Aimless Rambling on Agency in Games

I have always been interested in the ability of games to create logically consistent environments. For one thing, game designers must contend with the fact that players will interface with their world in a variety of contexts. While this isn’t the case for all games (no surprise, considering the medium’s heterogeneity) most will see the player interfacing with, broadly speaking, the world in an interactive and non-interactive context. Contrasted with film, where you are nearly always held at arm’s length in the role of spectator, games allow you to alternate between spectator and participant. I’m not interested in doing anything so meaningless as comparing the two to figure out which is “better”—however, there is an interesting consequence to the fact that many games are subject to overt filmic influences.

Hideo Kojima has, on at least one occasion, described games not as inherently art, but as virtual museums housing all other art media. I do not know if Kojima still feels this way, but there is some sense to what he is saying here. Games incorporate many elements that did not originate with the medium: cinematography, prose, music, graphic design, illustration, performance, and so on. It is only natural that many games would take overt inspiration from older media—namely, film. This is certainly true for Kojima and a number of other developers. It’s no mistake that Cory Barlog insisted on 2018’s God of War running the player through the entire game with no cuts or loading screens to interrupt the experience (never mind how misguided this endeavor actually is in practice, since the gimmick only really works if the player decides to clear the entire thing in a single session). However, the one element of their medium that games can claim to have some ownership of, though even this isn’t absolute, is player agency. As such, it is often interesting to see how this element, more or less exclusive to games, emerges and contests with the more traditional forms of expression which they are often expected to coexist with.

Some kind of conflict between developer and player is expected. Developers can tell you all they like about their setting and its characters through cutscenes, text drops, and other directed interpolated experiences. However, the instant control returns to the player, the reins go from the designer to a third party that really has no obligation to respect the intended direction or mood of the work. Resident Evil 4 tells me that Leon wants to protect perennial dead-weight Ashley from the zombie hordes that hunt them, but that’s only really true for as long as it takes for the present cutscene to end. On every playthrough, I have attempted to find some way to directly off her (as opposed to letting her get carted off by zombified goons or tentacle creatures).

Now, why would I do this? The answer involves a very specific term: ludonarrative dissonance. When the directed and scripted elements prescribe the player a certain set of behaviours (like protect Ashley or survive), there’s a satisfaction in finding ways to do the exact opposite. Designers cannot always trust the player to follow the script in good faith, much like how a director cannot trust a chimp that has been inexplicably cast to playing the leading role (although MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate remains a notable exception to this rule). Instead, the player must be threatened, incentivized, or otherwise coerced into playing along. For this reason, Resident Evil 4 will refuse to let Leon fire with Ashley in his crosshairs. Other games may compel the player to play along by threatening them with failure states if they don’t, resulting in lost progress.

By far the most interesting, though, are games that will incentivize the player by appropriately acting out their given role. This may sound somewhat strange, given the genre’s single-minded focus on gameplay, but I believe character-action games (such as God Hand, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, etc.) to have made some of the most efficient and elegant use of cutscenes. Here the filmic elements reside comfortably alongside and even enhance gameplay, instead of begging contradiction from players. Cutscenes allow the designers to showcase the player character in an idealized context. This is Dante effortlessly roundhouse-kicking hordes of demons and Bayonetta effortlessly gliding and taunting her angelic stalkers while punting them into the stratosphere. This is the developer saying, “Hey, this is what the character is capable of.” When control returns to player, they feel pressured to embody that same kind of effortless cool. These games’ style meters are then transformed from a metric of gameplay skill to some kind of role-playing gauge, telling the player how well they are doing at embodying the role they have been assigned.

Dante would never in a million years string together a D-rank combo before getting pummeled into a shallow grave, but the player might, thereby failing to properly embody the character. Cutscenes give the player something to aspire to and I suspect that the need to contradict or defy this isn’t there because the instruction isn’t explicit. The designers have decided to show your avatar doing some neat things while lamp-shading the possibility that perhaps you too could be that rad. More than that though, the motivations of the player and avatar are likely going to be completely aligned. It is no mistake that most character action game protagonists are vain and cocky as a general rule. These are characters that want to feel powerful and badass, and chances are that’s exactly what the player wants if they have decided to play an action game in the first place. Simple motivations like “I want to look cool” or “I hate demons” are much easier for the player to relate to (perhaps because they are directly tied to the action of the gameplay) than more complex emotions, like Joel’s paternal devotion, which really is not represented through gameplay at all as the player will find themselves smashing heads in more often than not. I think this is a good time to point out that I don’t think any one of these approaches is inherently better than the others. Different games will call for different approaches to this dilemma.

SEGA’s Yakuza/ Ryu Ga Gotoku series has devised a pretty unique solution to this dissonance that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. Each game sees gruff, no-nonsense series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu embroiled in a white-knuckle, seedy crime drama that plays things very straight. The games will cover a range of subjects from drug abuse to institutional corruption with the seriousness these subjects likely warrant. However, this is true only of each game’s main story. Between major story beats, Kazuma is free to wander the streets of Kamurocho and interact with all manner of people who have no involvement nor stakes in his personal story, however melodramatic or harrowing it may be. These people rip Kazuma, and the player, out of the present mood by involving him in their own concerns.

The game recognizes the potential exhaustion that can come with having the player act out the prescribed role of “reluctant yakuza re-entering a world he wished he could leave behind” and allow Kazuma to embody a number of other roles, completely removed from his status as yakuza. In Kamurocho, Kazuma can be anything from real estate mogul to dominatrix trainer to music video director to yaoi eroge voice actor. These games manage to juggle the wildly bipolar tonality of its main plots and substories effortlessly. The dissonance between directed and player-driven experiences that many games fear is openly embraced by Yakuza, resulting in one of the most convincing settings in the medium. The world is not subject to Kazuma’s whims nor is it anything that can be so cleanly directed and curated to complement a certain mood or tone. Anything can and will happen in Kamurocho because it is where the lives of innumerable people intersect, none of them beholden to respecting the others’ stories.

Games have a unique fluidity and dynamism that stems from the involvement of the player as an unbound and unobligated third-party. To some degree, no two players will have the exact same experience with a game no matter how directed the experience ends up being. Gameplay becomes a negotiation between developer intent and player expression. Above are some examples of how this can be charted, but no one solution will suit all games. While this might have been framed as a problem to be solved, I believe this is hardly a problem at all. A good deal of the heterogeneity of games can be attributed to how developers try to manifest the ideal game experience and how they negotiate with the player to achieve this. Despite how much games borrow from its older siblings and cousins, this dilemma, and the opportunities it presents, belong to games alone.

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