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Rethinking 'Interactivity'

The myth of player agency is actively detrimental to game design.

Let’s begin this discussion with a well-worn syllogism.

  • All men are mortals. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. True.
  • All men are mortals. Socrates is mortal. Therefore Socrates is a man. A fallacy.

Unfortunately, we have a similarly glaring mistake in our assumptions about gameplay.

  • Gameplay is interactive. Interaction requires player agency. Therefore player agency equals gameplay.

Of course, we don’t usually put it in such stark terms (because this thinking is clearly untenable when we do so). Yet this is the heuristic through which we measure games, by and large. And as we have no obvious term for the opposite of “player agency”, its linguistic influence has skewed our assumptions ever further.

But this just reflects an even deeper problem. In fact, the very concept of “interactivity” has structural flaws in its depiction of games, because it is derived from—and burdened with—the older dichotomous model of authors versus audiences. That burden has manufactured a needless race for author/audience parity, to the point we now unquestioningly assume the existence of genuine “emergence” in games and praise it as the highest ideal.

The consequence is an expectation of “player-driven” content, accompanied by the dismissal of “scripted” content as all that is bad about game design. Meanwhile, we forget that the rules that generate “emergence” are themselves scripted content, that these devices are content at all. Few of us want to think of the incidents that arise from preordained rules as incidental to the preordained rules.

And so the romance of “interactive player agency” allows us to believe that the player can somehow summon up brand new possibilities without rewriting an already authored possibility space. That 2 + 2 can add up to 5 as long as the player does the adding.

All the way from the introduction of the phrase “interactive storytelling”, then, game design has been saddled with a regrettably irrelevant stratagem, an agenda of promoting games to the status of “art” (as if this isn’t already self-apparent) through insisting how different games are from traditional media. And this insistence on the idea of “interactivity” makes game design negatively beholden not only to its flaws, but to the specific strand of literary criticism and thought that spawned it.

An Alternative Approach: No Such Thing as Inter-activity

Obviously, games involve player action. However, player action requires something to be acted upon, and the means of executing that act. That is, gameplay happens within a system, where the system’s involvement is as determinant as the player’s. No matter what the player does, it is always in relation, opposition, or deliberate and targeted indifference to the authored demands of a game. It’s more “intra-” than “inter-”, to belabor the point.

And the importance of the restricting, causal power of the system—the agency of the rules, so to speak—is readily apparent if we consider what happens in its absence. Take greater rift running in Diablo 3, for example. Say we give the player max gear and max stats without requiring all those rift runs. Well, that’s just removing gameplay completely. Or again, the structural problem of DayZ is that, because the amount of control the player can obtain is nearly binary (all or none), the entire possibility space is inevitably thin. Regardless of all that purported player agency, the mechanical depth of DayZ in itself was ever going to be shallow.

(This is why players resort to testing the limits and rules of social co-existence to extend the gameplay of DayZ. They play another game within that game, once the mechanical game is complete. Hence Battlegrounds, which formalizes and removes uncertainty from the latter social game.)

The paradox here is that absolute player agency is the same as having no agency at all, because it renders the game meaningless and inconsequential. In fact, it’s actually impossible to tell how much control we have until we are forced to defend it. Having something to do, therefore, is identical to being limited in the things that can currently be done. Which means not even the goals of play can be purely player derived. As such, all gameplay is structurally driven, is game-driven.

For instance, that we can choose which track to listen to from an album doesn’t make choosing a game. We can also easily change the order in which to play an album’s tracks, or loop a single portion of a track ad nauseum, but we don’t feel a need to call that a “listener-driven” experience. It’s hard to envision this as any sort of agency at all. There is simply no substance or sequential causality to delimit the experience.

In contrast, the illusion of choice exists in Tetris because there is an imagined will against which the player is exerting their own. In reality, there is no freedom because there is a mathematically correct answer for each situation (you can choose incorrectly), and all the options are directly dictated by the game (exactly like any scripted dialogue in The Walking Dead). Otherwise we would all just spawn the most appropriate blocks and line them up to perfection, and where is the game in that? The gravity of Tetris is what gives it gravity, not the “freedom” to choose where tetrominoes are placed.

Simply put, then, player agency only exists through its opposite—it only exists dialectically. And because the number of possible outcomes becomes increasingly finite over the runtime of a game, all of this indicates there is such a thing as an authored dialectical arc in even the most open-ended games, with palpably finite boundaries, that unfolds like any narrative arc.

And dialectical arcs terminate when either the player or the game assumes absolute control, when either side becomes the sole determinant of the experience. (This can be simultaneously true, as in stalemates.) Even dungeon masters must follow rules (though actually, DMs are also players in the game of playing PnP games). When the arc ends, the game also ends, at which point it becomes a toy (see any Civilization game post victory, or indeed DayZ).

Consider: if rulespaces are truly open-ended and player-driven, it shouldn’t matter if we dropped the player into some random portion of the game for that game to make sense / be playable. Yet clearly it does matter. “Pacing” and “gating” are expositional devices, are sequential meaning methodologies. Endgames and boss fights are structurally rational capstones, just as DayZ climactically requires other players for there to be a reason to amass gear—for the player to be able to perceive the worth of that gear. And finally, cheating spoils for precisely the same reason as narrative spoilers, because the experience is built through sequence and progress. The structure of the experience is defined all the way through.

And so, Garry’s Mod is not a game. Tabletop Simulator is not a game. Running a simulation is not playing a game. All of these can become games, but not until a dialectical structure is imposed, or at least superimposed. Without dialectics, these systems are toys or tools (that is, work), not games.

However, the formulation proposed earlier about limitations being equivalent to pursuable activities is incomplete. Something to do is not the same as something worth doing. (Bear with me as things get a little hairy.) To be more accurate, how often the amount of things that currently can’t be done changes determines the amount of things worth doing. Fluctuation in both amplitude and frequency are required to maintain anticipation, to avoid perceptual stalemate, and we know this from experiments on variable reward schedules as well.

The variable degree to which we can clear lines in Tetris obscures how little choice there actually is. The skill is in picking the correct answer and implementing it fast enough. And of course, without that skill, the game will end.

It follows that agency in games is therefore deeply dialectical as well as deeply illusory. The system and the player both determine the shape and character of the possibility space simultaneously at all times, not in turn. It must be a constant tug of war. From this we can approach a move away from the ill-defined and ill-defining ideas of player agency and interactivity in favor of the idea of game dialectics and dialectical agency.

Asking “how much player agency is there?” tells us nothing about how engaging a game is, as much as it seems it should. But ask “how much dialectical agency is there,” and we begin to shift the focus towards how many of its systems are built for continued, mutually assured definition. It tells us the extent of the dialectical arc, the extent of the activity space that feels worthy to explore.

Effecting this shift in thinking requires us to critically examine the various ideas about gameplay that derive from the flawed foundation that is “interactivity”. It requires us to see how traditional media also contains many of the purportedly unique, “dynamic” properties of games. To that end, we need to dissect the limits of player agency even further.

Dismantling Player Agency: Systemic Integrity Matters

Strangely, discussions about player agency often end up referring to Star Trek’s holodeck as the paradigm. What’s strange is that such an erroneous conception has persisted for so long, because the holodeck has never been relevant to the experience of player agency.

Since all of the agency in the holodeck derives directly from its users’ ability to freely change the settings and rules, it’s really a mod creation system which users take for test drives after parameter changes. In situations where this agency is removed, the users have no option but to hop on the rail or cheat, as in “Fistful of Datas” (where Worf does both). They have to play the game as a game.

But if we give this power to players during the runtime of a game, they will protest the inevitable consequences: everyone whimsically deciding their own rules of play, thus denaturing the legality of rules. If the jurisdiction of the rules becomes incoherent, there ceases to be a game.

Remember David Sirlin’s “Playing to Win”? It ruthlessly highlights how much of our rulespace is imaginary. And as soon as that imaginary space is breached, we call foul, we call cheap. How much more, then, the actual fixed and structurally implemented rulespace?

So the egalitarian guarantee that the same rules apply to all players is as strong an imperative as player agency, if not stronger, because we need our efforts and time in games to have “real” value. That is, the desire for player agency has less to do with getting our way than it does with wanting our choices to have authenticity or integrity, in order for our way to have lasting meaning. Otherwise, we would all just be cheating to produce unlimited agency (as noted in the Tetris example).

Fan fiction is fine, but we want to know our efforts are cannon. Even if we want the system to provide for a happy ending, to provide that I-block, it would be cheap to write one in ourselves. It would not be “real”.

This means that the importance of guaranteed rules is not limited to multiplayer experiences alone. As long as the system is an artifact, internal or social reality (the most pervasive dialectical structures of them all) are the only realities we can hope to permanently affect.

However, the need for stable rules is more than about recognition and permanence. Just as the mind can only be observed by its outwardly exhibited behavior, the same is true of the played rules of a game. We don’t reveal the solution for the player; the player has to predict the solution. Gameplay is therefore the response to a theory of mind the player has constructed from the observable rules in play concerning their intentionality, their trajectory, their subtext, etc.—the contents of the imagined rulespace, as it were. Without yomi, it’s just button mashing.

If the rules constantly change, the player has no ability to engage, because the player has nothing with which to build a theory of mind. To state the obvious, the rules must be knowable or predictable in order to be actionable. There’s a reason extreme speed Tetris displays more than one incoming tetromino.

This is what makes invisible Tetris at the end of that video, or blindfold chess possible. Further, what is one of the greatest fighting game feats of all time is directly a result of this knowability (of both the game and the opponent). And the reliance on theory of mind crafting is so strong that a counter strategy of deliberately pursuing inefficient paths can prove devastating.

And this is the artistry of games: to force us to question everything we thought we knew, about the game and about ourselves, by constantly throwing the limits straight at our faces, compelling us to hone ever more nuanced, ever more expansive, ever more accurate theories of mind and self-understanding.

All of this is to say that player action can’t (and shouldn’t) generate mechanics or experiences that aren’t already present in the possibility space, because that space must be meticulously constricted for it to have substance, for it to even be perceivable. Negative space is every bit as important as positive space.

Dismantling the “Traditional Media” / Games Divide: No Passive Reception in Media

This is not to claim that there can’t be content within the possibility space which the player initiates without prompting. In fact, attempting to draw where authored content ends and where audience participation begins is both futile and (especially for our purposes) unproductive.

What is the threshold at which looping a section of music creates new music? Likewise, if a player fortifies a skill trainer in Morrowind to teach skills not known by that trainer, is that a rewriting of the game’s rules or the logical conclusion to the existing ones? (Of course, my argument has been, and will be, that it’s the latter, just as the Golden State Warriors aren’t actually writing any new rules per se. They’re simply throwing out the imagined ones.)

But crucially, this ambiguity of separation applies to all forms of media, because no piece of media can ever dictate how it will be interpreted or operated—because media are methods of information delivery, not the actual information itself. Not even the news can tell people what to believe as facts. What we call “player agency”, then, is merely freedom of interpretation and association. It’s us crafting a theory about the mind of the content, as we do at the receiving end of all media, as we do when entering any on-going dialogue.

Which is to say that whenever we digest any media, we bring our own intentionality into the process. We can choose to humor the opposite party, to respond earnestly, or to ignore or dismiss them completely. We decide which one of ourselves to bring to the table, and of course our choice will alter the meaning of the work. It is by no means passive reception.

I mentioned in my blog post in January that the goal of gameplay is always self-concept realization. Whether the player is pursuing particular narrative results or mechanical goals (let’s call them both dialectical outcomes instead of needlessly separating them), it’s consistently the same goal of manifesting a particular version of the self or a personal worldview. And that self can be as simple (and as complex) as “being the kind of person that can overcome this kind of challenge.”

But this also is true of traditional media consumption. Because, again, we are entering into an existing dialogue, a dialectical experience.

To bring out the track selection example once more, “agency” does appear the moment a particular listener’s selections are distilled into a mixtape or curated playlist, the explicit purpose of which is to contrast one set of choices to those of another—to exteriorize a personal profile or self-concept for peer evaluation.

Similarly, we rarely give time to media we feel is unworthy of it. And the manner in which we define worthiness derives entirely from our self-perception. For instance, how is it possible to have guilt about media we find pleasurable? Well, how could we not when we are betraying our own self-concept? Therefore in selecting and consuming media, we are defining-becoming our identities as the type of person that enjoys / understands such and such, as well as responding internally / externally to fine tune that process.

The relevance to us is that this “agency” is exactly the same as the experience we undergo through dialogue choices, build decisions, etc. In all cases, we are defining ourselves through the content (and content mastery) we wish to identify ourselves by, as well as through the paring away of content we disavow or disassociate from. This is why we can call playstyle archetypes “fantasies”, because they are recognizably patterned methods of expressing the self.

Further examples of “agential” media consumption abound. Live-tweeting the latest episode of whatever TV show as we watch it engages the same psychology; the urge to sing along to a moving song is nearly universal; clapping, booing, ovations, encores, these all have specific meanings with well established rules; etc. etc. etc. In other words, we can safely say that there is nothing uniquely performative about the consumption of games. Traditional media, too, is deeply dialectical.

The rather long-winded point here is that the difference between “traditional” media and games is logistical, not substantive—that traditional sequential media is also composed of dialectical arcs, of which the narrative arc is one subset, the melody (or sonata form) another, and so on. Because it is impossible to experience any of this in a vacuum.

And the out-dated author / audience model (upon which “interactivity” is established) was able to survive as long as it has solely because the means of distribution, the logistical reality of media gave the publisher far wider reach than the individual consumer during runtime. The imagined community had always been less tangible than the work itself.

But this is no longer true. The breakdown of this model becomes increasingly apparent as the logistics change—as the devices of information exchange become ever faster, ever more prevalent. It is just that mediated games were at the forefront of this seachange in perception.

A Detour: Dialectical Structuring in Classical Narration

Ian Bogost wrote that gameplay is the aesthetic form of ordinary life, and this strikes me as the truest thing to come out of that essay, though not in the way he describes it. To repeat myself a bit, gameplay is the ritualization, formalization, and contractualization of the process of individuation (in the Jungian sense), of becoming-defining the self. Of everyday psychological existence in an environment, social or otherwise.

But actually, classical narration formalizes the same thing. Compelling stories are compelling because they chart the progressive arc of psychological development. That denouement follows climax is both emotionally rational and structurally expected, just as it makes sense to end a level with a boss fight. The hero’s journey isn’t just a trope; that it makes sense isn’t just a result of convention.

The problem of crafting an engaging rulespace with engaging rules is therefore equivalent to crafting an engaging narrative space with engaging characters, which should be no surprise given that both produce dialectical arcs. Their strength depends on the robustness of the dialectical situation. Anyone who has spent time writing or exploring dialogue trees knows full well how much they are collections of if-then statements, and a narrative is, in the end, a particular if-then chain imagined out to completion.

This equivalence is true because the chain of choices crystalized within a plot has to make sense to the audience, or the narrative fails by alienating them or by becoming incomprehensible. Which means the audience already exerts consequential influence during the writing of the work. It’s only that we often overlook the audience’s presence that far back in the process, even when we are terribly conscious of it during the crafting—we’re that blinded by the author / audience model.

So not even authors have absolute agency (or the content terminates), because all media are created within the society to which they are addressed, just as all gameplay happens within a game’s rules. We could say that authors themselves are audience to their own works, as DMs are. (The rewriting of Superman and the reconstruction of Senet are two useful examples.)

And precisely as with games, some stories are also toys. They entertain, but they do not engage. They unfold, but they do not immerse. This is why the same narrative told by a different person can be far more gripping; the manner in which structural progression devices are utilized matters. Pacing and gating matter—the presentation of the rulespace, how much of it is revealed and when, matters for narratives as well.

In writing about how Telltale games are not games, Warren Spector argues,

Telltale’s scripts force players to think for themselves and about themselves... [they succeed] at this not because their mechanics are great or their puzzles are challenging or their worlds are open-ended. They succeed because their scripts are flat-out better than other people's, and even more important, those scripts pose ethical dilemmas that are more subtle and problematic than anything anyone else in the game business has on offer.

This is rather not giving them enough credit, because those ethical dilemmas are puzzles and challenges, and the ambiguity of their morality makes that world open-ended. And the manner in which they force players to choose with arbitrarily hidden/revealed information is a deliberately crafted mechanic.

In other words, good writing happens because of good rulespace design and comprehension, not in spite of it. And the dialectical arc of a classical narrative also ends when the rules are followed to completion, or are broken by the author (via a plot contrivance, unnatural character change, etc).

Dismantling Emergence: Nothing Comes From Nothing

Let’s get back to the topic of “interactivity” to examine “emergence” in greater detail. This term, too, is a misnomer in that it shares the same name as the philosophical concept, where it is used to indicate properties of a whole which do not exist in its parts.

But “emergence” here is merely co-determinism, where one of the co-determinants, being human, is subject to constant change. We can reduce such “emergence” to the rules of the game and the strategy of the player playing it. That is, unlike true emergence, we can calculate the outcome of the whole given enough (not even all) of the parts involved.

Otherwise, strategizing in games would be pointless, yomi or k-step thinking could not be experienced, and algorithms like Libratus and DeepStack wouldn’t exist. Rule crafting itself would not be possible. The reality, indeed the necessity, of the predictability of players is the flip side of the need for predictable, stabilized rules. How else could we design for them?

Representatively, Mr. Spector (in that same essay cited above) has implied that only games which allow for "freeform, player-driven solutions" are actual games. But what does he mean by this, exactly? That players can freely insert their own tools? Or, instead, that games shouldn’t reveal their own solutions, shouldn’t tell players how to interpret the game? (The former would just be cheating, to be blunt about it, while the latter does not seem to be precisely what he means in that discussion.)

Because what we actually want is to beat the game at its own game by using the devices provided. We want to solve the limitations through them, because there is no achievement in calling down a helicopter to airlift us to the top of Mount Everest. We don’t want to cheat.

Putting that aside, increased possibility space has nothing to do with the introduction of possibilities that didn't previously exist within it. The difference between The Walking Dead and Deus Ex—or paper and pencil RPGs for that matter—is merely the acreage of that space and the degree to which these systems allow the player to survey it.

(I would say, though, that the over-reliance on being stingy in this allowance reveals The Walking Dead as games of unstable or easily exhaustible dialectical design. Resistance to being surveyed is deliberately weaponized to encourage players to read in their own dialectics—their own extradiegetic, superimposed, imaginary rulespace—upon which continued engagement almost entirely relies.

"Weaponized", because it’s basically certain that that rulespace is inaccurate or irrelevant, which leads to the quest for vindication over validation. Where it is accurate, cognitive bias and memory errors [encouraged by time limited, information limited, forced decisions] cause us to have greater regard for our own accuracy than we otherwise would, thus increasing validation. However, the success of these effects depends wholly on the degree of emotional attachment to that rulespace, which is what makes this design “unstable”. Too little or too much attachment can break the dialectical arc.

The Souls games do the same thing for the same reasons, but there the dialectical arc is stabilized by allowing the accuracy of the imagined rulespace to be actively tested, whereas it cannot be in The Walking Dead.)

To repeat myself from a previous post, even if “no one at Telltale has ever been or will ever be surprised by any choice any player makes [in their games]”, as Mr. Spector contends, it seems unlikely that they have never been surprised by the reasons those choices were made, or the emotions produced in the making of them.

But that’s actually neither here nor there, because lack of anticipation by the designers is no standard for defining “emergence” or “player-driven” content. If “unanticipated” outcomes were equal to “player created” outcomes, then a game designed by someone with no capacity for prediction would produce the greatest amount of emergent content.

Which is to say that there are no “freeform”, player-injected solutions in games. At what number of possibilities does a game’s choices magically cross over into “freeform” territory? The illusion (which it invariably is) depends entirely and arbitrarily on how much of the rulespace can be held in mind at once by the observer. Just as 2 + 2 does indeed equal 4 despite player involvement, 2^22 + 2^22 will equal 8388608 regardless of whether or not we can calculate it in our heads. The possibilities are mathematical.

To use Mr. Spector’s very words (albeit in an inverted fashion), the “only” difference between my experience and yours is always that I chose one script (whether in C# or prose) and you chose another. It’s only a matter of how well-scripted, how fully embodied a rule in a rulespace is, in precisely the same way that a well-rounded character makes all the difference in believability and depth for traditional narratives. And the only content that changes in a game (barring patches and mods) is the substance of the player (and their imagined rules), not the game, and certainly not the hard-coded rules.

(As I mentioned in passing earlier, we actually want as little player unpredictability as possible in order to craft well-rounded rules. To the extent we don’t simplify the systems to achieve it, complete anticipation of every player action would be ideal, because this allows us to build in as many bespoke responses. The more k-steps we can think ahead, the deeper the game becomes. We don’t really want to button-mash our way through our designs.

Of course, in practice, since such perfection is impossible, a certain amount of fuzzy design can fake the illusion of additional bespoke outputs. But in any case, we can control to a large extent how wide the input range can be. There’s good reason behind keeping the baseline math intuitively simple, for instance.)

What appears to be the generation of something new, therefore, when the content of a game seems to change following a player action, is just material / rule interactions that were previously obscured becoming known, as in the aforementioned Morrowind trainers example. It is merely the surfacing of something that was already there. Even metagames become stalemate stale without balance changes, and the seeming continued evolution of long lived games depends solely on how observable all the rules are.

Moreover, we can identify such pseudo-“emergence” in traditional, “static” media too. The same piece of composed music will sound drastically different depending on the artist performing it, not to mention the state of the audience receiving it. The “phenomenon” of the Bible being a “living text” (of appearing to present new meanings upon each reading) is likewise just a result of the processes of embodied cognition. (I say this as a calvinist, which actually probably explains this whole essay.) Even photographs, initially hailed as scientifically objective, convey subjective information that are inevitably distorted in the reading.

And we can choose to deliberately misread any text, where often the most interesting readings are those that ignore, invert, or completely dismiss authorial intent—an “emergent” a process as any. Indeed, the word “misread” itself is based on a mirage, on yet another illusion: the authority of authorial intent. Surely every author has been surprised by the implications of their work at one time or another.

In the end, all media are runtime processes operated by incomplete realtime components (i.e., humans), and all of them have multitudes of possible interpretations, with deeper texts leading to more possibilities. Again, this is simply the nature of information delivery and processing, of mediation. To disagree with Mr. Spector one last time, “differentiated experience” is how all media are experienced. Any “surprise” is a result of the fact that designers, too, have their own imaginary rulespace built upon expected player behaviors. The fewer assumptions we have, the more accurate our rulespaces become (which is the entire goal of this post).

Given that there are no content in games that aren’t already hard-coded possibilities, and that there are no freeform, player-driven solutions precisely because of this, what else is left to qualify content as “emergent”? What is genuinely new? Only self-discovery, or rather, the discovery of the self. And that’s really the crucial thing over any differences in experience. Finding that you can calculate 2^22 + 2^22 in your head is a far more emotionally consequential event than finding that there is more than one way to do it (unless that results in the finding that you can do it even better).

What’s important here is not the exact definition of emergence, but that this experience is not unique to gameplay. No medium spoils itself from the beginning, nor lectures the audience on how it must be read, without good reason. This would circumvent the dialectical arc, the process of discovering through oneself (as well as about oneself and the accuracy of one’s thinking). It would circumvent individuation.

In other words, we are essentially conflating self-discovery with “emergent content”. What is truly emergent is the player’s (or designer’s) self-understanding of the limits and consequences of their own capacity in the context of a system.

It’s All in Our Heads… But That’s Totally Fine

The thing is, we often neglect to account for how much the human brain is built to construct meaning, to impose objects on a sea of formlessness. Random shapes take on the appearance of faces. Stare at total darkness long enough and we begin to hallucinate shapes and colors. Bad streaks of tetrominoes are attributed to malevolent programming, while lucky streaks are owned as arising from some innate quality of the player.

Likewise, emergence and player agency are also mental constructs—retroactive attempts to understand a series of derived decisions as personally intentional. When we espouse “player-driven” games, then, what we are really doing is espousing structures which skillfully hide the invalidity of these constructs.

Not to get too political, but I am reminded of the American rags to riches fantasy of rugged individualism. This narrative imagines all men as islands, as absolute masters of their fates, with little room for chance or circumstance—or even, rather contradictorily, the agency of other individuals. We forget that the very genetics we are born with are already derivative. In translating "ethos anthropoi daimon" as “character is fate”, we neglect that “daimon” indicates an uncontrollable driving force; it’s probably more accurate to say that “character is fated.” Instead, we are self-made ex nihilo, a creation myth as potent as any.

Player agency is similarly a narrative, a rationalization (and perhaps the same one). It is, in essence, a deliberately selective, self-asserting heuristic, a circularly employed worldview conceived/perceived in order to buttress that other construct of “emergent content”. I believe, therefore it exists. And the more expansive the possibility space, the more numerous the cascading causalities, the more vectors are exposed upon which we can project (that is, perceive through bias what isn’t there) player agency.

So what makes interpretation in games somehow “special”, uniquely agential? Well, nothing. The uncomfortable truth is that the fantasy that the choices we make during play are specially unique to us morphed into the fantasy that interpretative variance is specially unique to games. But that’s all any of this is, a projection. Just as no thought process is free from embodiment, and no will is free from the environment, no player has genuine agency. Whatever agency we have is only what we are able to do with what we are given/already have.

Of interest to this discussion are our attitudes towards paid advantages in games. To a lot of us, all such devices fall under paying to win—cheating, in other words. It’s bringing in resources that exist outside of the game to influence it. But as prevalent is the feeling that money is just another innate personal attribute, the same way that skills are. Skills, too, exist outside of the game, after all, so bringing in money is something the player “deserves” to be able to do, in this line of thinking. It’s an exercise of player agency. (There is some irony in the fact that we decry paid advantages as breaking meritocracies, while seeing nothing anti-meritcratic in accumulated advantages.) Once again, we can see how personal and fickle the concept of player agency is, how much it’s a social and psychological construct.

But this is all actually fine, because it means we can achieve a lot of gameplay with surprisingly few rules. Because the illusion is essentially involuntary.

In the second TNG episode to feature the holodeck, Worf asks, “If winning is not important… why keep score?” Except that he has this backwards (due to the illusion): because score is kept, winning becomes important. Without a score, there would be no statement/judgement/embodiment of the player’s character and nature, and there would be no suspension of disbelief in the relevance of the game’s arbitrary rules. Game dialectics can really be that simple.

As long as there is a process for defining-becoming of the self that isn’t entirely controllable and yet remains almost predictable, there is a dialectical arc, there is dialectical agency, and there is suspension of disbelief.

To put it another way, the key to immersion / emergence isn’t exhaustive simulation, but in showing the player that her imagined rules are imaginary, and that she can break through them simply by realizing that they aren’t there. That the player can do more than she imagined herself capable of. And that is the ultimate suspension of disbelief.

Forget Dichotomies: It’s All About Game Balance

We’re so used to thinking of “stories” and “systems” as incompatible entities that this post feels dangerously close to a pedantic, painfully extended bout of mental gymnastics (even to me!). Yet it remains true that this ontological partitioning of authors and audiences (as opposed to proactive and reactive participants), “static” and “dynamic”, results in real design problems because we end up constructing games through, and embedding them with, segregated rules and methodologies.

For instance, the issue of cutscenes divorced from player action or player capacity is a matter of game balance, not of an inherent conflict of systems—but we leave it there and call it a day. As long as we consider narratives and systems to be incompatible opposites, we design them oppositely and separately, we introduce imbalances for no reason. (Of course, deliberate imbalance has purpose in art, as long as it is obviously deliberate.)

But the jurisdiction of the rules must be universal and consistently applied, and we fail to do this only because of our belief in the partition, when in reality the relationship is akin to the sharing of systemic requirements between lyrics and song.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The intricate rules of energy shields were crucial plot devices long before they were game mechanics, for example (see Dune for a particularly systemic implementation). Similarly, we don’t question why the One Ring can only be destroyed at Mount Doom, and we don’t find the selective existence of ghosts in Hamlet illogical (Why doesn’t the ghost take revenge directly via induced insanity instead of hounding innocent Hamlet? Where are the ghosts of Ophelia or Polonius? Etc.). That is, we know that narratives are also driven by devices, by arbitrary, rule based logic. And we know those rules are arbitrary because they require suspension of disbelief.

So while it doesn’t make any sense that Mordin Solus would get a rocket to the face because you didn’t do his loyalty mission, it actually makes perfect sense, in the same way that Morrowind’s ridiculous, idle clicker leveling system does, in the same way that the One Ring’s mechanics do. And the reason the end of Mass Effect 3 was denounced was because this logic suddenly changed, because the rules of the dialectical system suddenly changed. (An aside: I’ve previously argued this was deliberate.)

Yet still it is exceedingly rare to get a situation like Planescape: Torment, in which the rules of death apply to the entire system. Nor do we often have games where the whole of character development operates on the same arc length and logic, as in the eventual revelation of Knights of the Old Republic 1 or the conclusions of Fallout 1 and, again, Ps:T.

On the flip side, we don’t always see the need to fully delineate plausible arcs for rulespaces, because we either don’t think of them as having arcs at all (we imagine that games—by virtue of not being “stories”—never end), or assume that an arc will magically “emerge” from the mere existence of “player agency”.

DayZ and Diablo 3 Inferno difficulty are testaments to what happens under such assumptions. For DayZ, the result is the exact equivalent of throwing in characters and then not having a plot. It’s the Chekhov’s gun of games, anticipation without payoff. For D3, this line of thinking produces the design decision to shoehorn in an “endgame” by just achronologically doubling the difficulty. But that only succeeds in introducing a separate dialectical arc, thus requiring a separate, new investment. It’s ME3 finale all over again. And this fails even more when this new arc feels dialectically shallow compared to the former (an accusation also leveled against The Division’s endgame).

Lastly, the reception of No Man’s Sky is, among other things, yet another lesson in the dangers of the magical thinking surrounding the illusory promise of player agency, for both players and developers. Even procedural spaces require diligently sculpted sequential meaning—require a parsable beginning, middle, and end.

The list goes on.

My hope with all this is that once we are able to conceive of, and craft the entirety of, the gameplay experience (system stories, story systems, character customization, win / loss conditions, scorekeeping methodologies, economies, etc., etc., etc.) as a dialectical unit with an inherent arc that naturally ends, we’ll be able to move past these problems of engagement upon which we keep bashing our heads. This should help us better pace and balance games as finite spaces with anticipated beats appropriate to the length of the arc defined by that space. As well, it should help us better identify when we are inserting new dialectical arcs, or otherwise fragmenting the dialectical situation, thus requiring multiple suspensions of disbelief.

Further Reading for Consideration:
Perceptual Control Theory
A Case of Interpretive Freedom and Changing Meaning
A Related Article on Authorial Authority

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