One of the most pervasive myths of immersion is that it requires realism. But a much more effective approach could be to aim for the centre of the spectrum between realism and gamism. What would the centre look like? What are stylised mechanics and how are they immersive?
The systems we design are necessarily simplifications of the real world, and what we choose to include, omit, emphasise or minimise is an artistic choice about how we want to represent the fiction (Bogost, 2007; Frasca, 2001b). Dormans (2011) draws an analogy with semiotics where there is the object (the reference point or source of your representation), the sign (the crafted artefact to represent the object, such as a painting), and the interpretant of the object based on the sign (the meaning or audience reaction). Applied to games, the object is the fiction being represented, the sign is the mechanic used to represent that fiction, and the interpretant is the learning and mental modelling that results from playing with systems (see eg Doyle et al,. 1998; Gopnik & Schulz, 2007; Kieras & Bovair, 1984; Norman 1998; Sterman, 2000).
There are many ideas of what exactly a “game mechanic” is (eg Adams & Dormans, 2012; Araújo & Roque, 2009; Cook, 2006, 2007; Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek, 2004; Koster, 2005, 2011; Sicart, 2001), but the most relevant idea here is that a mechanic is a metaphor for the actual mechanism (Juul, 2005; Swink, 2009), and it can represent it in various ways:
For example, using a puzzle minigame to determine the outcome of hacking a security system. Or using a dialogue tree of insults to determine the outcome of a sword fight. Or using a discrete two-dimensional rectangular grid of slots to represent the contents of a three-dimensional round backpack. Each of these is a very different and very deliberate representation of the fiction. They are meant to capture different elements of that fiction that are considered important to both the gameplay and the player’s understanding of the fiction to which it refers.
Icon: Shares a perceptual resemblance with source (eg stick figure indicates person)
Iconic mechanics simulate aspects of the real world or fictional idea that they refer to. Physics is a prime example, including collision and gravity (although it is often simplified in games).
Index: One element of the definition of an index is as a causal indication of source (eg smoke billowing from chimney indicates fire inside). But since fiction cannot literally cause mechanics to be created to indicate them, I will focus on the other major element of an index: A pure index will compel attention towards the source without conveying any information about it.
An indexical mechanic might refer to a world phenomenon to justify its existence, but that is as far as it goes. If your intent was to learn about the system that it refers to, you would be completely unable to via this game mechanic. You would have to go to the actual source system to find out directly. The mechanic is a reference to, but not a description of, the source system.
A health bar refers to the concept of “health” in only the loosest sense. Human health is not a linear function of any kind of damage to any body part, and it does not remain steady until disturbed by damage from an external source. It is an extremely complex concept tied to the constant interaction of very complicated biological and chemical systems that vary significantly from individual to individual.
But a pure indexical mechanic would have to contain no information common to both the real world reference and the game mechanic. At least in this case they share the causal connection that losing all health means death.
Symbol: Indicates only by cultural convention (eg the word “Exit” does not have any visual or causal connection to the act of leaving, and only indicates that to people who have learned the cultural convention to connect the word to the action). The relation of the sign to the object via interpretant must be learned if not raised in the culture where it is used.
Symbolic mechanics exist only by cultural convention. They include those that have arisen due to historical accident and we have now come to accept. We have come to accept that in some types of games, smashing crates will drop health orbs. Items float, bob, rotate and glow if you can pick them up. Picking up items makes a nonsensical but happy “Ping!” sound. These things have literally no real world or fiction justification, they are just there in the game. Just because. These things are pervasive due only to convention, not because they make sense.
Of icons, indices and symbols, iconic mechanics would seem much better suited to fostering immersion than the other two. However some would argue that icons, indices and symbols are more relevant to the idea of mechanics as message (see eg Bogost, 2007; Brathwaite & Sharp, 2010; Portnow & Floyd, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c), where games can serve as communicative tools to provoke thought, raise questions, and persuade audiences with procedural arguments about how certain systems work. Considering this trichotomy of signs was originally designed to talk about communication, mechanics as message would indeed be a more direct application. But that does not mean icons, indices and symbols can’t provide an interesting analogy for talking about how to design games of worlds. How Dormans (2011) applied this trichotomy of signs to mechanics is more reminiscent of the representational triangle of resemblance, meaning, and abstraction.
The trichotomy of signs is most relevant when combined with the triangle of representational styles that ranges from realistic to stylised to abstract. At the realism corner, the emphasis is on resemblance to the object. At the stylised corner, the emphasis is on sacrificing accuracy to convey the meaning. At the abstract corner, the sign neither resembles nor conveys any meaning about an object. These representational styles are often applied to games (eg Adams, 2009; Lawrence, 2014; R, 2014; Ryan, 2009). A mechanic can be anywhere between these three extremes, which would be a point within a triangle of possibilities.
Applying this concept to mechanics illuminates the distinction between hardcore simulations, experiential games, and arcade games:
Realistic – Resemblance: These strongly resemble their source in detail.
The focus with resemblance mechanics is on simulating how the actual system works (or how the fictional system would work, according to a consistent logic in the fictional world). This is pursued via faithful, fine-grain simulation. Games containing mostly realistic mechanics are often called simulations.
Stylised – Meaning: These do not accurately resemble their referent, but they simplify and alter it in order to efficiently convey its meaning.
The important thing with meaning mechanics is that they convey the experience entailed by the system that they hope to emulate. Smith (2001) describes coarse-grain emulation as simple mechanics that replicate the effect, and contrasts them with fine-grain simulation which models the details to achieve the effect. Since the focus for stylised mechanics is on the experience, often coarse-grain emulation will do and fine-grain simulation is simply not necessary.
For example, Dormans (2011) described the grid-based inventory system of Diablo as a clever mechanic that captured some of the management and organisation problems of real backpacks. So while the inventory mechanics were vastly simpler than the real physics of a backpack, they often gave rise to similar experiences to using a backpack. Games composed primarily of meaning-oriented mechanics are sometimes called experiential games (see eg Benmurgui, 2007), although most games that are labelled “experiential” seem to focus exclusively on delivering one specific experience rather than a variety of experiences.
Abstract: These neither resemble nor convey meaning about anything.
Abstract mechanics make no reference to real world or fictional world phenomena, and just are what they are. The fact that collecting 100 coins gives you an extra life is entirely arbitrary and doesn’t really have any analogy that justifies its existence, nor does it attempt to convey accurately the experience of accumulating wealth or reincarnation. Its existence is entirely gameplay-justified. And that is okay, it is just not the focus of this discussion about making games of worlds. Games focusing on abstract mechanics are sometimes called arcade games.
At first glance these two trichotomies might appear to align in parallel in a kind of spectrum from realism to abstraction. Iconic might be similar to realistic, indexical might be similar to stylised, and symbolic might be similar to abstract. But actually they each describe qualitatively different categories.
For example, stylised signs are the antithesis of indices. Indexical creations merely point to their referent and pure indices convey no information about it. Creations at the stylised end of the spectrum may lack details, but they do so in order to simplify or exaggerate features and thus more clearly convey information about the object.
Therefore, stylised does not equal indexical. The representation triangle and the icon-index-symbol trichotomy provide different but complementary ways of describing a mechanic’s relationship to the fiction of a game. They reveal that it is a myth that immersion requires mechanics to be realistically modelled in detail. Games of worlds would likely contain iconic mechanics that can be realistic but more likely will be stylised. Stylised mechanics might be easier to design than realistic mechanics since they only require a compelling and authentic experience rather than accuracy in the details. But to overcome the problem of the world feeling like fake set dressing, neither style of mechanics will be enough. They will also require Process Intensity.
Would the Holodeck be any fun?