Is agency a lie?


#1

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.

Thoughts?


#2

Agency without structure makes designing story, missions, pacing, etc difficult. Limiting what you can do is important both for gameplay and level design, but also for the purpose of role-play. Limits are what makes choices matter, because if you can make any choice anytime, without consequence or be a jack of all trades, then the divergent paths seem too muddled and meaningless

But for example, a game like Age of Decadence, where playing to your strengths reveals unique paths that suit the role you play, and logically being hurt for trying to be something you’re not (ie a silver tongued conman getting into a bloody fight with soldiers isn’t going to end well)

But of course player agency is illusion. You’re playing a designed experience with design intent to teach you to play, to push you forward through plot and missions, with narrative goals in mind, etc. There’s always an invisible hand guiding; how noticeable it is, is what enhances or breaks the illusion


#3

I thought you were going “there’s no free will” on this one.

More seriously, if you’re going to deny the existence of agency in games, you have to go all the way. Sandbox games only allow you to do what the developers intended; it’s just that there is no exhaustive way of listing all the possible combinations of (intended) choices. Even sequence-breaking or glitching only allow you to do what has been coded (maybe Cheat Engine and modding and so on would be the only exceptions here).

I tend to fall completely on the other side of it and think there’s agency in performance, even when the path is set beforehand. Then you need to differentiate between performative agency and systemic agency, I guess, and it’s definitely a trickier question.


#4

I find it hard to think of limited choices as illusory agency because it seems to me that our irl experience of agency is exactly that, the ability to choose from a known set of options. So no, i don’t think that agency is a lie, but closer to a fascimile of real life than the other option. And it also strikes me as a super limited view on what we experience when we play, the agency that is being put to task is not just that which we exert on the system itself (i.e. the gameplay), but also in what we absorb from it and what happens inside our head. To me the agency that the game requires of me to think through the topics/content of the game and build an opinion of what is going on is something i prefer to the agency of being, well, an in game agent.


#5

Agency is designed in games, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing when done right. I personally feel agency in games works better when we choose from a crafted pool as opposed to constantly forcing games to do things there were not designed to do. It’s one of the reasons BOTW is so freeing and engaging, there is definitely agency but it isn’t infinite.


#6

Reminds me of the Crysis sequels. Crysis 1 had true player agency, where no paths were highlighted, a nice sandbox. Then the sequels came, and they blatantly showed you all the paths. My memory is foggy, though.

I don’t consider different branching paths to be agency. The developers obviously intended for the player to want to experience all of them. Agency to me, is expecting the game world to react accordingly, even if it’s all by design, stringing together one system with another is good enough for me. I’m reminded of that one Dishonored YouTuber.


#7

Narrative heavy games like the ones you mentioned all basically have to give a facade of player freedom. I’m playing Dishonored and even though that game gives you tons to options, you’re still doing what devs have pre-planned in the service of actually having a functioning plot.

Part of the reason Breath of the Wild felt so groundbreaking to me was how different objects had different properties that intermingled with each other to create different effects. In their GDC talk the devs talked about this as a sort of game chemistry to compliment game physics.

I think this is the biggest advancement in player agency lately. Giving the player a wide variety of pre-determined paths can only go so far, but having different components intermingle with each other by using a predetermined logic leads to the player being able to think of things that devs didn’t even think of.

I don’t think the systems are so expansive in BotW that people are doing things that the devs didn’t foresee, especially after the super long dev cycle, but the foundation is there for future games to build upon.


#8

It’s not a illusion, just hard to do it in a way that conveys the purest sense of what you are describing.

In the end is a program, with the exception of glitches, everything is intended to happen like it was programmed, your agency comes from deciding when and how it does, with the options that are provided to you.


#9

This is part of why I only play games like Life Is Strange or Walking Dead one time. Yes, we all know that the consequence of those choices are often momentary and the games follow a relatively linear path. But in the moment, in the context of the story, without hindsight to inform you, those choices feel impactful. The illusion breaks on repeat attempts, but the surrounding narrative, pacing, and urgency makes those choices meaningful to the player then, at that time


#10

Also, I hope this meta-question being asked in game is done. He had Bioshock’s “Would You Kindly” moment, we had The Stanley Parable. They were great, but I am over it now.


#11

If fourth wall breaking exists in movies, movies using the artifice of film as a means for themes and tone, books like House of Leaves, all exist within their medium

You can bet that the notion of meta commentary will never disappear in games. It’s an integral vein to mine within a medium, to push against and play with its structure and tropes, to experiment and use the audience’s knowledge to the work’s advantage. That’s a powerful tool for a creator to use


#12

Well, technically, if a game has a Turing-complete programming paradigm like Minecraft, the possibility space is literally limitless, but I get your point obviously.

You make a good point about performative agency. I was watching speed run world record progression videos by Summoning Salt on YouTube yesterday, and there’s clearly agency there. I think it makes sense to distinguish performative and systemic agency.


#13

For anyone who’s interested Walt Williams’ newish book Significant Zero has some really interesting insight into how writers (or at least Williams, who has interesting perspective) thinks about player agency, choice, and morality in games.

The book is half pulpy autobiography by a crazy (in a good way) person, half a behind-the-scenes into development, and half insight into writing video games.

Definitely recommend it.


#14

More on systems and agency, we already have fire propagation, so I was thinking, in the future, games could make use of fluid dynamics, like redirecting the flow of water in a river. This is like next next next gen, though, especially in an open world game.


#15

I’m not anti-meta commentary, I just found during the early part of this decade too many people were making the same point. It can be done well for sure, Spec Ops: The Line did a good job of warping the player’s idea of agency. I just find telling the player outright or through veiled metaphor that they have no real agency is so played out that I have my immersion broken just for the game to make a point that I have already heard.


#16

I once saw a talk from one of the devs on the tech team for Planet Coaster and, IIRC, the way they deal with crowds is not super far from that. I don’t think it’s that far fetched. One of the videos they’ve shown was this one (I still find it very satisfying):


#17

That’s the real tricky part with those meta narratives that can cause people to say things like “I’d rather people stop it”. It’s a real intoxicating thing for a writer to play with the form they’re working in, and it’s also really easy to screw up. Combine that with gaming as a whole having a tendency to latch onto an idea and run it into the ground (Battle Royale, as fun as it is, is going to hit that saturation point by the end of the decade, I wager) and you end up with your viewpoint of “Ugh, just stop it.”


#18

Yeah, it’s not bad conceptually, it’s just like…give the idea some room to breathe. If in a few years people start doing again and a new generation is exposed to and excited by it, great, but it’s never going to have that much weight to it if it keeps being used.


#19

That’s really cool, like zombie horde tech, and pretty recent.


#20

It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on Spec Ops handling of player agency - I felt that it was an excellent example of the “lack of player agency” trope by pairing the game’s (on the surface) linear military-themed TPS trappings with the PC’s near constant refrain that he had no choice in his actions.

Which reminds me, I need to play it again…