Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - User Agency (Part 2)

The decision of how tightly user actions (agency relationship) are linked to the transmedia narrative is one of the most significant decisions a transmedia narrative designer will make. User input can take a variety of forms, from the control of avatars in games to user communication via social networking in which narrative direction can be influenced by user comments. However, allowing user input “is a very tricky proposition at any time” (Dena, Authentic in All Caps: a Playful Comedy-Drama by Christy Dena, 2011).

When making the decision to include user input into a transmedia narrative, the designer needs to have very clear understanding of what this agency relationship will add to the narrative. If it adds little or nothing to the narrative, it is probably better to avoid the complications and limitations that come from having to work with user input.

Answering the question of local versus global content (agency scope) in a transmedia narrative will have a significant impact on the user’s level of control over the narrative itself. Local impact means the user has control of movement in the transmedia world and may even be able to manipulate objects. However, the user is essentially an explorer who can move and observe (i.e. perhaps like an avatar in a 3D game) but has no impact on the overall narrative. The other end of the spectrum is global impact in which the user’s actions have an effect on the direction of the narrative. It is possible for a transmedia narrative to have both local and global agency. A user’s actions, for example, might result in a local impact that begins a sequence of events that ultimately results in a global impact.

The decision on the degree of control the author and user each have in creating the meaning of the narrative will guide whether user actions are local versus global.

The actions of the user may have an immediate impact or there may be a delay in when the impact occurs. The designer must be careful in ensuring the immediacy of the response is appropriate to the context of the narrative and the user’s role in it.

A narrative that involves games or game-like elements will usually require an immediate response to the user’s action. For example, a user trying to navigate an avatar through a narrative environment will become frustrated and dissatisfied very quickly if there is a significant lag between an action and a response from the avatar.

However, a delayed response may be appropriate with a user action, for example, writing and mailing a letter within the storyworld that reveals vital secret information that is part of a spy or mystery narrative. If a delayed response is used, the designer should be sure to include an indicator that the user’s action has actually taken place. Failing to provide that kind of signal can leave the user wondering if the action was recognized by the system.

Often an immediate response is linked to local agency, while delayed response is linked to global agency.

How long the impact of a user action lasts can range from extremely brief to long-term within the context of the storyworld. In first person “shooter” games the impact of a user’s action (i.e. shooting an opponent) may last only a few seconds before that opponent is “resurrected”. Long-term impacts may last for the duration of the game or narrative. The duration of the impacts of a user’s action should be appropriate to the context of the narrative. In a game that focuses on tallying “kills” the immediate resurrection of an opponent provides additional “cannon fodder” but has not impact on the overall game or narrative. The user’s actions in games of strategy, on the other hand, must have long-term impacts or they become meaningless.

Agency duration should be consistent across the transmedia project. The resurrection of an opponent should be the same each time it happens or, if it does vary, the user should be made aware of the logic behind the variance. Short agency duration will typically is associated with local agency, while long-term agency duration is generally associated with global agency.

Changes in any aspects of user agency (dynamic agency) need to be handled very carefully to avoid confusing and frustrating the user. Having user find that they can con-trol a specific element of the narrative at one point but not another should be avoided. Design of the transmedia narrative should ensure consistent agency across the entire sys-tem. For example, if a game embedded in a transmedia narrative provides local agency scope and instantaneous agency immediacy at one point in the game, it should be the same in at all similar points throughout the game.

If it is absolutely vital that an aspect of agency be changed, it needs to be clearly communicated to the user. The logic behind the change in agency – preferably related to something in the narrative itself – as well as the nature of the change needs to be ex-plained. For example, if an avatar’s agency immediacy is slightly delayed as a certain point in the game, this might be attributed to a wizard’s “time slowing spell”.

User agency control can allow users to modify and control various aspects of the transmedia narrative’s agency relationships, scope, immediacy, and duration during run-time. Giving users control over agency can leverage the relationship between the user and system in order to create a storyworld that is meaningful and engaging to participate in (Harrell & Zhu, 2009).

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