When designing game mechanics, it is important to firstly consider what the central idea of your game is about (aka the themes). Is it a game about hacking? About action? Whatever your game is about, the goal of the mechanics is to convey these themes and allow the player to take the perspective of the main character (perspective taking). One way to achieve this effect is through character growth of the main character (the player). Similarly to how themes change in the storyline (e.g. from 'evil triumphs' to 'justice triumphs'), character growth is the same: your main character can start of by being a beginner hacker, or maybe a assassin doing his first mission and at the end of your game they become an experienced hacker or an elite killer.
The mechanics are a perfect tool to use to convey this change. At the beginning of the game, the player knows nothing or very little about the mechanics and they are provided with a little tutorial on how to play the game. Note: Don't bombard the player with information on how to play the game at the very beginning, rather, teach them step by step as the game progresses. So let's say the player learns about the first mechanic of the game, then after a while they become better at it (they learnt a new skill); now is the time to introduce a new mechanic into the game and force the player to learn it. Repeat this process until the end of the game, and the skills they learnt must add up and become useful in the end.
Just like how in a movie, all the moments build up into the climax, the mechanics in a game should also build up into the final test which the player must undertake. It might be a huge powerful boss they have to fight, or a hacker from the pentagon that they have to face, whatever the case is, this will allow the player to feel a sense of growth. Everything they've been through should allow them to challenge this boss. The player should start off the game feeling like a newb hacker or the timid assassin, but at the end of the game, they should really feel like they've become an expert hacker or an absolute killer. Here's an example to make things clearer:
As an assassin, the first thing that your master teaches you is how to equip and change weapons - how to wield the most basic weapon which is the short sword. You first learn about doing stealth kills which simply involve just sneaking behind someone and pressing a button to kill them. Next, you might learn something more difficult such as aiming vital points in the target's body and perhaps even learn how to throw the sword. Finally, you might learn how to engage in combat with another sword wielder - you learn different types of attacks, evading and blocking their attacks. In the end, you will really feel like a swordsman after this learning experience.
Unlocking Gameplay Limitations
Another way for the player to experience character growth is through unlocking restrictions. RPGs tend to do this a lot where you can't weild a certain weapon or armor until you reach a certain level or you can't buy certain items until you have enough money. These level restrictions will serve as milestones for character growth. The player will feel like: "After all this hard work, I went from wearing leather armor to this full plate mail which is much more expensive and heavier. I'm a much stronger and better fighter now." The problem with this approach is that games tend to bore the players by making them just grind levels or gold until they reach the next level. Yes, it's important that the player must work for these milestones, however, making them go through repetitive gameplay isn't the way to go.
Instead, there can be several other ways that you can make the player work to advance to the next levels. So long as the milestones are in place, grinding isn't necessary. The grinding aspect only serves as the work that the player must do in order to achieve their next milestone, however, we all know that most people hate grinding and it's a huge waste of time. As game designers, if you know this much, the only thing you have to do is just set the milestones and create the 'work' that the player must do to achieve these milestones - but avoid things such as boring gameplay. Instead of grinding, they can do missions instead and here's an example:
If your game is about hacking, then allow certain features to be 'locked' and the player must complete tasks in order to earn enough points (or gold) to unlock these features. The tasks can include little story snippets (or side stories) such as 'a man is angry at his boss and wants to get him back by hiring you to wreck all the workplace computers with a virus.' Once they finish this task, they might earn 50 points, and this allows them to unlock a better hacking program which in turn allows you to do more difficult missions.
So this 'milestone approach' isn't just limited to fighting games and grinding levels, you can do it for many sorts of games (possibly every sort of game ranging from love simulator to detective adventure games). And the good thing about this approach is that, it isn't limited to just the main character itself (i.e. the player). In fact, you can use restrictions to show growth in the other characters. In Persona 4, as you improve your social link with certain characters, they will start doing things such as taking a lethal blow for you during battle so you don't lose. As you max your social link, their Persona 'evolves' into a more powerful one, signifying an irreversible bond that has been formed between you and that person.
This is the reason why people loved the Persona games so much and especially the characters. The mechanics aided in the portrayal of character and bonds formed. And for those who've played the game, look at the ending of Persona 3/4 and notice how the unlocking of certain 'limitations' aided in portrayal of the ending. I'm talking about the part AFTER you get the boss' HP down to zero. I won't spoil anything for those who haven't played the game, but this is what made the ending so great - instead of the ending being entirely cutscenes, it transitioned very well between cutscene and gameplay. They used this feature of unlocking gameplay limitations in order to portray one of the final changes that occurs.
So as you can see, 'limitations' doesn't just involve 'level limitations' otherwise I would've called it that. It can be any type of mechanical change in the game that involves unlocking a new feature. The new feature can be absolutely anything: from a new spell you learn to having a new group member. Mechanics are a great tool to use to imply 'change' in a game, so be creative on how you use it and you'll discover novel ways to portray narrative - something which is unique only to our medium.
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