Facts of IF: What is Agency?

Agency is generally considered to refer to the degree of control the player has over the story:  the ending, the plot, and what happens generally.  However, when we measure agency, by asking players how much control they had over the story and the endings, we find that what people experience as agency isn’t what we defined as agency.

In other words, agency isn’t what we thought it was.

Agency as it is reported seems to have a strong relationship to the freedom with which a player can explore the virtual environment and to the depth of implementation.  _Star Hunter_, for example, was rated with higher than average agency, apparently because the player is free to wander over a large domain — perhaps too large; the player easily can buy the wrong “keys” to this locked-door-type puzzle, rendering the game unwinnable.

_Beta Tester_, so far as I know, allows the player no agency at all.  I didn’t quite finish the game, but going by my experience and the reviews, the player is never given any choices or control of the story.  But, there are things to do, and when players have things to do they seem to feel they have agency.

_Snow Quest_ is an odd one for agency.  The game has a gauntlet structure until the end, at which point the game splits into three possible endings — one good, one bad, and one “at least you have survived.”  Now, as the player, you can control which ending you get; but as the player character, you cannot.  The control rests purely at the meta-gaming level.  The player character never makes any choice over the outcome.  (See the exchange between Victor and Emily on her blog.)

But, it seems that is not why it was rated as providing agency.  Gisting how the games were rated, it seems _Snow Quest_ was given high ratings because it was well-implemented.  People had stuff to do, and it was interesting stuff that constantly changed as the situation changed.  So although it was a gauntlet, most people experienced it as providing agency.

Even more puzzling, _Byzantine Perspective_ was rated as having pretty good agency, for no reason I can fathom.  There was only one outcome possible.  But, the player could do a lot of exploration, and the implementation was there, so this apparently makes people feel they had agency.

In comparison, the games with really low agency, like _Condemned_, also had only one ending, which the player arrived at through a gauntlet.  But, _Condemned_ forced the player to, for example, type WAIT (or Z) many times in a row, or TALK TO MOM, or so forth, which seems to have killed the feeling of agency.  _Grand Quest_, although still a gauntlet, gave the player some elbow room to interact with the simulator, and therefore has a higher agency rating than _Condemned._

_The Duel that Spanned the Ages_ broke from the gauntlet mode, allowing exploration of the mining base and parallel access to certain of the puzzles.  Therefore, people rated it as providing good agency, even though there was only one possible ending and really only one story.  And, oddly, that exploration-and-parallel-access structure caused it to rank more highly than _Duel in the Snow,_ which had multiple endings, but only one way of reaching them.

Having said all that, it turns out that agency isn’t even a major determining factor in a game’s Comp score.  Agency has a relatively low correlation with a game’s score:–but again, I stress that the graph measures perceived agency, which appears to include things like depth of implementation and having interesting things to do.  If we had a measure of ‘true’ agency — the degree to which a player could alter the plot — then this would be much lower.

Since agency is relatively expensive to build in to a game, and since Comp scores don’t seem to respond to it, the best game design strategy seems to be not to include agency; or, to include some token agency at the end.  It pains me to say this, because I personally like agency a great deal, but that is what the numbers show us.

Instead, game development resources are better spent building in faux agency, which means creating a rich simulator environment that gives players interesting things to do, and interesting feedback when they do them.  This seems to be something different from puzzle design, which agency does not correlate well to.  Also notice that agency does not correlate highly to PC characterization.

Published in: on November 21, 2009 at 11:54 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. I can’t remember — exactly what was the phrasing of your question about agency? (Matt Weiner here, logged into wordpress.)

    I consciously decided to answer the question according to how much freedom the game gave me to wander within it rather than how much control I had over the endings. Usually I figure that most IF won’t give me a lot of control over the unfolding of the story, except perhaps a branch point at the end a la Snowquest or The Grand Quest, but the amount of control I have over how I can get to the goal varies considerably. Beta Tester and Snow Quest both have sections in which you can wander around several rooms freely (and actually, you can do some of the tasks in Beta Tester out of order, not to mention that you can always leave in the middle), and throughout Byzantine Perspective you have the power to wander around freely. Whereas The Grand Quest makes you go through the rooms in a linear order.

    Duel in the Snow does let you wander around the house at the beginning; maybe it feels less agentive because the free area comes first and then you enter a gauntlet, as opposed to Beta Tester. Also the multiple endings didn’t feel so agentive to me, because there was no way to anticipate that your actions would lead to the alternate ending, either for the player or the PC. In fact the lack of agency is almost thematic here; the PC has no control over his life.

  2. I don’t think your initial definition of “agency” – “the degree of control the player has over the story: the ending, the plot, and what happens generally” – matches the way the word is usually used (in scholarly interactive narrative/games studies circles, at least). “Agency” generally refers to the interactor’s ability to understand the effects of her actions and, based on that knowledge, to form and carry out intentions to affect the (fictional) world. Noah Wardrip-Fruin et al add that agency is “a phenomenon … that occurs when the actions players desire are among those they can take (and vice versa) as supported by an underlying computational model.” http://eis-blog.ucsc.edu/2009/08/agency-reconsidered-again/

    A player can therefore experience agency without having any influence over the plot specifically. A puzzle game can give the player agency by letting her explore the space, fiddle with objects, gain understanding of the game mechanics, form a plan to solve a puzzle, and successfully execute this plan. This need not involve any high-level agency such as plot choices.

    I’d say this explains cases like Byzantine Perspective. I haven’t played BP (I hardly played any IFcomp games this year), but judging from the reviews, its puzzle has clearly defined rules that the player can learn by exploration and experimentation and then use to achieve her goal. The player therefore experiences agency, even if it isn’t high-level agency.

    Condemned, on the other hand (again, I haven’t played it; I’m going by what I’ve read in reviews) gives the player little opportunity to form and act on intentions. When the player types Z or TALK TO MOM, she has little or no knowledge of what she will achieve; her only intention is the out-of-character “advance the plot”.

  3. Matt,

    …making me publish my data… *grumble*…

    4. Agency – How much control did you experience over the course and end of the game?


    I’m inclined to stick to the understanding of agency I’m using; I double-checked on IFwiki, and got:

    “Agency is the name of the active power that interactive fiction players enjoy when they direct the game in the manner of their choosing. It is agency that makes the players participants in the story, rather than just observers. It is also agency that makes the players responsible for their actions and for whatever consequences that follow.”

    –but, having said that, I’ll also say I’ve clicked through that link you gave, and will be reading it and the page it gives as context.

    It would be interesting if there wasn’t any consensus on what “agency” is in IF.


  4. Conrad wrote, “Since agency is relatively expensive to build in to a game, and since Comp scores don’t seem to respond to it, the best game design strategy seems to be not to include agency; or, to include some token agency at the end.”

    Videogames are falling in the same direction. Here is a recent article on Gamasutra you absolutely must read, Conrad. It ties together this post, that thing you were going on about re: Eruption, and is just an all-around chilling article about videogames — and easily extends to I-F.


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