I've been thinking about really, really simple mechanics that can communicate a particular... cultural feel.
For example, let's say you want to do a post-apocalyptic eighties' biker gang sort of thing. What mechanics would you use?
My first thought is a brawler, Double Dragon style, or maybe a violent vehicle game (rather than a racer). But those are somewhat complex. What is a simpler mechanic you could use?
The reason I started to think of simpler mechanics is because I created a "dungeon push" prototype. This uses a simple mechanic - the idea of pushing your luck - and it's actually fairly compelling. But there is a little bit of a mismatch between the mechanic and the presentation. So I'm kind of interested in the idea of matching simpler mechanics to good themes.
Can you create simple mechanics for, say, the feeling of a Japanese samurai as seasons pass? Or the feeling of discovery and accomplishment of leading a team of engineers and scientists to build the first manned missions to outer space? Or the shaky, ethereal feeling of walking around a city when you haven't slept in three days?
See, the mechanic isn't about trying to simulate the core of the experience. Instead, the mechanic needs to pull the player into the core of the experience. The difference sounds semantic, but it's not.
For example, if we're trying to make a "samurai as seasons pass" game, we probably need a fighting mechanic. But the fighting mechanic needs to exemplify the feeling we're aiming for, the feeling of stillness and the transience of life and death. For this, we need to have some kind of persistence from season to season. Defending a town against bandits seems best. Each battle is one season. The better you do in combat, the more hale and whole your samurai is for the next battle, and the better off the village is. Depending on the exact feel, we have a dynastic system where if you die your son or daughter takes over, but for now I think we can presume you only have one life. So the goal of the game is to stay healthy through each battle. Injuries take a permanent toll, and even if you play perfectly, so will age.
What remains is the mechanic. You could do something like Karateka, where it's all about simple timing. But in addition to already having been done, I don't think it represents the feel of a samurai conflict. For kung-fu, it works pretty well, but not for samurai.
I think of samurai as less about reaction speed and more about timing and control of distance. Especially if we're talking about killing bandits. But distance and timing is a difficult mechanic to make feel meaty - most games that try end up being about memorization and reaction speed, which is what I want to avoid. So it may be better to go with a chi system that kind of feels the same if you squint. So we'll have two buttons: an advance button and a strike button.
When you do neither, you gain chi (and sheath your sword). When you advance on an enemy you will change the range and also change their mode - everyone fights differently when being threatened. And the strike is, of course, how you dispatch your enemy. The game can be made slightly more complex by starting you off with the spear, and if you screw up, it breaks and you move on to the sword. If you screw up, it is cast aside and you move down to a knife. This way you get a little more complexity out of the same basic mechanic. The different seasons can also subtly change your foot speed and whether you slide around after an attack. And, of course, how much chi you built up changes what kind of strike you do.
I think it would be able to represent the right feel.
I think it would be fun to try this kind of experiment with a lot of different themes. The simplest mechanics you can think of, and how they layer to draw the player into the theme.