One Mechanic To Rule Them All?

And in the darkness, scare them.

I had a theory about two recently released games. These two games, both based on popular existing franchises – which have been very successful in movie format – were highly acclaimed by the press and lavished with praise from consumers, too. My theory, about Alien: Isolation and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, was that they were only getting such rave reviews because previous games in the series had failed to hit the mark.

However, as actually started to play Shadow of Mordor, that theory started to crumble. Here was a deep, open-world game with some very standard mechanics, enhanced by a central system – which still isn’t perfect, but a superb debut – where enemies remember your actions in-game and could even become your nemesis. This single mechanic took it beyond being a standard fare, creating something which makes the masses of foes in every other game pale in comparison.

But then I played Alien. Here, the crowds of human and android foes did pale in comparison to the individualism of the Uruks in Mordor, but Isolation was enhanced by the game’s namesake: the unpredictable, unrelenting force that is the Alien itself.

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So I came to realise that these two games weren’t just good games in previously sullied franchise, elevated because of their success when compared to previous attempts. Nor were they games which worked because of their successful implementation of an enemy – be it a procedural horde with unique members, or a single foe which represents everything about the franchise you love.

These were games with a single incredible mechanic in an otherwise solid package. That’s what counts – from the Portals in Portal to the choice-driven narrative in The Walking Dead. These are the type of mechanics you can list as a “pro” in a review, and ones which make you smile every time you see them in action. As many games strive to be original alongside their genre peers, all it takes is one unique idea, one Eureka moment from a developer, to make a game successful.

Or is that all it really takes? Mechanics such as these can cloud your thoughts, not only letting your brain ignore some of the flaws, but making some of the other brilliant features in these games shy away to make way for the star of the show. The Alien is scary but, by god, those Working Joe androids are too, aren’t they? And those lighting effects are superb, but you won’t see it as clearly when your focus is on the creature stalking you.

On the flipside, you might be having too much fun fighting your rival and hunting down war chiefs in Mordor to notice that the story really isn’t all that. There’s a lot of good in Shadow of Mordor, but if it were not for the Nemesis system then the game probably wouldn’t exist anyway, and if it did then I highly doubt we’d be ranting and raving about the Batman-like combat system or the blood of Assassin’s Creed which flows through its veins.

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I’ve already mentioned the central feature of Portal 2 (which sits at number two on my chart of favourite games), and that’s a package which includes that titular mechanic alonside a dozen other superb ones too, but I haven’t mentioned Ocarina of Time – my favourite game of all time – and I think I might know why.

Ocarina of Time doesn’t have one central mechanic that draws you into the game, instead all of them are incredible in their own right. From exploring the world to tackling a dungeon – each of which has its own item which certainly fits the criteria of what I’m talking about here – or even just the bosses which inhabit them, the game is truly an amalgamation of ingenious ideas, and it’d be hard to pick a stand-out item or moment.

I’m sure there are other games out there like this, though none of them (aside from GTA V, perhaps) spring to mind at the moment. It seems clear to me though: to triumph you can have one central idea which works superbly and takes everyone by surprise, but to create a masterpiece you’ll need to make sure this extends to every corner of your game.

As developers finally seem to be catching up with the former, let’s hope for more of the latter in the future.

4 Comments

  1. I mostly agree, one great standout mechanic in a mediocre game can elevate the game as a whole, but only if that mechanic is distinct enough from other games to make it unique.

    At the same time though if a game concentrates on a core set of mechanics but does them really well that can also make the game brilliant, like uncharted 2 or killzone mercenary on the vita

  2. I find Shadow of Mordor to be somewhat overrated. Take out the nemesis system and you’re left with a merely competent game with great combat-animations. But because it is there, you’ll overlook the terrible protagonist, dull vendetta-story and samey environments. It becomes an amusing orc-hunter simulator of sorts.

    Diablo is another game with a killer mechanic, the loot system. Sure, the rest is all very decent, but the glorious loot is what makes it shine.

  3. My theory, about Alien: Isolation and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, was that they were only getting such rave reviews because previous games in the series had failed to hit the mark.

    I don’t want to sound horrid but this comment made me burst out laughing. How can you even have an idea like this? It’s so utterly flawed it made me… well… laugh. If we use this theory it means that anything (from any franchise) can be great as long as it’s not the first title. :-)

    Rest of the article was lovely. Something fresh is what we need. Sometimes it’s an entire game-type but that’s so rare these days. However, sometimes it’s a system that ties things together and freshens other facets that we know all too well.

    Just spoken with Hannypoppie. She pointed out that you might mean the contrast from disappointment to these being great games. I may have misjudged. Hahaha!

    • Your comment was a rollercoaster of emotions and I enjoyed the ride.

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