3D Camera – Mario 64
Manipulating a 3D camera with an analog stick is a mechanic so deeply woven into the DNA of modern action games that it’s become second nature, we take it completely for granted. But things weren’t always this way. The 3D camera was a mechanic that had to be conceptualized and executed like any other, and Mario 64 started it all.
Prior to Mario 64’s explosion onto the scene back in 1996, 3D action games were in their infancy, and no hard and fast rules existed for controlling camera movement in a 3D space. Even games of the same year, such as Crash Bandicoot, used an on-rails camera that tracked the protagonist from a static position. Mario 64 changed everything, adding a fully rotatable camera which became the blueprint, not only for subsequent 3D action platformers but all third person games as a whole.
Quicktime Events – Shenmue
Shenmue is regarded as the first major title to employ quick time events (QTE) in no small measure. Typically used during confrontations with other NPCs, Ryo would suddenly have to avoid all manner of punches, slaps, or motorbike riding thugs trying to run him down, his survival decided by frantic tapping of a button or the directional pad. Back then they seemed like a clever innovation, but QTEs haven’t always been so fondly received since. Poor examples or over reliance on the mechanic in place of engaging gameplay has become a running joke on more than one occasion. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s infamous “Press F to pay respects” somewhat trivialized what might otherwise have been a poignant moment.
Yet while they do often frustrate, QTEs have been adopted across virtually every genre of video games. And not all of them are so bad, either. When measured and used appropriately, QTEs certainly add interactivity to otherwise passive sequences. Several modern game series use the mechanic to good effect. For example, Telltale’s various story-driven adventure series use QTEs as a primary mechanic, keeping players engaged by interacting with various on-screen prompts during action sequences.
Permadeath – Rogue
The very first computer role-playing games were heavily inspired by tabletop experiences that featured permadeath. As early as 1980, the mechanic had not only been implemented in video games, it had given birth to its own genre, the Roguelike. Rogue, the game from which the genre gets its namesake, implemented the concept as its central game mechanic. It lowered the stakes in comparison to more brutal permadeath in tabletop experiences, encouraging players not to grow attached to their characters and instead experiment with trial and error tactics and different character builds. It punished, but by making XP and item recovery accessible, permadeath was entertaining, not painful.
Permadeath in the traditional tabletop sense – in which central playable protagonists important to the game’s narrative can die at any moment – has also lived on in subsequent video game RPGs. Games like XCOM and The Banner Saga aren’t afraid to kill off main characters with their own story arcs, with whom players have invested dozens of hours into building and role-playing. Of course, this sort of permadeath is strictly limited to games that spread their narrative across multiple playable characters. Losing a single character when you have a party of six or seven is a little easier to swallow then having your only playable character die after hundreds of hours of gameplay.
Z Targeting – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time practically wrote the book on how to design adventure games and could be credited with pioneering several aspects of game design. Z-targeting, though, might be its most influential feature, inventing a simple but clever way to focus attention on a single target at the push of a button. The mechanic was adopted by countless titles over the years and still remains popular today.
Of course, Z-targeting hasn’t been universally adopted, with some modern games such as Horizon Zero Dawn letting players engage at will; others automatically locking players onto targets, as seen in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But neither of those design choices have superseded Z-targeting entirely, which remains a popular design choice and for many still the preferred one.
Fast Travel – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Fast travel was first implemented in role-playing games such as Ys Book I & II back in the late 1980s, but that system was limited to bypassing specific areas. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, however, might well have been the among first games to give players the ability to fast travel at will, and better represents fast travel as we know it today. Link’s flute could be played to call the Flute Boy’s Bird, which flew link eight different areas across its sandbox.
In the modern era, fast travel is synonymous with sprawling open-world role-playing games, such as the Elder Scrolls. The sheer scale of these enormous games has seen the mechanic’s use all but made mandatory.
Finisher Move – Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior
When one thinks of finishing moves, Mortal Kombat’s Fatalities immediately spring to mind, but the mechanic actually predates that iconic fighting game. Barbarian, a Commodore 64 title that debuted five years earlier in 1987, was among the first games that players could end the battle with a single punishing blow.
Yet there’s no doubt that Mortal Kombat played a huge role in popularizing the mechanic, which has since been adopted by games outside the fighting genre. Manhunt is one such example, giving players the option to select between different levels of violence when performing an execution. The mechanic has also been combined with quick time events in titles such as God of War, wherein certain boss fights players had to correctly action a sequence of button inputs to finish off boss fights.
Regenerating Health – Halo: Combat Evolved
Doom’s bloody-faced avatar and health point display are relics of a bygone era. After Halo: Combat Evolved made waves in the first-person shooter genre circa 2001, regenerating health made redundant the concept of health points and medkits. While not totally extinct, and now living on through the rebooted versions of past classics, health regeneration largely replaced the need to have recovery items dotted around the map. Importantly, this design changed the ebb and flow of gameplay and the levels in which they took place. Single-player levels no longer needed to incorporate hidden health items into the level design; multiplayer games moved at a faster pace with less emphasis on camping.
Of course, the concept of health regeneration isn’t exclusive to the FPS genre, and its actual implementation in other genres predates Halo: Combat Evolved. Early role-playing games such as Ys featured health regeneration as early as the 1980’s. Yet the FPS-style of health regeneration – a suddenly bloody screen, the sound of a beating heart, and reduced movement – stands apart as a very particular mechanic. Its implementation completely changed the landscape of the genre and how players think about recovery in shooting games.
Cover Shooting – Winback Covert Ops
Third-person cover shooters became immensely popular after titles such as Gears of War and Uncharted brought the mechanic to the mainstream in the mid-2000s. But it was Winback Covert Ops that actually first implemented the mechanic successfully when it launched back in 1999. During gameplay, players are unable to move while shooting and instead rely on cover for protection, popping out to take aim and shoot from a static position. If you’re thinking that sounds familiar to a certain arcade classic called Time Crisis then you’d be right. Third person cover shooting was itself an adaption of a system used in Time Crisis four years prior, which used a cover system to avoid incoming fire and reload.
Ever since the success of seminal third-person action games such as Gear of War, Countless games have since either been built around this shooting system or have incorporated it into their design. Most recently, Grand Theft Auto V incorporated the mechanic into its design, which hadn’t been present in previous titles.
Iron Sights – Vietcong
We’re so used to pressing the left or right trigger to take aim that it’s hard to imagine first-person shooters didn’t require players to use iron sights. But right up until as recently as the mid-2000s, as in games such as Medal of Honor: Vanguard, aiming via iron sights was not a common game mechanic.
However, much earlier than that, military simulation games were starting to popularize the concept. Vietcong was among the first, a 1997 tactical shooter set during the Vietnam War that considered any shot not fired via the iron sights to be from the hip, and therefore much less accurate. Mainstream titles such as Call of Duty then incorporated the mechanic, and after its huge mainstream success, the design was copied. Today, virtually every FPS requires players to aim via an iron sight or scope before shooting.
Day/Night Cycle – Castlevania II
Many games featured levels set in the day and night time during the early eighties, but it wasn’t until Castlevania II that a game that time passed during gameplay. More than just an aesthetic feature, the transition from light to dark had a tangible effect on gameplay, strengthening monsters and increasing difficulty.
In the modern era, open world games have incorporated day/night cycles for the purposes of immersion and believability. NPCs in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for example, return home to sleep in their beds during the evening. Other games change the rules of the environment depending on the time of day, as seen in Dying Light, in which hordes of zombies stalk players at night.
Dynamic Weather – Microsoft Flight Simulator
Similarly to how day/night cycles are used in open world games to build immersion, so too is dynamic weather. Few games make actual use of the animation beyond that, though. An early notable example is Shenmue, in which weather from 1986-87 was recorded and represented during actual gameplay, changing the appearance and behavior of NPCs. And it’s only very recently that dynamic weather has actually impacted player action, as it does in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — damn you, lightning; curse thee, rain!
However, the origins of dynamic weather in video games has its roots in simulation games. Flight simulators such as Microsoft Flight Simulator first incorporated dynamic weather as early as the mid-eighties, improving on it in subsequent versions.
Parkour – Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
When video games transitioned from two to three-dimensional graphics, it took a surprisingly long time for game designers to make use of these new angles beyond traditional platforming. It wasn’t until Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’s wall running mechanic and the ability to quickly scale walls that we saw the surface of vertical structures used as a means of traversal. The mechanic was widely praised, with the agency of movement considered the game’s standout features. In fact, reception to free-flowing traversal was so positive that later, in 2007, Ubisoft’s built an entire game around the mechanic called Assassin’s Creed – which actually started life as a Prince of Persia sequel.
By combining Prince of Persia’s climbing system with a huge historic open-world of epic scale, Assassin’s Creed boasted a parkour system that allowed players to scale virtually any vertical surface by simply holding down a button. This iteration on the blueprint first laid down by Prince of Persia caught the attention of the gaming industry, and subsequently changed the landscape of game design forever. Today, most modern games incorporate some form of parkour-like traversal in which players can scale over top objects, as opposed to merely jumping over or walking around them.
Hiding Bodies – Thief: The Dark Project
Hideo Kojima’s first two Metal Gear titles lay the groundwork for stealth games during the 8 and 16-bit era, and the series later exploded the popularity of the stealth genre in 1998 with Metal Gear Solid. Seminal as they were, though, none of Kojima’s early games pioneered the now widespread body hiding mechanic. That title goes to Thief: The Dark Project, the iconic game from Looking Glass Studios, designed by a number of notable developers, including Ken Levine. Kojima did later add the mechanic into his sequel title Sons of Liberty, and other popular stealth series such as Splinter Cell and Tenchu quickly followed suit.
Morality System – Deus Ex
The very first computer games of the 1970’s featured branching narratives in form of text-based adventure games, incorporating dialogue options that altered the story, characters, quests, and areas the player is able to interact with. But while this did give players greater freedom to role-play and added replayability, the decisions didn’t necessarily alter narratives beyond binary outcomes. It wasn’t until much later these choices were implemented in a way that actually shaped the nature of the environment. Known as a morality system, dialogue choices carried consequence beyond simply actioning one response over another, they fundamentally altered how the player would interact with the world, and the world would interact with them.
It was in Deus Ex that was the first time a complex morality system, in which decision making directly altered the game world, was implemented convincingly. By choosing passive or aggressive play styles, players not only experienced a different story outcome, the entire tone of the game and the manner with which the game environment responded to player action was fundamentally altered. The game is also unusual in that two of its main antagonists can be killed off early in the game, or left alive to be defeated later. Doing so also shapes how other characters interact with the player. Deus Ex has since gone on to influence dozens of major video game franchises that use a morality mechanic, from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to Infamous: Second Son.