In this article, independent developer Gabby Taylor stresses the importance of player agency.
It’s human nature to want to make an impact, to matter, to leave your mark on the world you will someday leave behind. For most of us, however, any or all of these can only be accomplished in a digital world. That leaves us, as game developers, to create that world as best we can. This involves the usual fare of suspending disbelief, making the macho characters we all wish we could be, and a catchy narrative. Right? … Right?
We tend to underestimate a little something called ‘agency’, which is the actual ability to make decisions. Without that, we just exist on rails and it may as well be an interactive movie. We can have the sexiest/most macho character ever take down hundreds of evil dragons and solve all the world’s problems, but it won’t feel like we did anything without the ability to make the decision to perform each action, which is the whole point. I mean, sure, it’ll be pretty badass, but there will still be the unmet need to make an impact, or to matter, even if it is only briefly.
So, how do we give players sufficient agency? There are two main components: decision and consequence, both of which are created within the plot and overall design of a game. While the idea of decisions and appropriate consequences may be simple, they have a huge impact. Let’s go through an example:
Without Agency: NPC runs up screaming about a dragon attacking the poor, helpless village. You run in and slay the dragon, using up all your supplies just to stay alive. You may or may not be rewarded proportionately, or at all, and your efforts may or may not even be acknowledged by the local or general populace. You move on to the next thing.
With Agency: NPC runs up screaming about a dragon attacking the poor, helpless village. You could run in and slay the dragon, even knowing that it’s really dangerous and you have limited supplies to extend your life, and when it’s over be showered in praise, gratitude, and rewards (or just given more quests to help clean this mess up). You could choose to sneak throughout the village and plunder it for all it’s worth and have more supplies but far more negative future interactions with anyone who happened to catch a glimpse of you (and survived). You could choose to run the same direction as the NPC, and let the village burn (or not, you never know). You could choose to give the village a wide berth and continue on your way and the fleeing NPC will hate you forever and people will mourn the loss of an entire village and how was no one there to stop this calamity (you don’t happen to know anything about that, do you??).
Either way you could join in an epic battle to save villagers from a big, mean dragon, and you might be rewarded. Both ways of going about this are fun, without a doubt. With agency, however, there is a lot more of the player allowed in the game. His or her personality can shine through, allowing him or her to be more immersed in the experience and fulfill their need to make an impact, be it to good or bad effect. When it comes down to it, that’s all a player character really is: an empty vessel waiting to be filled with what makes the player who they are. The more we allow for that, as opposed to crowding out the player with our narrative, the more the player can walk away satisfied that they did something, that they mattered, and maybe have the confidence they previously lacked to meet their potential for impacting the real world around them.
Gabby Taylor is a game designer, writer, and artist for indie studio GreyKüb. She began doing art for games in 2010, and expanded to design and writing in 2012. Since then, she’s been part of several games on the market and is currently working on a few mods and another game called Avalon. When she’s not developing games, Gabby spends her time woodworking, working on cars and motorcycles, and spreading her love of game development.