July 3, 2005

Agency, or Not Agency, That is the Question

by Andrew Stern · , 12:24 pm

We’re having an interesting debate over at Game Matters on the role, or desirability, of agency in games and stories. Frankly I’m surprised by what I’m reading. Please contribute if you have some thoughts on this.

6 Responses to “Agency, or Not Agency, That is the Question”

  1. Walter Says:

    I’m pretty surprised myself, just by the general resistance to greater agency that game-blog commenters often express. Seems like knee-jerk conservatism more than any well deliberated stance, and not a sentiment I find nearly as often among ‘mere’ gamers.

  2. MobiusXXIII Says:

    I’m not sure if I’m qualified to add anything, as I have no practical experience or knowledge of game design, but as a ‘mere’ gamer, both games that grant a great deal of agency and games that are almost linear enough to be considered a glorified cg movie can still be great games. That people still enjoy movies and novels proves that games with no agency can work if the presentation and the story is good, not to mention that games have a much longer running time with which to unfold the plot than movies, have the visual element where novels don’t, and give you the added ego boost of being the main character. Players don’t mind that they’re not controlling the story as long as they’re hungry to find out what’s going to happen next.
    On the other hand, if you could make an interactive drama as opposed to just storytelling, that certainly has much more potential to be the better game. Any new ability to affect one’s environment in games tends to be anxiously awaited by all but the most casual of gamers- for instance Red Faction, (even if the game’s other content was a bit disappointing) Half Life 2, naturally The Sims, Black & White,Facade (although I’m mostly just speaking for myself there) and even a forgotten rts called Incredible Creatures that was supposed to let you make millions of different types of units through genetic engineering. Gamers love options, and choices, and customization so that their experience is different every time through, and the ability to change the story by your actions, (call it the hubris of gamers, I suppose) is an oft-coveted feature that hasn’t been done very well yet. So far, the only way that games have been able to provide endlessly varying and engaging gameplay is by introducing other human players, but there are games that come close to making you feel like you can do whatever you please. (Nethack, in particular.) The problem with most games like this is that you can still make only so much content, but now it’s spread around more and more different paths and either the game ends up being much shorter, (like in Facade’s case, say vs. Starship Titanic or something like that) or you end up with a sort of sandbox that’s more of a prison cell than a real game. Even for those games that come close to being a go anywhere, do anything game with some form of implied narrative, from the beginning, players are still given a push towards what they can do. Morrowind has the main quest, Nethack has “go down the staircases,” and so forth. Without that push, (which denies some agency, doesn’t it?) players can lose the feeling that they’re supposed to be doing something, and may lose interest in the game. This happened to a lot of people in The Sims, I think. You tried making a house, a career, and a family, and that was fun for awhile, but one of the biggest reasons that the Sims stayed popular for so long was that it made and distributed tools to let anyone at all make new content. I’m sure you all know everything I’ve said already, and I got off the subject too much, but my point is that to a gamer, games with no agency can be great and games with agency can be great.
    There’s just more potential and few real examples of the latter.

  3. SpiderMonkey Says:

    I saw that post earlier today … I was pretty stunned at Scott’s root post – “Am I wrong? I don’t see how I can be.” and a brief glance over the first few comments told me that I didn’t want to get involved. :)

  4. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Well, the way I understood Scott’s “Am I wrong?” quip was that he refered to that partial sentence of his that he typologically emphasized three lines up, “there is no conflict between the two camps“. And I, for one, don’t see how he can be wrong about that, either.

  5. John Faulkenbury Says:

    Disclaimer: I know Scott, although not well. I also run an independent video game developer.

    You have to understand Scott’s comments in the context from which he makes them. As independent developers, we’re all in a pretty tight boat. You’ve got the constant pressure to produce content that is completed on time and sells well. You’ve also got the constant grass-roots push to make something cool and innovative; this is usually a strong internal pressure coming from the creative individuals within your company. There reaches a point, though, in the economic cycle where you’re not able to really do that any longer.

    3dRealms is unique in that it has had 3 separate facets to its business:

    1) Churn out games that sell to the masses (the TV approach, aka Lowest Common Denominator… these are the games that people wince when they see their names attached. Stephen King, pulp, opiate-of-the-masses kind of stuff. Note that this is the CONSERVATIVE angle)

    2) Find talented teams that are doing interesting things and sign them (this is the dead-center approach. They are essentially riding the double-edged sword here: be the financial backing for an indy game idea, but also shove it sideways juuuuust enough that it becomes retail-friendly. This is the MODERATE angle.)

    3) Spend as long as you want, as much money as you want, and burn through as much talent as you want, to make DN4 the most perfect, coolest, awesomest game EVER CREATED! [lightning crash] (this is George’s baby… and all the time spent doing the other two forms of business [see above] finance it. This is the SEAT OF YOUR PANTS angle.)

    Most independent developers are never going to be in that situation. I applaud George for taking advantage of the opportunity that he has to make his magnum opus, and I applaud Scott for taking so many small developers and giving them a shot at the big time.

    So where does that lead us? Scott knows the game market. At the end of the day, the definition of ‘successful game company’ is exactly the same as it is for *any* company. You stay in business, you keep the electricity on, and you keep pumping out something that’s 90% what the Nielsen ratings say everyone loves.

    What’s so special about the emergence of ‘narratology’ is that, for the first time, we’re reaching into INTERACTIVITY. Games are not really about interactivity… they’re about immersion. When you play a game, be it Lumines (completely abstract, light and music and timing) or be it Battlefield 2 (gritty real, screams and gunfire) the entire idea is to be immersed… to lose yourself. You’re not going in and ‘changing’ anything. There’s nothing dynamic whatsoever except the highscore. With the new experimental and evolving techniques that games like Facade are exploring, for the first time ever we’re going to be able to have truly interactive stories.

    There’s nothing revolutionary about the core idea behind Facade… it’s essentially a Choose Your Own Adventure book. What *is* revolutionary is that now it’s blending the IMMERSION and the INTERACTIVITY together! You don’t really believe that you’re going to be slain by that dragon when you turned to page 96 as a kid… and you really don’t get to “win” and adapt or adopt the political standing of your enemy when you win or lose at Quake III. But tonight, I felt a little uncomfortable when i was standing around in Grace and Trip’s living room, listening to them argue right after he’d let me in. I know we’re still a long way from applying that sense of drama and hook to a ‘big budget’ game concept, but it’s a hell of a start.

    So to wrap up, I think that the debate isn’t really a debate at all. The same way that there is a place in the world for both TERMINATOR 3 and A ROOM WITH A VIEW, there will always be games that are mindlessly violent and (hopefully soon) there will be games that have the depth of narrative that a good Merchant/Ivory film has. And there will be companies that succeed at making all types of games.

    I’m a little tired, so I hope this doesn’t come off as too much of a rant. :)

    – John

  6. Current thinking on immersive story | Failed Screenwriter Says:

    […] certainly understands the difficulty. Much of that difficulty is due to the notion of agency – agency or not to agency. Think of agency as the ability for a players actions to truly affect the plot and story. Take the […]

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