Hurry Up and Meander

We keep on waitin' (waaaitin'), waitin' on the world to change!

"Find him ... and close shut the marble jaws of Oblivion!"

It is with this imperative that Emperor Uriel Septim VII ushers you forth on an Epic Quest of Epicness in Bethesda's 2006 release, Oblivion. It's a nice send-off. It has punch. Pizazz. Energy. And being read by the incomparable Patrick Stewart doesn't hurt. I, for one, wanted to run right out into the world, shut those gates and do … and do … uh, something. Oh, look! Milk thistle!

Oblivion's opening did a good job of instilling a sense of urgency, but it completely and utterly failed to follow through on its threat/promise of DOOOOOM. Like all Elder Scrolls games, you as the player are given a tremendous amount of agency, the ability to go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything whenever you damn well please — which is awesome. But what happens when you pair that with a narrative that instills a tremendous sense of urgency?

Narrative whiplash so bad that your great-grandchildren will be born with bruised necks.

Oblivion's agency/urgency conundrum is a clear case of the narrative not lining up with the gameplay, a problem termed ludonarrative dissonance by Clint Hocking several years back. Ludonarrative dissonance can manifest itself in several ways, but the agency/urgency divide is the one that is perhaps the most classic example of the concept. Agency and urgency are perfect exemplars of the tension between a gamer's preferred mechanics and preferred story.

The Tension

A compelling story generally requires a set pace to it. The modern gamer's action-packed explode-a-thon has a story that requires action NOW. The president is being abducted NOW. The Russians are arming their nuclear bomb NOW. If you dilly-dally around looking for tchotchkes they'll just vaporize the entire city. WHERE ARE YOUR TCHOTCHKES NOW?!?

Mechanics, on the other hand, usually weigh heavily toward leisurely exploration. We are so often rewarded for checking out-of-the-way places, making sure we have everything we need for the upcoming struggles, and collecting every damn flag on the map. The vast majority of games have to give the player enough agency to poke around a bit merely to be considered a game at all by most people.

This is a perfectly fine way to play a game, of course, but it contrasts markedly to the typical narrative structure. It leads to the jarring example of OMG THE GATES OF HELL ARE OPENING ALL OVER CYRODI— oh, you wanna go become head of the Thieves' Guild? That's cool, we'll just sit here quietly twiddling our thumbs inside our hellspawn gates waiting for you to hit a certain narrative trigger.

Our mechanical urge to leave no stone unturned is so strong in part because we're always rewarded for it. Even in a game such as Call of Duty 4 that propels you forward with mechanics like endlessly spawning enemies, there still exists an exploration reward (briefcases). It's just a thing that we all do. Yes, even you over there in Hoboken. Raise your hand if this is familiar. Yes? Everyone? Good.

So what then? Is the tension of mechanic agency and narrative urgency inherent to the form? Must, as some critics claim, the mechanics be slaved entirely to the story, or the story entirely to the mechanics? I think the answer to both of these questions is No.

The Release

The question of inherency is relatively easy to answer. Sure, there are gobsmacking paradoxes like Oblivion, but the same free-agent mechanics were used with a very fitting narrative in its predecessor, Morrowind.

Morrowind sets you against a demi-god who has spent hundreds of years building a weapon and a cult to worship him. The plot has a slow burn, and is something that could clearly take many years to come to any sort of fruition. The game gives you enough to investigate to move you forward, but ultimately you are on a god's timeline, not a human's, and therefore the extremely slow pace that a high-agency game has meshes well with the narrative. It's totally believable that it could take Nerevar years or even decades to destroy Lorkhan, and that not much would have changed in that period of time except for the cult growing somewhat (which does happen). You can play the game without being jerked out of it by such incongruous mechanic/plot interactions.

What made Bethesda abandon such a perfect narrative for their style of game? What compels so many rail shooters to add immersion-breaking collectibles? I can't say for sure, but I imagine it has to do with statistics and focus groups, trying to stuff as many marketers' bullet points onto the back of the box as possible. Morrowind's narrative is smart, but it's quiet, and not something that most people would describe as "Exciting! Epic! Other superlatives that end in exclamation points!" Unfortunately, "thoughtful" is not an oft-used buzzword on marketing copy.

Morrowind works, but it does appear that the narrative was largely written to serve the exploration-heavy gameplay — slaved to it, so to speak. Some say that this must happen; that one must take precedent over the other. At least where agency and urgency are concerned, however, the two may peacefully co-exist.

The Peace

Majora's Mask is a perfect example of agency and urgency peacefully doing their ludonarrative thing without any dissonance. The game marries the Zelda series' exploration-heavy at-your-own-pace gameplay with a 3 days to DOOOOOOM narrative through the very clever use of time-shifting mechanics. There's no possible way to finish the game in one sequence, so the player is allowed to repeat them over and over again until they finally have the knowledge and skills to stop the moon from crashing to the earth in the last 3-day sequence.

Of course, time travel is not the only way to mix agency and urgency. Persona 3 does a good job of setting up a compelling narrative, but it's done within a very rigid structure. A series of escalating doomsdays are more or less circled on a calendar. You have a set amount of calendar time to prep, fight, grow your party strength, what have you, knowing when you next need to be ready. The school year format of the narrative works well to allow agency within a certain timeframe while still holding fast to a more urgent narrative.

It's disingenuous to argue that ludonarrative dissonance inherently exists when there are many examples above (and many more beside) that prove otherwise. There are even cases in which the narrative/urgency or mechanics/agency need not be subservient to the other. Feature creep can be a killer, here — it's no accident that most of the good examples are very tight, focused experiences.

In each case of mechanical agency and narrative urgency, there is a balancing act at play. The interplay of the two cannot be ignored, but it doesn't require that one run roughshod over the other in order to avoid jarring dissonance. As games continue to advance and criticism evolves along with them, I look forward to a time when the two can skip hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, looking to past successful examples as their guide.

Comments

Love the MS Paint graphic!

My wife was watching me play some new game a month or two ago and asked me a few times, "why don't you press that button that says it takes you to the next area?" after it had been visible for several minutes. "I haven't looked everywhere else yet."

IMAGE(http://i.imgur.com/v5hVZL0.jpg)

I take great joy in having something pressing that I can put off with trifling distractions. High stakes and enhanced dawdling. That's wish fulfillment!

I'm reminded of the first Fallout game, that required you to find the water chip within a certain N days of the quest. Many people apparently hated it, but I thought it served the game well, by essentially demanding the player move through the "first" 5 or so areas with all deliberate haste.

--Nathaniel

Nathaniel wrote:

I'm reminded of the first Fallout game, that required you to find the water chip within a certain N days of the quest. Many people apparently hated it, but I thought it served the game well, by essentially demanding the player move through the "first" 5 or so areas with all deliberate haste.

--Nathaniel

I've always been fond of that opening, as well. It got people out the door and moving and served as a nice introduction to the world.

The second, hidden timer felt like bullsh*t.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
Nathaniel wrote:

I'm reminded of the first Fallout game, that required you to find the water chip within a certain N days of the quest. Many people apparently hated it, but I thought it served the game well, by essentially demanding the player move through the "first" 5 or so areas with all deliberate haste.

--Nathaniel

I've always been fond of that opening, as well. It got people out the door and moving and served as a nice introduction to the world.

The second, hidden timer felt like bullsh*t.

My issue was that the urgency, while useful in a first playthrough, limited the exploration possibilities in subsequent playthroughs. Which would be fine, if Interplay hadn't made such a great world to explore.

Which is where the concept of New Game+ would be really useful, as it would give the designers a way of knowing whether or not you needed that introduction.

I also found that, personally, the quest to find the water chip helped give me focus in the otherwise open world. One of the things that was very off-putting for me about the beginning of Oblivion was that it dumped me out into the world without a very clear idea of where I was, where I should be going, or what I should be doing. Fallout's water chip quest gave me something to do right at the beginning while I was getting used to the world, but once it was resolved I was able to then get into exploring the world itself without as much hand-holding.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Which is where the concept of New Game+ would be really useful, as it would give the designers a way of knowing whether or not you needed that introduction.

I also found that, personally, the quest to find the water chip helped give me focus in the otherwise open world. One of the things that was very off-putting for me about the beginning of Oblivion was that it dumped me out into the world without a very clear idea of where I was, where I should be going, or what I should be doing. Fallout's water chip quest gave me something to do right at the beginning while I was getting used to the world, but once it was resolved I was able to then get into exploring the world itself without as much hand-holding.

Hmm. Oblivion was my fifth Elder Scrolls game (I played a bit of Redwall), so I didn't need hand-holding. Interesting to hear a newer perspective.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

I also found that, personally, the quest to find the water chip helped give me focus in the otherwise open world.

Morrowind did something similar, basically "Go talk to this guy over in Balmora. You can take the silt strider right there or amble up the coastline."

I think Fallout's is an interesting case that illustrates well how deep the agency/urgency tension can run. In its case, they chose to somewhat artificially restrict the player agency to the narrative urgency, and it obviously irritated some people. I guess there are a few things they could have done to solve it, whether it's a NG+ or just "opening the world" after you beat the game similar to Mario 64 or something.

Or maybe they really intended it to be the way it is. It's a bit odd because nowadays some games pride themselves in one decision tree locking you out from content on the other side, making it so that you have to play through the game multiple times to see all the content and endings. Fallout's example feels similar, although in a less structured way. And with no achievements tied to exploring every path.

Slumberland wrote:

I take great joy in having something pressing that I can put off with trifling distractions. High stakes and enhanced dawdling. That's wish fulfillment!

Yup, the super-addictive quality of viable procrastination is heady stuff indeed to those of us that like to procrastinate. I might posit that many gamers are, by their very nature, at least at a higher likelihood of being in that category, but that would be committing to a static position that might become indefensible in some way, so I won't.

Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs told a story on the show a few weeks ago on this subject. Apparently he was play-testing the intro to Skyrim while he worked at Bethesda with Tim Schafer looking over his shoulder. He ran like hell through the initial prison building as there was a huge f'ing dragon chasing him. This caused Tim S. to ask him why he was playing so weird (i.e. not stopping to look in barrels).

I don't recall what the anecdote was in service of but it really surprised me to think that Tim Schafer didn't even know how weird his games feel when it comes to urgency/agency dissonance.

caterin6 wrote:

Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs told a story on the show a few weeks ago on this subject. Apparently he was play-testing the intro to Skyrim while he worked at Bethesda with Tim Schafer looking over his shoulder. He ran like hell through the initial prison building as there was a huge f'ing dragon chasing him. This caused Tim S. to ask him why he was playing so weird (i.e. not stopping to look in barrels).

I don't recall what the anecdote was in service of but it really surprised me to think that Tim Schafer didn't even know how weird his games feel when it comes to urgency/agency dissonance.

Todd Howard, I think. Tim Schafer is the head of Double Fine.

Garden Ninja wrote:
caterin6 wrote:

Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs told a story on the show a few weeks ago on this subject. Apparently he was play-testing the intro to Skyrim while he worked at Bethesda with Tim Schafer looking over his shoulder. He ran like hell through the initial prison building as there was a huge f'ing dragon chasing him. This caused Tim S. to ask him why he was playing so weird (i.e. not stopping to look in barrels).

I don't recall what the anecdote was in service of but it really surprised me to think that Tim Schafer didn't even know how weird his games feel when it comes to urgency/agency dissonance.

Todd Howard, I think. Tim Schafer is the head of Double Fine.

I took Caterin's word for it, and found it a pretty entertaining story.

Garden Ninja wrote:
caterin6 wrote:

Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs told a story on the show a few weeks ago on this subject. Apparently he was play-testing the intro to Skyrim while he worked at Bethesda with Tim Schafer looking over his shoulder. He ran like hell through the initial prison building as there was a huge f'ing dragon chasing him. This caused Tim S. to ask him why he was playing so weird (i.e. not stopping to look in barrels).

I don't recall what the anecdote was in service of but it really surprised me to think that Tim Schafer didn't even know how weird his games feel when it comes to urgency/agency dissonance.

Todd Howard, I think. Tim Schafer is the head of Double Fine.

woops, I could edit, but I am a man who likes to own my mistakes.

thanks for correcting me.

Man, I'll be honest, if what Nick said is true that's rather depressing. You have the executive lead of one of the largest development houses in the world who can't even see the problem when it's right in front of his face.

Granted, this is the studio who gave us our textbook bad example in the article, but still…

Spoiler:

That one's just for you, Wordy.

EDIT: here's a link to that podcast (with timestamp, even). H/T to psoplayer for the link. Possibly un work-safe language.

I loved Star Control 2 for it's handling of this problem. Take too much time, and the game doesn't end immediately, but potential allies get wiped out by the advancing Ur-Quan.

Of course, the first time you play, this will probably catch you completely by surprise and you'll lose, but hey, you can't have everything.

I'm glad I'm not the only one that listens to both podcasts. I was thinking of that story, too.

Also, ...

Majora's Mask spoilers! Jeez, tag it. Hah!

That graphic is well... the opposite of phallic.

Just saying.

"Yonic."

wordsmythe wrote:

"Yonic."

"Yoink!"

Minarchist wrote:

Man, I'll be honest, if what Nick said is true that's rather depressing. You have the executive lead of one of the largest development houses in the world who can't even see the problem when it's right in front of his face.

Granted, this is the studio who gave us our textbook bad example in the article, but still…

Yeah, no kidding. I want my money back. Truth is though, I'll continue to buy their games, maybe they'll get it right one day

I actually prefer my games with a bit of ludonarrative dissonance, since I don't like time constraints on my gameplay, but find stories with a sense of urgency more gripping. Maybe I'm just good at the cognitive dissonance when playing games.

Tanglebones wrote:

IMAGE(http://i.imgur.com/v5hVZL0.jpg)

Haha, this killed me. It was in my head the entire article. Bravo, sir.

Demyx wrote:

I actually prefer my games with a bit of ludonarrative dissonance, since I don't like time constraints on my gameplay, but find stories with a sense of urgency more gripping. Maybe I'm just good at the cognitive dissonance when playing games.

I don't know if I'd extend it to ludonarritive dissonance in general, but I definitely agree when it comes to agency/urgency specifically. At least in RPGs, I want to go dig into every little nook and cranny, and solve all the world's tiny problems before I get around to saving the universe. The story should feel urgent in some way, but not having it actually be urgent leads to more interesting gameplay. However, you have to be careful what you do to make it feel urgent. That was one thing I found frustrating in Baldur's Gate: I want to do everything, and considering Level 1 DnD, you basically need to, but one character kept interrupting to demand we move on. Shush, you! I'm killing orc bandits over here!

There is obviously room for games that lean in favor of the actual urgency side (most linear games, where there isn't much to do besides move on), or have limited or no pretend urgency (the Morrowind example upthread, or Batman Arkham Asylum where you need to get through the night, but have plenty of time to explore). I like those styles of game as well, but for games that do lean towards the agency side, I prefer any urgency to be pretend urgency. Real Agency + Real Urgency sounds interesting in theory, but I think it would be frustrating in practice.

I really enjoyed this piece. This particular type of ludonarrative dissonance really shakes me out of the game in a hurry.

I hate ludonarrative dissonance as much as the next guy (I mean the conflict, not the term) but speaking specifically to Oblivion in particular, I never have a problem with it. Maybe I'm more willing to suspend my disbelief from a crane in trade for the compromise, for all the other things I enjoy about those games.

For sure while I'm playing, I never feel constant pressure to save the world and avoid the rest. When I start a main story quest, then it's like activating a tableau vivant. Then I've decided to buy into that pressure at that moment; and when the quest is done, I'm happy to flick the switch and put the epic-ness on pause.

Well, that works for me anyway. Otherwise the solution is to dispense with save-the-world-from-the-big-threat plots entirely from Elder Scrolls games, which is sound advice for more reasons than just this.

I liked Fallout.

And by "liked" I mean that I rate it as the number one best game of all time most of the time someone asks what my favorite game is.

They eventually patched out the second timer, but I never ran afoul of it. I missed the first deadline several times as I learned the game (once literally as I ran back to the Vault, chip in hand!), but I had so much fun doing it that I wasn't really an issue. These days I can probably make the whole round in about 20 days if I work at it. I suspect I could do better if I remembered how to really optimize.

Without the timer I doubt I would have felt the game nearly as compelling. Take Skyrim (for example). It's a great big world, and I'm happy to faff about in it from time to time, but it's not really compelling. The last time I played I didn't even bother to turn in the Dragon Stone on account of dragons being more of a nuisance than fun. (I also forbade myself from crafting, since I tend to make myself an invincible avatar of death once I get going.) Would a timer fix that? Not really, but it would at least make the main questline feel like it matters. In that case I would strongly advocate for a NG+ with no timer, or simply a menu option.

It almost makes me wonder why the "Another Life" mod (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/9557//?) isn't just the cannon start.

Zudz wrote:

It almost makes me wonder why the "Another Life" mod (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/9557//?) isn't just the cannon start.

Like, after character creation, you get fired out of a cannon into the world? Damn, I gotta get the PC version.

Gravey wrote:

I hate ludonarrative dissonance as much as the next guy (I mean the conflict, not the term) but speaking specifically to Oblivion in particular, I never have a problem with it. Maybe I'm more willing to suspend my disbelief from a crane in trade for the compromise, for all the other things I enjoy about those games.

I wonder if part of the reason many people can do this is due to our being raised on video games where it really was all about mechanics; where the story was no more than a passing thought on your way to Level 99 of Bubble Bobble. I'm going to guess that before the age of Talkies, not too many people ran around bemoaning how "immersion-breaking" slapping text up on the screen was after every line of dialogue. Nowadays, however, it would throw us all for a loop.

So does the fact that we grew up with industry-infancy games that were only mechanics color our aversion (or lack thereof) to this type of ludonarrative dissonance? Will people 50 years from now sit back and wonder, "how on earth could they play all those games with nonexistent or such laughably silly stories?"

…to dispense with save-the-world-from-the-big-threat plots entirely from Elder Scrolls games, which is sound advice for more reasons than just this.

No arguments there.

Minarchist wrote:
Gravey wrote:

I hate ludonarrative dissonance as much as the next guy (I mean the conflict, not the term) but speaking specifically to Oblivion in particular, I never have a problem with it. Maybe I'm more willing to suspend my disbelief from a crane in trade for the compromise, for all the other things I enjoy about those games.

I wonder if part of the reason many people can do this is due to our being raised on video games where it really was all about mechanics; where the story was no more than a passing thought on your way to Level 99 of Bubble Bobble. I'm going to guess that before the age of Talkies, not too many people ran around bemoaning how "immersion-breaking" slapping text up on the screen was after every line of dialogue. Nowadays, however, it would throw us all for a loop.

So does the fact that we grew up with industry-infancy games that were only mechanics color our aversion (or lack thereof) to this type of ludonarrative dissonance? Will people 50 years from now sit back and wonder, "how on earth could they play all those games with nonexistent or such laughably silly stories?"

…to dispense with save-the-world-from-the-big-threat plots entirely from Elder Scrolls games, which is sound advice for more reasons than just this.

No arguments there.

The last big fantasy game to dispense with the save-the-world, etc. was Dragon Age 2, and it was savaged by many people for doing so. On the other hand, I found the urgency that came from character/familial connections in the game to be deeply moving.