On Reader Mail, A Quantum Quandry

Dane writes in and says:

"I'm a student of Games Art currently working on my dissertation. . .my question is this;

Assuming you have Woods A and Woods B as 2 separate paths the players can take but that regardless of their choice they will encounter the Ogre at the end of either; would player agency still have been removed if the journey through Woods A and the information or experiences therein painted the Ogre as an enemy, while the journey through Woods B sympathized with the Ogre, thereby changing the players perception of the Ogre based on the route they chose?"

Oh, how we complicate things that are simple. Player agency isn't removed in either of the situations. The players take no action that the Dungeon Master subverts. There's no action taken that impacts agency. The players make a choice with no information and one of two encounters is presented.

If they had taken some action before, investigating the woods, looking for tracks, etc. and had an intent that was subverted ("We want to avoid the ogre") that would be a different situation. Picking between two doors with no information about either and having one of two encounters has nothing to do with agency.

But wait, there's more!

Linear or Sandbox

"The reason I ask this is because player agency seems to play a significant roll (sic) in whether a game could be deemed as linear or open world and a point of debate seems to be having multiple routes to the same objective. From the bigger picture, 2 paths between point A and point B could simply be seen as a single path with a large obstacle in the middle and the 2 paths simply being the way the player chooses to go around it. However, on a closer look, if each path grants a different perspective on point B, or simply provides a different experience, then the player's choice retains its significance and could also determine how the player chooses to deal with the Ogre therefore preserving the players agency despite the inevitable encounter with the Ogre."

There is a real question here. Dane is talking about video games (the thrust of his research), but his question is applicable to both agency and design.

Player agency, whether the player can take action that matches his intent, is only tangentially related to the linearity or sandboxness of an environment. That is a spectrum determined literally by whether the avatar has choices of where to go. If you have two routes to the same objective, that's not strictly linear but I wouldn't be looking around for sand.

If 2 paths are given, and each has a different perspective or experience, and this is communicated to the player, then as long as the expectations are maintained; agency is maintained.

Let's drill down on this example a little bit:

Two paths diverge in a wood, at the end of both (where they meet again) there is a boss fight with an ogre.

If the left path is creepy and spooky and the player takes the left path and it's filled with skeletons, agency is maintained. If the left path is creepy and spooky and then the player walks down it to discover rainbows and unicorns agency is not maintained. The same as if the path were bright and sunny, and you keep getting attacked by ghosts and undead. Players were unable to take an action that matched their intent.

The fact that both paths end in a boss fight with an ogre is meaningless, especially in a video game. Chokepoints with boss fights are basic expectations in video games.

Significant Choice

The significance of the choice the player makes is not related to the agency of the player. What determines if a player has agency is if they A) have an intent and B) are allowed to take action that matches that intent. That is the determinator of agency.

What's important here is that they, on some level, understand the consequences of their choices beforehand. That allows them to have an intent. They have (or gather) information that allows them to make a choice where they have some idea of the outcome.

It's very important that we don't fall down the hole of endless strawmen in response to this answer. Yes, you can subvert player expectations. Yes, you can give misleading information. No, that doesn't impact agency as long as you don't take action to prevent the players from investigating further or taking precautions.

If they don't have information, then the choice is random. There are very few circumstances where this is appropriate. In Super Mario Brothers 3, when you were given an option of 3 chests to pick, the contents of the chest you pick were decided when you entered the room. This is widely regarded as a complete dick move by the programmers. It is literally illusionism where the cost is precious moments of a player's life.

Ultimately it isn't the ogre that's always in the woods that impacts agency. If the player doesn't want to fight the Ogre, they can always stop playing, get up, and walk away. It's when you remove meaning from or in response to the choices the player has already made that it turns into a bad experience for them.

Thanks for the question Dane. If anyone has anything they want to ask, feel free to write me at campbell at oook dotgoeshere cz

Hack & Slash 

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