I love games that give you a lot of agency. Immersive sims like Prey, freeform rule-based sandboxes like Minecraft, choice-based RPGs like Planescape Torment, or even something like the original Doom games where you can tackle each room however you want, or Super Metroid where you can sequence break. Agency is my jam.
But playing Deus Ex Human Revolution when it came out, I came to a realization. The “agency” they give you is basically the choice to walk down one of 3 paths instead of walking down one path. They’re all geared towards a particular playstyle, so there’s mostly one way to walk down each path. This wasn’t as big an issue with the old DX, but I felt like HR was way too streamlined. That got me thinking about choice in games. Sure, New Vegas has a ridiculous quest tree, but it’s a predetermined set of paths, all tested and designed for you to experience. Basically the difference is instead of playing one game with one path, you’re effectively playing one of multiple games that share a setting.
Playing The Stanley Parable even further messed me up. All these games are designed very intensively, and even when we think we have agency we’re just walking down one of few paths the developers chose for us. We’re picking up objects they wanted us to pick up. We’re not subverting anything, we’re just playing into it.
There seem to be few exceptions to this. Pure sandbox games where the systems can take off endlessly (think building computers in Minecraft), multiplayer games like PUBG where every interaction just happens as a consequence of people doing random things, or doing things unintended by developers in games, like sequence breaking or glitches. Otherwise, I think agency is an illusion. A great one, but still.