The Agent and the Actor
Back in 2011, when Uncharted 3 was still new, I remember having a bit of an epiphany as I was battling my way through a seemingly endless boatyard. I thought for the first time about the layers of awareness and motivation that are at work when players experience a game.
You see, on the one hand, I was just a player in a game. An governable entity in a system that allows me to make inputs that result in particular outcomes. I had agency, I was an agent. As an agent, I was thinking about things like taking cover, finding ammo, and going for headshots. My agent brain keeps things simple.
On the other hand, I was Nathan Drake - explorer extraordinaire and slayer of enemies. I was looking for my lifelong friend, Sully, who had been kidnapped alongside me and brought to this complete non sequitur of an environment, the boatyard. I escaped, because of course I did, I'm Nathan Drake - explorer extraordinaire and slayer of enemies after all. I was more than an agent, I was an actor! A part of my gamer brain was occupied with role-playing as this particular character, Nathan Drake - explore extraordinaire and... you get the idea.
Other writers, specifically Kuba Stokalski in his recent post about meaning, choice, and player motivation, have written about the layers of motivation at work in the gamer brain more eloquently than I. But I want to discuss some thoughts on this topic anyway :)
First, I'll attempt to define these two layers of my gaming brain, the agent and the actor. If nothing else, they'll work well as shorthand terms for future posts.
Agent - A term for the Player Character (or avatar) as a governable entity within the space of the game's mechanics and game-play experience, irrespective of any contrived narrative structures or circumstances.
Actor - A term for the Player Character (or avatar) as a character within the space of the game's narrative, with considerations for the game's story-line and character relationships.
Before getting into these terms in more detail, a bit about player agency.
Games of all types are all about agency. Game systems are interactive, and as an agent, the player can interact with the game system to produce particular results. The player can jump around, explore, choose this or that weapon, or just sit there and do nothing - it's up to the player. This is the interactive nature that makes games their own unique medium of creativity and design. I don't know what a game with no agency would look like... because it wouldn't be a game.
Thus, we'll use the word agent to refer to a player interacting with a game on a level fundamental to the systems and mechanics.
In narrative-focused games, the player not only interacts with systems and mechanics, but participates in an unfolding narrative story. In this scenario, the player is more than an agent, but an actor! The player may take on the persona of a specific, authored character, or a character whom the player has created. Either way, the player's agency is not just in how to interact with the game systems, but in guiding or defining the progression of the story as a character within that story-line. It's almost as if the player is acting in a play or movie, but the director hasn't given him or her any lines to memorize!
With that in mind, when referring to the player as a character within the context of the narrative, the word actor should do nicely.
In any game with a story, the player's brain will be functioning on (at least) two levels. The agent part will be thinking about gameplay, movement, controls, etc.; and the actor part will be thinking about how the Player Character's motivations within the context of the story. That is, of course, if the player is immersed enough in the game experience to think as their character.
Ideally, a narrative game unites the emotional experiences of the player character with the player's own experiences interacting with the game's mechanics. The goal is to make the player feel like the character, and thus maximize the impact of the narrative on the overall player experience.
In other words, the agent and the actor should share similar motivations (read: should, Kuba Stokalski makes the exact opposite argument in his post, where he talks about how pitting the gamer brain against the player's self-identity can make for some agonizing decisions).
Exceptions aside, when the player's motivation as an agent (interacting with systems) runs in parallel with the player's motivation as an actor (a character within the narrative) then we have a key ingredient in achieving that all-important factor for a great narrative game: immersion.
Immersion can be described as the experience of a player "forgetting" about the outside world and focusing only on what's happening in the game. Getting the player to a state of immersion is a key goal for designers and writers in making most narrative games, and is kind of what making narrative games is all about (in my opinion, at least).
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Many games use systems of interaction that can sometimes be at odds the stated nature of the game character or the unfolding narrative. This is called dissonance (or ludonarrative dissonance if you want to get fancy).
The player's experiences and motivations as agent and as actor are always in motion as the gameplay and story of a gameprogress. It's kind of like two trains running on parallel tracks. Ideally, the trains are side-by-side, but sometimes one train slows down, stops entirely, or starts running in the opposite direction! Let's look at two examples from great narrative games to learn more about how the player experiences key moments as an agent and as an actor.
Uncharted 3 - Boatyard
Why am I here again?
Going back to Uncharted 3's boatyard sequence, my experience as an agent took precedence over my motivation as an actor. In other words, the agent train was chugging along with new and interesting gameplay moments, but the actor train is stalled as the narrative barely progressed at all.
Thing is, the boatyard sequence is one of the most spectacular chapters in the game. The level design gives me options for taking down enemies, the environment art is incredible, and the player is even introduced to a new gameplay element - vertical combat that combines climbing and shooting.
This is new!
Despite all this accomplished design work, there's barely any narrative content in this scene at all. Uncharted usually gives the player a snippet of conversation, a phone call, or a cut-scene before the next section of gameplay. In this sequence, Nathan is alone, and we only get Nathan sometimes reminding himself that he's looking for Sully. Although the player is killing lots of enemies, it doesn't really feel like anything is happening.
Just how big is this boatyard?
Why do I feel like nothing is happening? Because in terms of the story, nothing is happening! There is no narrative beat to go along with each gameplay beat, and the player isn't given a reason to care about the significance of each section of the sequence. As a result, the gameplay progresses, but the story does not. The sequence, spectacular as it is, ends up feeling drawn out. My agent brain was humming, but my actor brain was stalled.
Agent - Jump over this, duck behind that, Oooh, headshot! Hey, I can climb and shoot! So much is happening!
Actor - As Nathan, I want to find Sully, but all I'm doing is killing pirates and climbing around. Shouldn't I be asking these people questions?
As you can see, my thoughts as a agent are not quite the same as my thoughts as an actor.
It's not until Nathan actually finds Sully when the player feels like the story has started to move along again. As a player, I spent this sequence anticipating story beats that never came, and ended up rushing through some of the game's most engaging sequences without really stopping to enjoy them. Overall, it's a great sequence, but it represents a moment when the gameplay and narrative progression are not in sync.
In the next example, the player's experience as agent and as actor are perfectly in sync (at least that's how I felt).
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Helicopter Crash
In this key moment of the game's narrative, protagonist Jensen is trying to save Faridah Malik. Faridah is a character who has flown me (the player) to mission after mission throughout the game. I've formed a relationship with this character, not just because the game's narrative told me we were friends, but because she's been significant to my gameplay experiences.
In this scene, Faridah's helicopter has been shot down. She struggles to escape as enemies pour in, and soon enough the damaged craft will explode!
This was a scene that, for me at least, put my motivations as a player completely in line with Jensen's motivations as a character. In fact, the connection was so strong that I even eschewed my previous goal of beating the game with nonlethal tactics. I wanted to save Faridah so much that I was willing to kill, something I hadn't felt the need to do in any other section of the game. I whipped out my sniper rifle (for the first time) and enjoyed a cathartic battle sequence of utterly destroying the enemy troops. Unfortunately, in my playthrough, it wasn't enough to save her.
In that scene, Jensen was supposed to be enraged, and pushed to the edge. That's exactly how I felt as a player, and it was enough to compel me to change my gameplay tactics to better serve this moment in the narrative.
Agent - My nonlethal tactics are not enough to accomplish my goal of saving this NPC. I need to use lethal weapons and thus change my gameplay style and my experience of combat. I have to kill these people as quickly as possible.
Actor - I, as Jensen, want to save Faridah. I'll do what it takes to make that happen. Time to bring out that sniper rifle I haven't really ever used.
As depicted here, my motivations as an agent in the game, and my motivations as an actor in the story are walking in hand in hand to create a compelling and impactful sequence.
Keeping the player's motivation as an agent and their motivation as an actor within a story in line is an important factor in creating an immersive narrative gameplay experience (with exceptions of course). Unless they intend otherwise, developers should try to ensure that the player's motivation as an agent in the system runs in parallel with the player character's motivation in the narrative. When the agent and he actor walk (or run, or shoot) hand in hand, they might actually get somewhere.