A term that was popularised in the gaming community during the last few years was ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, definition below.
Ludonarrative is a compound of ludology and narrative, it refers to the intersection in a video game of ludic elements — or gameplay — and narrative elements.
Ludonarrative dissonance refers to conflicts between a video game’s narrative and its gameplay.
In layman’s terms, this is when what the game makes you do doesn’t match up with the fiction being told. Examples include anything from New U stations in Borderlands not being able to resurrect a bad guy but being more than capable of resurrecting the Vault Hunters over and over, or the narrative of Battlefield:Hardline telling the player complete missions non-lethally and be the “Good Cop” while rewarding these actions with better ways of killing.
There are many examples of Ludonarrative Dissonance, and they are often evidence of bad planning and miscommunication inside a design team but I would like to focus on examples of games that support their narrative using their mechanics very well. The team at Extra Credits have talked about mechanics supporting narrative many times, when initially asked to provide an example of a game that did this their response was an old arcade game called Missile Command.
The mechanics of Missile Command always support the message of the futility of nuclear war, creator Dave Theurer could have easily had this game include shooting back at an enemy, firing nukes back and forth, but he didn’t include this, it would not have supported the story he was trying to tell.
Another example of mechanics supporting narrative, and probably the best I’ve seen is actually a trading card game (tcg) instead of a video game. Magic: The Gathering is the granddaddy of all tcgs, and one of the most popular to this day. The creators did not simply make this a game about fighting each other with spells but included lore in the cards, and over time a rich tapestry of lore has built up around the game. The effects of different spells and creatures always mirror this lore and always make sense for the card they belong to. I’ll present two of my favourite examples here.
Earthcraft is a card that allows the player to expend a creature(tap) in exchange for making a resource ready to use again(untap), and features a picture of two elves weaving some form of magic. The card suggests that the creatures tap to untap the resource are taking part in channeling a spell, and this is why they are unable to attack, defend or do anything else.
Stone Giant is a much more amusing take on this, if it is tapped it grants another creature of lesser power flying, allowing it to sail over the enemy army to attack, but this creature dies at the end of the turn. Literally, Stone Giant just threw your other creature at the enemy and it died in an explosion of bone and flesh.
Missile Command 1980, Arcade game, Atari Inc, California.
Borderlands 2009, Console game, Gearbox Software, Texas.