Game Grammer: Does “or” exist?

I’ve long theorized about the existence of primary, secondary, and tertiary gameplay. Primary gameplay is the core of the game, secondary is mechanics that provide variation to keep the game from getting boring, and tertiary are mini-games, games that are complete within themselves but operate independently from the primary gameplay. And I’ve also theorized that you should only have one core set of mechanics as your primary gameplay, rather then two or three.

One silly way to think about this is with a game grammer of “ands” and “withs”. For example, Halo’s is “Shooting combat and vehicles”, because vehicles are an integrated part of the whole experience, and thus mechanically part of the primary gameplay whole. Grand Theft Auto is “Driving with Shooting”, because the shooting is largely not integrated into the driving gameplay and serves to break up the core of the game. Or does it?

There is a problem with this singular primary gameplay approach. Some games may be “ors”. “or”, in this context, symbolizes 2 different kinds of primary gameplay, ones that are fundamentally not joined together, but are important enough to the depth and quality of the game that you can’t imagine the game without it. And even if you could, was having to do 2 completely different games simultaneously in the same game design space worth it? I’m not convinced, so I’ve constructed a (rough) list of where I think some game’s mechanics fall:

Ands

  • Diablo – Class-based combat and other class-based combat and player cooperation with loot gambling
  • Poker – Card Analysis and Bidding and Player Analysis
  • Starcraft – Unit management and Economy management? (Tricky here because the strong shared mechanic is time, invisibly. Should this be the “or” that disproves the rule?)

Withs

  • World of Warcraft, MMOs – Skill-economy combat with market economy and with social clubs
  • Ratchet and Clank – Shooting Combat with weapon market and with environment traversal
  • Final Fantasy – Action Selection Combat with Character advancement
  • God of War – Button Timing Combat with traversal

Ors

  • Uncharted, Tomb Raider – Environment traversal or Combat or “Puzzle” solving
  • Grand Theft Auto – Driving or Shooting?
  • Mass Effect – Shooting Combat and Skill-economy combat or Dialogue Selection

So, there are some games that I can’t realistically call “ands”. There just isn’t a strong enough cross-integration of the core mechanics across the different game mechanics to justify it. But is it a good thing? How does one decide whether one should add “ands” or “ors” when starting from scratch? My gut says you always want “ands”, and to take it one step further, “ors” weaken both sides of the equation (mechanically and experientially). But I think I might be wrong. Is there a way to plan 2 seperate forms of core gameplay? Is it even black and white? How does the “or” strengthens it’s part?

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