Game Design: The False Dichotomy of Narrativism versus Simulationism

One of the underlying trends of modern game design (at least since I last reacquainted myself with the buzzwords) has been narrativism versus simulationism. Typically, these games have certain associations with them; narrativist games have a weak point of often falling into mechanical vacuums where characters never develop across sessions or where they fail to be distinct from each other, and simulationist games fall into a pitfall by becoming too heavily dependent on their own systems to allow flexibility and freedom, especially with regards to tabletop roleplaying. However, video games often offer a great example of a way in which all the traditional tabletop game design ideas have broken down over the years and ways to reinvigorate them.

One of the ways that this is often done is through “mechanicalism”. That’s probably not the best term for it, but it reflects a number of concerns: balance, depth, streamlined play, and user-friendliness (or intentional lack thereof). We see this a lot in competitive video games, especially with the advent of “esport” movements, but it has carried over into tabletop gaming as well. One very noteworthy example of this is Pathfinder’s recent “Unchained” classes, which go back and rebalance some early classes largely considered much weaker than other classes.

In essence, I would argue that mechanicalist principles fall on a third part of the narrativist-simulationist dichotomy, It should be noted that this is not entirely dissimilar to GDS or GNS schools of thought, but in my opinion the traditional concern with gamism in design is overly dependent on the individual responses of the players. Or, perhaps more clearly, gamism is a reflection of certain players’ responses to play, and the MNS system I prefer to use focuses on the designers’ ability to create satisfying outcomes for all players.

Primary Concerns in Game Designs
A diagram of narrativist, simulationist, and mechanicalist design principles.

I would argue that much of the concern in mechanicalist design principles comes when a game’s structure limits it to one way of play; for instance, Pathfinder is based around the d20 system, which is very heavily simplified for streamlined play and which has a clear combat focus—it should be no surprise then that Pathfinder and other d20 games have issues with balance, because all characters are built using classes that have primarily combat applications.

If compared to a less set-in-stone system, like that of Shadowrun, we can see some immediate differences. With Shadowrun’s point buy system and flexibility across a number of archetypes, it is not as important for each character to have high-end combat abilities because the game is built to allow players to take on specific roles outside combat. Such a game can be designed around the N-S scale; it does not have to fit any particular sub-category into an overarching link because it has provided independent pillars to play. This can be seen in only a handful of video games, such as the classic Deus Ex, and even then the limitations of the digital interface and pre-designed narrative show only a glimpse at the potential of game design with independent pillars.

The fundamental point of the MNS triad is that each point strengthens the other. The goal in creating an engaging and well-balanced game is to appeal to as many players as possible, not simply for the base purpose of gaining market share but also because that is how games draw people together and foster conversations and explorations of topics. Each pillar of a game can be approached separately and brought together into a happy medium.

This is not, of course, intended to imply that there is any real flaw in choosing one school of thought over another. These games appeal to players on their own: wargames, for example, are often very simulationist, but they can still hold appeal to those who like that sort of thing, such as myself. However, a strictly mechanicalist game (such as chess or Magic: The Gathering), might not hold such an appeal for a simulationist player, and a highly narrative game (such as FATE) might likewise put them off.

This is where the traditional GNS/GDS theories of design go astray; there’s a reason that simulationist-gamist schools of design are lumped together so frequently, and it largely comes down to the fact that they are both heavily focused on the mechanical side of play, and they are often poorly distinguished between.

However, I would like to point out that there is a difference between simulationism and mechanicalism in design principles. When simulating an event, very simple outcomes are often appropriate. In mechanicalism, the value of the game is intrinsic to being a game, and complex systems are favored or valued.

In a strictly simulationist system, the most common outcome is permissible; for instance, a simple wargame in which a character is shot may simply treat the character as dead; the effective impact is almost always identical (even a wounded soldier cannot fight). In a mechanicalist principle, the best outcome is the one which supports play objectives; this does not necessarily match with the simulation focus, and is instead built around balance, counter-balance, and the creation of itneresting strategies.

Working under the triad of mechanicalist, simulationist, and narrative design provides tools for the designer; it does not guarantee good outcomes, but it does provide a way to balance between vastly different interests and instinctive design philosophies, and while it cannot possibly account for the countless motives and desires of players, it provides ways to balance between them.

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