On Agency

"I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir."


Writing this is in an of itself an admission of guilt. Guilt regarding my own intentions, or more is lack there of, in designing and developing experiences.

I am not what you would call picky in terms of games, I play a lot, I work through numerous small implementations of specific features that have interested me or otherwise caught my eye as an interesting thing to build, but over the past few years I’ve spent more time and focus on observing what actually drives my willingness to engage in some higher end titles and where my attention drops off, often permanently.

Recently, 2 games stood out to me, in ways that are entire distinct but fall into extremes on the same spectrum. I think that in order to operate with the intention that I hope to have in all of my creative endeavors, it’s important to analyze how these experiences have shaped some of my thoughts on design in the immediate term, and how those experiences are influencing my current medium term project orn117.


On the duality of Experience

Both experiences were highly negative, so potentially the duality I’m dissecting is actually to polls on a spectrum of bad.

The first experiences was with a certified hit, Sea of Thieves. Admittedly, I came to the game quite late at the explicit direction of a good friend. We had a prebuilt 4 stack that was ready to crew a large ship and hit the high seas. After a brief period of lackluster character creation, that consisted of re-rolling a set of characters with no control over their appearance, hoping to receive a character you enjoyed and moving into the game itself. This process was a precursor for things to come, almost entirely foreshadowing how this session would play out.

Abstractly, the game provides almost 0 player agency. You are presented with choices, and those choices are not at all of any consequence to you or your session. You are presented with 3 guns that are all virtually useless against the singular correct choice of a sword. You are presented with quests that simply determine how long you will be standing aboard a ship while fishing for useless food stuffs, and finally you are presented with combat that is rudimentary at best, against enemies with little variance, in scenarios that are identical. The entire experience ending in being a hyper casual roller coaster, without a single drop to excite.

High guidance, low agency. No stakes.

Coming fresh off of that, I was offered to try Escape from Tarkov with a different group of friends who are very involved with the game. I knew nothing of the game, and went into it with an open mind. Incredibly, by the time the game launched, I was lost. Immediately you are presented with a choice of faction, with no explanation as to what this faction choice will impact at all. Once being reassured it does nothing by my well versed group, next came loadouts and quests. At no point are you told what a correct load out would look like or what a any of the slots in your many separate bags represent. Or how they operate in game. Once being instructed on the basic necessities I should carry with me, I collected a few arbitrary quests from the vendors, and attempted to group with my party. This isn’t itself was a difficult journey, but was mostly related to poor interface design and other technical issues.

Once in game, things did not go more smoothly, having several techniques for just movement. We encountered a group of already dead NPCs (or maybe they weren’t) and I attempted to loot a backpack off of one. This proved difficult and time consuming and required micro management of every thing I had in my bag. After struggling with this for a couple of minutes, we see another NPC running up to us, and before anything could happen, a single shot killed me and my game with friends was over.

Low guidance, high agency. High stakes.


Making sense

In these experiences, neither of which I had fun with, I’ve tried to distill some essentials from this.

1) High agency causes players to feel negatively towards loss. Especially when stakes are high. Lack of guidance leads to this being exacerbated by the lack of information the player has to make informed decisions in relation to their agency.

2) Low agency with no stakes feels like you aren’t event playing a game, but watching an interactive movie, which can be fine, except a film guides you through a story. When you lack a strong motivator to pull players through your bumper-bowling style of game it feels very pointless, and when you lack any meaningful choices in that it becomes boring very quick.


Moving forward

Imagine a Cartesian graph 10x10, x is guidance, y is agency. Somewhere approaching(5,5) is likely where “fun and engaging” exist especially in the realm of emergent gameplay, e.g. procedural elements of story or world interaction. Weighting the decisions around the gameplay in those aspects vs the stakes of failure is incredibly important, as in the grand loop of gameplay, negative resets in that loop produce an increasingly negative reaction to the game.

Unfair is unfair.