Necessity in Video Games

Necessity: A Necessary Introduction

Necessity is a term in drama theory. It addresses the presence of the threat that inevitably comes at the protagonist and forces him into action. The protagonist is left with no other option than to deal with the problem. For example young John O’Connor won’t get a rest until T-1000 is being defeated because T-1000 won’t stop until John O’Connor’s life is “terminated”.

As can be easily understood from this example, necessity is

  1. central to establishing conflict
  2. a primary source of character motivation
  3. a fundamental tie between conflict and character

Necessity must provide an answer for the following question: Why can the protagonist not simply ignore the threat and walk away from it?

You may be surprised to find out how many stories lack necessity. And you may be even more surprised to find out how many games lack necessity.


(Inter-)Action out of Necessity

The fun and addictiveness of some of the best arcade games can be explained by the mastery of their designers in creating and maintaining necessity. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Pac-Man: The ghosts come at you and they won’t stop until you have eaten every single dot in the maze.
  • Centipede: The centipede comes at you and it won’t stop until you have shot every single piece of it.
  • Zuma: The ball chain keeps moving toward the evil mouth and it won’t stop until you have cleared every single ball in it.
  • Tetris: The geometric shapes keep falling and they won’t stop until you have disposed enough of them by forming lines.

As can be seen from the examples, these games provide a clear answer to why the protagonist cannot simply ignore the threat and walk away from it. From the first second on, the threat directly comes at you and you are strongly motivated to take action.

There are many other ways to create necessity and if you look a bit more carefully at the games you love to play, you will be surprised of the many forms in which necessity can be created:

  • Pro Evolution Soccer: The opponent team keeps coming at your goal to score and they won’t stop until the match is over.
  • Civilization: The competing nations will keep coming at your territory until history is over and you will be wiped out if you don’t make progress.
  • The Sims: The bills will keep coming at you and without accepting a job you will starve from hunger.
  • Sim City: The running costs of the city will drive you into bankruptcy if you don’t invest into your city to make it financially grow.


No Necessity = No Motivation

On the other hand, some games make us wonder why exactly we deal with the problem that is seemingly posed at us. We lack an explanation of what motivates us into the actions that are demanded of us; we find it difficult to understand why we do the things we are being asked to do. Despite detailed characterization, extensive backstories, and long poetic dialogues, we feel that we have no fundamental reason for our actions. This is because of a lack of necessity.

In such games, it can be said that the game designers and writers put great effort into lower level narrative design, but they forgot to work on the higher level. Without making sure that necessity and motivation is in place, it doesn’t really make sense to go into great detail in regard to characters, backstory or dialogue. After all, it’s not so much about who you are or were, but about what you’ll become in the face of necessity. Hence, putting a lot of effort into characterization and other lower level aspects of story will not be able to fill the gap that has been left open by lack of necessity. After a while we will find no motivation to keep playing the game. We will feel like we are dealing with satellites that are missing their planet.

Some will say that games are different in that regard since they use reward systems to motivate the player. However, phenomena like grinding tell us that reward systems may at times fall so far from necessity that the player may even forget what motivated her into the repeated action. 


Outer and Inner Motivation

Necessity is a strong element of motivation, but in games it is also a great way to create identification and characterization. While in non-interactive narratives some effort will go into creating a tie between the protagonist and the spectator (=identification), video games have the chance to go for direct address: Before you even realize it, you *are* identified with the protagonist and start shooting at the threat that comes at you. Half of what you need to know about your role (=characterization) is already told/revealed to you by the actions you are forced to carry out. And the other half often doesn’t matter anyway.

The phenomenon of the sufficiency of outer (=physical) action to create basic dramatic tension has been explained in drama theory by the distinction between two types of motivation:

  1. Outer motivation: The inevitable physical challenge that forces the protagonist into action.
  2. Inner motivation: The psychological dimensions of dealing with the challenge.

Drama theory says that narratives can live without presenting any information on inner motivation (which may make them feel shallow though since we won’t learn much about the character except the actions she prefers to carry out), but that they cannot live without outer motivation. In other words, we will always be exposed to what the characters do, but we may not always exposed to what the things they do mean to them. A lot of games simply leave the latter part to be filled in by the player, since physical action alone is enough to maintain the basis of the narrative; besides, action too, “tells”.


Thanks for reading!


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