Agency and Narrative

“Anyone who prioritizes the delivery of narrative over support for player agency fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the medium.” – Bizarro Hepler

I recently encountered this quotation in my twitter feed, and it got me thinking. I generally agree with the sentiment, but I think the phrasing, or the worldview which informs the phrasing, may be misguided. In short, while I believe that it is true that if you are overriding the gameplay in order to deliver narrative content then you are undermining the true impact of your game, the fact is that if the story and gameplay are in conflict in the first place you have already fucked up.

The point that a lot of people who rant on this subject miss, I think, is that the game’s mechanics define the scope of our interactions with the game world. It’s not frustrating, for instance, being forced to run to the right and dodge obstacles in Super Mario Brothers in order to fulfill the pre-written story, because the game mechanics are defined in such a way that this is the only reasonable interaction. If the player’s input is understood, at the beginning of the game, to only contain a limited set of interactions, and those actions are concordant with the story the designer wants to tell, there’s never a conflict at all.

The problem occurs when a designer decides he wants to tell a story that doesn’t consist entirely of “I shot a dude in the face” and then gives the player nothing but a disembodied arm holding a gun

Alternately, possibly more dangerously, possibly more powerfully, the designer can temporarily and contextually constrain the input of the player. One of the most interesting examples of this I’ve heard discussed is from Uncharted 2. In Uncharted 2 the player encounters a peaceful village which he can explore. Using buttons which are normally mapped to attacks instead, in this area, result in the player character shaking hands with a villager. The developers could have more easily simply blocked off that interaction entirely, but instead they’re parsing the player’s input in a way that makes sense within the context set by the world. By keeping the buttons mapped, but to commands which make sense within the relevant context, the designers maintain player agency without extending that agency to the realm of the player breaking the story they’re trying to tell.

Conflicts seem to arise most readily in the RPG genre. One can clearly see where this arose from the history of the genre, emerging as it did from the pen and paper tabletop games of the Dungeons and Dragons tradition. In these games, most or all of the actual ruleset was dedicated to dictating the circumstances and outcomes of combat– they were essentially war games, and derived from the war game tradition. However, using the justifying fiction behind the game, stories of orcs and elves and other miscellaneous fantasy generics, united with these systemic rules, people would construct stories. There was no conflict between the story and the gameplay, because the story provided all of the context for the gameplay. The idea of them being in conflict, or at least them being in conflict the same manner and degree that story and gameplay considered to be in modern computer RPGs, is absurd.

Good job guys, you defeated the balrog! Now, as reward, you guys can just sit there and I’ll read you chapters three through five of my Lord of the Rings fan fic!

The games that claim to derive from the Dungeons and Dragons tradition, unfortunately, tend to conflate these concepts– those games which people most claim overemphasize narrative at the expense of game mechanics are really, often, more like two separate games stitched together. Role Playing Games like Dragon Age are an interesting example. Dragon Age is a fairly mediocre strategy title, wherein you can equip and order about your little fantasy soldiers,married to what many consider a truly exceptional adventure game, wherein you can talk to people in towns, interact with your party members, and explore a world. These experiences are fundamentally different, and while each can be a decent game in its own right improvements or emphasis on one will generally come at the expense of the other.

If it Dragon Age were solely a strategy game or solely an adventure game, these concepts wouldn’t have been in conflict in the first place. Would that have made it a better game? Well, not necessarily, since even if they’re less than the sum of their parts the intersection of these two gameplay styles has a lot of fans, but it certainly would have resulted in a more unified design which would have been easier to build on (and likely would have prevented what is by most accounts a pretty terrible sequel).

It’s overly simplistic to think that any restriction of player agency is inherently detrimental to the player’s experience. Games are all about rules, after all, and what are rules but a restriction of agency? This is why it’s so important to really think about the foundation of the game, the mechanics which define the players’ interactions, and what they communicate.

It communicates bullets into your face

Whenever you limit the players interactions, think about what those limitations mean within the world of the game. Any restrictions on the player’s input must be justified by context. Forcing the player to sit through a cutscene is one thing if the player character is standing there like a slack jawed moron, but quite another if he’s slumped against a wall bleeding out from a gut wound (though how he got there in the first place without disenfranchising the player is a whole other problem).

Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to never take control completely away from the player. Players are perfectly willing to be restrained if it’s justified, but not to be silenced. When the game ceases to offer any feedback at all for player input, it ceases to be a game.

So, if you’re going to make a game, know the game you’re making. Know what you’re trying to achieve, and design on that basis, rather than unthinkingly accepting ‘best practice’ design decisions.

Yes, this is a recurring theme. I’ll stop saying it when people stop doing it.

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3 comments
  1. Chall said:

    You make a good point.

    Link gutting the old man served no purpose, and no useful outcome (other than perhaps a dark laugh) in Legend of Zelda so why code that option in?

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