I was talking to a friend over the weekend. He’d recently finished up Far Cry 3 and was about to start Dishonored. After some gentle ribbing at the fact that he was so laughably behind the times (“that was sooooo 2012,” to which he unfortunately but appropriately told me I was “so two thousand and late“), we got down to brass tacks and talked about what he liked and didn’t like about the game. The usual bits came up such as loving the open world and liberating outposts but hating the bulk of the story missions. However, one thing continually stuck in my craw: he kept using “system” and “mechanic” interchangeably.
This friend is far and away the worst as misappropriating words—Child Protective Services should rip semantics out of his hands that he’s so abusive—so I’m used to letting his never-ending flow of teeth-gnashing delinquency go unimpeded. But this was one that I just could not abide. I can mostly kind of understand the switch, but this wasn’t anything like swapping out “afflicted” for “infected”; in this case, you might as well start saying “watermelon” when you mean “giant Kodiak bear.”
Contentious as it was(n’t), this invited the obvious but interesting question: what defines a system? What defines a mechanic? Obviously they both involve parts of a video game, but when you get down to it, what makes them so different?
Intuitively, the answer is glaring. It’s blinding in how bright and unavoidably visible the definition is among the dark muck surrounding it. The fact that anyone would even bother asking is kind of offensive. It’s as if someone just asked you your name after spending the last hour staring at the name tag pinned to your shirt.
Of course, once you start trying to put it all those nebulous, vaporous ideas into hard, tangible words, you realize that maybe it wasn’t such a silly question after all. Put on the spot, it’s hard to explain something that you’ve only intuitively understood as a broad concept and not a precise, concrete definition.
So let’s start with what defines a system. A system within a video game is the ocean in which a boat is set adrift. It is a malleable circuit through which the game continually runs that determines the state of the world at any given point in time. This can be background or foreground to the player’s proceedings much like how the water can directly affect or merely be a party to the yacht (rock), but it is interminably viable. Systems can begin to run and continue to do so without any input from the player, though it can also be influenced by direct input; it simply does not need the input but merely allows for it.
In the context of Far Cry 3, this means that all the wildlife on the island is a system. Those animals will prowl and hunt and fight all they want without you having to tell that pig to go wallow in some mud or for a macaque to scamper away from some roaming dogs. You may notice that as you wander about the beaches and forests of Far Cry 3, things seem to be happening that you just stumble upon. Pirates and Rakyat will already be fighting and tigers will already be chasing deer and so on and so on. This is because they are systems and they exist whether you tell them to or not. These are the trees that make a sound when they fall even if you’re not around.
You can, however, influence them with your actions. When you shoot a cage and let a cassowary loose upon an enemy outpost, that is you influencing a system. That single shot opened a cage which similarly opened a bevy of new splintering paths for the system to explore. In most cases, it will result in a few dead pirates and a giant bird carcass, but that is simply the end of the system interaction; the actual systems of the cassowary and the pirates are what happen when they fight.
That single shot, though, that you take to open that cage is a mechanic. If the Atlantic is the system on which your boat floats, all the rope-wrangling and sail-setting you do are the mechanics. At the most base level of video game components, mechanics are a set of verbs you can enact upon a set of nouns. Mario, for instance, jumps; jumping is a mechanic. Ryu punches; punching is a mechanic. These, by definition, require player input. The idea of jumping and punching exist without you, sure, but for them to take place, you must actively decide to do those actions.
In Far Cry 3, the mechanics include jumping and punching but also shooting, running, driving, and a whole slew of other things (that is one of the complaints that my friend had with the game, and I’m inclined to agree; at times, Far Cry 3 can feel overwhelming with the amount of mechanics you can actualize). All those verbs from harvesting to skinning to selling all require you to enact them because they are mechanics.
This is informed by how games are designed. Whether they know it or not, it’s a computer science-based philosophy of being object-oriented. Nouns are the objects like player, tiger, boat and they have functions that are contained within that specific object because they are the verbs for those nouns. For instance, gun.shoot()—gun being the object and shoot being the function—is something that that guns can do, but it wouldn’t make sense for bear.shoot() to exist. This noun-verb methodology informs how mechanics are formed and slowly structure games from the ground up.
You’ll probably notice that tigers and bears are included in systems while the player object is not. That is because while entirely different, there is a necessary amount of overlap in their uses. Without one, the other loses its meaning within the game. With the movement of the sea and the changing wind currents, what does it matter when you raise and lower the sails or where you drop anchor? One is just a simulation and the other is the tabs you pull in a popup book. You need both together to form the gestalt gameplay.
Mechanics, though, are also often confused with gameplay, as ambiguous as that term already is. Gameplay is the overall experience had while playing a game. It is the sum of all the parts to be had in any given moment of interaction with a video game. When you shoot a flare at an approaching guard dog and the errant sparks set the nearby grass aflame, which both consumes a too-slow Komodo dragon and entices some patrolling pirates to investigate, that is gameplay. That interaction of your actions and the systems reaction to those actions is the gameplay. Of course, there’s more to gameplay such as victory and loss conditions, audio and graphical cues, narrative plot, and whatnot, but that would take another write-up to discuss. For now, let’s stick with your intuitive definition of gameplay and focus on mechanics and systems.
As it sits now, though, it seems that we’ve covered some good ground on the two. We even have a mighty fine metaphor to teach and remind ourselves of the two in the analogous water/boat bit. Or maybe you already knew all this and now you want to tell me how wrong I am or how you define the two. Either way, I just couldn’t let me this one go with my misguided friend. After all, he’s about to start Dishonored, and I can’t spend another hour hearing about the Blink system or the patrolling guard mechanic.
I guarantee you I’m going to put “WORDS WORDS WORDS” on his tombstone.