Agency, Interactivity, and the Implicit Contract

One extremely common area of discussion about videogames, both in what constitutes its academia and among the general public, is how the narrative of a videogame itself can be interactive. Perhaps relieving ourselves of the need to discuss the very specific, and substantively different, definition of that term used by Chris Crawford in his book on the subject, we can say broadly that people expect an interactive narrative to react, in some way, to their inputs, in a way that your average book or film (Choose-Your-Own adventure instances of those media excluded, of course) does not.

This is rightly so. You can interact with a videogame in a unique way; if there is a narrative present in the game, the result meets our broad understanding of an interactive narrative. It seems very likely that anything that might be called videogame, and that has a narrative, but that cannot be called interactive in any meaningful way (your mileage may very on what constitutes “meaningful” interactivity, but this is a discussion for another time), is not, after all, a videogame proper. Where this becomes a problematic point of discussion is when people have expectations of what the interactivity should entail that conflict with the designer’s intentions.

This is the root of all “that’s not really a game” discussions. Games like Dear Esther and To The Moon polarize people not based on their intrinsic qualities, but on their qualities as relate to games as they expect them to behave; however, this relates even more broadly to something that affects even the most conventional games.

In general, I think, most people expect games to let them “take control” over some aspects of the story. In games with very exciting gameplay, like many first-person shooters, they are usually contented with the gameplay alone, and don’t make too much of a fuss about linear stories and the like. However, in games with more cerebral gameplay, like, for instance, a big open-world RPG like Skyrim, it’s considered to be pretty important that player have a lot of agency in the experience.

There is nothing at all wrong with player agency. It’s something no other artform can deliver, and provides a brand-new way of interacting with fiction; many games, like Skyrim, really are best-suited to having a highly agency-centric format. However, the preponderance of games that value agency, at least in popularity, give many, many players the idea that it is something they can, should, and ought to expect from videogames in general.

Since I have no statistics, let’s look at an anecdotal case: my father loved Fallout 3. It’s very likely that he considers it his favorite game of all time. Just about every game he’s played since then has been compared to it. This would be totally appropriate if every game he’s played since then has also been an open-world RPG: he didn’t like New Vegas as much because it didn’t have as many sidequests, and he didn’t like Skyrim as much because he found the world of Fallout so much more personally engrossing. However, not every game is an open-world RPG.

The most recent game he played was The Last of Us. I haven’t played this, and never will (because I am morally opposed to console exclusives), but I know generally that it’s been a polarizing game, with the common opinions being either: a) it’s one of the most mature narratives ever told in a videogame, with excellent gameplay to boot, or b) the characters act so irredeemably that there is no reason for the players to be on their side when the story reaches its finish. Now, while I certainly don’t believe we need to be on the side of the protagonists to enjoy a story in traditional media, or even in videogames, from what I’ve heard of the argumentation I believe I’d side with the latter argument. However, my dad didn’t think either of these things. He said the game was graphically beautiful, and fun to a point, but mostly revolved around ‘okay, go do the next part of the story, and now the next part, et cetera, roll credits.’ This is probably an accurate representation of the game; hopefully my readers will have encountered someone’s criticism of a game along these lines before.

However, as a criticism it struck me as odd, perhaps off-base. Surely many games before have had exactly that structure for their stories, and to no ill-effect (that I know of!). Half-Life 2 is one of the most popular videogames ever made, and it certainly has a very linear story structure. Even some sandbox games like Saints’ Row 2 do not place any real emphasis on narrative agency, focusing instead on letting the player interact with the world in entertaining ways. From what I know of the The Last of Us, the game doesn’t really expect players to have a major impact on the narrative, expect at a few key points; and even then those decisions are considered to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by the game.

This hits at a concept that Chris Bateman calls the implicit contract of playThe article in which he calls it that is quite informative, and it is not at all long (a skill I, clearly, do not possess). The basic idea, if you are disinclined to better yourself by reading the article, is that when a player begins a game, they carry with them a set of expectations about what playing the game will be like; and to a greater or lesser extent, these expectations form the basis for the criteria by which the player will evaluate their experience. The greater the deviation from their expectations (unless their expectations were negative, or indeed the deviation was quite an impressive one), the less the player will feel they liked the game. This idea is not unique to videogames; in general aesthetics this is pretty much exactly how genre is believed to work, but more on that next time.

Where am I going with this? There is a school of thought to which every game designer more or less subscribes that says we should make videogames that really “take advantage” of our medium. I will not argue that player agency in narrative does not take such advantage: it obviously does. However, I think many gamers, players and designers alike, think that it’s the only way in which we can take that advantage; I think that’s mistaking one prevalent implicit contract for an entire medium. Videogames are an interactive medium, it is true; however, I don’t think we ought to confuse interactivity and agency. Interactivity means so much more than narrative agency (see, for instance, Thomas Grip’s paper, “The Self, Presence, and Storytelling”); all we need is to adjust our understanding of our implicit contracts. As designers, that’s a sheer act of will. How to do that with players is what I’ll talk about next time.


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