Loss of Player Agency: How Can We Fix That?

Posted: May 28, 2011 in Game Design
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I consider player agency to be pretty much the most important thing in a game. I’ve written about it in the past. Graphics, story, sound, etc are all nice to have in a game, but they are just icing on the cake. Not to discount icing, if someone tried to give me a cake with no, or bad icing I’d send it back, so we are justified in expecting a decent quality in graphics etc. Lets not forget that player agency, the choices that a player makes, are the cake.

Many games will have moments where the player loses agency, and has no choices to make at all, and they can be quite annoying. A really common one is getting knocked on the ground by a powerful attack. The player will be unable to do anything until the player character gets up, and usually they are quite slow at getting up. So what can be done about this? It really depends on the type of game.

If its a shooting game for example, you might get knocked on the ground, but while on the ground you have a choice, you can get up, or you can shoot from the ground. This choice is important, because of the time it takes to get up off the ground will leave you vulnerable to attack, but if you stay on the ground you will be unable to move and likely get surrounded by enemies. Every single moment on the ground is a choice, do I keep shooting from here, or do I stand back up. Its not much but its better than no choice at all. If you can’t offer some agency while the player is on the ground, than getting knocked on the ground shouldn’t be part of your game.

Another time where player agency is taken away is during loading screens. This might seem impossible to deal with but some games are already dealing with this. On one hand we have Uncharted games with one loading screen at when you start playing and it never needs to load again and interrupt your gameplay. On the other hand we have games like Assassin’s Creed and Bayonetta, where the loading screen is an empty world and the player can move around and even attack the empty space if they want.

This might be impossible now, but I imagine in a few years it will be possible to improve on the Assassin’s Creed loading areas, instead of having it empty put in some enemies. Both the player and the enemies will have infinite health and can’t die, its just there to practice combat on. SO in the future we can expect linear games to follow Uncharted and remove intrusive loading screens entirely, and other games should try to improve on Assassin’s Creed and create somewhat interesting loading areas for people to play in.

A major place where player agency is taken away is during cutscenes. Now there’s major arguments about this, some people want to see cutscens abolished and other love cutscenes. What can be done about this? First lets determine the purpose of cutscenes. I’m sure if somebody disagrees they’ll let me know, but I see 2 main purposes of cutscenes. First, to progress the story via dialogue between characters. Second to show off really cool fights, explosions etc, that can’t be done in the game engine.

So the first problem is how to  progress the story through dialogue without cutscenes. Luckily it’s already done on a regular basis, interactive dialogue trees. Anything that’s relevant to the story should be pulled out of cutscenes and put into dialogue that the player can interact with, that way somebody who doesn’t want to watch cutscenes, but does want to follow the story can still experience through dialogue.

The second purpose of cutscenes which is to show of cool graphics and fights is easily dealt with, by making them skippable. Once all the relevant story points have been taken out of cutscenes and put into dialogue people can watch or not watch the eye candy without worrying about missing out on the plot.

One other thing to consider is that sometimes there might be a point where the player is shown something that the character isn’t around for, which means it has to be a cutscene and not interactive. Okay, in this circumstance I’d say cutscenes are okay. Some people might disagree and say any good game can be done without cutscenes. If the story only shows what the player character can see , than I’d agree that it can be done without cutscenes, but if your story calls for showing something that the player character isn’t around for, I’ll grant you a few cutscenes. Try and keep them short though.

These are the most common things that take away player agency that I’ve seen, but if you have other, I’ll add them to the list. Also leave any criticism if you disagree.

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