I’ve been playing The Witcher and it has me thinking about the interaction of mechanical and aesthetic choices for players in games, as is Liana Kersner’s complaint about the secondary character Ciri.
Starting out in the game I appreciated the chance to play Geralt as a silver-fox, a good looking guy in sexy armour. The whole leather-and-chain look was great but since that first set of armour the only stuff that has looked good for him is a shirt.
Now, I like the swashbuckler aesthetic and I like, generally, to play light, nimble, rogueish characters. My response to the complaints about Ciri would be that she is a fast, mobile character (her one available magical power is a localised ‘teleport’ to avoid harm) and that, as such, she wears lighter armour. The problem with this is that the mechanics of the game don’t line up with that.
In order to do well at the game I am forced to compromise my aesthetic and roleplaying preference for a light/fast/roguish character style and to take whatever the heaviest armour available is. There’s no penalty for doing so, I’m not slowed down in a fight, it doesn’t penalise my adrenalin recovery or anything and – equally – there’s no bonus for choosing the lighter armour. I could tone down the difficulty to preserve my aesthetic/RP choices, but that feels a bit like a cheap cop-out.
Mechanics can often force you to go for the heavier weapon when you’d rather be more accurate or skilful, the heavier armour when you’d rather remain mobile. These choices are often not rendered meaningful because there is no downside to choosing the heavier weapon – it just does more damage.
This can be a reason for verisimilitude in games, to take a more ‘simulationist’ bent when making your designs. Heavy armour that penalises your initiative, your ability to dodge, how fast you move and so on, trading it for greater protection. Lighter armour that doesn’t slow you down or even, perhaps, makes you more mobile, faster and the trade-off being that you’re more vulnerable.
Tabletop games tend to simulate this better, but usually in a relatively soft manner by limiting certain bonuses or capping certain skills. Computer games do it less often and their workarounds, where they exist, often break immersion. Lord of the Rings Online had an ‘aesthetic armour’ option, where you could load one set of armour for appearance and another for effect – an elegant workaround, but one which still left you feeling disconnected from the gameworld.
There’s two ways around this problem, either…
- The narrative becomes king and armour becomes primarily an aesthetic choice, mechanically equal.
- The simulation becomes king and armour choices represent a meaningful choice between different fighting paradigms.