Posted by: Munomario777 | November 24, 2015

Game Design in Set Design – Mechanics As Metaphor


Hey there! Welcome back to Game Design in Set Design, the little series of articles where I talk about how we can apply the vast world of video game design to making better movesets. Which, when you think about it, are a form of game design. Today I’ll talk about elegant characterization through mechanics, or “mechanics as metaphor.” In other words, how the core mechanics of a game – or moveset – can “speak” to you, and convey a lot about something, whether it be a character or the very world of a game, or maybe something else. Even when you peel away the animations, visuals, et cetera, these can still convey something about the game, and whatever’s inside it.

Clunkiness at its finest.

A good example of how mechanics can convey meaning is in the (former) Wii U exclusive, ZombiU. In that game, the zombie apocalypse is happening (what else were you expecting?). You have to survive n’ stuff, and that includes collecting things to fend for yourself. You manage your inventory on the Wii U’s touchpad screen, by dragging stuff around. Thing is, it’s really clunky and slow to deal with. Annoying, right? Well, this serves to convey the nature of the situation at hand. You’re scared, you’re trembling, so you can’t do stuff effectively. And this is reflected in the user interface.

On a pretty meta level, these mechanics can also reflect the very nature of a game – not just its universe. In the game Spider-Man 2, there’s this one boss you encounter early on. And his health bar fills up, and then fills up again, and again. And by the time the fight starts he has, like, five health bars. And then you punch him once, and he dies. That sets the tone for the entire game, as a non-serious, almost satirical game. And this boss is pretty accurate to the rest Spider-Man 2, what with the deceptive tutorial (he tells you to jump off a building, and then mocks you for doing so!), and hint bubbles that sometimes tell you how to play the game… and sometimes tell you how tall the Empire State Building is. And that’s perfectly summed up and presented to the player, all by one boss’s HP and defense stats. Pretty crazy eh?

Of course, you can also do this kinda thing with characters themselves. Let’s take a look at Peach, in Mario 2 USA. Peach is elegant, right? Being a princess, that’s pretty much all she’s got. So what does she do in Mario 2 USA as a playable character? She floats, elegantly over every obstacle. The fact that she stops falling makes her elegant. It’s not in the sprite animation or anything like that; this characterization is based in mechanics. It’s elegant, in more ways than one.

The most basic example of this when movesetting would be to make attacks slower and laggier to reflect someone being strong, or whatever. But that’s pretty boring. We want to convey a character’s unique personality into an equally unique mechanic. Let’s start with an example from Smash itself: Luigi.

File:Luigi Direct.png

Even his render art is odd…

Now, if I asked you to describe Luigi with one word, what would it be? Chances are, you’d say “awkward.” Or “weird.” Or something along those lines. And you’d be right; that’s what Luigi is. That’s a major part of his character, right? That’s evident in his animations in Smash, but what I’m interested in is how he plays, what’s underneath that surface. If Luigi was just a rectangle that jumped around and created hitboxes, how would he feel?

Something you’re likely to notice right away when you play as Luigi, is how odd his movement is. You can run decently fast; but jump, and your momentum slows almost to a halt (due to his low air speed). He’s really slippery, too, so he won’t stop moving right away if you let go of the control stick. And not only that, but this lack of momentum retention also carries over to some of his other moves: namely, his Super Jump Punch and Green Missile. It feels off, it feels unnatural. It feels…


Well whaddaya know, that’s what we just said Luigi is! He’s weird, and controlling him in Smash feels the same way. But he doesn’t let this get in his way. Luigi can utilize his awkward moves to great effect, and do some pretty cool stuff. You can use your halted jumps to fake out an approach, or your low traction to wavedash/DACUS/slide smash effectively (depending on the game). Green Missile can be charged to go a greater distance, but what’s really weird about it is how it can sometimes misfire to deal a huge amount of damage! And even the normally-weak Super Jump Punch is extremely powerful when you land that sweetspot. But the sweetspot is really close to Luigi, so you need to get close to an opponent to land it – invading their personal space. It’s awkward. Using Luigi is hard, but like in the Mario games, if you harness his awkward slipperiness (and in games like New Super Luigi U, his odd flutter jump thing), you can reach new heights! Or in the case of the Super Jump Punch, send your opponents to new heights.

Alright, enough about Luigi. (As if there were such a thing.)


“You’re comin’ with me punk!”

Bowser and Ganon. They both have one thing in common: they can KO themselves and their opponent at the same time with their side special moves. This shows something about their characters. It just feels like such a dirty, evil trick, right? You can be in the lead percent-wise, or maybe behind a stock or so, but then, all your hard work, dissolved. Bowser and Ganon are a constant, looming, evil threat that can change the tides of battle whenever they please, and you can’t do a thing about it. Funnily enough, that description fits their side special suicides too!

Even for “barely-characters” (those without much character), you can still reflect what’s there in gameplay. Take the Duck Hunt Dog. Or Duo. Or Trio. Or whatever you wanna call him. Now, in the NES game, he didn’t have much personality. He just had an annoying laugh whenever you screwed up. How can we translate that into Smash?!


Using the laugh itself would be too obvious.

Well, let’s look at how Sakurai handled it. He… has a lot of projectiles, most of them from games he isn’t even in. It’s completely out-of-character and proppy! And how do some random projectiles reflect his personality? But look closer. What do these projectiles do when you’re playing against Duck Hunt? If they were just hitboxes, how would they make you feel?

Ack! They’re all over the place! It’s as if there isn’t a single spot where he can’t shoot something at me! It’s overwhelming! Its aggravating! It’s… annoying.

Well hot diggity dog, that’s just what we know about his character! He’s annoying! And so is his moveset in Smash. In Duck Hunt, there were tons of ducks for you to shoot, flying all over the place. And if you missed them, you’d be so annoyed by that laugh. In Smash, there are tons of projectiles for you to dodge, flying all over the place. And if you get hit by them, you’re so annoyed by the fact that you can’t get close to the darn dog! Now that’s pretty clever.

Alright, you get the gist. Now let’s look at how this can all go wrong if you make mechanics that conflict with the character attached to them. Say I was making a moveset for Sonic:

Sonic’s down special move is the Medi-Bot. He borrowed this from Tails for this battle, and he’ll place it down on the ground. It’ll then create a blue bubble around itself, about 2 SBB in radius. As long as Sonic stays in that bubble, he’ll be healed 2% per second! Sonic’s focus, thus, is to stay in that one spot as much as possible.

Something feels… off. Aside from the fact that Sonic is using one of Tails’ robots. Strip it down to mechanics, what feels wrong, as a moveset made for Sonic?

Sonic wants to stay in one place all the time. That’s the exact opposite of his character! Sonic is “like the wind,” impatient, always wanting to see something new, run around, be free! He hates being confined to a single area, “cooped up,” so to speak. So it makes absolutely no sense to confine him to a single area like this! Of course, this is something to be avoided. A better choice for this particular example would be, say, to have Sonic pick up speed the more he runs, or get some other sort of bonus. That way, you’re encouraged to keep moving, just like Sonic himself likes to do.

So yeah, that’s pretty much it! Build your mechanics to fit within and reflect your character’s personality and, well, character. And next time you read a set, and say, “wow, that’s really [in-/out-of-] character,” think about why that’s the case, and what they did right, or wrong. And when you’re writing your own sets, think about how you can translate your character into mechanics, and go deeper than the animations. Until next time, I’m out. o/



  1. Pretty insightful article. It reminds of an article on characterization that Junahu made years ago, only that was more complex and talked about how characters should have a moveset crafted based on their personalities, written for an audience of ages past whom who used their characters as vehicles to get an interesting idea across. Your article is different though, as it explores how a character’s stats and their attacks can convey their character if used right.

    Also, I’ve been wondering what program you use to make those funky headers.

    • Thanks! I read Jumahu’s articles a while ago. In fact, he kinda inspired me to write these articles in the first place! 🙂

      As for the headers, I just use Photoshop. What I do is, I grab the “ink” behind the text (either from some stock imagery or by cutting it from the actual SSB4 newcomer splashes), put it on a colored background (with a bit of gradient etc), write the text (I use the font Candara), outline it, angle it with the perspective tool, and then just add some stuff to the side and give everything a drop shadow. Oh, and on top of the text, I put little circle gradients of transparent-white to transparent, to make it look like light is shining on the letters.

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