video games

Parts in Two

[Continuing from my last post, I plan to continue to look at the relationship between players and environments. This time, in a way that might seem odd: I am looking at games where the mechanics outweigh the narrative.]

Match three green. Match three blue. Okay… Now, match a set of three skulls. Now, blue set again. Use a spell. Match yellows — four this time, extra turn.

The real, minute to minute, narrative experience of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is not much. The game ‘story’ is a very loose fabric of random quest threads that have the player face off against various monsters, men and minotaurs. The game though is the puzzle element, the mechanic. You match colors on a grid, they disappear and you gain points of that color. These points can be used for spells, attacks that cause more damage than the other way to attack an enemy, matching skulls on the grid. That’s it. The game is the mechanic and the narrative. Two separate parts.

Once I invested several hours into the game, I began to wonder why they even bothered making a ‘story’ at all. It’s not actually needed for people to play the game. If they like the puzzle-element, they will continue to play the game despite the narrative. So, why have it?

Let’s consider another game of a similar nature: Plants vs Zombies.

Would the game have such a critical acclaim if the game did not have a story? Would the game be as good without Crazy Dave? But the game, the minute to minute play, is the mechanic, a way of solving a puzzling environment that connected by a loose narrative, the invading zombies. What’s the difference then if both games are primarily their mechanics with loose ‘stories’?

Animation.

Plants vs Zombies has zombies that are expressive. They moan. They progress. And they look hurt, some even look surprised when hurt. Puzzle Quest doesn’t have this. The characters, the small pictures on each side of the screen, hardly even show much. When pained or even killed, they do nothing. There is little emotional investment in the world. Worthless dialogue is exchanged on screens between people who mean nothing. The game, in Puzzle Quest, is entirely matching colors, the mechanic. Both games have this separation though. But, Plants vs Zombies excels where Puzzle Quest fails. I start to care about the game in little ways because visual feedback, the animations, gives me a reason to stay in the game. At any time, a delightful moment may occur.