Quiet Agency in Three Narrative Games

As someone fortunate enough to have done judging (and now jurying!) for IGF this year, I’ve played a heap more games in the last month than is usually the case for me. One ‘trend’ in this year’s crop of (generally very good) games is a set of narrative-heavy games that offer almost no immediately obvious player agency at all, which has had me thinking about what kind of role I expect/want as a player. By way of illustration, I wanted to think here about Far From Noise, Lieve Oma, and Virginia.

In each game there’s a fairly intense narrative being told. In Far From Noise and Lieve Oma it’s told through dialog advanced by the player, while in Virginia it’s told wordlessly, through objects, animation, and the expressions of characters (filmically, really). In all cases there’s quite a substantial story being conveyed – something you really end up spending time with and absorbing and thinking about (and perhaps puzzling through).

In each game, too, there’s a real lack of interactivity beyond taking single actions that advance the narrative itself. In Far From Noise one navigates dialog trees through (as near as I can tell) a fair unitary story. In Lieve Oma one walks through a forest and sometimes clicks through narration by the two characters on screen (making no choices). In Virginia one scans the environment (sometimes walking through it) for an object to trigger “the next thing” (generally speaking there’s only one thing at any one time).

My initial reaction to this kind of work is to feel somehow shortchanged as a player, as a player. It’s hard not to feel like there’s not much for me to do, no special reason for me to be “in control”. And in fact this feeling still lingers with me to the extent that I wouldn’t say these sorts of approaches to storytelling in games are my personal favourites.

However, I do think there are things to admire and be interested in in the context of minimal interactivity.

Far From Noise leaves substantial room for looking and paying attention to a single setting and viewpoint. The camera and our character never move – instead we look out on a natural setting as it changes over time. The dialog takes places as an accompaniment to this, but in some ways the real “act” of the player is to just watch. Indeed, there were times playing this game where I wished there was less interactivity in the form of dialog – it sometimes felt overly intrusive and like it was “spoiling” the natural landscape.

Lieve Oma allows us to be expressive in our walking. Much of the game is spent playing a kid walking with their grandmother through the forest, ostensibly to pick mushrooms, but really to have a conversation about “how things are going”. Within that setting, although I never felt especially invested in the words spoken, I did feel invested in the spatial relationship between the kid and the grandmother created by their walking. It’s minimalistic, but there’s a lot of meaning to be drawn out from distances and trajectories in this kind of setting – the kid speeding ahead, perhaps, then slowing to allow her to catch up, walking morosely behind her, walking with care beside her, etc. It’s acting through walking. In some ways the words help to contextualise the movement, rather than the other way around.

Virginia doesn’t allow much in the way of expressive movement, but does allow at least some chance at dramatic timing for the player. When the only thing to do is, at some point, pick up a coffee cup to advance the narrative, we can choice when we do it. We can let feeling ebb and flow and then pick it up when the moment is right (or wrong) in our personal understanding of the scene. It’s not a lot – and frankly I found Virginia incredibly stifling in its authorial control – but it’s really something. (It’s something shared by many games, of course, but it ends up feeling kind of singular in Virginia just because it feels like the only thing you have.)

So that’s three games low on interactivity and heavy on story, each with a subtle bit of agency that contribute to that telling, allowing us in as players.

And now I’ve written words on a white screen and can go to bed tonight without (as much) guilt.

30 December 2016
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