Mordeth Kai blog header photo
Mordeth Kai's c-blog
Posts 0Blogs 12Following 0Followers 3



The Gradual Disappearance of Player Agency


As a fan of old school CRPG's I've noticed a pattern that has been developing for quite a while in gaming, and that is the mentality behind 'story driven' games. Story Driven isn't a bad thing, but it clashes with sandbox games and the concept of player agency on a fundamental level. Basically, the more specific the story, the less player agency allowed.

Two Schools of Story Crafting:

Part of what made old CRPG's incredibly deep, complex, and also clunky, is that they were made with the mentality of a dungeon master, to use D&D terms. When creating a story there was less emphasis on the details of the story itself and more emphasis on interesting characters, mechanics, and player agency. The writers had to consider not only what the story was, but also account for how the player will role-play their character and the tools at the player's disposal. The emphasis for these games wasn't so much to craft the players experience as it was about giving players tools to craft their own. The downside is that these games tend to turn away a more casual audience by simply being more complex.

The other method is linear story telling. This is how books and movies are designed, with a very specific plot and experience that the audience will receive. This method is more in line with pre-crafted cut scenes and static set pieces. It is a lot easier to write out one scenario than it is to write ten. One downside to this method is the mentality that goes with it. By not accounting for player agency, story driven games are often blindsided by shortcuts the players take. This also creates frustration on the players end when they try to put some thought into their approach only to have their plans destroyed by a handcrafted scenario. A good example is when players try to do stealth builds in Skyrim only to lose their stealth when triggering a pre-crafted scene, often for a villains monologue. Lastly there is ludo-narrative dissonance, which is often caused by railroading players down a set path with no respect for their wishes.

A great example of the difference between these two writing styles can be found in old Bioware titles vs new, like the first Mass Effect vs the sequels. The originals accounted for and embraced player agency while the latter titles were very linear.

The Evil Playthrough:

One of the things I lament most in the modern era is being railroaded into playing the big hero. It doesn't help that modern politics, in their effort to turn the medium into a platform for propaganda, have been pushing the idea that games have a responsibility to teach 'morality' and 'values', to be 'educational'. This idea contradicts the very reason players want to play games like Grand Theft Auto or Lucius. This is part of the disconnect between the old guard of D&D dungeon masters and the new trendy writers of the modern age, understanding the concept of roleplay. This is also an unpopular concept for political reasons, since it is hard to claim the importance of checkbox diversity while simultaneously understanding that players often enjoy playing something that bears no resemblance to themselves in any way shape or form. In layman's terms, you don't have to be a furry to play a Kajit in Skyrim, and most of the hot girls you meet in MMO's are actually straight men doing it for the eye candy.

What this boils down to with the clash between player agency and modern writing is that, even when accounting for an evil playthrough, modern writers will still try to rationalize the players behavior so that they are somehow still 'the good guy'. This runs counter to the desires of the player who just wants to have some reckless fun being a dick purely for the laughs. The disconnect between fiction and reality makes it possible to laugh about anything, no matter how horrible, while still agreeing that in the real world it's a very bad thing, in fact it is the juxtaposition of these elements that makes the humor; it's funny because it's terrible. This is the essence of irreverent dark humor. The idea that someone will laugh at a joke because they secretly are a "bad person" is incredibly simple minded and foolish. In the end, because modern writers refuse to let players be the bad guy, even when doing bad things, they create a hollow unsatisfying experience. They also demonstrate the ability to rationalize anything.

To put this in perspective, the original Fallout games allowed the player to kill everyone, including children, and even had a small comic depicting the depravity. The second fallout not only had slavery, not only allowed the player the choice of fighting it or participating in it, but also allowed the player to sell their companions into slavery as an ultimate betrayal. This sort of thing was done not because the developers approved of such behavior in real life, or thought their players did, but rather done with the understanding that it's not real and no one was harmed as a result. The manufactured outrage over morality in videogames has never been anything more than a talking point for journalists to make quick mindless articles and generate easy add revenue, selling to a judgmental audience that wants someone to look down on in order to feel good about themselves.

Time and Place:

Neither writing style is universally good or bad, and there is certainly a spectrum between them. The main issue is player agency, and how important that is to the game itself. Consider an open world sandbox vs an on rails shooter, for example. It would be rather odd to have a linear campaign shooter, going from mission to mission, and throw in dialogue options and multiple endings. Likewise, open world sandboxes chafe when they don't accommodate player agency. I'm not saying it can't be done or that it can't be good, only that, in general, it's a bad match.

The Open World Sandbox:

In the modern era these games have suffered the most from the lack of player agency. A large part of the problem is the increase in cost, but there is also the decrease in ambition. To create a living breathing world and truly bring it to life requires a much greater attention to detail than other kinds of games. The best use of a sandbox isn't to create a story for players to experience but rather to give them the tools they need to create their own story. A linear story driven experience is simply cheaper, easier, and less time consuming to produce. The only thing that keeps open world sand boxes around is the overwhelming demand for them. Sadly, the industry would rather lower the standards and expectations of gamers than increase the scale and ambition of their games to meet that demand.


Not every game needs to be a sandbox or have an open world, but sadly, the modern gaming industry no longer puts in the effort to do them well. This is why I stopped buying EA games long ago. They would publish games that had top notch visuals, excellent mechanics, and were usually fairly polished, but their games were also cut down to the bare minimum viable product. Unfortunately, since this has been a profitable shift, most of the AAA industry has followed suite.

We have seen the unbridled greed of the modern industry, and their willingness to lie to the customers and play the victim shamelessly in the pursuit of profit. EA isn't the only company complaining about how expensive it is to make games while their business is more profitable than it's ever been. Frontier Development has failed to deliver many of their original kickstarter promises for Elite: Dangerous and launched new titles while their original crowd funded flagship flounders in development hell, yet their annual income continues to grow. Bethesda started placing cash shops in their single player games, while Ubisoft is now disrupting gameplay to advertise their DLC. And this is all on top of the modern lootbox controversy. The industry is more profitable than it has ever been, but there will never be enough money to satisfy, and there will never be an end to the excuses to cut content and rely on predatory business practices.

There is an old saying 'all I wanted was to play video games', but sadly, unless gamers spend time increasing their awareness of the state of the industry, unless they research where their money is going, and unless the majority begins to exercise restraint, things will only get worse. It is up to the consumer to curtail this behavior and incentivize quality.

- “Give a man a fire and he's warm for a day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.” ― Terry Pratchett

Login to vote this up!


Mordeth Kai   
Boxman214   61
DR Ubio   1
CobaltVega   1



Please login (or) make a quick account (free)
to view and post comments.

 Login with Twitter

 Login with Dtoid

Three day old threads are only visible to verified humans - this helps our small community management team stay on top of spam

Sorry for the extra step!


About Mordeth Kaione of us since 11:13 PM on 09.13.2017