Fork and knife are really good companions. The fork grabs a steak, and holds on to it, while the knife cuts through. Without the fork the knife would only make the steak move around on the plate and lots of time would be wasted. And without the knife there would only be a fork in the stake status quo.
The same applies to narrative and game mechanics when designing a video game. Like a fork, the narrative grabs the player in order for the mechanics to do its job. But if you create game mechanics and afterwards try to create a narrative that will fit these mechanics, then you will face problems.
Game mechanics are something most game developers happily spend time and energy creating. For example, building large squads of soldiers that behave in a natural way as in World in Conflict series (Massive Entertainment), or creating a character that can jump and move in an interesting way like in Mirror’s Edge (DICE).
Two problems could occur when applying the narrative to game mechanics: one could end up creating stereotypes to fit the systems, or one could spend a large amount of time to adapt the already built system to the narrative and if it fails one can end up with not fully integrated story. The fork simply has to come first.
For example, if anyone would want to create some crazy characters to inhabit a game world were the mechanics are already set to a building system, then it might not be so sure that the characters want to mine, and refine, ores, as was planned, or build houses as it was thought. These crazy characters might want to build their own kind of buildings, and this will take time to adjust if the mechanics has preceded the narrative.
Two examples where you can feel that the fork has come first and helped the knife doing its job are the games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus (SCEI). In the games you can feel that the narrative has guided the development of the mechanics to form a unique game play. In Ico there is a little girl that the hero has to save by holding her hand through the whole game. In Shadow of the Colossus you have to defeat foes in order to wake up a girl from the death. The foes are poetically and emotionally formed by the story and to fight every foe feels as a pang every time you kill a foe.
So what we can learn from this is if one put the fork into work before letting the knife join, by creating the narrative as a base for creation, one might find new mechanics that will form a unique game play that has never been seen in previous games. By having the supporting systems be derived from a narrative foundation. No time will be wasted and the fork and knife would remain best buddies ever after!