Intentionality in Games
In games, intentionality refers to the ability of the player to make a plan, execute that plan, and have the plan succeed or fail based on events within the player's control, not events imposed by the game designer.
For example, in Thief 2, after playing for a while(and thereby acquiring a basic understanding of my limitations), suppose I decide to run up behind a guard and hit him with my blackjack. I understand my window of opportunity is short, so I proceed as quickly and quietly as I can. If I succeed in sneaking up to him, I can hit him over the head and knock him out, congratulating myself on a job well done. If I make too much noise, he will say something that indicates he has heard me, and will turn around in time and I'll be forced to come up with a new plan. I can examine this failure and realize that he heard me and that I was travelling too quickly for the floor material. I now know to pay more attention to that in the future.
Sometimes intentionality is defeated by a surprise situation that the player could not reasonably be expected to have anticipated. In Thief 2, at some point, the player may encounter guards wearing metal helmets. Hitting these guards over the head with a blackjack results in a metallic "clank" sound but does not knock them out. This is not obvious at first, because most guards wear helmets. The difference is that these guards wear particularly heavy helmets. If I successfully snuck up on a guard but was then unable to knock him out because of the helmet, my intentionality was defeated. There was no way for me to know (the first time) that the blackjack attempt would fail. In the future, I can pay attention, spot the different helmet, and change my tactics.
Games without surprises at all, like Chess, are full of intentionality. Players have full knowledge of the game state and can analyze why they succeed or fail. Games that are mostly surprises or puzzles that appear only once don't support intentionality very well.
In general, the following things support intentionality:
- Access to accurate information. If a player doesn't possess information, that player has no basis on which to make plans.
- Consistent game systems. If systems don't behave consistently, then a player's plans can fail in ways that are out of his or her control.
- Tools by which the player can consider alternatives. If a player only has one choice, there isn't much planning to be done.
- Good feedback. It is very important that if a plan fails, the player knows why it failed. If the guard turned around without saying anything, I wouldn't know that I had been heard.
In general, the following things defeat intentionality:
- Surprises. Surprises are, by definition, unexpected, and therefore something for which players cannot directly plan.
- Forced Failure. Sometimes a player cannot succeed, no matter what he or she tries to do. In Deus Ex there is a situation midgame from which it is impossible for the player to escape, no matter what he or she tries. That defeats intentionality.
- Arbitrary puzzles. A lot of adventure games rely on basically arbitrary puzzles. In a lot of Infocom games, players attempt solutions that "should" work, but don't, because they weren't planned by the designers.
A Note On Surprise
Sometimes surprise is a key element to a player's enjoyment of a game. In order to make games more exciting, designers often resort to surprise. The negative impact of suprise on intentionality can be reduced by encouraging the player to plan for contingencies and for those plans to have intentionality. In the above example, the careful player always plans for the possibility that he or she will fail to knock out the guard (generally by being heard). When the guard turns out to have a steel helmet(a surprise), the player can use one of the already prepared contingency plans to deal with the situation. As long as surprises are limited in scope (and the guard doesn't do something else unexpected), the player can still feel good about having pulled off the contingency plan.
I first heard about this term(as it applies to games) indirectly from Doug Church. I don't know if it has origins from someone before that. Many of my coworkers have contributed to my understanding of the term.