A Bestiary of Player Agency

bestiaryWhenever there’s a discussion about choice or agency in computer games (at least, in my little corner thereof) I feel as if everybody’s trying to wade through molasses just to express their concerns, and that this is a big part of why the subject tends to degenerate into bumper-sticker arguments operating at cross-purposes.

Agency and choice are slippery devils, and people are not always very good at pinning down and articulating their real concerns about them. Like ‘freedom’ in politics, I think that when people talk about ‘choice’ or ‘agency’ in games, they are often not talking about the same thing, or even about any single thing, and therefore don’t convey their concerns clearly enough to allow useful discussion. The following is an attempt to pick out some of the elements that go into agency in games, and hopefully to tease apart some of that tangle.

Note that I’m primarily talking about the agency of the player here, so in general I’m not drawing very strong lines between diegetic and extra-diegetic agency. I’m also not very concerned about whether agency is real or not: art is all about cleverly-sustained illusions, where the impression of something can be as important as the real thing.

(This post was originally going to be called A Primitive Taxonomy Of Game Agency, but I realised that this was overselling it. This is more a collection of traveller’s tales than a full-blooded attempt at a comprehensive Order of Things.)

Big Decisions. This is often what people end up talking about when they talk about choices in games – it’s certainly one of the main ways that choice in games gets marketed. These are big, prominent, impossible-to-miss decisions – join the Empire or the Rebellion, kill the villain in cold blood or let him live, help out for free or demand payment. There is a strong suggestion that the choice you make will have serious, irreversible consequences. They often have a strong ethical component, or declare something about the character you’re playing. They may or may not mean that a game has strong agency in other ways, but they certainly make it seem as though it does. Sometimes they take a form distinct from routine gameplay – usually a multiple-choice question – in order to stress their importance; regardless, they present themselves as unique, something you can’t repeat or go back on.

A number of games focus in on this so hard that Big Choices are the routine of gameplay. Telltale’s The Walking Dead does a great deal of work to impart the sense that most decisions are big ones, with substantial long-term consequences for both action and character – but in fact a lot of the choices are closer to reflective. The Choice of Games house style tends towards the idea that every decision is unique and weighty, often telling stories that skip forwards over large sections of time in order to get to the good stuff – sometimes this is true, but as often the effect is mostly about tweaking your stats. The ridiculous extension of a Big Decision structure is the CYOA time cave, a structure that’s entirely about unique decisions and has no regular action at all – which makes agency weird, disconnected, dreamlike.

Big Decision agency has some advantages. It’s explicit – the player rarely has any doubt that they’re making a Big Decision. It’s inherently dramatic. And it fits nicely into conversations about ethics and player involvement in games, because our standard mode of talking about ethics is to focus on nice clear dilemmas. (In fact, I think a lot of the reason that it exists is to provide nice obvious examples when talking up how games are great because they involve, like, meaningful choices.)

Also, it's the easiest thing ever to parody.

Also, it’s the easiest thing ever to parody.

But it has some pitfalls as well. Most obviously, the Big Decision Moment is a promise to create major consequences within the game-world, on both the story and the stuff that the player’s actually doing. And that’s difficult to follow up on – Big Decisions are presented as literally life-changing events, so the stakes are set high. It’s possible to make things that feel like Big Choices but have little or no in-game effect, but this requires considerable artistry – and some players will feel that this artistry is, in fact, a swindle. Even if a Big Choice does have in-game effects, it can still be a false flag suggesting a commitment to something that the game has no real interest in, an attempt to distract from the narrowly-scripted remainder of the game. Often it boils down to a binary choice which ends up revealing how artificial and naive the work’s worldview is, making it very clear to the player that they’re stuck in a false dichotomy not of their own making. I’ve got to the point where I flinch when someone describes a game with the phrase ‘meaningful choices’, not because I don’t like meaningful choices in games but because I expect it to boil down to hokey Big Decisions.

The other thing I’m wary of is that Big Choices are often about choosing endings – in some discussions it’s taken for granted that multiple endings are the ultimate determinant of how much agency the player has. That’s easy for the author, because they don’t have to implement the consequences of choice; and it can be satisfying for the player, who gets control over a major element of the narrative. But increasingly I feel that games are about means more than ends, process rather than closure. This makes me a lot more interested in other kinds of agency.

Protagonism. Players often want the player-character to be at the centre of the story, the person whom the story is about. A lot of games go in for this to a ridiculous degree, making the protagonist the central driving force behind every major event in the world, frequently using Chosen One plots to justify how one person can be so massively influential. Obviously, it’s a lot more fun to be important, central and influential than it is to be marginal and inconsequential. But the massive emphasis on this in games leads to a general underlying theme of natural nobility, with all its unpleasant consequences – and a lot of games turn this into tedious ego-stroking.

This isn’t choice, per se. The player may not really be directing the action, but they are driving it. In fact, protagonism can, and does, exist in games that involve no player choice whatsoever. But it’s still a big deal for agency.

A race board game from 1588.

Filosofia Cortesana (‘Courtly Philosophy’), 1588.

Let’s talk about board games for a minute. Race board games were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and have a history going back much, much further. The vast majority of this enduring form allowed the player no significant choice: they were all effectively Snakes and Ladders, often without the heady thrill of risk provided by actual snakes and ladders. You rolled a die (or spun a teetotum that had exactly the same effect, dice having an unsavoury association with gambling) and advanced that many spaces. There were many, many such games, distinguished by theme and artwork but generally with identical gameplay. There was, as a matter of formal logic, no choice in most of these games whatsoever, unless you count choosing who goes first. They are nonetheless, very obviously, games. And they were very popular indeed. Why?

A lot of the reason is that these games offered narratives. Many had a strong component of moral and spiritual virtue – Snakes and Ladders was originally a Hindu or Jain analogy for the trials faced by a soul on the path to transcendence, and a good many of its British and American descendants used the track to depict a Christian equivalent. Others represented more literal journeys, or (later) progress through life and career. These were narratives that would have been familiar to their players – indeed, an alternative parlor entertainment would have been reading similar narratives aloud from a book.

The prose versions of these basic narratives would have been, however wretchedly-made, considerably superior in many respects. But the people still wanted to play these games – the mid-to-late Victorians, in particular, produced tons of them. Answers like ‘they didn’t know any better’ miss the point: these games offered something that static fiction didn’t. I think the crucial element there is protagonism, the sense of special investment in one token on the board over all the rest, in a way that’s difficult to achieve in static fiction even with the strongest possible reader-insert characters. Modern equivalents of Snakes and Ladders abound, suggesting that for at least some players protagonism is both necessary and sufficient.

A milder way to put protagonism, one where the player doesn’t have to be the most important person in the world, is narrative action. Narrative action just means that the stuff that the player’s doing is an important part of the story, not eating lunch while the real story happens elsewhere. They may not be driving the action all the time, but they are contributing something important to it.

Velocity.  The arc of the story being told corresponds in some significant manner with the arc of the play experience. The connection does not seem arbitrary; they move together. Agency is about cause and effect; cause and effect is a relationship in time. This doesn’t mean that a story told in strict, linearly chronological order necessarily has more velocity-agency than one that doesn’t, or that every player action must be a story-affecting action.

One common approach to velocity is to make play more intense as the narrative gets more intense. This has its drawbacks: authors sometimes decide that intensity necessarily means difficulty, thus causing the narrative to grind to a halt as the player has to replay the climactic scene over and over again (this is why boss fights are terrible). And gameplay intensity can distract the player’s attention (if you’ve ever been narrated at in the middle of an explosion-shaken firefight, you’ll know what I mean). The relationship doesn’t have to be a direct, immediate correlation. I’m struggling for a musical metaphor here, which is a sure sign that this argument is lapsing into dangerously vague territory.

To put it another way: if the story has been rolling nicely along, and then it gets put on hold while the protagonist slays goblins for five hours, and then it gets right back to rolling along, something’s lost. If the encouraged style of gameplay is at odds with narrative pacing rather than an important element in it, the player is encouraged to cease giving a shit about the narrative.

Grasp. The desire, and commensurate ability, to handle the world at some level. This is a monkey kind of response: if you see a cool thing, you want to pick it up, turn it around in your hands, twist the twistable bits, bite it. Grasp is the feeling that your actions shape the world, and that you have some understanding of how they do so. Understanding, particularly the kinds of understanding derived from intuition or familiarity, is a major component of grasp. Grasp is typically inductive, so it tends to require some kind of consistency and regularity of action – a set of rules for how the world works and how you can affect it. This often means a regular world-model, a physics, simulation, a really responsive user interface; but it can also involve, say, a good understanding of how the story works, the conventions of genre, a sense of the author’s concerns. Different kinds of consistency.

Grasp often (usually?) involves some degree of skill (see challenge) but cannot be reduced to it. It’s just as much about how the game teaches and offers feedback to your input. Some games just aren’t very grasp-friendly even when you get pretty good at them.

Nothing says grasp quite like swinging 2.5 feet of steel through a Viking's torso at full gallop.

Nothing says grasp quite like swinging 2.5 feet of steel through a Viking’s torso at full gallop.

Grasp doesn’t require a place at the centre of narrative, nor does it require control over grand elements of the plot. It’s more about knowing your mode of the gameplay, and having a strong feel for how that affects the narrative – it is justice in the sense Plato meant it, the state of knowing your place in the world and being able to embrace it. When you don’t have grasp, the game’s fucking with you, and people generally do not appreciate being fucked with.

When the rules you’re grasping line up nicely with the narrative – when the player’s gameplay motivations are congruent with the player-character’s fictional motivations – you’ve got motivational alignment, immersion. You don’t have to choose whether to do the gameplay-rewarded thing or the Good Roleplaying thing: they’re one and the same. That’s powerful magic. That’s the feeling of a grating, rattly bike gear finally slipping into place, suddenly making power easy. That’s agency in a big way.

(When you discover inconsistencies  – exploits, hacks, optimised strategies that don’t match up very well with the fictional content – your mode of agency changes. You’re no longer correlated with character agency; you’re a computer user exploiting a stupid program. For some users, this shift in agency is the most exciting thing in the world; for others it’s profoundly disappointing.)

Motivational alignment is cool when it works, but it has a problem insofar as it’s easier to achieve by making game stories conform to established expectations of gameplay than it is to invent wholly new styles of gameplay for the sake of a story – and the most powerful motivator for players, gameplay-wise, is generally more in-game power. This tends to encourage game-makers to make every story a power-fantasy, Horatio Alger and the Exponential Curve, a story of an ambitious person who gets steadily more and more powerful until one day their power is so great that they fix everything. Which can be fun, but in terms of great plots is roughly on the grade of Cardassian literature. (Getting steadily more and more powerful until you ruin everything has slightly more narrative mileage in it, but not much.)

Focus. Focus is a big part of the agency offered by open-world games. The game presents different aspects, and the player can pick-and-mix which ones they’re interested in. The individual aspects might not offer a great deal of mechanical or narrative control at the large scale, but they can matter a lot to the experience of play.

Probably the most common, and least interesting of focus choices is the this-or-nothing choice. If you have a choice between doing Cool Thing and Not Doing Cool Thing And Sitting Around, that’s not a very interesting choice. Focus choices are more compelling when they’re choices between alternatives, when you have to dim the emphasis on one element if you want to pay attention to another.

Focus choice is denied when a player is interested in something, but the game is interested in something else and makes them attend to that instead. That’s way too broad to be useful to game authors, though, except in the general sense that you should be honest about what your game is really about (don’t sell your game as a Proustian exploration of the human condition if you’re actually more interested in shooting zombies in the face.) More importantly, focus choices are denied if you offer them, then strongly favour one option. Planescape:Torment lets you customise your character’s stats, but really it wants you to take a Wisdom/Intelligence approach, because that’s what its story is mostly about.

Games with strong story and character have yet to get really good at variable focus: most of the games which excel at it are sandboxy or have a high emphasis on multiplayer activity. There are obvious limits to focus: the most important, definitional elements of a game will usually resist it, relegating focus choice to the edges. Focus does not let you determine what a game is about: it lets you choose which aspects of it you want to emphasize the most.

The easiest way to get focus agency, of course, is through selecting games that share your preferred foci, rather than choosing stuff in-game. Focus agency can be as much about having a satisfactory focus as it is about the mechanics of choosing it.

Identity and self-insertion. For some players, protagonism doesn’t work unless it’s twinned with self-insertion. They want to imagine the player character as themselves, or as a fantasy version thereof. They want to be able to express their own personality through play style, and to avoid content and modes of play that don’t match up with their identity (see: focus). When this is disrupted, they feel it as inimical to their agency.

sunless3This is part of what’s going on when privileged straight white male gamers whine and fuss about how they want every game ever to have a straight white male hero, and that even the option of anything else somehow wounds them; and the attitude is perhaps more common in this group, because it’s catered to much more often. But it’s by no means limited to them. When you hear someone say ‘I don’t like playing evil characters,’ there’s probably a strong component of identity at work. When you’re uncomfortable with enacting the thing that the game requires you to do, identity is probably involved.

Clementine from Telltale's The Walking Dead S2, looking scornful.

‘Clem, just trust what the author’s doing here, OK?’

It’s tempting to write this kind of agency off as a naive desire of unsophisticated gamers who don’t understand the importance of characterisation in story, or who have a worryingly feeble ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes; and there’s absolutely some truth to that. The trick with generalising this is that it assumes that authors are by nature perfectly trustworthy people, deserving of an unlimited supply of good faith from their audiences, and that it’s the player’s responsibility to go along with whatever the author wants. (Hint: no.)

The degree to which players enjoy self-insertion prefer PCs whose identities match their own varies a great deal. This is one of the first divisions in play style that I ever became aware of, in the context of strongly-defined-PCs vs AFGNCAAPs in interactive fiction. It’s a big deal in tabletop RPGs as well: if you roleplay with someone over multiple games, you often start to notice patterns in the kinds of character they’re comfortable playing. Sometimes it’s to do with race, sexuality or gender, but these aren’t always the aspects of identity that people care about the most. Ethics can be a big deal. Seriousness and chaos/order matter – some people get itchy playing rogues, some feel stifled playing paladins. For some people, it’s competence: playing a character who isn’t motivated, sensible and capable is like nails on a chalkboard. Some people (me) prefer characters who don’t match their own identity in some respects.

Obviously, there’s no very clear line between this and focus; but while focus choices make a concrete difference to the matter of the game, identity choices only might do so. As with focus choice, however, granting identity agency tends to shuffle the importance of identity out of the spotlight: the payoff for being able to play whatever kind of character you want is usually that character becomes irrelevant or trivial. The alternative – Choice of Games does this to a great extent – is to make the entire game about identity choice, making the story principally important as an origin story; many Choice of Games pieces are essentially extended character-creation sequences. Alternatively, a lot of identity choices drift towards:

angelicalAesthetic. Closely linked to identity, aesthetic agency affects game mechanics not at all: it’s picking T-shirt colours, or naming your own character, or putting up wallpaper in your house. Aesthetic agency is not a promise of anything more. The player doesn’t have any expectation that their carefully-chosen hairstyle or the earth-toned mosaic tile in the second bathroom will elicit cries of approval from discerning NPCs.

But aesthetics can matter – they matter even outside the immediate domain of art, and we’re in deep art territory here. Aesthetic choice is about investment, allowing the player some small component – however illusory – of co-authorship, of ownership. In many games, the impact of aesthetic choice is amplified by putting it where the player sees it most often.

In most cases, the range of aesthetic choice is as much a declaration of boundaries as it is of freedoms. The set of character portraits you can choose from shows you what kind of people inhabit this world.

Challenge is when progress through a game is not trivial: some kind of significant exertion is required of the player in order to advance. Challenge is more than mere friction or difficulty: there has to be some benefit to player talent, skill or understanding over blind persistence or blind luck.

Challenge may not – and very often doesn’t – involve any significant choice, other than the non-choice of being able to continue the game rather than abandoning it. There may be only one attack pattern that will defeat the level boss, one key to open the door. But it nonetheless represents an important kind of agency.

GOD DAMMIT

GOD DAMMIT how did I screw that up I don’t even

Challenge was the historical core of videogames, and for many players remains one of the most important aspects of game agency. Some challenge is twitch, rewarding fast reflexes under pressure. Overlapping this is the process of learning, the feeling of an apparently difficult thing moving into your grasp, ultimately reaching a sense of mastery. Learning, the transition from non-grasp to grasp, is a big deal for challenge – it provides a great sense of agency if you successfully make it, and a strong sense of non-agency if you fail to do so. Learning difficult things tends to be more satisfying than learning easy ones, but game authors have to balance this against the need to give as many people as possible a good experience.

In many games, the sense of skill is in part illusory: it feels as though you’re getting better at the game, but really you’ve just got better stats and equipment, or you’ve memorised where all the bad guys are hiding on a given level – or, perhaps, the game is adjusting its difficulty levels to create an illusion that you’re improving. Certainly, developing skill to the level of a sense of mastery in a videogame tends to be on the easy side, as skills go (there are exceptions), so there’s a certain degree to which games are convenient placebos for the difficult joy of learning.

People are likely to have more attachment to something that they feel they earned than to something they were merely given, so successfully negotiated challenge can build investment in the progress of a game. Some players love (some kinds of) challenge for the sake of it; some only enjoy challenge when it’s motivated; for some, challenge really isn’t what they care about at all. Artificial challenge is one of the big things that games are really good at, but – despite some loudly-voiced claims on the subject – challenge has little to do with what makes a game a game.

Tactics and strategy. Enough has been said about these that I don’t have a vast amount to add: broadly speaking, tactics are ways of going about accomplishing an objective, whereas strategy involves significant leeway in the creation or choice of objectives; both require an element of challenge.

A still from a XCOM: Enemy Unknown mission.

Mostly I need to share this because this mission was titled OPERATION BRUTAL SLEEP.

Games have tactical agency when you can behave differently to get different useful results. In many action games, beating a level boss is all about learning their pattern and figuring out the one counter-pattern to exploit it. That’s challenge, for sure, but there’s no inherent tactics to it. (It might be, if there was a variety of reasonable approaches which all might be used to figure out the sequence. If it’s all reflexes, precision, and recognising and memorising patterns: not so much.) Tactics are what distinguish a rail shooter from an FPS with linear level design; it means a good deal of control over little details that combine into bigger things. If players develop simple heuristics for action (‘always leave gem matches at the bottom until last’) that’s tactics; but it’s only tactical agency if you can develop different heuristics and do okay.

Strategic agency happens when players are able to craft, and benefit from, long-term plans of action involving the selection or creation of intermediate objectives. (This might be in service to greater, unifying objectives, or not.) Strategy and tactics aren’t clearly distinguished, and often both elements are present, but often games have different emphases. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has some strategic elements, but there’s more focus on the tactical level; 80 Days has abundant freedom at the strategic level and relatively little at the tactical.

The word creation almost came up there, didn’t it. As strategic choices become more and more open, they can start to look very like design.

Creative. Among the things that people thinking about games should never, ever forget: Let’s Pretend is a game, an early and important one. Let’s Pretend does not have any explicit rules, and very few implicit ones – though rules may be added by the players. The most obvious field of in-game creative agency is not in computer games: tabletop RPGs are generally a lot better at it. So when I talk about rules and boundaries, below, I’m not suggesting that these are inherent features of games in general.

I made this! I just wish it could be less... cubic.

I made this! I just wish it could be less… cubic.

Creative choices typically involve the remixing of materials within set rules offered by the game. Some creative choices differ from aesthetic choices only in their degree of complexity – costume choices in The Sims 3 make no mechanical difference to the game, but involve so many potential combinations of pattern, colour and garment types that creating an outfit feels genuinely creative. Others have concrete effects on the game, even emergent effects. The things you design in Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress potentially make a lot of difference. If you’re dedicated enough, you can build logic gates and build them up into small computers in Dwarf Fortress, using materials that were intended for traps or drainage systems.

In games where creative agency is not the central focus, it often slides towards aesthetic choice; it takes a great deal of work to allow meaningful creative choice, generally too much effort for a game where it’s not at the heart of things. Skyrim offers an expansion in which you can build your own house – but most of the process boils down to buying components from a set of shortish lists, which are placed automatically. In terms of the game it supplements, it’s pretty cool; but it involves rather less creative agency than ‘build your own house!’ suggests.

And obviously, even in games where it’s a major focus, creative agency is always bounded by authorially-defined rules. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, or think that it means that creative agency is illusory – all agency is delimited in pretty big ways, all art reflects the concerns of its creators. But it’s probably better not to get too excited about creative-agency games as transformative.

Meta. We’re mostly talking authored games, right? In which, pretty much by definition, design is the province of the author. You can talk about your emergent play all you like, but really that’s just happening in the space delineated by the designer. In tabletop RPGs, the GM can respond directly to player concerns, or even hand over creative authority; in videogames that isn’t possible now and probably won’t be for some time. You can build all kinds of stuff in Minecraft, and come up with ways to use games (generally games that already have relatively broad agency) in unexpected ways – but the rules established by the designer curtail you. You can build the USS Enterprise in Minecraft, but you will never be able to fly it. Yes?

Well, you can make mods, but that seems to miss the point – making mods isn’t part of playing a game, more or less by definition. If there’s an in-game level editor, it’s still going to work within author-defined limits.

Except that the makers of games don’t operate in a vacuum. When you play a game, you develop a sense – an imperfectly accurate one, to be sure – of the concerns of its creators. A lot of the sense of agency that arises in a game comes out of a feeling of trust for the author. And sometimes that feeling is based on an actual relationship – the game’s authors pay attention to their audience’s concerns and respond to them as they update the game. (In the Kickstarter era, that can become very concrete indeed.) Feeling that the author gives a shit about you, or doesn’t, is not necessarily just in the player’s head. Games are experienced in context. Part of that context, for instance, is how you’re allowed to play the game – is it available on your preferred platform? can you choose when and for how long you want to play, or does the game jerk around with your time?

If you’ve ever read the comments for a game in active development, you’ll have all too clear an idea about what I mean. Players want agency over the creation of games, and they can get astonishingly whiny about it. Any tester knows how very satisfying it is to play a game and run into something that you suggested, however small and silly.

Speaking of which: cheating probably deserves a mention here. Whether it’s paying for extra turns in FTP games, editing the game files and using tester console commands, or looking up walkthroughs, cheating gives players a very direct kind of control over the game. This is outside the game in one sense, but it has very often been part of an intended game experience – whether it’s for monetisation (selling strategy guides to impossibly difficult puzzle games; FTP energy-gouging) or to take the pressure of teaching the player off the game itself (wikis and player-made how-to videos mean that Mojang have never had to put much effort into making their own Minecraft tutorials.)

A sense of agency is, to a great extent, a positive feedback loop. The kinds of agency offered by a game create an impression of the kinds of agency the author cares about you having. (And vice versa.) If you’re a woman and the game you’re playing makes it very clear that it is really only interested in catering to straight men, or is actively hostile to women, your expectations of agency are likely to diminish. And much of the experience of agency is about expectations. Willing suspension of disbelief is a form of trust, and trust is easily damaged.

This is why strongly political or religious games are so difficult to get right: the player can very easily feel as though they’re being compelled to enact the values of the author, that their own answers are being disregarded. (See: identity.) Conversely, if you’re used to being ignored or disregarded by games, a game that doesn’t do this will confer a lot more meta-agency – and this radiance is reflected in how players experience the other forms of agency in a game. The polarised reactions to Gone Home illustrate how big a deal this can be: for some players, the simple fact that it was a relatively high-profile game with a sympathetic queer coming-of-age story was such a huge deal that it lit up every other aspect of the work. If this wasn’t a huge deal for you, then it looked like a run-of-the-mill, fairly linear, low-puzzle adventure game with a decent enough story (and we all know how nastily tempting it is to shift one’s view from ‘okayish’ to ‘pernicious crap’ when people go on about how something okayish is the best thing ever).

And this leads us to:

Negative agency is what happens when you have a baseline expectation of a certain kind of agency – whether because the game has implicitly promised it to you, or because of other expectations (theory, genre, community, personal) – and the game denies it.

ramesesJudiciously employed, negative agency can be a powerful technique. Games like Rameses explored using player frustration as a thematic element; Twine Revolution authors have embraced it wholeheartedly as a way of representing powerlessness and oppression. But it’s always a risky business. Negative agency is not the same thing as an absence of agency, as in a static work: when you’re reading a book or watching a movie there’s little expectation of audience agency, so it’s not a privation. Negative agency is by definition a privation, something that has been taken away. Negative agency is also, and this is not trivial, very easy to implement and can therefore feel like laziness or active maliciousness on the author’s part (see: meta).

Agency is often seen as one of the defining features of games as opposed to other media. This isn’t entirely true – to at least some extent this view is a product of the mass-media age, which drew stronger lines between the producers and consumers of art – but it has a pretty substantial element of truth in it. Games which deny expected kinds of agency are well-advised to offer unexpected ones.

(Its counterpart, I suppose – a much rarer counterpart – would be transcendent agency, the feeling you get when you discover that a game unexpectedly offers you powers of a kind or degree that you never expected to be granted. Counterfeit Monkey is the example that comes most readily to mind, but see also identity: the transcendent-agency moment may not even be one that the author really envisaged as such.)

Reflective choices are explicitly made, but affect nothing further in the game’s actual mechanics. They’re cast into the aether. Sometimes they simply reflect the internal attitudes of the protagonist; but they can also fill in important parts of the story. Reflective choice is the shadow of focus choice: it lays out a field, a scope, and lets the player declare a particular emphasis on part of it. Sometimes the declaration is the important thing: sometimes the suggested scope of possibility is more significant.

baron

Option 1 feels really convincing by the time you get to the end of the list, no?

At heart, very few of us are strict behaviourists. We care about what other people think, even if those thoughts might never have any material influence on our lives. When you share something with someone, often what matters isn’t whether they’ll behave differently as a result; it’s that you were heard and they listened. This is crucial to regarding people as people, rather than as functionaries.

Single-player games, on the other hand, are behaviourist entities, functionary machines, not people. By default, we don’t want to give them input without the expectation of reciprocal output at a beneficial rate: they are hirelings, not friends. But reflective choice relies on the player being invested in the ephemeral, caring about the aesthetic elements of the game rather than the mechanical ones, developing a pseudo-personal relationship with the work: briefly, treating the game as a friendly ear.

This always has to be achieved to some extent if a player’s going to enjoy a work. Art cannot succeed if the audience cannot love it. The greater the degree to which a game fosters a personal connection with its player, the more techniques it can employ which rely on that connection. Reflective choice – choices which change nothing significant about the game-world, but which imply attitudes, pasts, possibilities – is one such technique, requiring a high level of personal engagement to even get started. This, I think, is why it’s a bone of contention. If you’re offered reflective choice in a game that you’re really not clicking with, it can add insult to injury, pushing the player even further out of the game; but if you encounter it in a game which is already pushing your buttons, it can make a good experience into a sublime one. Reflective choice, then, is something of an Advanced Class technique; it requires a high level of craft (or a very tightly targeted audience) to pull off.ravel

It is not always obvious that a choice is reflective. Sometimes this may be due to player expectations, but it can also be a matter of downright deception on the author’s part. Disguising a reflective choice as a Big Decision – or even unintentionally making it seem as though it might be meant as one – is playing with fire. A big decision is a promise, and nothing hurts trust like making a promise you never intend to keep.

Weak interactive. Weak interaction is, approximately, involvement without agency. It’s the sensation of agency without its substance. (We shouldn’t be too sniffy about that, because sensation without substance is kind of a big element of what art is.)

Weak interaction shows up a lot in, for instance, ‘interactive’ museum exhibits. (You press a button, and a display lights up. You lift a lid and read the text underneath.) It’s also the basic design of kinetic novels. The idea is: when people have to push the button, they pay more attention. They feel more invested in text that they have to bump against.

This does not work for everybody, or with every technique; it can easily weigh against a work. When players recognise that they won’t have to use the information they’re presented with (see: grasp, velocity), they may start skimming or skipping – perhaps more so than if the work had been presented as a static text. Many players feel cheated or silenced by weak interactivity, particularly if it’s presented in a context that suggests other forms of agency. I’ve written before about how later, more linear and constricted Choose Your Own Adventure books began to feel limiting and joyless as they relied more and more on long, choiceless chains of pages.

But judiciously employed, it can make a lot of difference. For pacing purposes, for instance, weak-interactive elements can be a good way to break up more significant choices and actions, keeping the player connected to the game without making high demands on them. A general principle of game writing is not to make players face the wall-of-text: splitting your text up into sections can make each part feel more significant. (Porpentine is a master of the high-impact no-choice jump.) There’s a limit to how much you can get away with this, though, at least if your audience signed up expecting something else.

Exploratory agency is the freedom to wander around in the garden and look at things. It requires freedom of movement or something analagous to it, time to wander in, and new things worth looking at. The ability to influence any of it is not required. Navigation has to be non-arbitrary; if a player has no way to predict where they’re going, their exploratory agency is severely diminished. Understanding the layout or geography of a game is, ultimately, an element of grasp; exploration is the process of acquiring that element.

Exploration can be sufficient unto itself; I know players who will keep playing Civ until they’ve found the whole map, then restart: the rest of the game just isn’t as fun. For other players, it’s fun but requires some level of further justification: you need to be exploring for something. To generalise:

fallenskylineAgency of possibility. One of the things that exploration pulls on is the sense of possibility, the liberating sense that many things await. Open-world or sandbox games draw heavily on this sense. Possibility is usually a combination of actual and implied in-game freedom: if there are strong signals that the game is huge, you’re likely to overestimate just how huge, or how much it might contain. Mystery expands worlds.

The sense of possibility is a big deal in static fiction, particularly sf/f and its underlier texts. Tolkien is one of the most obvious examples:

Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Whither then, I cannot say: possibility is the sense of unknown options or outcomes to be discovered, together with the confidence that discovering them is a reasonable possibility. (Possibility is denied if you know there’s a bunch of stuff in there, but have no idea how you might set about finding it; or if there’s a vast world which turns out to contain nothing interesting.) As with static fiction, a skillful author can make it work even if the actual scope of the game is not all that vast, but it’s more straightforward to create that sense and sustain it by having there actually be lots of stuff. The important thing is that the player is conscious of having lots of things to do beyond the set of choices immediately available to them.

Denial of possibility can happen in static fiction, too – when the twist is too heavily foreshadowed, or when you encounter spoilers. In interactive media it’s more significant, though, because interactive media relies on the player being willing to play along, to be complicit: that participation needs incentive, and prominent among these incentives is the sense that your participation matters. That’s a lot easier to sustain with a strong sense of possibility.

Possibility is about the undiscovered, but what is undiscovered isn’t always the same thing. I’m tending towards the image of exploring a map, and that’s a common form possibility takes in games, but it could also be about what things can emerge from a procedural system. Possibility in Crusader Kings isn’t about exploring the map: it’s about what kinds of weird alternate-history nations you could draw on it, and what kind of idiosyncratic monarchs might struggle to control them.

While grasp increases as a player learns more and more about the rules and content of a game, possibility tends to decrease. You may have experienced this: once you’ve reached a certain level of skill in a game, you can become confined by your knowledge of best practice (and, perhaps, your own habits and preferences.) You no longer have a need to experiment, challenge becomes trivial, exploration yields predictable results; strategy becomes determined, tactics become rote, procedural generation throws up no new forms. You become a god of predestination, confined by your own omniscience.

This is the reason why Dwarf Fortress players use ‘fun’ as a euphemism for ‘horrendous unexpected failure’: failure means that you’re still experimenting, learning, discovering the unexpected. The best kind of failure is that which hints at interesting possibility.

alltheboysprob

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Possibility is in direct conflict with completionism. Some players, with some games, feel that the point of a game is to exhuast all its options, find all its content; they feel mastery of a game precisely when they have reduced it to the sum of its possibilities. For them, the sense of possibility is a dragon to slay; possibility is just another version of challenge. This the non-intuitive aspect of grasp, the understanding of the game’s inner structure through the exhaustion of its content. It can also be an aspect of focus, a response to the fact that optional content is often determined by luck or persistence rather than preference: to be sure you have the result you really want you have to know every possibility.

Some players want to play with walkthroughs always on-hand, so that they don’t miss anything they want to see. (If you’re visiting a strange city, do you feel more agency with or without a guidebook? The answer is ‘that depends on what your priorities are’, isn’t it?) There are players who value grasp and completionism but are not very interested in exploration: they want to be told where the story that they most want is, so that they can go there. For players who value exploration – completionists and non-completionists alike – being told that would be utterly ruinous.

*

It’s necessary to recognise that different people seek radically different varieties of agency from gaming, and in different proportions. The things players care about will change with context. Culture matters as much as individual preference: the vocabulary with which games are discussed, the frame of genre, the current areas of controversy and development, will shape what people claim to care about. And different forms of agency are not independent variables: they influence one another profoundly.

Plenty of people want their particular preferences anointed as the True Purpose of Games. There is no such thing. Games – like art, love, religion, technology – are whatever we use them for. It is important to have a strong idea of which aspects and purposes you care about most. It is important to remember that no game can be all things to all people, nor should try to be. It is also important not to let your preferences become dogmas.

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27 Responses to A Bestiary of Player Agency

  1. mburnamfink says:

    Great post as always! I just want to comment a little on the tactics and strategy discussion, since it’s one of my hobby horses, and contemporary gaming has a genealogical connection with warfare, from kreigspiel to tabletop wargames to Dungeons & Dragons to Colossal Cave Adventure to modern FPS/RTS/eSports type games. Tactics and strategy speak to why we (or at least me) find games interesting over time, and why I lose interest in games.

    I’d define tactics as “the art of creating results.” There’s frequently an implication of victory/defeat, multiple tactics, and skill in execution, but I’m not sure that those are are necessary features of tactics. A tactic might be as simple “keep your avatar in the bottom center of the screen so that you have plenty of time to react and space to dodge” or as complex as high-level Starcraft play. I think that there’s a clear link between tactics and the idea of “meaningful decisions”, not in the Big Decisions sense that you begin the essay with, but the small scale of average gameplay: dodge left or right, use a limited resource now or save it for later, explore a dialog tree fully or press on.

    I’m a tactics guys. You couldn’t get me to play one of those Victorian race games for love or money. What bores me is tactical degeneracy–I want to assess the situation in the game, choose a level of risk, see if I can execute my plan effectively. If one option is clearly better than all the others, I tend to abandon the game. This is why I stopped playing XCOM after about a week-there’s never a situation in which its a good idea to explore more than the absolute minimum per turn, because the penalty of sparking three or four alien spawns in one turn with an aggressive rush or flanking move is fatal. Better to stay back and trade fire from cover, which may be realistic but is slow. It’s also why I like modern FPS (i.e. Halo) over classics (i.e. Doom). In the classics, with a whole row of weapons, tactics are “use the good ammo now or save it for the boss.” In modern shooters, picking up a power weapon like the rocket launcher reduces present tactical options (no secondary weapon), which puts you in a more interesting use it or lose it situation. Making tactically interesting games is a dark art. I was recently disappointed by the star-studded Planetary Annihilation team coming out with an RTS almost devoid of tactics. and perhaps I’m in the minority, and tactics are no longer popular. I ramble, but the point is that if I can assess every situation in the game as having very similar choices and outcomes, I don’t see much reason to keep playing. Without tactics, I feel no agency.

    You use strategy as “tactics but bigger”, which is a common usage, but one which I believe to be in error. Many games deemed strategic actually just blend multiple tactical systems operating at different pacing or scales (say, unit movement and research/production). A game of Civ might last 20 hours, but it’s still tactical.

    Dusting off my Clausewitz, I see him defining strategy as the choice of objectives and the selection of encounters/battles. The analogy with gaming doesn’t quite hold, but I see strategy as being in the same space as “why we play games.” What do we wish for ourselves when we start up a program? to learn; to relax, to progress, to have fun, to find challenge? There’s something to Will Wright’s theory of how he makes electronic toys as opposed to games. SimCity may have affordance towards covering the map in urban sprawl, but you can also make the perfect small town. Skyrim can be played to complete quests or climb mountains. And while I have my doomblob
    Empire in Crusader Kings 2, it’s not a patch on the crazy Let’s Play stories that people have made about unusual dynasties.

    As much as tactics is a dark art, true strategy in games is actual witchcraft. Just speculating, but while good games figure out why people want to play them and cater solely to that strategy (or small group of related strategies), great games allow multiple kinds of encounters, multiple strategies, and unlimited agency.

    • You use strategy as “tactics but bigger”
      Only in part. The definition I lead with is “when players are able to craft, and benefit from, long-term plans of action involving the selection or creation of intermediate objectives” – which I think covers Clausewitz, if not your (very expansive) definition – I think I’d call what you’re talking about ‘preferred play style’ and file it under Focus Agency. (This kind of thing is why an actual taxonomy is unlikely to work – there is obvious overlap between focus and strategic agency, and people are going to want to draw circles centred around the things that matter most to them.)

      great games allow multiple kinds of encounters, multiple strategies, and unlimited agency.

      There’s no such thing as unlimited agency. Even the most open games impose major limitations on agency. (And from an aesthetics perspective, I’m suspicious of any formal standard of what makes a work great.)

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  3. Emily Short says:

    “When you’re uncomfortable with enacting the thing that the game requires you to do, identity is probably involved.” I think there is, or can be, more to it than this. I’ve played my share of characters unlike myself, from white men to animals and aliens, as well as characters with different sexualities, social backgrounds, and political views from my own. Playing an evil character doesn’t typically bother me if the game is doing something interesting with the moral axis and is not just playing it for disgust. (The McDonalds Game is still fascinating to me and is an example I routinely raise in explaining the rhetorical power of games to laypeople.)

    Indeed, I often specifically enjoy creating characters that are unlike me but explore some aspect of personality that I find intriguing.

    However (and it took me some thinking to get a handle on this), I am at least moderately uncomfortable playing characters that represent what other people think my ideal self ought to be. I am trying to remember a single time I have ever voluntarily played as the super-sexed fantasy woman in skimpy armor, and… no. Though the subject matter is totally different, I feel a distaste somewhat similar to the distaste I feel for Christian Teen Girl CYOA books that try to teach you to make healthy choices about boys and drugs. Both are nominally inviting you to interaction and identification with the character, but are using that to map their own idea of what you Should Be onto you, and the only way to completely opt out of the value system is just not to play.

    • Yeah – I should have stressed that it makes sense to think about identity in games as not being a context-free preference choice between the player and the player-character, but in terms of what the author-in-work is offering to the player and what that implies. (But I’d laboured the point elsewhere.) That’s kind of what I mean by ‘enacting’, I guess – enacting isn’t just doing a thing, it’s performing a pre-determined role that implies some broader significance.

      It matches up at least partially with why I tend not to play male characters in videogames where possible, in spite of being a fairly masculine-identified man; the version of masculinity presented by games typically lies somewhere between Arnold Schwartzenegger, Clint Eastwood and James Bond, which is not a place that I am wild about inhabiting.

  4. Jacob Garbe says:

    A really excellent post! I feel like we’re inching up on creating systems that push this agency, but the really interesting thing to me–especially with PCG and the resulting output unpredictability–is that high player agency seems in conflict with rigorous QA. I feel like a lot of agency-enhancing design is present in games by smaller studios, mostly because of the inevitably unintended consequences from letting players have freer rein, which is seen by some companies as disastrous (although to me, buckets on heads is a feature not a bug).
    It seems like every time a new system or approach is trumpeted for a AAA title, it’s inevitably nerfed by release (much to the designers’ woes). I wonder if players, assuming games continue to increase agency, will become more forgiving about performative “bugs” that are more emergent, as an inevitable outcome of having richer interaction? Or if the smaller audience creations, with lesser expectations, will constantly be the laboratory for these kinds of things?

    • Buckets on heads are worth a quick laugh for me, but – all else being equal – not very compelling. While I sometimes enjoy pushing against the apparent limits of a game, what I’m really hoping to find is that the game anticipates and accommodates this in a way that doesn’t disrupt the fiction. I’m inclined to see the typical case of successful agency as something facilitated by the author, not player exploits – but that’s more to do with personal taste than a general judgement.

      For various reasons, I don’t see ‘rigorous testing’ and ‘AAA game’ as being naturally linked. (I know indies whose testing standards far outstrip industry ones. Plenty of AAA games ship buggy and never adequately patch.) The more general point – that the financial pressures and many-cooks of AAA game dev create a strong conservative preference for proven patterns, and that radical innovation is more likely to happen in indies – is right, though, and probably not something that’s going to go away as long as AAA is a thing; the question is what things get anointed as proven patterns.)

    • Emily Short says:

      I don’t know that it’s necessarily in conflict with good QA, but it does kind of contrast with a lot of the design instincts at work in those contexts. One thing I’ve consistently run into is people seeing a procedural system generate something cool and wanting then to guarantee that the player will always have that experience — or generate something suboptimal and wanting to rule out that result. While it’s certainly valid to want to debug/redesign a system to produce more consistently cool output, it’s a lot harder (both to accomplish and to explain to people higher up) to modify the process to behave better than to start hard-coding the desired and undesired effects, especially while you’re on a deadline.

      And indeed this is a constant tension I run into where people feel like sometimes procedural work leads to the worst of all worlds, where it gets nerfed to the point where it doesn’t provide the level of freedom hoped for by the designers and promised by marketers, but on the other hand it’s been way more work and is still somewhat less reliable than a totally hand-authored approach.

  5. Thanks for this post. I’m a long-time video game player and a math teacher / unschooling counselor. I think a lot about building classroom environments and learning environments more broadly, and sometimes my experience with video games is a useful lens for this thinking. Your post has given me some new perspectives and language and metaphors for the kinds of students and values and motivations that I encounter. So, again: thanks!

  6. Brian Moriarty says:

    A thought-provoking categorization. Thanks.

  7. matt w says:

    When you’re uncomfortable with enacting the thing that the game requires you to do, identity is probably involved.

    Like Emily, I’m a bit dubious about this. To take a fairly trivial example: I was happily playing along in Bramble Bobonong’s “Out the Window” right until the cat showed up, and then I quite immediately. It’s not because I had any identification with the PC–it was obvious from the beginning that he (?) wasn’t someone anyone would identify with–but even when the PC is marked from the beginning as a crazy totally-not-me character who throws things out windows I’m not going to enact cruelty to cats.

    This particular case isn’t a question of the game’s trying to dictate my ideal self, as in Emily’s examples, since the PC is obviously no one’s idea of their ideal self. It’s more a question of the magic circle; there are some things that I’m happy to do while role-playing even if I wouldn’t do them myself, but cruelty to cats isn’t one of them (this is a particular idiosyncrasy of mine). On a more serious note, there are certain slurs that I wouldn’t utter even if it were realistic for my PC to utter them, and even if the PC was being presented as a horrible racist/sexist. It’s just a line I don’t want to cross even if I’m not identifying with the role I’m enacting.

    [Warning if necessary: The following paragraph mentions a part of Sentencing Mr Liddell that made many people very uncomfortable.]

    Victor Gijsbers’ work is interesting here. I didn’t feel tempted to quit The Baron even though what’s going on there is horrible (perhaps it’s buried enough at the beginning that that’s not the best example–maybe a better example is Sentencing Mr Liddell by whoever that was, where in fact a lot of people did quit at the relevant point rather than symbolically enact child abuse). But Vampires is meant to make players say “The hell with this, I quit” even though they’re not identifying with their characters, I think.

    Part of it may be a question of whether I think the line-crossing is being taken seriously enough (this doesn’t apply to Out the Window, authors are under no obligation to respect my cat thing). If I feel like the antihero who I’m supposed to hate is shouting racist slurs for cheap effect I’m not going to do it with him. But I don’t think this is exactly the player desiring identity as a matter of agency.

    • Hmm. I possibly didn’t explain my thinking clearly enough there. Identity agency is not, I think, centrally about the identity of the player matching up with the player character – though that is perhaps one of the most common and obvious ways in which it manifests.

      Rather, identity agency is imperiled when the game does something that messes with things that are deeply tied to the player’s identity, that feel in conflict with the kind of person that the player feels themselves to be. Making them inhabit a character who makes them uncomfortable is a very common way to do this. Making them inhabit a world that incorporates an unacceptable ethical framework is another.

      I’m probably going to be revisiting this topic in a forthcoming post about the player’s trust of the game.

      • matt w says:

        Hrm, well it did sound at places as though you were identifying identity agency with self-insertion. (This one for instance: “The degree to which players [strike]enjoy self-insertion[/strike] prefer PCs whose identities match their own varies a great deal.”)

        The point you’re making about imperiling identity agency is an interesting one but I wonder if that gets us more than a negative characterization of identity agency? Chess and Sokoban (which even has a PC) don’t give me a conflict with the kind of person that I feel myself to be but they don’t seem to give me any meaningful conception of agency through my identity either. It seems that to give me agency in this way the game must give me some way of projecting or inhabiting a self; then it threatens my identity agency by forcing that projection/inhabitation into conflict with my own self. But conflicts with the game self aren’t necessarily enough to imperil this kind of agency; it has to be that even having my game self act this thing out is in conflict with my identity.

        Somehow I’m reminded of the Axson-Flynn case, where a Mormon theater student (at the University of Utah, where I was teaching at the time) refused to utter swear words in the plays she was acting out.

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  14. sl1605 says:

    Reblogged this on Lloyd of Gamebooks and commented:
    Excellent blog post.

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