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A Final MDA Analysis of The Quiet Sleep

by Nikhil Murthy on 04/30/18 06:16:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I've done a couple of these before, but I'm going to go over a final one as a deconstruction of my game. I'm also going to go over a couple of concerns that I have with MDA and how this post is an incomplete analysis of my game.

The Quiet Sleep is a city-builder/tower defense game that is set in your mind. In it, you build out different parts of your mind to keep a handle on your emotions and achieve different goals such as making great music, spying on a local teacher and coming to terms with never being understood. You can check it out on Steam here.

Aesthetics

Novelty in Familiarity

This was the first aesthetic and the only one to really survive the development process of the game. The point of the game is to convey ideas that people are familiar with, but to do so in a way that's deeply unfamiliar and so to expand on those core ideas.

The fear that floods the player when they ask someone out is a key moment in the game because of how universal an experience it is. Seeing the emotions in the form of manageable creeps streaming towards you exemplifies this concept. It is at once very familiar and simultaneously novel in presentation and in the way that the player interacts with it.

This is fairly close to the more traditional game aesthetic of discovery, but I like the deeper cut.

Communication With Systems

This is very closely related to the previous one, but the difference is important. I wanted this game to prove out the idea of communicating with systems.

It's a little hard to pin down exactly what I mean by that, but I think you can identify it by testing if it's impossible to understand the points of the game without understanding the underlying system. In the same way that reading the lyrics of a song misses a large part of the story of the song, reading about interactions doesn't convey their entirety and I wanted a game for which that interactive element was a key part of what I intended to communicate.

Dynamics Desired

Narrative-Heavy Systems

I wanted it such that all of the output of the systems and all of the pieces had some kind of narrative significance. For instance, converting energy to travel in The Quiet Sleep is a conversion that makes sense narratively and also leads to secondary effects with narrative significance, such as being unable to paint because you have no energy. This is further accentuated by having the travel be used for work which often makes you angry, which in turn would require you to paint to keep calm.

A more involved example is feeding the callousness that you use to keep calm in Songcraft with strength, which is generated from will. First, this represents callousness as a thing that the person needs to actively refresh. Callousness often seems as though it is unthinking and effortless. Framing it as something that needs maintenance is a statement in itself. Another nice thing about this is that feeding your callousness prevents you from developing your mind because your will is tied up with it. In addition, the player can get strength from love, which complicates all of this and drags the muddiness of the person's relationship with The Lover into these calculations.

Additionally, the pieces themselves often hold a lot of narrative significance. People are going to react differently to currencies like love or flirtation than to the gold and silver of other games.

Expressive Decisions

The next step for that dynamic is to have decisions points that are expressive. For instance, deciding whether to go to work when your energy is low or to take some time to recharge is a decision point that has meaning outside that of the game. Another example is choosing to start a task that you know will make you angry in order to fuel your next song. Another one is deciding whether or not to spend time with the muse even though it would make the lover angry. I wanted decisions that players would identify with, but that they saw as part of a system.

Challenge

I needed some amount of challenge in the game because that is what forces people to actually learn the systems of a game. It forces people to confront their assumptions of how the game works and to refine their knowledge of the systems.

Developing Your Personality

This could be an aesthetic as easily as a dynamic, but it's not core to the experience, so I put it in the latter category. The development of your mind over the course of the game is intrinsically rewarding to the player. It's also a natural piece of games like this. It's not on the scale of something like Civ or Spore, but it is nonetheless satisfying to watch your mind grow and fill up the empty space over the course of the game.

Playstyle Shifts

The transition of playstyle from development to management and back to development helps keep the game from feeling repetitive. It's built so that there are points where the player has a lot of things to build and has to choose what to develop first, and there are more hectic parts where the player is entirely tied up with managing things until a crisis is averted or a goal completed, which in turn tends to shift the tempo back.

Mechanics

Emotions

I think that the most compelling part of the game is the mechanical representation of emotions. Having them as tower defense creeps that flow toward the player is very visual and really encapsulates what the game tries to achieve.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X X X X   X

Calming Towers

The game largely reduces down mechanically to a slightly fancy tower defense. The back-end of a Settlers-style economy and the system of charges that ties the towers and the economy together make for a reasonable twist though.

Framing the damage as calming was important to convey the aesthetic and to help the player engage with the aesthetics and not get bogged down in the mechanics. Also, choosing towers like painting and taking walks helped sell the concept.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X X X X X X

Resources

The resources are a lot of what makes the game tick. The mechanic is the vector through which I can give the player things and so foster that dynamic of development. It also lets me put in flavor, both with the economy and with the goals. The conversions of pieces has a lot of storytelling and the goals and their requirements do as well.

Something like requiring will to keep yourself from saying something stupid is immediately relatable. I also like the implicit storytelling of getting over a success requiring a single will, but getting over a failure requiring six.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X X X X X  

Trains of Thought

These enable the playstyle shift through the limit on the number of concurrent trains. This is not an issue in the early game, but after some amount of development, it keeps the player from doing all of the activities they want to do simultaneously and so forces the player to consider trade-offs.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X X X     X

Unlocks of New Items

This mechanic is primarily to help the game flow. Management of complexity is key to the player's experience.

However, I did try to frame it narratively in ways that make intuitive sense. Taking the time to breathe unlocking the intelligence trait is natural, as is the trait of the homeland coming from reading a letter from home.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X       X  

Traits To Build On

Both tower defense and Settlers-like games need a varied map to promote decision making and traits mechanically solved that issue. This also does well narratively as it makes sense to develop different parts of the mind in the different areas and under different traits.

The real thing that this does which I like is it makes the trains go from area to area. I think that feeling of having the traits work together in order to complete goals is very strong, if a little submerged.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X X     X  

Memories

Making memories into traits let me put in that feeling of building from your emotions that I always wanted. It really only came in to play in Songcraft, but even in The Quiet Sleep, the player is able to use anger and joy to generate important currencies.

Having those memories be sources of further emotion was also useful in that it both helped me manage the amount of challenge and helped make the challenge feel less random to the player.

Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
X X X   X X  

Important One-offs

  • The destruction of the homeland - This key trait is removed from the map if you renounce it and its removal takes away certain towers that the player has become used to relying on.
  • Transforming traits - This was a good way for me to fit in more pieces into a single trait, but it also had powerful narrative moments, like the romance breaking down or insecurity becoming self-confidence.
  • The AI of flip - Playing against another person really changes the experience of the game and the narrative points that it makes.

Full Table

Mechanic Novelty Communication Narrative-Heavy Systems Expressive Decisions Challenge Development Playstyle Shifts
Emotions X X X X X   X
Calming Towers X X X X X X X
Resources X X X X X X X
Trains of Thought X X X X     X
Unlocks of New Items           X  
Traits X X X     X  
Memories X X X   X X  

Further Dynamics

Flow

Once the game starts working for you, it's easy to fall into flow with it because it keeps presenting you with new goals. Basically, it does the Civ thing of having multiple timers ticking down but offset to each other.

Choosing Where To Send Limited Resources

A lot of the fun of the game comes from having to prioritize where to send a limited resource. Do you want to use your energy to work or to paint? Choosing what to do now makes for an interesting decision and so keeps the game engaging.

Self-Discovery

A lot of people have noted specific moments of the game as particularly resonant with their everyday life, but my hope is that some players will take it to the next step. The framing of the game can be used to think about your own actions and hopefully can lead to insight by doing so.

Concerns With MDA

Blurred Lines For Dynamics

At what point is something a dynamic versus an aesthetic? Things like challenge or development or playstyle shifts would be aesthetics in another game, but here only serves to further the primary aesthetics.

Similarly, where is the line for dynamics versus mechanics? There are often mechanics that are built exactly to create a certain dynamic. At that point, the dichotomy seems redundant.

Do Core Aesthetics Define The Experience

I don't know that a strong focus on a group of core aesthetics makes for a better experience. There is plenty of great work that is great specifically because of the variety and the tangents explored and so I hesitate to make such a statement.

I'm not sure that the strong focus on authored aesthetics that MDA encourages is actually conducive to making better games. It's a plausible hypothesis, but counter-examples exist and I would not make such a strong statement without a truly compelling argument behind it.

You Cannot Fully List Dynamics

The number of dynamics that comes up in a game of even moderate complexity makes it impractical to try for a complete taxonomy of them. You can exhaustively list both mechanics and aesthetics, but the dynamics that come from interactions are legion.

Glue Mechanics and Dynamics

Some parts of the game are there simply to keep the player engaged. They may get dressed up so as to better serve the key aesthetics, but their function is more mundane and that will come through on any sufficiently close reading. They are however key to the experience and the game would not function without them.

The Analysis is Incomplete

The aesthetics do not fully map out the game. There are many games that can be built from a list of aesthetics and the lack of a one-to-one relationship shows that there are parts of the game that MDA cannot comment upon.

It also seems to believe that mechanically equivalent games are equivalent, but that's obviously untrue.

Also, it just has no scope to discuss things like complexity hits, which are fundamental to understanding your game.

At best, it functions as a single lens, and so needs to be used in conjunction with other metrics.

This does not discount the utility of an MDA analysis however. It's still extremely useful at what it does, which is to help you examine the game from the angles of what you want and what you have built and so to make the whole more coherent.

- @murthynikhil


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