If I were to ask you how important mechanics are in a video game, what would you say? My hope would be that the mechanics feature at the top of your list, without mechanics there is no game, but how important are mechanics to theme?
Often when thinking about mechanics we set them apart from the story of a video game. They’re there simply to make it a game. Without them we would just be watching a movie, and despite the industry’s insistence on emulating Hollywood, most of us don’t want that. Mechanics make the medium of video games unique, and it’s games that tie their mechanics closely to their theme that, in my opinion, are the best.
Final Fantasy X, released by Square in 2001, is an RPG. Final Fantasy X represented a change in the Final Fantasy series. Multiple mechanics were overhauled or changed completely, and although it still kept its base Final Fantasy feel, it was a departure from tradition. The battle system shifted from the long time ATB system into a turn-based system, and the traditional experience leveling system was scrapped in favour of the Sphere Grid. One might think this means nothing. It is common for developers to play around with mechanics, very few developers can get away with doing the same thing over and over, but when we take these mechanics and apply them to the rest of Final Fantasy X we begin to see patterns.
The major, overarching theme in Final Fantasy X is breaking tradition. Tradition is broken when the party kills Yunalesca at Zanarkand. Tradition is broken when Sin is defeated, not just temporarily, but permanently. When we take into account this theme the accompanying mechanics start to make some sense. Of course, there is a certain amount of mental stretching to be had here. If we didn’t know anything about the rest of the Final Fantasy series we wouldn’t know that the Sphere Grid or the battle system was something new to the series. But nothing lives in a vacuum, and these things need to be taken into account.
Of course, when we talk about mechanics we need to be mindful of which ones are unique to the game itself, as opposed to standard mechanics of the game’s genre. Final Fantasy X is an RPG; it shares a host of mechanics within the RPG genre, especially with other Final Fantasy games. Things like random encounters, the party system, and equipable weapons and armour, to name a few. When trying to tie mechanics to theme, these are the sort that need to be avoided.
Mechanics are an important part of video games, so it stands to reason that mechanics should tie into theme. A good video game will blend its themes and mechanics together seamlessly and allow for a greater experience. I write this post first here on Gaming Lyrical for one particular reason: to make readers aware of what I take into account when talking about a game. In my opinion, mechanics are the most important part of a game and it’s almost criminal to ignore them when talking about theme.