When designing a game, it is important to come up with the player’s control and agency; there are three main factors to this: flexibility, characterization, and impact. By building upon the role of the player, a clever designer can cater to players by providing experiences that are designed to appeal to them in ways that certain roles will not; careful consideration can turn the player into a conqueror or epic hero, while just as many games fail to provide any real satisfaction for players.
It is a rare game that gives the player’s character no agency in their environment; the games that do often fail because it becomes apparent that the player is being railroaded through certain experiences instead of being given the freedom to explore and make decisions. However, there are many games that do not give a large amount of choice to the players.
One of my favorite genres when growing up was the JRPG; I loved games like Shining Force and Final Fantasy and really just anything I could get my hands on. However, from a design perspective, the experiences are highly limited; there is a silent protagonist who is put into a situation where they will always go through the same places and do the same things no matter who is playing the game because there’s a linear narrative experience. This isn’t something that’s limited exclusively to JRPG’s, however-some great games in other genres, such as Half-Life, Bastion, or Mario all have an incredibly linear experience. The player will always go the same way in spite of their actions, because that is where they are supposed to go to advance the story. These games have an incredibly inflexible player role-the person on the other side of the screen is supposed to witness certain events certain ways. Pre-written tabletop game adventures can often fall pretty heavily to this side of the flexibility scale, especially if players are led directly from one experience to the next without any break to go and do their own things. The potential downside of inflexibility is that it can hurt the player’s feeling of being the protagonist, since even though they may have an impact in the world it may not be the one they had chosen, which often means that this approach requires heavily developed storylines and heavily defined protagonist roles to force the player to want to take the same approach as the protagonist does. Done poorly, this can feel incredibly over-the-top, so a good team of writers is necessary.
On the other extreme, you have games like Terraria, Skyrim, or Mount & Blade, where the player is free to do many things with a limited emphasis on telling them a specific story; of these three only Skyrim has a dedicated “main storyline”, and even then it is limited very heavily. These games are more akin to classical tabletop gaming, though for video games it is important to note that without procedural generation the amount of assets needed to create worlds that are dynamic can be pretty astronomical. Nonetheless, these games have a high degree of flexibility and players will feel that they are in charge of their own characters, though the feeling of power over the world can vary-in Fallout: New Vegas, it is possible to kill Caesar to theoretically stop the Legion from rampaging through Nevada, but it doesn’t actually translate to an in-game effect, just as how fixing the water purifier in Fallout 3 doesn’t actually remove the radioactivity from the water in the Capitol Wasteland during the Broken Steel expansion, even if you swim right next to the Jefferson Memorial. The major challenges to creating a flexible game is to make sure that the AI and environment respond properly to a character’s action. If you give the player a lot of options and they all end up with no significant impact on the plot other than maybe adjusting a morality slider, they can feel like they aren’t actually being rewarded for making choices, and they may as well not bother with engaging the dynamic content.
Characterization is also important to consider; games like Dwarf Fortress or The Sims give an abstract characterization, while Supreme Commander or Age of Empires will give a more focused lens, and Mass Effect or Splinter Cell will give an exact picture of the player’s character role in the game.
For the most part, characterization is something that isn’t of major concern to a designer relative to the flexibility of the player’s actions and the impact of their choices, but there are a few things to note about it. Dwarf Fortress, for instance, has a large cast of dramatic personae, but the player doesn’t directly command any of them, instead giving orders about what to do in an abstract way. This changes the way the player thinks about the game; they can’t say “I did this”, but they can say “I designed this”, which means a very different thing than building the same sort of structure in Minecraft would, where actually personally harvesting resources and building the structure block-by-block replaces ordering dwarves to do the same tasks.
Characterization also determines the level of story that can unfold in a game; personal narratives such as those found in Max Payne or Deus Ex really don’t work in a real-time strategy game unless the player is controlling a small cast of named characters; the best mainstream example of this in a large-scale RTS would be Command & Conquer, particularly the Red Alert series which featured the occasional over-the-top character, but even then it was rather forced and didn’t focus on a character individually. This isn’t to say that these games don’t have narratives or can’t have good narratives, especially considering that Command & Conquer’s Kane is one of a few highly iconic characters in video gaming history, but the amount of personal connection to the narrative is heavily reduced, even in the best of cases, and games which attempt to include hero units alongside normal units in an attempt to integrate the player’s avatar more closely into the game tend to fail in one or another way, whether they err to the side of Age of Mythology’s “so what?” hero units or turning the game into a traditional hack-and-slash RPG with a bunch of small units on the side that you use when you can’t bring your hero to bear.
Impact is the most important element of player agency, however. If their actions do not leave a lasting mark on the world, your player will know that what they just did had no effect. This can range from a relatively slight problem to totally breaking immersion. For instance, games with a morality slider often have a ton of side-quests or dialogue decisions to show off that they include a morality slider, but keep the main storyline intact so that the budget can remain small. Sometimes this just determines whether or not a minor NPC is a corpse or reunited with their child and gives the protagonist a new weapon or piece of armor, and while it’s a rewarding experience to the reptile brain from the perspective of advancing the plot there’s no real reward. Not every setting is totally flexible enough to have the player’s actions result in a world-shattering impact, but many games that are cult classics, like Deus Ex, give a choice to players that has a tactile effect on the aftermath of the game, even if, like the recent prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player doesn’t see many changes during the campaign itself.
Typically, impact is the sort of thing where you want to give players as much power as possible, with the two limitations being the attempt to tell a story and the necessity of creating a deep enough environment for the impact to be felt. A game that does this well is Mount & Blade: Warband, which allows the player to form their own faction and conquer the continent if they so wish, and many large-scale strategy games also do this inherently, such as Total War or Europa Universalis where the entire point of the game is changing the outcome of world affairs.
One major challenge that’s often overlooked when designing for impact, however, is that it works best in a dynamic world. If the player can crush Swadia in a bloody five-month campaign, that’s one thing, but if the political sphere changes while they do so as other factions consider the balance of power, the player’s background and previous actions, and their own well-being the game will both feel more immersive and make the player see that their actions have consequences. One of the hallmark features of the recently announced EverQuest Next is the emergent AI that will respond to certain environmental stimuli: the example given was an orc warband that would attack unprotected towns and roads, but avoid places where guards are more prevalent. This sort of thing makes player action incredibly valuable within the game’s setting, as killing a dozen orcs will make them think twice about striking at what they thought was an easy target.
The player’s actions can have too much impact on the game world, however; it’s important to consider both how things would respond to their influence, so that they do not feel pandered to, and how it’s possible to misinterpret player input, especially if they are limited in choice. Every time Mass Effect or Alpha Protocol greeted players with a one or two word prompt for dialogue, they had to make a decision over whether or not they were gambling with the outcome, since “Haughty” means different things; on one hand, it may just mean that Commander Shepard wasn’t fazed by the alien onslaught, but on the other it may mean that a massive insult will be delivered. A particularly morbid, but amusing anecdote, comes from an indie game called Project Zomboid, where players were taking care of an injured loved one in a short storyline segment and had the option to use a pillow on them; in the absence of context, most players assumed that this would be a comforting gesture, and promptly smothered a woman in bed recovering from a wound. Needless to say, that had a major impact on the storyline, but was not received positively.
An important thing to consider about impact is that a lot of games like to pretend to be dynamic, and really aren’t. While it’s true that a player will get an emotional difference when you retexture the now-dilapidated houses of their tenants and replace the dialogue they speak in Fable, this doesn’t actually have an impact on the world, because at its core Fable is trying to tell a storyline around the protagonist and doesn’t care about their moral failings so long as they’re the hero who saves Albion.
Perhaps the perfect example of player action having an impact in a game is from Fallout 3, where the player can choose to blow up a live nuclear bomb that is sitting in the middle of a town. Should they do this, the town is actually obliterated, causing a major impact in the game world and allowing the player to assess the morality of their own actions without having to say “Hey, you’re evil now”; even though Fallout does contain a “karma” system, it’s immediately clear that the action caused massive destruction and loss of life and was evil regardless of whether or not the game had decided to get up in a pulpit and preach at the player.