Over four years ago (!?!?) I wrote a post concerning how games do and don’t account for ambivalence in their pacing, which boiled down to the point that sometimes the player doesn’t want to fully engage what the game has lined up next for the player, and it should give them the space to decide when to engage it. It’s a topic that’s come back to mind as I consider how I choose to engage Dragon Age: Inquisition. I haven’t invested enough in that game to really judge one way or the other in its specific case, but it’s led me back to a train of thought about how games are structured around player preferences to maximize engagement.
This question of how and when to engage the player is a matter of achieving player consent to engage (e.g. when to begin the final battle with Lavos in Chrono Trigger.) While this is not something that should be employed at every turn in a game (there’s got to be some room for surprise) the experience must first begin with soliciting and confirming the user’s consent to engage in what the game has planned. It’s easy to see how this makes sense in cases of user experience design (allow players to skip dialogue, allow them to save at critical points before proceeding, etc) but it becomes more complex when applied to the “text” of the game itself. “Text” meaning the content of the game itself rather than how the game and player interface with one another. The player must first choose to listen to what the game has to say before it can successfully proceed in conveying its text. Anticipating the player’s desires and navigating their preferences would appear to be an insurmountable task. But this is something that is worth consideration in evaluating critically successful games.
Following from consent, the game must next instill a sense of responsibility in the player to respect the game’s rules. When the game chooses to speak, the player must understand what is being said in addition to consenting to hear it then accept responsibility for its consequences. And only when after this process of acquiring consent and accepting responsibility can the interaction follow. For instance, in the very beginning of Super Mario Brothers, World 1-1, we can safely assume consent is acquired being so early in the game. And responsibility is instilled by creating a coherent set of rules to determine what the game means when it speaks. Not jumping over the goomba results in failure. Failure results in restarting the level. Jumping and maneuvering is required in order to navigate the spoken hazards of the level. Thus, the game instills in the player a sense of responsibility to protect Mario against those hazards. Failure comes at the cost of the player’s time. This creates anticipation and tension, but if the cost is too great, then the game will lose the player’s consent even if they understand and accept responsibility for its rules. World 1-1 mitigates this by only increasing the cost of failure by what it knows the player is capable of. They cannot proceed to the ending of World 1-1 without demonstrating they are capable of understanding what the game has said.
How do I tie this back into Dragon Age: Inquisition? I think many times, when a game makes grand promises, I meet them with greater scrutiny. I have less time to play them now, and I’ve played enough of them that I want early assurance that what I’m doing is novel or new. I’m also a tad bit overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of this game in particular. I don’t have confidence I will play it well at first and, as a result, I don’t fully invest myself in it while I learn its systems. I’ve consented to the game, but haven’t accepted full responsibility for the meaning of its text. And that’s because it’s got so much to say! I’m not really sure what to make of it yet or why I need to care. So, I joke around, play with the systems and wait for all of this noise to coalesce into an experience resembling what I think the designers had in mind for me. At that point, they’ll have my full buy-in and I’ll fully play the game “in character.” Games like Walking Dead and Saints Row IV accomplished this for me, and Dragon Age may yet as well. In the mean time, this will be my experience: