You Have to Burn the Rope and MDA

I really started to grok the whole MDA framework at GDC this year. I’d seen it before but sort of arrogantly dismissed it as useless ludo-speak, which is easy to do what with the internet and the new glut of game-focused academics. If you don’t know what the MDA framework is, here’s a doc from the authors. An oversimplifying explanation would be that a game designer has an Aesthetic (A) he wishes to create and then figures out a dynamic system (D) that would create the aesthetic, working back to creating the Mechanics (M) that are the rules of the system. Players experience this framework from the opposite direction. They learn the Mechanics (M) first, participate in a Dynamic system (D) and glean some sort of Aesthetic (A) from the experience. It’s actually explained from the different direction in the document, but I’ve found the way I’ve phrased it to meld better with my experience. If you have an objection, leave it in the comments. I’m here to learn. Anyway, I’ve found the whole exercise surprisingly useful in analyzing what works and does not work in games since really picking it up.

Now, what brings me to this is two games that have come to my attention lately: Quest for the Crown and You Have to Burn the Rope. Play both and then come back. Spoilers abound.

Okay. So both are comedic games that subtlety lampoon aspects of mass-market games. In Quest for the Crown it lampoons storytelling – throwing this superbly trite unskippable story over an arbitrary game with the absolute minimum production quality and then ending it with some of what I like to call “Aren’t we great” credits that games like to make you sit through because of the ego of the dev team, which they obviously found more important than working on mechanics.

You Have To Burn the Rope is similar, but with much higher production quality. Here you have a one-level game with one monster and only one way to defeat him. In action games, the fun usually comes from figuring out what the boss’ weak spot is and then exploiting that weakness with your skill. This game eschews that completely by telling you in the title what you have to do and reiterating that on your way to the boss battle. They even cared enough to give you an axe throwing mechanic that serves no purpose as you can’t deal enough damage with it to overcome the boss’ regeneration rate. I found that to be great attention to detail. Then you beat the colossus and you are treated to a hilarious retelling of your epic story. To me, it effectively lampoons the game makers who think their story is much bigger than their game allows it to be.

So why do I bring up MDA? What is interesting to me about these two games is that the aesthetic value of comedy, which I presume they were shooting for is supported by mechanics that only serve the aesthetic when compared to other, external games. It doesn’t work in a vacuum. Now, I believe this is different than say, The Simpsons Game, which intersperses comedic skits with gameplay. In that, the sketches could survive without the gameplay. They are garnishes. While there were some funny moments in the game proper, the aesthetics served by gameplay were pretty weak overall. Or say, Portal, where the comedic elements were content, but the game could survive without it and still be successful because it hits various other aesthetics.

In the case of these two flash games, the game cannot exist without the comedic aesthetic they are trying to hit without being a completely broken experience. The in-joke was core to the experience, not a garnish.

I’ve always considered the mechanics to be something completely contained by the game. But these cases show that mechanics may be intertwined with something outside the game’s circle. Am I missing something? I’m still picking through this MDA idea.

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