The Importance of Player Agency

Agency (noun): the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.

When we talk about the greatest games of all time, we often only talk about the games that were in one sense or another “innovative,” games that did things that have never been done before, thing that were unique or interesting, thats that would change gaming forever and for the better. We speak of such “innovation” as if games that do not particularly innovate are somehow withheld from greatness, while those who embrace innovation are placed upon a pedestal above the rest. Our lust and desire for the next big “new idea” have blinded us—as well as some game designers—from what makes a game truly makes a game feel great to play. Yet as we begin discussing which of 2017’s great games deserve the top honor of game of the year, it is the familiar that has dominated the conversation, a game that has garnered universal acclaim from game critics and the hearts of millions of gamers around the world. I am, of course, talking about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (which is my personal game of the year). “Certainly, Bryce, you do not suggest that Breath of the Wild is not innovative, are you?” Of course not. I do, however, believe that the best parts of Breath of the Wild are not where the game is new or innovative.

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I was born in the mid-1990’s, just in time for the big 3D revolution that would take the gaming world by storm. Naturally, growing up in the nineties meant one of my first video games that I got my tiny little hands on was none other than Super Mario 64, and having not understood the significance of such a game at the time (it was, of course, one of the earliest pioneers of gaming in the third dimension), I took it at face value and enjoyed it simply for what it was, not for its innovation. Despite that, Super Mario 64 eventually became one of my favorite games of all time, as it did for millions of gamers the same age as me. There is good reason for this: controlling Mario simply felt right. Every tilt of the control stick moved Mario in exactly the way you would expect him to move, and the versatility of Mario’s wide-ranging moveset gave players an unprecedented amount of freedom in 3D space. It was not an open-world game in the modern sense, but the world it created was open to the player to explore in however way they wished.

Player agency has its roots in usability design, far before the modern video game. Usability design originated in the early 20th century during which engineers were busy attempting new ways to harness the power of machinery to the lives of everyday men and women. The development of the digital computer shifted the usability conversation to personal computing, and in 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote his famous essay “As We May Think” in which he envisioned a future where all people could use computers in pursuit of knowledge and intellect. As modern computing began to grow, so did the field of human-computer interaction, and the term “usability engineering” began to dominate the conversation in computer science. Prominent HCI consultant Jakob Nielsen lists “user control and freedom” as one of ten heuristics for effective user interface design and stresses the importance of “mental models”, or “what the user believes about the system at hand.” In his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” author Don Norman famously said “design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

So, what is player agency? Agency is, to put it simply, the affordance of freedom and independence. Player agency then is the extent to which a game allows the player to not only do what they want to do but to perceive what they expect to be able to do and to have the game allow them to do it. Games with high player agency allows the player to do anything they wish with the given controls available. To put it in a specific example, in Super Mario 64, a late-game stage called “Rainbow Ride” typically requires players to ride a magic carpet to the top of the level while avoiding numerous obstacles, but with the immense amount of freedom and control the player has over Mario’s movements, it is possible to skip large portions of this level and reach the top in just over a minute—and the game lets you do it. Super Mario Odyssey, the latest entry in the Mario franchise (and my runner-up for game of the year), does this especially well and even rewards players for doing using Mario’s new abilities to reach seemingly impossible locations. “Can I get on top of this roof that seems impossible to get to at first glance?” Yes, you can, and here’s a pile of coins for trying.

Let’s go back to Zelda. Taken piecemeal, Breath of the Wild hardly does anything innovative, but its many intricate systems work together to create a user experience that is especially high in player agency. Take, for example, the simple mechanic of giving Link the ability to climb any surface. While in and of itself a high-agency action, climbing is limited by Link’s stamina meter—until you discover stamina potions that essentially let you climb things forever. And the game doesn’t limit you from using stamina potions while climbing, just as it doesn’t limit you from riding a bear (which you might expect to be able to do after riding a horse), or fly across the map using a tree (which you might expect to be able to do after learning stasis), or throwing your boomerang and holding it in place with magnesis to turn it into a hovering sawblade (which you might expect to be able to do… actually you probably didn’t expect to be able to do that). Zelda thrives on player agency just as Mario does by inviting the player to be creative with the tools available to them and allowing such creativity to take form in the game world.

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Player agency is not limited to movement. Narrative-focused video games can introduce player agency by making story choices matter (which was the source of some criticism for games like The Walking Dead and the ending of Mass Effect 3). Simulation games can introduce player agency by providing tools to make purposefully bad decisions (like launching guests off of rollercoasters in RCT). Role-playing games can introduce player agency through letting players battle monsters far above their character level just for giggles (like in Xenoblade Chronicles). Also note that I am not saying that games with low player agency are necessarily bad. In fact, Zelda has historically been a low-agency franchise (Link isn’t able to jump and sometimes can’t even get over the smallest of obstacles) but the games have always been critically acclaimed.

So, what is the point of this blog post? To be honest, I just wanted an excuse to talk about two of my favorite games of the year (Breath of the Wild and Odyssey), but I do hope game creators will start valuing player agency as an important part of the game design process in the future. You can be innovative all you want, but there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to perform arbitrary actions just because the game designers felt like the player shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Give the player the freedom and ability to be creative and build whatever else you want on top of that principle. Because in my opinion, that is what truly makes a game feel great to play.

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