Last week, I discussed the unfortunate tendency a great number of developers seem to have- the need to turn their inward creative process straight outward, with little modification or filter. Players find themselves under fire from mortars of seemingly irrelevant and excessive information. This bombardment leaves us with an oversaturated, shellshocked mindscape, unable or unwilling to devote any neurons to thoughtful consideration of our games.
A great host of people enjoyed Lost (myself among them, although the last season was a bit ragged). Even if one doesn't care for it, it's difficult to argue that those first handful of episodes weren't tremendously engaging. Structurally, Lost worked so damn well because it didn't front-load its information. No great prologue or origin story got in the way of the action. In started immediately with tension and led us into the pure unknown, slowly dispensing more information and more mysteries. By being mindful of the audience's "Why should I care?" perspective, we were presented with a mystery and left to ponder it. Once more information was finally manifest, we'd been given a reason to care- because we had formulated our own ideas and want to see if we're "right."
In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Stephen Johnson argues that television today is leagues more complex than it was, say, 20 years ago. In direct contrast to the "TV is so dumb now" contentions heard by many, Johnson argues quite convincingly that we're getting smarter as an audience. Audiences are able to understand and engage with more complicated storylines involving far more plot threads and characters. Part of the reason he argues is writers have become more adept at keeping their audiences engaged and interested, rather that simply marching forward with de rigueur plotlines.
If it wasn't Lost for you, imagine a show, film or novel that instilled that feeling of engagement. Not just wondering "What will happen next?", but a deep pondering of what was going on and why. What the work really meant. Now think about how many times that's happened to you playing a game.
There's a handful of canonical examples (e.g. Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Planescape: Torment), but the ratio is far, far lower. I hate making games vs. other media comparisons, but I beg your indulgence on this one. As games have become more playable, readable, they've also adopted the least appropriate ways of communicating a message. I don't mean a plot necessarily, I mean something more fundamental than that. The core thing a game is actually about, what an architect would call the "parti" of a building's design. Having a plot with characters and events is certainly one way to communicate that message, but there has to be something there to begin with. Otherwise, it's just sound and fury signifying nothing.
Even if such a core does exist for a game, it's so often communicated with no more nuance than a Styx concept album. Rather than subtlety, players are drowned in information and exposition. This seeming irresistible urge to explain strips all mystery from a game. It also establishes a tone of interaction that should the player need to know something, even something thematic, they'll be told it explicitly. They're given no reason to consider what the game could be trying to express, and adopt a passive mental stance. Many will just switch off and sit back, waiting to be told and likely ignoring most of it.
Even more worrisome than this is the leap from "We'll tell the audience everything we think they should know" to "We'll make sure the audience does everything we want them to do." Player agency is flayed away, what little choice remains amounts to choosing how you'll shoot these three dudes before hitting the next cutscene/NIS trigger. When John Walker says "Homefront is barely a game," this is exactly what he's referring to. (While I haven't personally played Homefront, this trend is easy to spot in plenty of recent titles)
John encapsulates the problems with this style of design better than I, but I'll add that I think this stems from the same thinking that leads to heaping irrelevant information upon players. We're so worried every single person that touches our game won't have the same experience, we exclude any possibility but the exact one we've manufactured. It drives players toward passive roles. It's almost training the audience to only respond to prompts and only engage with the most explicit, surface message.
The undercurrent in all this is that we can't trust our audience. We can't trust them to understand what's going on without heaps of exposition, can't trust them to be engaged unless they're doing exactly what we think they should be doing. We ought to have more confidence in our audience. We have to trust that our players aren't mindless, that they don't need to be spoonfed and hand-held. Elegant and effective design can mean the difference between player agency being enlivening and not aimless and frustrating, but the right response to that is better, more rigorous design, not stripping away all agency until only the "right" choice remains.
If we're willing to have something to say and have faith that enough people will understand that, we needn't yoke ourselves to tired and constricting plotting. Not everyone will get that message, and that's okay. Encouraging thoughtfullness and having an otherwise engaging game is fine, even if not everyone engages with it on a deeper level. You can't catch everyone and you can't ensure everyone will have the same perfectly paced, dramatically timed experience. Trying to do so will likely result in something that's, well, "barely a game."