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Urgency in Video Games

Eat dots... but why?

Altug Isigan, Blogger

August 16, 2011

7 Min Read


Urgency is a term that is being used in drama theory. It addresses the presence of a 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 because something valuable is at stake. For example in Terminator II: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1992), young John Connor won’t get a rest until T-1000 is being defeated because T-1000 won’t stop until John 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

Urgency must provide an answer for the following questions: Why can the protagonist not simply ignore the threat and walk away from it? Why is the action he takes the only possible and plausible action that can be taken?

If we provide no answers to these questions, the actions that are being carried out will feel "invented", that is, they will feel fake. We can conlude from this that urgency plays a key role in believability and immersion.

While the importance of urgency is so obvious, you will be surprised to find out how often stories suffer from a lack of urgency. And you will be even more surprised to find out how often games suffer from a lack of urgency.

(Inter-)Action out of Urgency

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


The ghosts come at you and they won’t stop until you have eaten every single dot in the maze.


The centipede comes at you and it won’t stop until you have shot every single piece of it.


The ball chain keeps moving toward the evil mouth and it won’t stop until you have cleared every single ball in it.


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 urgency 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 urgency 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 and you will concede if you don't defend yourself.


The competing nations will keep pushing your borders until history is over and you will be wiped out if you don’t make progress and defend yourself.

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.

Reading these examples, you must have already noticed that in all your favorite games, a good degree of urgency is being present.

No Urgency = 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. We feel that we or our protagonist could simply walk away and that there is no apparent force that would tie us to the developing events. Despite detailed characterization, extensive backstories, and long poetic dialogues, we feel that we actions we carry out are not grounded into something that has dramatic essence. This is so because of a lack of urgency.

In such games, it can be said that the game designers and writers put great effort into lower urgency 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 urgency. 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 a lack of urgency. After a while we will find no motivation to keep playing the game. We will feel like we are just dealing with satellites that miss a planet. The planet that's missing, that center of gravity, is urgency.

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 apart from necessity that the player may even forget what motivated her into the repeated action. When players complain about "pointless action" it is often because of a lack of urgency [1]. (I’ve been dealing with the relation between motivation and reward systems in an earlier article that you can read here)

Outer and Inner Motivation

Urgency 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. On the other hand, half of what you need to know about your role (=characterization) is already told/revealed to you by the actions you necessarily take in order to survive... And surprisingly often, the other half doesn’t really matter [2] .

But how come seo?

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 aspects 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) but that they cannot live without outer motivation. In other words, narratives will always be centered around what characters do, but they may not necessarily expose what the things those characters did mean to them [3] . A lot of games simply leave the latter part to be filled in by the player. Besides, action too, "tells"; it is the core of narrative.


Thanks for reading!


[1] Another question that may be raised here is whether examples of gamification care enough about urgency. Just because it is "gamified" doesn't make actions fun or more interesting. Most often gamification assumes that framing actions with additional rules and reward structures makes it more desirable to carry out said actions. However, if the applied frame lacks urgency, the gamification of actions will remain pointless, and the attempt to gamify the action will leave a shallow taste.

[2] Many gamers, game designers and game researchers have a limited conception of the term "story". They would often say that "story doesn't matter in games", thereby not being aware that the part of gameplay they deem disposable (the "story" parts) are related to inner motivation. In reality, what they call "gameplay", the action, is the outer motivation part of story.

[3] This explains why so many gamers, game designers and game researchers believe that games can go without "story". Especially formal games can be regarded as almost pure outer motivation stories, but in the register of the gaming world, the term gameplay is being popular, which, undeservedly, comes at the expense of the term story.

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