Immersion vs. Mechanics — What game critics (and designers) are getting wrong
One of my favorite sources of game commentary is Vice Games, and namely their podcast, Waypoint Radio. Thanks to the lucrative Vice umbrella the hosts can tackle games from unique angles, ranging from labor rights to identity politics.
In recent times though I’ve come to realize that I differ from Austin Walker, Rob Zacny et al. on something core to gaming, arguably the most fundamental: what I come to it for, why I choose a game over a movie, a book, or a boardgame.
I don’t mean to single out Vice per se, but each episode of Waypoint Radio almost invariably involves Austin or Rob getting into the nitty-gritty of a game’s rules and systems and why they love or despise them. That might be the deck mechanics of Slay the Spire, or how 2018’s Battletech captures the essence of the tabletop system it was born from.
Austin, Rob, I love you both but I have to say: to me minute mechanics are one of the least sexy topics in gaming. I’d go further and say that focusing on rule systems misses the inherent advantage of video games.
The first “real” video game, 1962’s Spacewar!, consisted of two ships circling and shooting at each other amidst the gravity of a nearby star. There were definitely rules at play of course, such as a cooldown period for torpedoes, and gravity slingshots being a useful tactic. In fact these elements put it way ahead of its time, given that a decade later people were still going berserk over something as simple as Pong. Asteroids didn’t launch until 1979.
But it can hardly be mechanics alone that sold Spacewar! to its ultra-narrow audience. It was certainly possible to have built a version with the same rules, but that spat out results in freeze frames, or maybe as text readouts. That would’ve been simpler given the technology of the time — the game’s first platform, the PDP-1, sold just 55 units and most of those shipped without a monitor.
Spacewar! fueled the imagination. It was a chance to live out sci-fi fantasies, such as the E.E. Smith Skylark novels cited by one of the game’s programmers, Martin Graetz. An early fan was the famous sci-fi author Frederik Pohl, someone for whom game design was definitely not at the forefront of his mind (though he did eventually get his name attached to titles based on the Gateway novels).
Whether it’s on a computer, console, or smartphone, the key benefit of video games is the ability to downplay conspicuous mechanics. At a basic level that means no longer calculating each action, whether it’s to-hit rolls in Dungeons & Dragons or attrition in a wargame. Playing in the realm of pure logic is usually drudgery.
If we go a step further though, this means you can simulate not just alternate realities, but the way we encounter reality. We can’t see the guardrails of the universe; there aren’t any handy tooltips floating in midair. There are underlying rules we can learn to a degree, but it’s often easier, practical, and more entertaining to intuit them on our own.
Typically we learn rules in service of a larger goal. Imagine for instance if you tried to sell someone on Journey by talking about its jumping and flying mechanics — they’re critical, but the draw is in exploration and finding personal meaning. Surely Austin Walker would agree that D&D is better when people can tell stories about their characters rather than worrying about the range limit on their spells. Even a 2D platformer like Mario is normally about the thrill of puzzle-solving and narrow escapes, not learning its boundaries — speedrunners notwithstanding.
To be fair, I feel creators themselves too often fall prey to mechanical thinking. These days the game industry is flooded with Rogue-likes, Rogue-lites, and Dark Souls clones, much in the way that everyone and their mother had to have a first-person shooter following Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Those tropes have almost become the default way of structuring an action-RPG — much to the dismay of people who like the genre, but would rather not beat their head against a rock when they come home from work.
Other genres have their own problems. The most popular online shooters are battle royales or Call of Duty. VR games are only now starting to break out of the mold of shooting galleries and Job Simulator, thanks to better technology and developers realizing they can do free movement without people automatically getting nauseous.
If it were up to me — which it isn’t — both critics and creators would pause for a moment and re-evaluate where we’re headed. Are we here to brag about cool mechanics, or are we interested in stories, achievements, thrills, and stepping into new worlds?