I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks games have as an art form is the idea that the author of the game does not have total control over the game due to the element of player input, and the fact that unexpected events can emerge out of the interaction between the player and the systems within a game. A lot of designers see a sort of wall between the parts of the game that they can control, and the parts of the game that, due to their interactive and emergent nature, are out of their control. There’s an approach to emergent gameplay that basically says “put a bunch of interaction-rich mechanics together and see all the weird things that happen when someone plays it”. There’s a kind of disavowing of responsibility for the outcomes of an emergent system.
I would argue that the designer, in crafting that system, has a much higher level of control than they’re often given credit for. The player can self-express within a game, but the designer creates the entire framework for that self-expression. The player can make a choice, but the designer gave them that choice, and also creates the consequences for the options in that choice. The designer has a great power in causing the player to think in certain terms, act in certain ways, and self-express in certain directions.
It’s the difference between having an ammo mechanic and designing a game such that the player needs to pay attention to and conserve their ammo. Just because a mechanic is present doesn’t automatically make it directly relevant to the player experience. The early Resident Evil games were known for having very limited ammo supplies in relation to the amount of enemies you have to face. This makes each encounter weighted with the choice between killing the enemies and conserving ammo. The design is built around getting the player into a certain mindset which is core to the experience of the game.
Another game from the Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, God Hand, keeps an eye to this sort of design as well. While the game is focused around the combat, there are items scattered around the level which might give you extra health or let you use your special moves. The combat is difficult enough that you’ll often need the extra boost that a health item or powerup can give you. He uses this to create many risk-reward situations, where you might go fight some extra enemies when you’re at low health to get to a crate behind them which could possibly contain some extra health, or you might take your eyes off a boss and run around the arena smashing boxes looking for a powerup. There’s even a boss battle containing a cage with a health item and some power-ups. If you run into the cage (as the designer knew you were likely bound to do at least once in that tough boss battle), you’re locked in and have to fight a few extra enemies. Each try after that, you have to make the decision if you’re running low on health to run in and grab the items, risking taking even more damage from the enemies inside.
Another example is Minecraft. With something as expansive and open as Minecraft, it needed something tangible early on to get the player not only engaged, but to get the player building, since that was one of the core components of the game. So much of the game is designed around the idea that the player should want to build something in that world. During the first day, the player sees this big open world, starts exploring it, and starts to learn the basic mechanics. Then, night falls and monsters appear, quite possibly killing the player’s character. Once the second day starts, they now have an objective: build some sort of shelter so that they’ll be safe during the night. The game doesn’t force the player to do this, the game doesn’t even tell the player to do this. The game just sets up a system where it’s something that’s advantageous for the player to do.
I think one of the biggest offenders of not having clear authorial intent in its mechanics design is the Bioshock series. The first Bioshock had a lot of systems at play, and there was a lot of opportunity for emergent gameplay by setting various factions against each-other, scrounging for items, hacking turrets, ect… However, the moments where these sorts of emergent dynamics really shone were few and far between, with much of the game just being running around, shooting things, and getting into fight-respawn-fight-respawn loops when you ran short on resources (where other games would have you fail and fail fast when you managed your resources poorly, thus giving you another chance, Bioshock would punish you with more frustrating, sloggy gameplay by reviving you into the same situation with half-health). It felt sloppy. It was a bunch of systems which could create interesting situations and sometimes did, but didn’t have enough focus to make the game about those interesting situations. Bioshock: Infinite was even worse, with much of the same systems still present despite the structure of the game shifting from semi-open areas with multiple factions of wandering enemies to arena set-pieces. There were a ton of systems at play, but none of them past shooting and using vigors seemed to serve any real purpose. The Bioshock games have pretty much been the poster-child for the concept of Ludonarrative dissonance. The problem, I think, runs even deeper. Not only do the mechanics not jive with the themes of the games, they don’t really even fit with each other to make a coherent whole.
There is a great amount of potential power for guiding emergent gameplay through careful systems design. The way the mechanics in Left 4 Dead are designed around getting the players to have to work together (in ways that many team multiplayer games fail to do), or the way that the tabletop RPG Paranoia uses it’s systems to get the players to betray each other. The way Fire Emblem gets you to pack your units into tight formations and move forward carefully while, say, Final Fantasy Tactics makes you spread your guys out so you can avoid being caught in burst attacks and better flank your enemies. You can’t control exactly what the player is going to do, but a large part of the art of game design comes from creating a system in which some options are available while others are not, and the options that are available are rewarded and punished in meaningful ways.