Player Agency happens when the game allows the player to alter the game world through choices and decisions. In this article, I’m going to analyze in detail how Wasteland 2 (a game released in 2014 by inXile Entertainment, in which Brian Fargo, the legendary designer, is the head of the studio) creates the space of possibility for the player to act upon. This text contains several spoilers. You aren’t require to have played the game in order to read this article, but doing so will most likely broaden your comprehension of the analysis.
For context, Wasteland 2 is a tactical CRPG (Computer Role-Playing Game) and a direct sequel to the original Wasteland (1988) from former Interplay Entertainment. The player controls a squad of soldiers, members of the Desert Rangers, a police-type institution that tries to bring order and justice to a devastated post-apocalyptic Arizona.
Being a hardcore, old-style RPG, the gameplay challenges begin in the character creation itself, that requires the player to distribute stat points and skills in order to build a powerful and well-balanced squad that will be able to face the — many and cruel — challenges ahead. You can choose to create a heavy-artillery guy that was born in combat, a skinny female doctor who enlisted in the Desert Rangers to save lives or a charismatic leader whose mere presence can boost the soldiers’ morale — and hit chance, because there’s an actual skill for Leadership.
Old-style skill system demands a lot of effort from modern players
Wasteland 2 is all about decisions — immediate, fundamental decisions like what builds to choose for each character, and broad and tough decisions like which city/group to support in a dispute. That is the first pattern worth analyzing in the game: most of the big challenges in W2 — the ones that make the storyline move foward — consist of the player having to choose which groups/entities to support instead of the other.
This happens several times within the game, the first being right in the beginning, when the player-characters leave the main city Ranger Citadel for the first time and receive two distress signals: One coming from a city called Highpool and the other coming from a place called Ag Center. Both cities are in immediate trouble demanding your help. Answering one call is a definitive action; once you go to one of the locations, you are unavoidably denying assistance to the other and therefore altering its future. Many times in W2, you cannot save both. You cannot save everyone.
What does this do for the player? Why does the game approach these challenges like that? It wants the player to know this is no fairytale; you can’t save the entire world and make everyone happy. Everybody has to pick sides. If players knew they could save everyone, they would probably not be satisfied in saving just some. They would reload the game and try to save the world. By not allowing that, by subtlely forcing the player to think thoroughly and consider all the variables, W2 tries to give a deeper layer of play.
That makes the player feeling like a true survivor; he is always leaving something — or someone — behind, it’s a burden being constructed during gameplay and he has to carry it throughout the game. From that perspective, the game is consistent; storyline and game mechanics act together to give the player that sense of the inevitable. Characters may die forever — even your main characters. And the game won’t penalize you for that, on the contrary, it will give you new members for your squad to move on. The mood W2 stablishes since the early hours is one of harsh environment, survival of the fittest. In a world like that, not everyone will be pleased.
Adding to the toughness of the choices, the game almost never puts black and white sides. Everything is grey. Who’s good? Who’s bad? Many times, NPC characters have secret objectives and agendas that will take the player by surprise and make him think twice on the appearances. The conflict in the Angel Oracle is one good example.
Angel Oracle is a settlement in the wetlands of Los Angeles raised from the ruins of LA Memorial Coliseum. The player starts his journey in Arizona and later he is led to fly to Los Angeles and pursue new threats. In Angel Oracle, the player-charactes meet two main groups: The Mannerites and the Robbinsons, which try to live together but have ultimately different world philosophies to survive. The Mannerites think “politeness” is the crucial instrument for civilization to rise again, going past the brutality found in the wastelands of post-nuclear war. At first glance, Mannerites are nice people, always friendly, never curse.
But Wasteland is not about that. Soon the player realizes this politeness reaches absurd levels and hides a sick mentality behind it. It’s not that everyone is gentle, but everyone MUST be gentle or otherwise suffer the consequences, even death sentence. The game shows what was supposed to be kindness is but masked brutality and tyranny. This is congruent with the game world presented in W2.
Fletcher is going to be executed because he let roaches get into his dorm
When the player-characters arrive in Angel Oracle, the Mannerites rule the place and the Robbinsons appear as victims who want to go free from the tyranic leader. The player then has the option to dethrone Mr. Manners, chief of the Mannerites, and support the Robbinsons instead to command the city. Once more, players may think the game is allowing them to do the ultimate good. But once again, it crushes expectations; the Robbinsons prove to be ruthless people with not much leadership in them, and many citizens of Angel Oracle start complaining and blaming the Desert Rangers for it.
As a result, the player is constantly conditioned to stop thinking about “good vs bad” and start truly picking sides based on personal criteria. That’s exactly what the ultimate enemy in the game, Matthias, points at the Rangers; that they are not the impartial justice of the world, rather just a bunch of people killing in the name of their own principles, as Matthias itself is doing. This dilemma presented by Matthias to the player at the last part of the game is a thought-provoking insight about the motives the player-characters – and the player herself – had all along the way. In other words, about their agency in the world.
Matthias questions the Ranger's motives
As we can see, player agency in Wasteland 2 is mostly done in dualities and relatively small scope. The immediate choices of the player do not seem to affect the entire world, but rather just a city or small region. This has an interesting effect. On the one hand, the player won't have to carry the burden of a specific choice all along the way. What you do in one place does not necessarily affect your relationships in another one. Hence the player feels freer to make decisions without affecting long term variables she still isn't aware of.
On the other hand, in each small chunk of decisions, she ends the game having affected basically the entire game world. To emphasize that and show it to the player, at the very end of the game it is presented a slideshow with the consequences of the decisions made since the beginning. Just on that moment the player has the real scope of everything the characters have accomplished and altered in the world.
Other moment worth analyzing is the Rail Nomads conflict between the Topekans and the Atchisons. In this one, there's no steretyped distinction like we saw in Angel Oracle; both Topekans and Atchisons are Native American descendants that lived together and worked as traders on the railroad, each one with its role, Topekans maintaining the trains and Atchisons the rails. In this setting, W2 presents us a complicated dispute with many facets.
Part of it is economical: the Atchisons complained that the Topekans were keeping most of the business' profits and leaving them with little. But both tribes are complimentary to the railroad partnership, so much that without mutual cooperation, no trade can be made. Other part of the conflict is material: both tribes are claiming possession over a revered item called the Golden Spike, a solid gold railroad spike supposedly given to them by the rail "god" John Henry - who was actually the first man of the tribe.
Yet another part of the conflict is personal, between the faction leaders Kekkahbah, of the Topekans, and Casey James, leader of the Atchisons. Kekkahbah lost his left arm in a train wreck and blame the Atchisons for sabotaging it. Casey James denies it and says the wreck was actually the Topekan's fault for not having maintained the train's brakes. The pride of the two leaders guides each one's perspective and hardens the possibility of peace, leaving both factions at war. Nonetheless, talking to them shows both actually preferred peace and regret the course of events.
Angela Deth is a reminiscent character from the original Wasteland (1988)
The player is taken into that rich and complex setting without knowing which version of the story represents the real facts. It's in the player's power to determine which faction will get the lead at the end, he can help make peace or dominance. But with great powers, come great responsabilities. If he intends to make a conscious decision, the player has to immerse himself into the deep layer of the conflict, many times going through a good deal of dialogue text and books with many parts, which are collected along the map. The player may choose to explore all these options and understand the big picure, but W2 indeed demands a lot of reading, something many modern players may not be fond of.
In discussing player agency, there's also a very important set of decisions W2 lets you make: who lives and who dies. Death is an asset and a liability. During each major quest, many people are going to die, and the player has agency over that, your actions may define the future of the citizens. But it's not only about NPCs; the game will put many challenges at your forefront and most likely many of the player-characters will fall. The way the player deals with the lives of his squad defines a great chunk of the way he experiences the game. Wasteland 2 works a lot on the player so that he feels a burden that grows over time. He starts to feel responsible for many events that occurred in the world, the good and the bad.
Mechanically this is felt, amongst other ways, when one or more player-character dies. When this happens, the player loses a set of resources - weapons, skills, combat initiative and number. For example, if the fallen character was the one with the Lockpicking skill, the player loses an important resource.
But taking away such resources without any compensation would be bad design. That's why the game allows almost every problem to be solved in many different ways. Without Lockpicking, another character might be able to just bash the door or chest open with Brute Force, another skill. Or even use an explosive to blow it up. This broadens the space of possibility and lets the player deal with all kinds of situations even with the loss of key resources. In the event of a character's death, many players will still reload the game until they succeed at winning the battle with no losses. But honestly, I only started to really feel the burden the game creates when I decided to let them go. Each fallen character gives you something to remember, it educates your future decisions. It's, in my vision, integral part of the experience.
There are many more interesting patterns and concepts in Wasteland 2, and maybe we address them in later discussions, but the main takeaway here is the integration between storyline and mechanics when concerning agency of play. The congruency and atmosphere of the game world, making the player always feel on the edge of yet another dramatic event - the death of a tribe leader, the threat of a nuclear missile detonation, the power shift in a big city, hidden plans of world domination...
The space of possibility allowing the player to always have resources to solve conflicts and challenges, even in the face of losses. The localised range of choices, giving the player freedom of movement - that is, letting her make short-to-mid-term decisions without the concern with the long haul, and at the same time making her affect the whole world in the process.
In brief, Wasteland 2 gives you freedom to affect the world the way you want, while letting you to deal with the consequences in a very raw manner. That sounds like apocalypse.