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Player Agency and the Joys of a Lose-Lose Scenario


So, once again, that thing happened with the calendar. It’s reliable like that, French Revolution notwithstanding. This means that, for a week or so, I abandoned the ersatz Valley of Defilement that I call a home and visited my family.

By far the most significant effect of this, from a gaming perspective (and what other perspective is there?), is that the portability of handhelds suddenly became very, very relevant. In effect, I spent a week with my field of vision consisting mostly of a Vita rather than a monitor. Video game enthusiasts are nothing if not tenacious.

After storming through the latter half of the unexpectedly refreshing Ys: Memories of Celceta, I moved on to two games that both offer singular experiences- Hotline Miami and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.

Superficially, those are about as different from one another as two games can be. On the one hand we have Hotline Miami, a top-down shooter whose gameplay is best described using words like “frenetic” and “requiring acute visual attention for short spans of time, as opposed to gentler mental attention for long spans of time, as would be called for in, say, a visual novel”. It is a game that constantly throws death at the player like particularly morbid confetti. It is a game in which the “major” characters are barely more fleshed out than the legions of identical minions that are slaughtered in each stage, and even then more by implicit touches than by direct exposition.

What the two share, however, is the fact that both of them present an off-beat, disturbing narrative in ways that could only be achieved in a video game. They expect you to play along with their rules, but they don’t expect you to feel good about the things that entails. Player agency is the obvious trait that sets games apart from other media. It’s the factor that allows narratives to be presented in an unresolved state, with the nature of the protagonists and their impact on the world left in the players’ hands. One need only look at the recent successes of big, western-style RPGs to see how potent that can be .

What I’d like to talk about today is the unsung secondary benefit of all that delightful player agency- what happens when it gets taken away. This device has been the source of some of gaming’s most striking moments in the past couple of generations, and I’d like to take a moment (or a blog post) to celebrate some of them.

We have a lot of games that ask the player to choose between being a hero and being a dick, and that’s a fine approach. It works excellently if applied with suitable finesse, and if set within a suitably nuanced world populated by suitably nuanced characters (Mass Effect 2).  It can be a little cartoonish should those conditions not be met, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing (inFamous). There’s plenty of room for schlocky, pulpy fun.

Many of gaming’s best gut-punches come when the first part of the classic “moral choice” is removed, or when it is replaced with an alternative that does not appeal to the player that would otherwise have chosen it. The game simply instructs the player to do something they don’t want to do, then stares at them, awaiting their compliance. If they want to progress, they’ll have to bite the bullet (or fire it, as the case may well be). Plenty of games will surprise, or at least attempt to surprise, their players with a twist that reveals that they have been manipulated into doing something terrible. The “What have I done?” moment is a classic narrative move, and a strong one. Not so many will reveal the immorality before the actions in question have to be performed. It’s a different kettle of fish entirely, a no-win scenario that holds a great deal of significance in a medium characterised by the pursuit of victory.

Without further ado, (and in full cognizance of the fact that the above explanation is not a particularly clear one) let’s move on to some examples- some moments when games asked players to jump, and they replied “how high, and on to how many bladed objects?”.

1:  Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Progress by Regression

I already mentioned Virtue's Last Reward, so it seems like a natural starting point. This is a real gem, by the way. It takes a relatively classic “death game” sort of scenario, placing a group of quirky characters into a sealed facility and tasking them with competing against each other in a game presided over by a mysterious mastermind’s, the prize being freedom and the penalty for defeat being death. It’s a personal favourite genre of mine, and one that can provide for an endless amount of quality media from the highbrow to the tawdry. VLR makes things a little weirder by incorporating the storyline’s branching paths into the storyline itself, gating off progress until the knowledge that the character needs to overcome an obstacle is obtained by making different decisions at an earlier point in the timeline. It even manages to incorporate the soft sci-fi, multiple-universes, pseudo-quantum mechanical deal that we see so much of nowadays in a way that dodges the usual metaphysics landmines that these things walk onto- at least as far as this blogger is concerned.

What this means is that on multiple occasions, the player is forced to revert to an earlier point in the story and knowingly screw themselves or another character over in order to gain access to all the information that is revealed in the events that follow. The game does a remarkably good job of railroading you into terrible decisions with just enough nuance that it can still rub them in your face, gently gloating as you play into a trap that you have already avoided or effectively kill a character who you know poses you no threat.

2: Modern Warfare 2

No Russian

Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission has retained some of the infamy it garnered upon release. The conceit is that the player’s character, operating undercover in an ultranationalist terrorist organisation, is required to take part in a massacre to maintain their cover (which, of course, transpires to have been compromised anyway). This entails murdering swathes of civilians. The impact is somewhat reduced by the fact that the player does not actually have to open fire at any point in order to complete the mission, which is a regrettable if understandable decision on the part of the developers. Nonetheless, it’s a ballsy, disempowering and affecting moment made all the more stark by way of contrast with the franchise’s action movie trappings. It may well have been designed more for shock value than for artistic merit, but I'd argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that it achieves both.

3: (Almost) Every Horror Game

Walking Into It

This is an entirely different kind of no-win scenario to the rest on this list, but it is also perhaps the most deeply ingrained in its genre.

Before most of the good scares in any given horror film, there is a period in which the viewer is made aware that they are about to be scared. The soundtrack turns dissonant as the character walks tortuously slowly towards that strange noise they heard, or turns the blind corner, or inches out of their hiding spot. Everyone watching, of course, knows that each step takes them an indeterminate amount closer to the cattle-prod jumpscare that’s lying in wait. It’s very effective.

It is even more effective when transplanted into games. Giving the player control over their character’s actions certainly makes something like this more difficult to engineer, but the results are absolutely worth the legwork for a developer adept in doing so. Horror games have a unique edge over horror films in that they can force their audience to actively participate in the tension-building process, tying their own proverbial noose as they drag the player character towards a clearly-telegraphed scare up ahead.

4: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Choosing an Ending

Human Revolution’s ending is, in my mind, a more successful version of what Mass Effect 3’s tried to be. It leaves the central philosophical tension of the game’s storyline in the player’s hands and tasks them with a cut-and-dry decision between four different endings. Where things get interesting is that none of them are the “good” ending. None of them are even necessarily the “bad” ending. All of them involve engendering some kind of ethical compromise and harm to humanity as a whole. The game offers no resolution, yet still demands that the player take stock of the conflicting messages it has presented over the course of its runtime and somehow use them to decide which pill is the least bitter. It’s also a rare case in which a game’s closing decision gave me more pause than any that were presented back when the game would still be around to show me the consequences- it was simply a genuinely interesting, unwinnable scenario. The final boss was quite bad, however.

5: The Walking Dead

Doug and Carley

The “Sophie’s Choice” mechanic is one of the keystones of the The Walking Dead’s success, and deservedly so. As such, there is an abundance of memorable dilemmas from the series, moments when the player must choose between two clearly undesirable outcomes in the knowledge that they’ll have to live with their decision for the next however many hours. The time limits are a nice touch.

I’ve chosen the ending of A New Day, in which the player has to decide the fates of two new-ish characters, Doug and Carley. One will live to die another day, and the other will be devoured by the undead, true to the original Sophie’s Choice. This isn’t the best executed example the series has to offer (Doug’s percentage of the popular vote was much lower than even that of the Mondale/Ferraro ticket), nor is it the most emotionally impactful. It is, however, the most eye-opening, the warning shot that indicates that Telltale will play dirty if it wants to. Unwinnable political and interpersonal decisions make up the bulk of the The Walking Dead experience, but an unwinnable life/death choice was the perfect way to drive that point home.

… that blog was much less sensibly articulated than expected, but it’s done now, and I don’t have the time or the standards to fix it. Do you have any particularly fond memories of a game forcing your hand? Would you rather be given the choice to avoid scenarios like these if you work around them? Did you think that ME3’s endings actually did meet its own criteria for artistic success, and in any case it was cheap of me to take a shot at it? I would be happy to read any comments you all may have.

Thanks for reading, and have a day in which your sense of agency remains uncompromised.

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About Manbatone of us since 3:08 PM on 01.14.2015

I play a lot of games, can transform into a half-bat creature and am missing a hyphen in my name.

I am profoundly upset that there may well never be a good Castlevania game again.

Active mainly at night, because of the bat thing.