One of the key points of focus when designing games at a broad, conceptual level is that of player agency. The question of what actions a player can take and what impact they can leave on the world is a big one, one that often shapes the overall structure and experience of the game. Many games take this a step further, birthed entirely from the idea of a player fantasy; developers might want to create a game that gives players superpowers (inFamous), or the ability to explore a world with minimal societal constraints (GTA), or simply the ability to play football really well (Madden or FIFA, depending on where you live). Core to all of these is the concept of agency, the idea that a player can enact their will on the game's world in a way that they ordinarily couldn't in real life.
There's nothing wrong with this; games at their core are meant to deliver a brand of escapism, and what's the point of powerless escapism? However, as these experiences get more robust and complex, they strive to introduce challenges that can clash with this central tenet of player agency. Games that ask players to make difficult choices, choices that undermine their ability to control the situation, do this at their own peril. We as designers often strive to give players as much choice and agency as possible, so as to make for a robust and real-feeling world to play in. We also strive to create challenge, and many designers (myself included) are trying to come up with ways that we can challenge players outside the traditional arena of thumbskill. However, because these "alternative challenges" generally engage players outside of the usual realm of conquest, they can take away from the player's feeling of agency.
An good example of this paradox is in the realm of player/NPC romance. Many modern games offer players the opportunity to engage in romance and relationship with characters in the narrative; this is generally a good thing when we're talking about diversifying the ways that players can interact with a game. However, it can often feel heavily constrained by the albatross of player agency; in pursuit of giving the player control, romantic partners simply become new frontiers to conquer and complete. There's the uglier question of consent as well; although players usually have to "play their cards" right to engage in romance with these characters, this creates a strange space where the romantic partner more closely resembles a slot machine for virtual sex than an actual partner with interests and desires of their own. The natural counterargument to this is a technology-centric one: we simply don't have the algorithmic ability to accurate simulate a real romantic partner. The answer, as always then, is to approach this problem from a design angle; if we want to create healthier and more realistic romance options in games, we need to be willing to take power away from the player and give it to the game.
Romance is one of many examples where player agency comes into conflict with the goal of providing different kinds of challenge to players. However, it seems key that designers be willing to take this agency away when the time comes in order to better represent these challenges.
4/6/2017 12:30:35 pm
Romance in games is a difficult topic. There needs to be a balance between player control and narrative fidelity. I'd like to see a game where the NPCs approach the player for romance, rather than the other way around. While the player could still engage with the NPC and show emotional interest, the romance selection would be more up to the NPC.
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