Player agency is an important tool for engagement, but implementing it doesn’t have to destroy your game’s budget or involve massive new systems. Just adding a few meaningful moments of player agency can make a huge emotional impact.
Why Player Agency Is Important
Player agency is the level of control or influence a player feels they have in a game world through their decisions and actions. Having the power to perform an action and experience the consequences of that action can be incredibly engaging. It can give the player a sense of freedom, importance, and self-expression. It allows each player’s experience to be unique, which is incredibly important for community and replay value. Including player agency can be particularly important for games that have less “gameplay” such as interactive fiction and very linear experiences.
How Agency Is Implemented In Games
Agency can be implemented in big ways. Adding wall running to Call of Duty: Black Ops III required a huge development cost, not just for the mechanic but all related game elements like level design, combat, and perks. Implementing the Gwent trading card game into The Witcher 3 involved creating a whole new game along with related quests, factoring the cards into the economy, and card distribution throughout the physical game world. The character customization system in XCOM 2 is massive, and even allows saving and sharing created characters. Telltale Games The Walking Dead Season 1 has a point where the player chooses to save only one of their group members from a zombie attack, with long term gameplay effects from continued interactions with the survivor. Big uses of player agency can be amazing if properly executed, and the developr has the resources to pull it off.
Yet implementing agency doesn’t have to be big, expensive, or long-lasting to give the player a sense of control. Short-term or isolated consequences can still be very powerful, even when few in number. And agency can pertain to more than just gameplay by allowing players to personalize their experience through minor actions and cosmetics.
Examples of Bite Sized Player Agency
Below are some practical examples of how to incorporate meaningful player agency with relatively minimal work that is easily managed. While some of these examples are from big budget games, each example itself isn’t resource intensive and can be adapted to suit any size game.
Choice of Robots – Choosing Character Name
A very impactful if basic choice, is allowing players to customize or choose their own character name. It’s very easy to implement in games that don’t use voiceover to refer to the player character. If you have a single player controlling a personalized squad such as in XCOM, allowing the player to rename the squad mates is a must. This could be expanded on to allowing the player to choose from a select number of avatars in other games.
Batman The Telltale Series – Personalizing Appearance
The first choice players make in this game is choosing which of four colors to use for their Bat Tech. This has no gameplay effect, but man is it awesome to see your chosen color throughout the rest of the game. There is even a short puzzle in the game that incorporates your chosen color, making the earlier choice feel more impactful.
Super Mario World – Overworld Adapting To Progress
Progressing in the game makes permanent visual changes to the overworld map. Choosing to take a secret exit on a level shows the clear outcome of a new path and level to play opening up. A scaled down version could just include small elements, like how the castle levels become displayed as rubble once beaten.
Metal Gear Solid 3 – Alternate Endings
The End boss can be defeated in combat, though the fight can actually be stalled long enough so that the boss will die of old age, avoiding the combat entirely! Providing alternate endings, options, paths, even as short-term and in isolated incidents, can really make the player feel like their decision mattered.
The Wolf Among Us - Changing A Character’s Tone
Telltale Games does an excellent job of providing different approaches to playing their characters. The conversations are designed with several character tones in mind, allowing the player to tailor their experience. This is true even though most conversation options have only isolated short term consequences. In the case of player character Bigby Wolf, players might choose a diplomatic cool headed approach, an impulsive confrontational approach, and anywhere in between.
Broken Age – Rewarding Player Exploration
An opening scene in Broken Age has the player character decide what cereal they want for breakfast. The player has a binary choice, do they want the presented cereal or not? The cereal does not affect gameplay mechanically. What is engaging and particularly memorable is that the player can continue choosing "no" for the cereal presented, resulting in a whopping 12 choices of cereal before finally defaulting to the last choice if none are picked. This really gives the player a sense that their choice has consequence. Similar moments can be done by including "easter eggs" in your game, rewarding the players that make the decision to explore far off places in your game. Experiences like this can give the impression that the whole game is very open-ended and immersive, creating a high sense of satisfaction even if it’s not true.
Minotaur – Expressive Moment
What better way is there for self-expression than art? This point-and-click and visual novel hybrid has a moment where players can work on someone else's unfinished painting, resulting in an immediate consequence of a funny monologue, and a possible call back to the outcome later in the game.
Life Is Strange – Changing Environment
There are a few times during the game where the player can choose to water a plant in their character's room. The player’s decisions are reflected in the health of the plant, resulting in visual changes (like the leaves discoloring) that are easily recognizable and a clear consequence. Life Is Strange has many small moments like this, which reinforce the central game mechanics and theme of consequences over time.
Tales From The Borderlands – Make the Player Do It
Often it is more engaging to make the player do something at an important moment than be an observer. In this case the player character must jettison part of a space shuttle with a trapped survivor to save the rest of the crew. It is sad yet unavoidable. By making the player perform the action (a simple button press in this case), it gives the player a greater sense of agency.
When To Not Use Player Agency
Giving players more agency is not always beneficial. It must make sense to the experience of the game. Dull, meaningless, and repetitive choices and consequences should not be in games, while some experiences are best presented in a strict way.