During my Breaking Backlog of Starseed Pilgrim, I had the opportunity to discuss, if briefly, the importance of agency in a video game setting. The act of doing – the enacting of one’s interactivity in a virtual space – is one of the elements that can make a game stand above the rank and file. With that being said, Starseed Pilgrim prompted me to think about how agency has been done in other games. Starseed Pilgrim, for all of the discussions it prompts, is too abstract to be a amazing example of the ramifications of agency. Sure, it shows the act of agency very clearly – by obscuring the rules of the game for the player to figure out themselves, you force the player to think about their actions and their problem solving mechanisms. What the game doesn’t do, however, is make you reflect on those choices: for all of the progress you make and all the little ‘ah ha’ moments you encounter, there is no consequence to the actions you undertake.
It is a great coincidence, then, that an excellent example of video game agency was released before I had to scramble for something else to talk about – Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor. For those unaware, Shadow Of Mordor puts you in the shoes of Talion, a Gondorian Ranger left for dead after his wife and son were brutally murdered. Possessed by a wrathe that denies him death, you proceed to go on a rampage of revenge to break the curse and allow you to die in peace. Sounds relatively safe as far as stories go; I’m sure Tarantino poked his head in the door during the writing stages. Narrative aside, the gameplay blends two parts Batman Arkham to one part Assassins Creed to create an open-world Mordor where your revenge quest plays out.
What makes the game exciting and worth discussing is its so-called Nemesis System. The Nemesis System works like this: in Sauron’s Ork army, there is a hierarchy of war chiefs, lieutenants, captains and grunts. Through your battles and infiltration of the Ork forces, these hierarchies will be influenced by your actions, direct or otherwise. For example, you could massacre Ork Warlords before the trembling gaze of the little shits and roar your bloody vengeance at them as they flee to warn others of your coming – in turn, Warlords in future will know your face, and will either be emboldened, surrounded by guards, or scared shitless. Alternatively, your powers as a Wraith hybrid gives you the power to infiltrate the mind of an Ork Captain, forcing him to make a power play for a Warlord position and tip the balances of power into your hands. Of course, this works both ways – if an Ork in a position of power lands a killing blow on you, he will grow stronger and more confident, and a Warlord who can proclaim he has killed the mighty Talion will grow dangerously strong in doing so.
He heard you talking shit. You thought he wouldn’t find out.
The Nemesis System feels like something that has been a long time coming in video game mechanics: a system that ensures that your actions within the space have weight and consequence to the game’s progression. This is agency at work: the player’s actions and methods of performing the objectives in the game world are reflected in the characters and scenarios that appear before the player. A player that fails to kill an Ork leader, but manages to fatally wound him, will still have the scars of that wound haunting them. With that encounter in their mind, they will be loathe to cross you again, and if they do, they will be prepared – stronger and thirsty for revenge for what you did to them. Agency is easy to foster when narratives grow organically, and fostering a video game space that allows for these organic avenues of play to exist is both extremely difficult, and staggeringly innovative. The interplay of agency and the consequences of a player’s actions are key components in making a video game world deep and immersive.
When I mention the word “consequences”, however, it is important to realize what that means, and how it ties into the notion of agency. I do not mean consequence as the direct and immediate ramifications of a choice. For example, when one is presented with one of three options, all of them with immediate effect and value to the story, this is not the consequence we are discussing. In these multiple choice moments, you evaluate your actions in real time and decide the best course of action at the time of making the choice. This works well in games that seek to tell a particular narrative, such as The Walking Dead, and seek to provide the illusion of agency while adhering to a strict narrative focus. A choose-your-own-adventure narrative, however compelling, is not a good example of player agency. The player is fully aware of the intentions of the narrative, and the choices being made are deliberately put before the player explicitly, in a particular way. Imagine the thought process you went through when deciding whether to save Doug or Carley in The Walking Dead. Almost every person chose Carley, because it was the most practical option to the player at the time. These choices are planned products of the player conforming to the internal rules set by the narrative. Every action is thought through extensively before making it, leading to a stilted, artificial, and in some cases binary choice system. While this is not necessarily a negative, it is certainly not a good example of player agency.
Instead, I refer to the gameplay of Deus Ex: a purely mechanical, almost automatic form of player agency. The player is given a task and a set of tools – some tooled towards violence, some tooled towards stealth, some tooled towards negotiation – and are then sent on their way. I mention Deus Ex specifically because it is one of the best examples where every single avenue of completing objectives is just as valid as any other. More importantly, Deus Ex adapts future missions and situations based on how you complete missions – if you kill people out of turn, or indiscriminately, people will comment on it and act accordingly. The development team specifically planned a gameplay experience dictated by your actions, and while it wasn’t perfect, it made one thing perfectly clear: the more freedom a player has in the actions he can undertake in a game space, the more readily they are able to see the game from the perspective of the avatar, and the more readily they are to make decisions that come more naturally to them. Notable, the choices made are rarely explicitly placed in front of a player – rather, the tools of the game space are put before them, and the player plays accordingly, and the consequences of these actions are what dictate nuances in play style. The more murderous among us will find their world sparce of people that like you or aren’t dead, while a shadowy informant-like character may have a network of NPCs that are at their beck and call.
Shadow Of Mordor does the same sort of thing: in time, it is not the character of Talion that has encounters with the Ork Warlords, but you as a player. At many points during the development process, Monolith Entertainment employees mentioned on several occasions the ability to “grow your own enemies”, and the construction of the game allows for these encounters to be unique to the player, fostered by their actions and shaped by the consequences of those actions. I would liken it to the older tabletop, pen and paper role-playing games – the world you reside within is no longer static, no longer a playground for you to bound within and do what you will. The world becomes a living space, influenced by the actions of the players and crafted around particular moments, be they failures, successes, or cases of “holy Jesus on a pogo did that just happen?”. No two experiences will ever be quite the same, and it is a game that breeds storytelling about your exploits and adventures amongst other people who have played the game. The best part of agency and consequence, manipulated successfully, is that feeling of escapism that many games try to achieve and fall slightly short because your immersion breaks as soon as you remember the invisible walls that hold the experience together.
What is important to mention, however, is that all games do not need to be like this. There is an entire subsection of gaming that focuses on narrative, lack of player choice and deliberate railroading into particular situations that you have little choice but to follow the rules the game has provided for you. Games that do the opposite – limiting player choice – can be just as successful as games that provide every choice imaginable. In terms of open world games, however, there is something magical about having importance within a game world that remembers you were there once. In all the punchups of Batman Arkham, all the drive-by shootings of Grand Theft Auto and all the horse-wrangling of Red Dead Redemption, there is something hollow in being set back down where you were and having everything reverts to how it began. It breaks your immersion, and reminds you that this is in fact a game, with strict boundaries and rules and mechanics. The discussion on agency, and its subsequent consequences, allow us to reach a level of immersion where the inner workings of the world become invisible, with all that is between you and the game is a G.E.D and a give ’em hell attitude. If Shadow Of Mordor‘s Nemesis System is anything to go by, we are looking at some interesting discussions about how we can only go forward from here.