I don't want to make ClickNothing a clearing house of second run stuff I am writing for print magazines, and I still want to make sure I get original content up here. I'm working on some stuff, but am also pretty busy. Part of the reason I decided to take these writing opportunities with Edge and GamesTM was to give myself a kick in the butt to get writing again.
The stuff I am doing for Edge is (if you haven't been following) a serialized column specifically about what I am calling intramedia convergence. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here. Part Three has already streeted in the UK I think, and maybe the US too. I will post it here in a couple weeks. I just submitted Part Five to Edge today, so there will be at least six parts in the serial (I'm thinking I'll run out of stuff to say by Part Eight).
This piece is being republished from an article I wrote for the 100th issue of GamesTM Magazine. It's cool they asked me to do this, because my first game, Splinter Cell, was featured on their very first cover, one hundred long months ago. Yes, I've been around that long (and longer). I feel this piece is a more concise companion piece to the article I wrote for RPS for the 10th Anniversary of Deus Ex.
Here it is:
Agency: Past, Present and Future
In her seminal 1998 work Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray first formalized the concept of agency, defining it as the feeling we get when we take meaningful action in an interactive system and experience the results of our decisions and choices. Agency is, in effect, the aggregate of computer, program and designer telling you that your expression in the game world matters. While this concept may seem straightforward and obvious, its implications are profound.
Aside from 'the interactive system' (or for our purposes, the video game) there is no other medium of human expression that literally validates the expression of the audience. Agency, therefore, is not just a feature of games, it is the very foundation of what games are and how they mean. It is not simply that your expression and its validation matters, it's that your expression and its validation are all that matters. This is a fundamental departure from the author-centric notion of what art is and what it can be, and it is no understatement to say that agency changes everything.
A decade ago, with the critical acclaim of ‘high agency’ games such as the Thief and System Shock games from now defunct Looking Glass Studios, and the Deus Ex games from Ion Storm Austin, agency was on the rise. When I got my own start in the game industry in 2001, it seemed obvious that the path that would see games delivered into the promised land where they'd be recognized as a legitimate form of creative and artistic expression was by increasing the agency they offered. Unfortunately, despite their critical acclaim and their lasting influence on professional designers, these high agency games were largely commercial failures.
To compound the problem, Microsoft went toe to toe with Sony by launching the Xbox and bringing what was traditionally the highest agency type of game possible – the so-called ‘immersive sim’ fps – to a more casual (and explosively growing) audience of console gamers. Halo is still a pretty high agency game, but compared to the complexity and nuance of player expression available in games in the 'Looking Glass School', it was a step backwards. But it was a mega-hit and it helped define the expectations of an entirely new generation of gamers.
The last decade has seen a widespread reduction in agency. Racing games like the Burnout series became 'chutes of awesome' instead of games of skill and strategy and tactics. RPGs like KoTOR constrained agency to the mid and high levels of play, while turning over most low-level agency to probabilistic determination. Even traditionally high agency first-person shooters have increasingly sacrificed the potential for incredible awesomeness to arise from player agency, highly interconnected systems, and emergence, in exchange for pre-masticated 'wow sequences' that are exciting to watch - once - and rarely meaningful to actually play. Even GTA - the king of agency 10 years ago, has seen its system space massively curtailed in its latest iteration in order to make more room for the authored narrative. Action adventure games rely heavily on non-systemic QTEs and unique qameplay one-offs in an attempt to be more filmic while often missing the point of what both film and games are.
For every step backward, there are steps forward to be sure. Oblivion and Fallout 3 more than answered the call for an RPG with incredible agency across all levels. The Bioshock games have proved themselves worthy successors to the System Shock series. Portal offers irrefutable proof that ludonarrative dissonance can be dealt with if the writer realizes that his work must be in service of the player experience and not vice versa. This is to say nothing of multiplayer games from WoW to Modern Warfare to Little Big Planet to Left 4 Dead, where agency will (hopefully) always reign.
I do not generally believe in 'slippery slope' arguments. Mankind (and perhaps game developers especially) are more than the wet clay certain mythologies would have it we are wrought from, we are thinking beings. One of the things we do best is balance and optimize complex situations. I am more fearful of arms race scenarios. Arms races happen when easily predictable gains along a single axis suck intelligent well-meaning people toward inevitable conclusions that they are unable to avoid despite their clear visibility. Incremental sacrifices of agency in exchange for massive leaps forward in development of authored film-like narrative technique is - in my opinion - just such an arms race. Especially if that race is the Zeno's paradox I believe it to be.
While selling games that appeal to a broad audience is our responsibility as professionals, we also have a responsibility of stewardship over the resource of agency. As the newest, and perhaps the final domain of human artistic expression, and as the democratizing force of human creativity, the responsible and sustainable development and exploitation of agency is critical to our collective future. Over the next ten years, the choices we make in terms of delivering agency to players and developing their taste for agency will impact not just the direction of the game industry, but the direction of the development of human culture in general.
It is not, and it never will be, a mistake to make games that offer all different degrees of agency, from the high to the low. But it is a very serious mistake indeed to dismiss its importance, to adopt a laissez-faire attitude, or to neglect our responsibility as pioneers into the last great frontier of our cultural development.