Exploration and Player Agency

Posted: May 20, 2011 in Game Design
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In a previous post I briefly mentioned player agency without really explaining what that is. Basically, agency, is the capacity for an agent to act in the world. So player agency is every available action a player can make in a game. I might divide agency into categories. Choosing between a shotgun or a sniper rifle, or choosing between casting a fireball or a lightning bolt is a tactical decision so I would call that tactical agency. Choosing between saving a village or slaughtering innocents is moral agency. Choosing between going west or going north would be navigational agency.

Games seem to be offering more and more tactical agency, as games try to increase the number of weapons in each new game, or number of spells and abilities in RPGs. Games are pretty poor at moral choices but some are getting better and overall it seems moral agency is on the rise. But navigational agency seems to be getting worse. Final Fantasy series used to have a sprawling overworld for the player to wander around, and contained huge maze like dungeons to explore, and now the overworld is gone, replaced by a series of linear dungeons, with the occasional branch that may lead to a treasure, and you can clearly see what the branch leads to without needing to explore it.

Some people might not even care about the increasingly restricted navigational agency, as long as the gameplay is still good. Which also brings up another point, that “gameplay” usually refers to tactical agency, as if moral and navigational choices don’t count as an aspect of gameplay. I would call bullshit on that and say every choice a player makes is an aspect of gameplay. If you add more places to explore, you’ve added more gameplay.

The downside is that it might not be something that everyone wants to do, or that anyone wants to do all the time. An important aspect of navigational agency is for the player to choose not to explore if they don’t want to. There should always be obvious directions to accomplish the minimum navigation needed to beat the game. If the player has to explore to beat the game, then his agency is taken away just as much as someone who wants to explore in a linear game.

Since there are a lot of people that just want to kill bad guys and don’t care about navigational agency, it really doesn’t seem like a big deal if some games are incredibly linear with no real exploration, cause they cater to a specific crowd. The problem is that there is a widespread trend to reduce navigational agency, with only a few developers still offering some decent exploration. Those developers are Bethesda, Obsidian, and Rockstar. Maybe there are some others I haven’t thought of, but pretty much any other game will have either one path to go through the game, or some minimal exploration that is very restricted.

Not that every game necessarily needs to have a ton of exploration, just that most games would be improved by an increase in player agency, and navigational agency is an aspect of player agency. Please leave your comments and criticisms. We would be interested to hear from you.

And just in case anyone is wondering what caused me to make this post, it was brought on by reading this post at another blog. Not really the post itself so much, but the comments on that post and on another blog. The real reason for that link is to get some pingback. If you don’t know what pingback is, lets just say, I’m an internet parasite trying to leech readers off a superior blog. You’ll know my plan has succeeded if you clicked the link on another blog and are now reading this.

  1. JPH says:

    I do think navigational agency is important. It seems a bit weird that I criticized Fallout so harshly for it, because I’ve enjoyed exploration in other games. I think you made a good point when you said it’s important to allow the player to choose not to explore.

    Totally digging the new theme by the way.

    • maxff says:

      I find Grand Theft Auto games are excellent for navigational agency. There’s a big city to explore usually with hidden packages and unique jumps and other stuff to find, but its not necessary to explore the city to win. Missions are clearly marked on the map, and if you select one you will be shown a path on the mini-map to get to that mission. Possibly the best balance of navigational agency in any game.

      Thanks for commenting on the theme. The consensus seems to be that its a huge improvement over the old one.

    • krellen says:

      On the other hand, Fallout does lack a bit in the “allow for not exploring” bit, so if you’re not as exploration-focused as I and other Fallout originalists are, it’s likely to be a completely valid sticking point for criticism.

  2. krellen says:

    It was totally me that created this post, wasn’t it?

    • maxff says:

      Your comments may have had some slight, and I do mean SLIGHT, influence on this post.

      Just kidding, your comments actually had a pretty big influence on this post.

  3. Haychen says:

    Dragon Age Origins, I think, has good navigational agency. Its a good blend between open world and linear. While everything is going in the same direction, its also a unique experience and the landscapes are diverse enough to enjoy exploring them for quite some time.
    The only downfall? Enemy respawn is mostly lacking.
    One of the most fun zones for me in Origins was the Brecilian Forest in Nature of the Beast. No matter how many times I went through the woods, I never got tired of exploring it. It may have been a small zone compared to an open world like Oblivion or Morrowind, and I had no reason to go back, but I always find myself doing just that.

    I love open worlds like Oblivion. They are utterly stunning, but… there’s never enough creatures in them. Oblivion is, I’ll admit, my favorite game of all time. I thought the storyline was simply amazing, and the characters were easy to get attached to(especially the Dark Brotherhood, but that’s a story for another time). I can replay it again and again without getting tired.
    But not quick traveling is hard. Oblivion has gorgeous scenery, but it gets boring to explore when you only run into an enemy once an hour in the middle of the forest.
    Quick travel is a fantastic thing to connect both the ‘no exploration’ and ‘lots of exploration’ groups. Its absolutely wonderful, and I usually use it. The compass is nice, too. Its easy to get lost in the woods and its always nice to have that little reassurance.

    Oblivion and Morrowind, alongside their expansions, are both amazing. I feel like Morrowind had a surplus of monsters, and Oblivion’s residential enemy population was really whittled down, possibly due to the fact that Morrowind DID have so many monsters.
    Or maybe it just had something to do with dev deadlines, I don’t know.
    But I do feel like in Shivering Isles, it was really expansive and an utterly gorgeous, unique landscape, and there was just the right amount of monsters.

    On topic of Oblivion’s expansion(s), I never get tired of exploring the Shivering Isles. No matter how many times I see something, everything always just seems so new when I see it again. There’s the perfect amount of monsters, too, so you can explore for hours without getting bored. And its small enough so you can get anywhere relatively quickly without quick travel.

  4. Nice Blog with Excellent information

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