrative and character, and given Carla’s experience on the design and research side, she’s never going to let usability issues slide. But to be honest, there are plenty of times that Carla comes up with a better story idea than the one I have in mind (and, if I do say so myself, I’ve had a couple of great mechanic brainstorms in my day). But knowing that there are two of us keeping both story and mechanic in mind means that, even if we don’t always know which comes first, we know they’ll both be there in the end.
In case you didn’t believe me that I’m obsessed with this yet, I’m leading a workshop next week at Sandbox Summit called “Once Upon a Time: Writing Children’s Games Isn’t Just Mechanics,” outlining a few of the specific strategies I use to make sure I keep an eye on narrative during the design process. Carla’s doing one too, “Deconstructing Gaming Psychobabble.” Come on by if you’re at MIT, and if you want to talk more how to make great marriages of story, character, and game, you know I’m up for it! Drop us a line at kidsGotGame@noCrusts.com
Photo courtesy of The Wanderers’ Eye