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Dexter's Mechanics and Flavor

A year or so ago I read up on various critics' top 10 lists of TV shows. One show that came up often was Dexter. I have to say that it's incredible and it fully deserves all the praise it gets. I've been thinking about the show from the point of view of a game designer.

Mechanics Matching Flavor

Game designers are often faced with the challenge of matching mechanics with flavor. What I mean by that is on the one hand, we have to create a system of rules that actually works, but on the other hand, the experience these rules create has to be aesthetically pleasing somehow.

As a simple example, let's take Rook in the card game Yomi. We have to balance Rook so that he's fair against other characters. Rook has lots of slow moves so making them faster would be a way to increase his power if we found him to be too weak. This solution isn't aesthetically pleasing though, because it violates his flavor. He's supposed to be a big stone golem so he probably shouldn't have fast moves. Instead, we need some sort of solution to make him fair (the mechanics), but that fits the experience you're supposed to have while playing Rook (the flavor).


As you can see, the solution I chose is Rock Armor, also know as "super armor" in many fighting games. He has slow attacks, but unlike other characters, he has a way to continue his attack even he gets hit by a faster attack from the enemy. The mechanics and flavor work together here, and there's even another level to it. Rook's card game incarnation has a mechanic (super armor) that's familiar to fighting game players. He'll probably have that same mechanic when he appears in an actual fighting game someday. So not only does Rock Armor make sense inside the card game, but it also helps the entire card game's flavor match the experience of playing a fighting game.

Plot vs Character

Fiction writers face a similar type of challenge. They have to deal with "mechanics" too, though they usually call it plot. They have to make sure the right characters are in the right place at the right time, knowing the right things, not knowing the right things, and so on. "How do we make sure character X happens to be at the gas station at the exact moment the crime happens? Should it be coincidence? Should she have learned about the crime ahead of time so she goes there to investigate?" This demands a solution that is mechanically sound (compatible with the plot) but also one that is the right flavor (compatible with the character's personality and style).

A Second Layer

We could look at any work of fiction, not just the TV show Dexter, to study this sort of thing. The thing that stands out to me about Dexter is that there's another layer of mechanics vs. flavor going on too. (Actually, about 5 amazing things stand out to me--that's just one of them.) To know what this second layer of mechanics vs. flavor is, it helps to know what the premise of the show is. I don't consider the premise to be a spoiler, but if you think it is, you've been warned. Here it comes.

Dexter is a blood spatter analyst at the Miami Metro Police Department. He investigates murders and helps convict the bad guys. He's also a serial killer. His father was a cop, and when Dexter was young, his father realized that Dexter would eventually be a killer. His father was sure that Dexter would never be able to change and that he would inevitably become a killer. His father saw no other option than to teach Dexter how to kill without being caught, and how to make *sure* he only killed the worst type of people: murders who are definitely guilty, who will kill again, and who managed to slip past the justice system. It's a similar vigilante theme to Batman, except that Batman is driven mostly by justice, while Dexter just gets justice as icing: his cake is thrill of killing.

Anyway, Dexter is not an ordinary guy, as you can probably tell. He doesn't have normal emotional reactions to things, and he doesn't like dealing with the various social rituals that permeate all our lives. But his father taught him that he must keep up appearances: he must fool everyone into thinking he's normal so they don't suspect him.

Dexter's job puts him an extremely precarious position. It gives him access to a wealth of information he needs to find murders who got away with it and the tools to prove their guilt, but it also often puts him in the middle of investigations he's personally (secretly) involved in. He's constantly in socially perilous waters, and he has to carefully manage exactly what he says, what he's seen doing, and how each other character sees him and interacts with him. You see, Dexter is busy "playing a game." His win condition is if he can keep killing people, but only people who deserve it. His lose condition is if anyone finds out. But Dexter also faces the same challenge I mentioned earlier that designers face: how to match mechanics with flavor.

Dexter's "mechanics" are all the actions he has to take. Investigating his victims, killing them, and hiding the evidence. One way or another, he has to figure out how to get to sensitive police data without raising suspicion. He breaks into people's houses to do his own research on whether they are guilty. He has to prepare rooms where he can do his killing such that no evidence will be left behind. These are all givens, the core of his character, and they reflect his deepest needs.

Dexter's False Flavor Hides His Real Mechanics

But he has to be extremely concerned with "flavor" too, meaning the surface-level appearance of his actions. Unlike the kind of mechanics-flavor connection that game designers must make, Dexter must do the opposite. He must accomplish all the mechanics and logistics that his "hobby" demands, but he must make all of it appear to be in character with a persona he created: the public Dexter. He certainly doesn't want his actions to appear in-flavor with the serial killer he really is!

Sometimes he slips away by saying he needs to use the bathroom. That's usually believable for a few minutes. Or if his sister suffers some horrible tragedy, he figures a normal person would be upset and maybe need to be alone for a while. He's also figured out that normal people sometimes go fishing, and that gives him a great reason to disappear for hours on his boat (possibly with a bag of body parts...). If a crime scene he must investigate on-the-job is particularly gruesome, he finds it best to feign some disgust, as that's how normal people react, apparently. Maybe he can use the disgust of others as a moment when they aren't paying close attention, so he can sneak away a key piece of evidence he needs for himself.

And what if people are getting to close to discovering him, noticing that he's away on his own errands a little too often? What sort of flavor would make sense to explain those mechanics, if you're a non-killer that is? Alcoholism? Drug user? Anything that fits and seems to explain his behavior is fair long as it keeps people off his real trail.

Anyway, I think it's an extraordinary show, with unusually many layers to it. There's plenty of works of fiction where criminals need to cover their tracks and create a false story to explain the real events (every mystery ever, for example), but it's exciting just how often Dexter is faced with this. His need to wear a mask that covers his true thoughts and his true actions permeates the entire show. Basically every episode centers around that. While the writers need to match plot events with character motivations and situations that are plausible, Dexter must match his own actions as a killer to plausible explanations that fool the entire homicide department of the Miami Metro Police Department.

On a separate note, I'm also very impressed with how the show develops over each season. After season 1, I thought they should just stop right there because there's really no topping the overall storyline they used. But when I saw the different direction season 2 took, it seemed so obvious in retrospect that that it would go that way. Season 3 surprised me completely by going a different direction entirely. I think it doesn't ruin much to say that it raises the question of whether Dexter can be anything other than the box that defines him. That's dangerous water for any show, movie, comic book, game, or whatever, because fans don't really want a great character to change. But this season handles that question quite well, and that's all I'll say there.

If you'd like the DVDs or BluRays, here are the links:

Dexter Season 1 DVD
Bundle of Seasons 1 - 3 DVD

Dexter Season 1 Blu-ray
Bundle of Seasons 1 - 3 Blu-ray

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