Agency in videogames is something we have all felt restricted over the years. The scale of limitation is enormous: it can be anything from being unable to open a door, to having to kill one of your favourite characters. To paraphrase A Clockwork Orange, shouldn’t we have the right to make the wrong decision? Too many times when playing through a game, this has not been the case.
My first experience of great frustration at lack of agency in a videogame was playing Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64. In the game there is a mission where James Bond’s partner, 006, is captured and killed. This mission mirrors a scene in the film it is based on, but the inability to save (or at least attempt to save) the character was when I first began realising how limited agency in gaming could be.
The issue isn’t only with saving people either. Third-person sandbox game The Godfather was another title that highlighted how restricted I could feel playing through a game. The game takes its player through a story that runs parallel with the first Godfather movie, seeing the protagonist befriend a fellow mobster named Monk. The protagonist becomes infatuated with Monk’s sister, planning to marry her before she is kidnapped and murdered. Being unable to save her was bad enough, but understandable as an element of the story. What happens next seems solely intended to transform how the player views the game. Monk betrays their mob family, and the player is forced to track him down into a corner where he shoots at you. I disarmed him, hoping that the game would allow me to reason with him. It did not. There is no choice but to kill him, should the player wish to finish the game. So I did.
It’s difficult to completely avoid emotional investment in a game, especially when you’ve been playing it for a while, so I found the scene hard to stomach. To advocate the game’s message, I suppose it was saying that in the crime world you can’t trust anyone and can lose everything in an instant. The message makes sense, but I distinctly prefer choice. Since the previous generation of consoles (PS3, Xbox 360) were released, this has become a reality. But of course, greater agency comes with a price in videogames: procedural rhetoric.
When immersed in a game, it’s easy to forget that you are playing something pre-scripted, activating certain switches to provide certain outcomes. As videogame technology has expanded however, the number of switches has proliferated and the number of outcomes has as well. Games such as Mass Effect develop over a long series of decisions with varying degrees of importance. Obviously when applying procedural rhetoric though, these decisions are all pre-programmed to have particular outcomes. An interesting case of this was in the NBA 2K game I played recently. I’ve discussed different aspects of the game previously, but recently had an interesting decision to make which impacted my player for the rest of his career. You start with your player’s best friend as his agent and while he tries, he fails to tie up significant deals for you. Then a big shot agent comes along, promising the world. You are then forced to choose: your childhood friend, with the prospect of making less money, or a super-agent who is rude, obnoxious and has the potential to make you a lot of money. I went for the super-agent and instantly regretted it.
In spite of my regret, I was thoroughly impressed at the game’s willingness to put high stakes up for its player. The procedural rhetoric, from a removed point of view, clearly dictated going with the super-agent. Was this suggesting that players should go for the money? Perhaps it was supposed to prove how money-driven and disloyal we can be. Whatever suggestions I consider here though, it does not change the fact that I got the perks of having the super-agent. The player’s friend and former-agent then visits him at his home, showing extreme disappointment before leaving and never returning. This was something I had never experienced before in a sport game and I was thoroughly impressed at the level of emotional affect and realism it generated. I had the choice to act badly, and I did. It could almost be listed as an actual life experience!
In all seriousness though, the progression of player agency within games has been something I have enjoyed and I believe it will continue to progress. More data, more decisions. More decisions, more consequences. More consequences, more deliberation, and therefore more excitement. Games can no longer get away with forcing their players along a linear path. While we will arguably never have true agency when playing videogames, there is an increasing level of illusion that I believe is a good thing. Just proceed with caution, or you may live to regret your decisions. Or if you’re a cynic, you can always start from scratch.