Narrative and the MDA Framework
I often identify as a mechanics-focused designer. Most of my previous games have been abstract, and my relationship with narrative is usually a bit awkward, which I’ve written plenty of blog posts about already.
For all my talk, however, Darknet has been shaped around its narrative theme from the very beginning. I didn’t design the gameplay and then pick a story to wrap around it. Instead, I picked the theme of cyberpunk hacking first, based in part on a hunch that it would be a good fit for the Oculus Rift, and the mechanics came afterward.
So, given that I’m so gameplay-oriented, how did that happen?
To answer that, I’ll pull out one of my favorite concepts in game design: the MDA framework. If you already know what that is, go ahead and skip the next paragraph. If it’s new to you, here’s the basic idea:
MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics, which together form a model for understanding how gameplay creates emotional responses in the player. Speaking loosely: Mechanics are the rules of a game. So, if we were talking about Poker, a mechanic would be something like the types of cards involved, or the fact that players keep some cards hidden. The Dynamics describe the behavior of the resulting system, which I like to think of as the strategic implications of the mechanics. To continue with the Poker example, we might identify one dynamic as “sometimes, it is advantageous to bluff about what cards you hold”. The Aesthetics, finally, are the feelings that the gameplay invokes in the player, like “tense” or “deceitful”.
It’s possible to let a narrative theme determine a game’s mechanics entirely. This might lead to an accurate or realistic game, and it’s probably appropriate for serious simulations. But the problem is that the MDA framework only flows in one direction; if you start by committing to certain mechanics, you begin to lose control over what aesthetic they’ll lead to.
It’s also possible to start on the other end, with the narrative driving the game’s aesthetics. This might result in a powerful story, but it’s hard to work backwards toward the mechanics, and the gameplay can get muddled as a result. Think of any game that feels like it’s just a frame for cutscenes, or games that feature “ludonarrative dissonance”, where the story and mechanics are in conflict.
I think it’s necessary to start on both ends, but to use a very light touch. Narrative can drive aesthetics by providing a general set of feelings you want to evoke, but it’s a mistake to write a full story at the start. Similarly, narrative can provide some basic verbs as the starting ingredients for the mechanics, but the narrative shouldn’t lock you into any specific rules of gameplay.
This was essentially the strategy I used for designing Darknet. I took the theme of cyberpunk hacking, and I used it to identify my high-level target aesthetics: the game should feel tense, cerebral, skillful, and complex. I also used the theme as general inspiration for the low-level mechanics. What does a futuristic hacker do? They tunnel through cybersecurity, inject viruses, crack passwords, break firewalls, etc. There’s probably a network involved, or a cloud of data, or something like that. Perfect. I can work with that!
Essentially, I stole my target aesthetic and some common verbs from existing cyberpunk fiction, and I invented the gameplay around that. This fit my style perfectly: I still had plenty of freedom to design the final mechanics (especially since the specifics of fictional hacking are so ill-defined), and the finished game would fulfill a fantasy that was already popular in the public imagination. (The artistic downside of this strategy is that it might prevent me from creating an original aesthetic, since I’m trying to evoke an idea that has been defined by others, rather than evoking something truly new. Still, I’m happy to focus my efforts on creating new mechanics for now.)
This is why the basic puzzle gameplay of Darknet is built from rules that are original and fun, but it’s still easily represented as “injecting viruses”. It’s also how the game can have a visual aesthetic of unthinkable complexity while still featuring mechanics that are simple and easy to learn. It’s why Darknet feels tense, cerebral and skillful without relying on an old, tried-and-true gameplay formula to evoke those feelings.
I don’t know if Darknet will be a success. It’s possible that my players won’t be able to dig into the game like I have. But at the very least, I’m proud that I was able to build something that was so weird and different, yet still sticks effectively to my chosen theme. Regardless of whether the game catches on, I feel that this aspect of its design was a success.