We’ve talked about player agency a lot here. Maybe too much, as a matter of fact, but it’s just such an important part of gaming nowadays. Maybe not important in the sense that it needs to be in every game from here on out (it definitely shouldn’t), but it’s important to talk about because it implicates so many other facets of game design. It folds in everything we’ve learned over the years about player psychology and narrative engagement, which in turn involves how designers grab attention and pull you along by the nose without ever realizing it.
But there’s another thing about player agency that I’d like to discuss. Don’t worry; it’ll be short. Plus, you can blame it on Giant Bomb’s Ryan Davis for bringing to my attention in his and Patrick’s Quick Look for Kentucky Route Zero. But he brought up a concept I hadn’t really thought about until he said it, and that is realistic agency.
Put in another way, it is how the control a player has over the story of a game is either believable or too fantastical to be easily digested. And that raised an interesting question: what makes that control believable?
I’m by no stretch of the imagination a fatalist, but it does seem to be that when big, huge wheels are turning, it’s a lot harder to get them to change direction. In the scientific sense, that is fact; it’s called inertia. In the metaphorical sense, though, it just follows intuition. When so many pieces are moving and you can only affect one single gear, who’s to say that particular one has any real effect on the end result? It might or it might not, but no one can know for sure on any sufficiently large machine.
And in any sufficiently large machine, there is likely to be an assume proportion of gears and cogs and bits and things. There are a few big ones that have many—many—smaller and smaller parts feeding into them. With each step up or down or laterally, your control dissipates. Very rarely can you see a thread you can tug that will directly influence the big pieces. Your view and authority is so limited in scope, just giving you the ability to draw out oversized outcomes is a power fantasy in itself.
This ratio and trickle of control happens in everyday life. Let’s say you make a sandwich for lunch instead of eating some spaghetti leftovers. Will that in any possible way affect whether or not Taylor Swift gets back together with Harry Styles or that her ensuing song won’t be catchy? Maybe, but the overwhelming probably of “not by a long fucking shot” is much more likely.
What I’m saying is that we’re used to this sort of limited dominion. We can control the immediate aspects of our lives and a few parts of other people’s but mostly everything else is way beyond our scope. This is believable agency, for better or worse. It may sound depressing, but this is the control we’re used to and what we find credible.
Take that and turn it towards video games, where we’re regularly put in extraordinary situations. We still have very limited power in that we can still only directly affect the things around us. The difference is that those things are the big, huge cogs in the machine that sometimes connect directly to other sizable machines. We go from pushing and pulling these tiny phalanges of the construct and now we’re suddenly expected to cope with turning these giant flywheels. In the context of the setups, it makes sense, but to our human experience, it is so incredibly alienating.
This makes straightforward narratives make more sense. Excise out the major player choice of letting an alien race live or leaving the intergalactic security council to burn in a global fire and we’re back to normal, believable choices. Do you take cover behind this pillar or that one? Do you jump up this ladder or take the ramp? These are the smaller choices we’re familiar with and that we accept in daily life that don’t make seismic shifts with the ending of the story.
Compare the choices you have to make in Mass Effect 3 and in The Walking Dead. In Mass Effect 3, we’re expected to regularly make decisions that very obviously ripple throughout the galaxy. No small choice leads up to them. We’re handed a cannon ball, pointed towards a lake, and made to watch the aftermath. The average dialog choice is so very obviously directly tied to your paragon and renegade scores that it comes across only as a menu selection of what kind of bonuses you want. It feels less like believable choice and more like a science experiment (but with one chance to test the hypothesis).
The Walking Dead, however, is nothing but small choices that get out of hand. It’s a premise we’re all familiar with, if just with less dead people and more, uh…indoor plumbing? But every choice we make has the very real possibility of affecting later situations because we are knee-deep in both the choices and the situations. Everything that happens to and around us is all within arm’s reach. I also personally turned off the story beat notifications, but know that really anything and everything is up for grabs when things complicate down the road. We choose to share something about ourselves or we choose to find something for someone can all affect drastic life-or-death situations moments or days or months later.
This festering extrapolation of small into big is our everyday life. This is believable choice and credible agency. Constantly choosing to make grand, sweeping changes to things we can’t see or comprehend is not. Realistic agency is the next goal for games with branching narratives (the static ones, I guess, can stay the way they are). The chase is on for figuring out how to convey small choices that balloon into big results, deciphering what makes choices compelling and believable. Welcome to the Realistic Agency. Feel free to press some buttons.
Also, I lied about this being short.