The illusion of agency in video games

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Do we really have that much choice in video games? Does it matter?

Every form of media introduced to humankind has introduced with it a new form of interaction – the printing press made the latest news accessible quickly and widely; radio allowed us to broadcast songs and messages, and the invention of television allowed us to utilize three out of our five senses, adding sight into the equation.

Video games, the latest in the chain of media, have provided its users with something that hadn’t yet been achieved by any other medium. It lets you control what happens and by allowing the player to make choices, it grants the player agency.

Until Dawn: Dear Hannah is not the bass; do not drop her on her face

Players are often invited to exercise their agency not only during the narrative, but also in the mechanics of the game as well. Gamers can choose different ways to complete their missions, invest points in different skills to grant them different powers, or have the freedom to explore the world they’ve been introduced to.

This allows players to feel as if they have invested a part of themselves in the game. By doing something that they personally opted to do, they are projecting a little bit of their own personality into the game or the character they play .

Fallout 3: Originally I just wanted to kill you a little, but you made me mad.

However, it is often argued that while games do allow us to make certain decisions – it does not allow one to have true free will and immersion.

There will definitely be limits imposed in the world – there will be limits to where you can go, what you can say, and what you can do – there will always be a conveniently placed pile of debris, limited conversation choices, and you can never be a villain in a game where you play a hero who is sent out to save humanity.

Bioshock: Be a man, do the right thing.

If the developers were to go all out and write codes for every possible outcome and whim that the player might have, they would never be able to release their game as the coding process would take far too long, and it would be far too arduous to even attempt.

Fortunately, it is not necessary for that much choice to be coded into the game for the player to feel agency – all that matters is that the game makes us feel that our choices do affect the game, be it through our gameplay or through the narrative. One does not need unending options to be offered to the player, all they need is acknowledgement that they’ve made that choice and that that it mattered in the grand scheme of the game. This will make all the difference; it will make the choice worth making.

Undertale: Papyrus is a sweetie. Don’t you dare hurt him. >:(

Some would even say that if a player has absolutely full control of whatever they want to do, the narrative would end up suffering as the player would move so far off course from the intended story that it wouldn’t even be relevant anymore.

There are even games that capitalize on the fact that players may not have that much choice by highlighting the oppression and lack of choice in the game, such as during fights against opponents far stronger in which the player is meant to lose. It can also be used during instances where the player is trapped and at the mercy of others, such as in Portal, that purposely limits the places you can go within Aperture Laboratories to fully elucidate how truly and undeniably trapped you are.

Portal 2: Now you’re thinking with portals. Because you don’t have a choice.

Despite not being able to offer true agency, choice has the very real opportunity to help the player to be further immersed into the world, and draw players in using a whole new way of storytelling. But in reality, when it comes to video games the only real choice we have that makes a true difference  is ‘to play, or not to play’.

Christopher Yee

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Christopher Yee

Chris is a frequent traveller of worlds beyond the screen, and has been to places like Skyrim and Ferelden more times than he can count. When not indulging in escapism, he enjoys annoying the neighbours with his guitar and pondering the answers to life's great questions; like the meaning of life, and what to have for lunch.

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