Ten Player Motives #10

9 - NarrativeDiscussing the narrative motive, we came up against an essential problem of using games as a storytelling medium: the player expects to have influence within the game world. This is the domain of the last of the ten key commercial player motives: agency. But in order to understand how the agency motive works, we have to appreciate that there is an essential tension. Not between stories and games, as the line is typically drawn, but between agency and narrative.

There is perhaps no better way of illustrating the distinction between the narrative and the agency motives than comparing the long and distinguished lineages of Japanese computer RPGs and their 'Western' variants. Although these lines are increasingly blurred today (as AAA cRPGs will tend to draw heavily from both traditions), there is a clear historical period after the Ultima-Wizardry split that dominates more than two decades of cRPG design. In many respects, Final Fantasy VII and Bioshock that were mentioned in the context of the narrative motive highlight this very split: the Japanese took Wizardry and choose a form that prioritised the narrative motive for its storytelling (hence the 'animated movie cut with a game' that followed in the 1990s). Conversely, Ultima placed the agency motive above the narrative motive - the play itself creates stories from the toy box the game provides.

Nowhere is this foregrounding of agency above narrative more evident than in the open world games - whether we're looking at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, these games give the player the illusion that you can 'go anywhere and do anything'. This is the agency motive in a nutshell: our psychological need for autonomy manifests in games as it does in life. But in games, we come across a specific barrier that causes problems, and it is one we met before with the problem-solving motive: confusion.

Agency arguably hit its peak in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrorwind - a game with unparalleled player freedom! There was only one problem: the majority of players had literally no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Players for whom the problem-solving motive was a key part of their play had a blast with this game - enduring confusion being the 'mutant power' of such players. Most players of the game were just hopelessly lost. They needed much more help than it provided. Grand Theft Auto III provided the solution: use a film-like narrative to block out a prescribed route to follow, so that the player alternates between intervals of 'infinite agency' and following-the-path. It is the model that all contemporary open world games follow.

Yet the agency motive has more to offer. We have lost sight of the possibility of playing with the implicit narrative of The Sims or Ultima. The original inspiration for Grand Theft Auto were a series of British videogames that were the first to offer 'playground worlds'. All of these games were published between 1984 and 1985, and while Elite is the most famous, Paradroid, Mercenary, and The Lords of Midnight all show this same capacity - overcoming the limited technical capabilities of 8-bit hardware by providing a framework with which the player has maximal agency.

For a brief time there, it felt as if we might rediscover the power of the agency motive that these pioneering proto open world games unleashed. With the meteoric rise of Minecraft in the mid-2000s, we once again experienced worlds that overcame technical capabilities to offer unparalleled agency. In this case, the trick was the simple expedient of simplifying the world into cubic blocks. In a brutal yet hilarious irony for me personally, I had done exactly this several years earlier with Play with Fire, a project that eventually flailed and fell into obscurity because of the utter lack of investment in indie game projects (a problem, I might add, has never gone away).

What happened with Minecraft, however, was that it succeeded as much because it was virtual Lego as because it successfully channelled the agency motive. It enjoyed great and deserved success, but the key to its prosperity was its support of diverse regimes for play - enormous risk-reward in Hardcore, exciting exploration in Survival, and boundless imaginativeness in Creative. Yet successors copied only the substructure of Minecraft, and fell back on the familiar tricks and techniques of the game designer's playbook. If we want to truly push the agency motive forward, we need to understand why Minecraft's freedom to choose exactly how you want to play opened a door the games industry has remained reluctant to walk through.

Next week, the final part: Aesthetic


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