Everyone knows about game structure at its most basic level. Most games require you to play from the beginning and make your way to the end point. The path in between can diverge greatly, from a completely linear ride to an open-world affair. Quality game mechanics go a long way towards making a game something special, but in the end, they only go so far. Sometimes how they’re put together matters more and means the difference between a good game and a not-so-good one.
Ever since video games broke free of the arcade standard of getting as many points as possible before you die, games have based their structures on completing specific goals. Super Mario Bros. displays the start-to-finish structure transparently: The goal is to move from left to right without being killed by obstacles along the way. As the Mario series continued, the structure slowly became more complex. Super Mario Bros. 3 kept the structure of the levels themselves the same, but a level select map was inserted between levels, adding a second structure on top of the already existing one. You can choose the path you take through the world map, stopping to pick up an item at a Toad House or to fight the Hammer Bros. along the way to the end. Super Mario World merged the two structures by putting secret exits in the levels themselves, creating alternate paths through the world map. The mechanical core of each of the games remained consistent, but the tweaks to structure allowed for three very different types of games in the same genre.
RPGs tended to give players more room to explore than strictly linear games, but there is room to mess with how the world unfolds. Looking at the original Dragon Warrior, you can see the template for NES RPGs and beyond. You are dropped in a large world with the expectation that the player will explore it and unravel its secrets without any direct prodding. NPCs in towns provided suggestions of places you should go, but it was up to the player to figure out how to progress. This exact mantra carries over to the entire series at large, but individual entries found ways to change things up without messing with its core values. Dragon Quest 4 divided the adventure into chapters focusing on different members of what would become your party. As you completed one chapter with a character, the game jumped to another place and time to focus on another. And Dragon Quest 5’s focus on the hero’s lifetime and family meant that in addition to jumping around times and settings, you saw the people in these settings change as well. It wasn’t as varied as 4, but it was a structure that allowed for emotional attachment to occur with the characters.
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But sometimes games don’t take full advantage of either existing structures or new ones. The Halo series has fallen prey to this more than once, which is a shame given the entries that do take advantage of good structural design. Halo: Combat Evolved established the formula, which took the structure of a corridor shooter and opened up the level design to create large battle fields along the linear route. Halo’s success was more one of mechanics and level design, but the structure itself worked well for what the designers wanted to do. Halo 2 upped the ante with more impressive set pieces and more varied settings. The structure was still the same since it was a linear level-by-level game, but the fact that the levels were more diverse justified the familiar structure. But then when you get to Halo 3 and Halo: Reach, you’re just playing a prettier version of Halo 2 with merely incremental improvements to the mechanics. But the most striking thing about those games was the fact that their linear structure contributed to the slog that the games eventually became, something that the first two games were hardly ever guilty of.
This quality is thrown into sharp relief after playing Halo 3: ODST, the only Halo FPS to mess with its traditional structure in any way. The game revolved around a rookie soldier wandering around an open-world New Mombasa in order to find out what happened to his squad. For each clue you discovered, you played through a linear level as one of the missing crew members. It was a really clever and fun way to shake up the tired Halo formula and bolstered both the improved mechanics and the narrative. Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and ODST all play incredibly similarly, from level design to mechanics. However, ODST ended up being the best by far because of the structual shakeup. Reach is especially disappointing because it came out after ODST’s triumph. It reverted to the old linear method, but the level design variety wasn’t there to compensate.
Structure alone does not make a good game. After all, Mario, Dragon Quest, and Halo all have really fun mechanics that are consistent across all their individual entries. And all of the failures in the Halo series can be attributed to inferior level design as much as it can be to structure. But game structure is a very important component to making a great game. A solid structure that compliments the mechanics of a game allows those mechanics to shine. Interesting structures that challenge expectations can bolster a game’s quality in the right situation. But most importantly, structures help define the limits and flow of a game, making or breaking a potentially good game.
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