The players in a tabletop roleplaying game never do what you expect them to.
Case in point: I’ve just started up a campaign of Promethean. It opens with the player characters being drawn to a mysterious, sprawling house, where they discover an otherworldly being called a qashmal who dispenses a cryptic riddle.
This is the second time I’ve run the beginning of this campaign with different players each time. The first group did what I expected: they searched the building top to bottom for clues, then proceeded to follow up on the riddle. This latest group, however, decided against that.
And now for some hardcore interactivity theory geekery. I’ve been doing design for my current work in progress (working title: The Mold Fairy) and it’s caused me to think, as I often do, about the nature of interactivity. Most any interactive work is a simulation. Usually, this is a simulation of reality, or of a reality very similar to our own; two to three dimensions, strict sequencing of time, the possibility of containment and spacial relations, and various energies and forces. Different games have different levels of abstraction to their simulation. What makes it interactive is that the player can tweak the parameters of the simulation. In most games, the player can only control the behavior of an actor or group of actors within the simulation. This ability to affect the progress of the simulation is called player agency. It’s essential to interactivity, and it’s used in different ways in different works. I’d like to see this agency take a different form than it usually does. Let me lay some groundwork first.
Jim Sterling over at Destructoid wrote a post the other day claiming that linear games provide pacing and structure that nonlinear “sandbox” games do not:
Indeed, if every game was a huge open world, you would soon find yourself growing bored, or at least overwhelmed as you struggle to find time in the day to explore sandbox after sandbox. After hours spent in the hustle and bustle of Liberty City or Tamriel, a game with clearer focus and a set beginning, middle and end can be just what the doctor ordered, providing some experiences that total freedom just can’t manage.
Sterling’s got a point: open games that allow for actual player agency over the path of the plot do tend to have inferior pacing and emotional impact when compared to games with a linear plot. However, Sterling falls into a common trap when it comes to game design: just because they tend to be inferior doesn’t mean they can’t manage to provide that pacing. Game designers just don’t pay enough attention to it. More after the jump.