Have Adventure Games Forgotten the A in MDA?

[Originally posted at http://gambit.mit.edu ]
I like adventure games. I’m referring specifically to the traditional point-and-click graphical adventures. The first one I played was Torin’s Passage way back in elementary school. It was the funniest game I had ever played and had the most sophisticated plot (but keep in mind that the next closest was probably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time). Torin’s Passage was developed by Sierra and written by Al Lowe of Leisure Suit Larry fame. As a simpler and more accessible variant of the typical adventure games, it was perfect for a kid new to adventure games. There were no verbs to select, generally straightforward puzzles, and even an in-game hint system. What really drew me in were the elaborately animated characters, full voice-overs, and hilarious dialogue. The world of Torin’s Passage was a twisted fairy tale that was light-hearted with an underlying dark edge. I fondly remember the mountain-top guru with a yiddish accent, the slapstick shapeshifting of Torin’s pet Boogle, and the emotional revelations during the final encounter. The intriguing characters and plot-twists made me begin to realize that actual stories could be told through games.

 Torin's Passage

Torin's Passage

But what do I remember of the puzzles and various interactions? There was the hill where I had to hunt way too long for just the right blade of grass to click. There was a frustrating sound puzzle whose solution seemed arbitrary. There was a puzzle where I had to give a bag of rosin to a man with a violin without any prompting, and I didn’t know what rosin was. To remind myself of any other puzzles, I had to look at an online walkthrough. In typical adventure game fashion, most situations boil down to clicking on the right objects and using the right inventory items. And in typical adventure game fashion, the actual playing of the game is a whole lot less memorable then the non-interactive writing and art. I never think “Oh man, it was so cool when I clicked on the shovel and then on the wall and a secret passage opened! I’m so good at this!”

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of memorable in puzzles in other games. The Secret of Monkey Island’s insult battle springs to mind. Then again, that was a break from the standard mechanics. Hearing people talk about the lack of new adventure games, they frequently say they miss the complex stories, the humor, the interesting situations. Who misses the actual interactions? Are the point-and-click mechanics merely the most convenient method to tell the story? I’m sure many readers would take issue with my assumptions (or even better, are yelling indignantly at their monitors), but bear with me: We’re getting to the good stuff.

The MDA framework for analyzing games has been gaining recognition and is featured in the annual GDC Game Design Workshop. MDA gives us a lens to see the relationship between players and game mechanics. Mechanics are rules and low-level processes that govern the game. Dynamics are the behaviors that emerge due to the mechanics. Aesthetics are the emotional responses the player experiences as a result of the dynamics. It’s important to note that “aesthetics” in the context of MDA are solely based on mechanics and interactions, as opposed to art, music, writing, etc. Here we find one of the shortcomings of MDA. It must be understood that MDA only accounts for one facet of “fun.” That being said, the fun that arises from mechanics and dynamics is certainly vital. This interactivity distinguishes games from all other media.

 The MDA Framework

The MDA Framework

Let us consider how the MDA framework may shed some light on adventure games. Typical point-and-click adventure games have one of two sets of primary mechanics: either the player must select a verb before clicking on an object, or the game assumes a verb depending on context. The challenge is similar in both cases, involving discovering what to click and in what order. The resulting dynamics involve logical reasoning, recalling an earlier clue, or frequently trial and error. Think about the aesthetics that follow. The player is proud of themselves for coming up with the right solution. There is a sense of discovery as they find new objects or learn new information. While we can come up with more types of “fun” for this, notice how the non-mechanical elements of the game still are central to these aesthetics. Discovery is much more exciting when the object is visually interesting or important to the narrative. Puzzles (using the primary point-and-click mechanic) rely on the narrative and context. Abstracting an adventure game by removing art and story could still be an interesting puzzle, but much less appealing. In fact, would you be able to tell the difference between adventure games?

Adventure games seem to have been astonishingly stagnant in terms of mechanics. The interface for selecting verbs has changed, but adventure games released in the last few years function the same as they did 15 years ago. From a purely mechanical standpoint there is more difference between Super Mario Brothers 3 (1988) and Super Mario World (1990), or Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) and Majora’s Mask (2000), than there is between The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) and the Sam & Max Save the World (2006). Adventure games are almost less of a genre than a single game with different stories and puzzles. But it’s the emphasis on story and puzzles that frequently set point-and-click adventures apart.

There has been plenty of evolution in adventure game mechanics, it just has occurred in other genres. Survival horror games frequently have puzzles requiring item acquisition and usage, but that mechanic is usually paired with real-time combat. Action-adventure games like the Zelda series have adapted similar elements. Role-playing games feature fully animated sequences with spoken dialogue. Each of these genres use elements of adventure games in conjunction with other sets of mechanics that form the primary interactions. I’m currently playing through The Longest Journey, and while I’m very invested in the story and am amazed by the visuals, the game mechanics just feel old. Point-and-click adventure games haven’t faded away by accident, though the proud few continue to be some of the most humorous games available. They still have a place in the game industry, but it’s like listening to vinyl records. Records have their own charm and many people would argue that their sound has more personality than CDs. Once in awhile I get a kick out of listening to my parents’ old Beatles album, but I have 6500 songs on my computer that I can play instantaneously. There is still a market for albums to be released on vinyl, but it is a niche market that shows little signs of changing.