Simulation, Structure, and Agency

And now for some hardcore interactivity theory geekery. I’ve been doing design for my current work in progress (working title: The Mold Fairy) and it’s caused me to think, as I often do, about the nature of interactivity. Most any interactive work is a simulation. Usually, this is a simulation of reality, or of a reality very similar to our own; two to three dimensions, strict sequencing of time, the possibility of containment and spacial relations, and various energies and forces. Different games have different levels of abstraction to their simulation. What makes it interactive is that the player can tweak the parameters of the simulation. In most games, the player can only control the behavior of an actor or group of actors within the simulation. This ability to affect the progress of the simulation is called player agency. It’s essential to interactivity, and it’s used in different ways in different works. I’d like to see this agency take a different form than it usually does. Let me lay some groundwork first.

Usually, the agency is low-level. The player can control a player character’s movements and actions, but only to keep the character alive and achieve a goal set out by the designer. The PC is stuck in a sort of narrative corridor. There’s enough room to move from side to side, deciding how to approach a given level, but the eventual outcome can’t be changed. You can tackle the Strider battle in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 in any order, but it will still end one of two ways: failure or success. The success is ranked by how much the PC protected during the battle, but it doesn’t actually change anything that happens. See the image at the top of the article; the gray arrow represents the bounds of the player’s agency. She can bounce around inside a certain level as much as she wants, but the story’s going the same way regardless of her actions.

Some games give the player high-level agency, where the player can actually affect the path of the narrative. Deus Ex is the canonical example of this: the player can choose to kill or not kill several key characters, which changes how later scenes play out. This is still a very narrow form of agency, however. As you can see in this image, the character still bounces around in a narrow corridor. The designer has just put in a branch or two. The player can’t decide to affect the plot at any time; she can only make an important decision when the game offers it to her, at a predefined branching point.

The kind of agency I’d like to see more of — the kind I’m trying to create with my work in progress — looks like this. The player is free to pursue her own goals within the broader confines of the world as a whole. The player “makes her own story.” There is no preset plot, only the world simulation. How is this different from just a toy or a simulation that’s not a game? The key distinction is that a freely-structured game provides easy and apparent ways to measure progress toward goals. Mount&Blade has measurements of gold, army size, faction ratings, strongholds possessed. SimCity has measurements of citizen happiness, pollution, city treasury contents. These metrics provide implicit goals, and the player can choose to follow whichever she wants to. The player decides what she wants to accomplish, and decides whether or not she has been successful. There’s still an authorial influence on this sort of game, and the game designer can still tell a rich story, but the path of that story is no longer confined.

Any interactive work will have limits, of course. The author’s control stems from what is simulated and what is abstracted. One designer could choose to abstract food, bathroom requirements, and financial concerns to focus on gunplay and revenge. Another designer could make a game about pooping. But within the scope of what is possible in the simulation, a freely structured work will let the player follow whatever path she chooses. Some goals will be more rewarding to pursue than others, due to how much the designed has supported that goal. The important thing about this sort of game is that it doesn’t force the designer’s story down the player’s throat. Face it; stories in digital games don’t tend to be that awesome anyway. Instead of creating a narrative, create a potential narrative.

All that said, I still enjoy linear games, and my upcoming release Exploit is going to be quite linear. I’d just like to see a wider range of experiences.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Simulation, Structure, and Agency

  1. Well I just played the barcodes game on and it fascinated me which in turn lead me to your website and I’ve now downloaded Fool’s Errand. I agree that non-linear gaming has it’s advantages, being able to explore more paths and not be confined to one storyline has it’s advantages. Though if you (the player) have no goals (wanting to get a certain score or accomplish a specific mission) then it becomes difficult to become immersed in such a game. I suppose it relies on the authors ability to create a game that will keep the players intrigued and wanting to continue exploring the game even if there is no ‘right’ path. I’m curious to see what your working on, and I’m a fan of the old text based games, (adventure comes to mind) which I imagine A Fool’s Errand may be similar to, so I look forward to playing it. Good luck with your current work.


    1. I think you’ve nailed it: the author has to do a good job at getting the player interested in one of the possible goals. With a more linear game, the author can say, “Do this specific. I promise interesting stuff will happen.” That’s a lot easier to believe than the nonlinear version, “Do what you want… it’ll be fun. Really.”

  2. The thing is, you’ve mentioned several aspects that are primarily a single-player experience. Once one gets into co-operative play over the resource of the Internet, linear, non-linear, or branched storylines go out the window. Or at least, they should.
    I am not happy with the way MMORPGs are taking it, but I digress.

    (Oh, I followed you here from Bars of Black And White. I think it was a fairly good game – a little spine-chilling at points, but satisfyingly simple.)

    If I understand the points you have raised correctly, you are specifying two separate concepts – low-level and high-level control of a character, and linear or non-linear story and goals. In some way, even in a broad, non-linear environment, you may still have aspects of the linear — for example, you still would not like your character avatar to die and thus lose your hard work in them.
    Or perhaps it would be easier simply to weave them together? The reason I raised MMORPGs is that they have an element of co-operation and competition, whereupon individual low-level control of characters may lead to a high-level change in the story — not plot-driven from a higher power (as WoW tends to be), but simply a conflict that causes unexpected incidents and events to occur, causing the game to move forward.
    In a sense, could that not be brought into a digital game? Instead of ‘Do what you want. It’ll be fun. Really,’ it could very well be ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen if you do that. Seriously. Try it.’
    That is, in some way manage to combine numerous low-level, but not necessarily linear, actions into a high-level change somewhere, be it in the perspective of the player or a major plot – in that sense, it remains interactive, and yet random, because some variable, be it location or simply the personality of the person playing it, will change the experience of the game for the player.

    I am deeply sorry that I rambled. I hope that the above made some modicum of sense.


    (And as for digital games not having good plots, there is a wide market, and a wide number of developers. I point to thatgamecompany — for a start. Beside that, however, I have greatly enjoyed your games and your viewpoint, and hope to see more of your games in the future.)

    1. I don’t think that multiplayer games really are that different of an animal. We can easily turn a multiplayer game into a single player one by replacing humans with bots, and game AIs are complex enough to pass the Turing test in their limited domains. It just seems that they’re different because we don’t see real stories told in multiplayer all that much, which is a shame. I’ve played very few MMOs, and the one I’ve played extensively (Myst Online) is definitely an outlier.

      Regarding the element of the linear in the nonlinear: there’re always going to be limits on your simulation. Some are pragmatic limits; we simply can’t simulate a world to the quantum level. Some, as you describe, are designed limits. If the designer is going to guide the story of one of these hypothetical freely-structured games, she will do so both through the imposition of limits and the addition of goal metrics.

      Regarding the multiple levels of action, I think we do want to “combine numerous low-level, but not necessarily linear, actions into a high-level change somewhere.” Ideally, the high-level agency emerges out of low-level agency. It would be clumsy to have a different set of verbs for affecting the game on a low level and on a high level. And I love emergent stories that are as unexpected to the developer as they are to the player. Dwarf Fortress is, I think, the best example of this.

  3. As fun as emergent stories are, I think they really have to be guided by a unifying theme in order to be meaningful. There are some developers that seem to follow the maxim that player-driven storytelling is automatically superior to any story a game designer might want to tell. This might be true from a pure entertainment standpoint, but there are also those of us that want gaming to reach beyond that.

    1. I absolutely agree. Personally, I lean far further toward the “authorial control” side of the scale than many folks who’ve written on this topic. However, storytelling can be player-driven and still designer-crafted. By placing constraints on the setting, interaction, and game world, I can tell a story, or rather, a set of stories, and still allow the player agency over the progress of that story. Look at, say, The Sims. Any game of The Sims tells a story of the value of consumerism, hard work, and time management, while still letting the player trap people in a room and make them pee themselves to death if she wants.

      1. Wow! You and I share almost the exact same design philosophies! It’s good to see another developer that sees the value of authorial control even in open world games. =)

  4. What is fascinating about the game focuses you wrote about in the second to last paragraph is that I have played both types of games- Team Fortress 2 and “Dont shit your pants” as respective examples.

    This brings up an interesting game design- branching off due to success or failure of an “essential” objective? I don’t recall seeing any game convincingly pull this off- IE it was either pretty clear that it was an optional choice, or the player MUST succeed or fail at this point for the story to go on. Let me know if you can think of any examples!

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