MDA: Aesthetic dissonance

 In Theory, Uncategorized

A popular piece of advice for creative writers is “Show, don’t tell.“. By this it is meant that the story should be conveyed by the characters actions and not by narrative exposition. I wouldn’t be the first one to extend this to games. What sets game design apart from other arts is that the experience emerges from the interaction between the player(s) and the game. The MDA model attempts to codify this by saying that the Mechanics (rules) create the Dynamics (play) which give rise to the Aesthetics (fun). It is for this reason that a game must be played to be appreciated. The aesthetics of a game cannot be realised by mere observation of the rules.

However games can also incorporate non-interactive art – story, music, graphics. These are elements which largely bypass the “dynamic” phase. The backstory to a role-playing game, for instance, can be read directly out of the manual. Writing a powerful backstory is no mean skill, but it is not game design.

I raise the distinction because many games suffer from a kind of dissonance between their interactive and non-interactive content. A common example is an RPG (I’m sure you can think of one) in which you which you are sent on an “urgent quest” which has no practical urgency about it. The story component is telling you one thing (“hurry, before it is too late!”) but the dynamics are telling you another (“take your time, there’s no rush”). Now there may be compelling reasons for the dynamic to be designed the way it is, but the dissonance remains and it hinders immersion by drawing the player’s attention to the mechanism of the game, spoiling the suspension of disbelief.

This isn’t always a big problem — used judiciously it could even be a drawcard, as in my previous comments about the incongruous music in Fallout 3 — but in general it is something to be avoided. Often the problem seems to be a failure to design a dynamic which lives up to the subtle promises of the non-static elements, such as when a ‘stealth’ game turns out to be easier to win by violence. It is not easy (perhaps not even possible) to design gameplay that lives up to the familiar fantasy of the gentleman thief. How is this problem to be resolved? I’m not sure.

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