Hurry Up and Meander
"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.
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 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.
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.