The choice is a lie
There seems to be an opinion rolling around in the game community that games are about choice and about player agency, and that one core strength of games is their empowerment of audiences by putting the audience in control. This is nonsense. And it’s not true. And ultimately it is an illusion like a magician’s trick; you’re entertained by the trick, but what you think is going on is not what’s really happening.
Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to present you with a game. I will give you some choices and I want you to pick one. Right from the start I’m going to tell you that I know exactly what you’ll pick. Here we go: I have a penny, a dime, a quarter, and a dollar coin. You can pick any one of these four and I’ll give it to you no strings attached. And don’t be a dick by refusing. Just play along, pretend this is really happening, and pick one. Keeping in mind that I already know what you’ll pick, which one do you pick? Penny, dime, quarter, or dollar coin? Keep it firmly in your memory and I’ll tell you what it was.
You chose: the penny, or the dime, or the quarter, or the dollar coin. No, I’m not being a snide jackass with that answer. I’m setting up my point. The majority of you picked one of those options and that’s exactly what I wanted you to choose. I didn’t give a damn about any of those things. What I actually cared about was that you wouldn’t pick “a blank check”, or “your credit card”, or “a night of sweet lovin’ and dirty words” and thanks to the way I structured my offer I am positive that almost none of you chose those options. By presenting a range of options for you to choose from I was able to ensure that a large majority of you would pick within that range and not pick an option outside that range. Some of you may have been very clever and said, “I’ll take all four! The dollar and all the coins!” Even then you’ve fallen into my trap because you’re still picking the things I want you to pick. I win.
If you refused to pick any of my options, refusing to play along, then you don’t count because you represent the people who choose not to play video games since the coin experiment is my allegory for player agency. For those that did pick, I bet when you made your choice you felt pretty free, like you were making a real decision, expect that I, the designer, was the one that made the choice for you. Games do the same thing. They present you with a range of options and you choose one and feel like you have agency even though your choices have essentially or literally been made for you.
Let’s get into some examples. Let’s say you’re playing a game, like Only Communicate Using Bullets, and you run into a room with a Nazi Brontosaurus and a Ninja Alien. You can choose to shoot the Alien first and the Brontosaurus second, or vice versa, but that’s not really choice. It’s not really agency although this kind of situation is often cited as an example of player agency in games. The fact that the dino and the space-monster are in that room to begin with is not your choice. The fact that you have to shoot them and cannot engage them in diplomatic dialogue regarding trade agreements or cultural exchange programs run through public schools is also not your choice. You have to shoot them. Unless you have grenades. Then you can blow them up or shoot them, but that choice is illusory as well. “Shoot or explode?” is a range of options that you aren’t going to stray from so you don’t have a meaningful choice.
Similarly, after you kill the Nazi Brontosaurus and the Ninja Alien you can get to the next room through the hallway or through the sewers and it feels like a decision except that ultimately you end up in the same place either way. It’s like if a mob boss asks, “You wanna wear cement shoes or do you wanna eat lead?” Sure, you sort of have some free will in that scenario, but not really. You’re going to “sleep wid da fishes” one way or the other. And in fact the mob boss is giving you more agency than a video game. You can try to talk mob boss Raphaelo “the Game Developer” Morcinioni into letting you live, but a video game doesn’t give a shit if you want to talk peace with the Nazi Brontosaurus. You can’t talk a video game into letting you do something it doesn’t want to do, unless you exploit a glitch or hack it, but that’s straying from the point.
The choices you make in video games are real, but the scope of those choices and their consequences make the act of choosing essentially meaningless. That was true with my experiment with the coins. You were able to choose any of the four meaningless options that resulted in me being happy, and your agency as a player was an illusion. In an RPG video game, like A Time Period of Monsters, you might get the option to imprison the Cupcake Zombie or set him free and that may feel like “choice” except you can’t stray from those options. You can’t get the Cupcake Zombie to join your squad nor can you eat the Cupcake Zombie. Additionally, the result of your developer approved choice, a slight increase or decrease in your popularity among the Pastry Wraiths, changes almost nothing in the game. You feel like you have agency and that increases your enjoyment of the experience. Your enjoyment and your sense of freedom disguise the fact that you’re really just doing exactly what the developer wants you to do.
Video games are like a series of multiple choice questions where every choice either lets you go to the next question, or forces you to repeat the current question until you figure out the correct choice. Actual multiple choice tests have more agency than this. Answering a question wrong, or not at all, doesn’t result in you having to repeat it. Your choice, whether to answer a question or skip it or draw a penis monster, is what progresses the test. However, in video games it’s not your choices that progress the game it’s the designer’s. The designer decides which choices let you continue and which force you to start over. Even in open world games like Mason Carpenter in the Land of Infinite Resource it is the developer who chooses what combination of lumber and stone will create the building blocks for a house; your only choice is whether to play along. In any game the designer might be really nice and give you a lot of “correct” choices, multiple “choice paths”, or the designer might exclude any “wrong” choices so you never have to restart, but no matter how nice the designer is it’s all out of your control.
It seems to me that players have as much agency as a baby in a play pen full of toys. There are enough toys to keep you occupied so you don’t notice the limits of your world, which isn’t a bad thing in games. I like being occupied by fun activities like shaking a rattle and squeezing a squeaky squirrel plushy within the safe confines of an infant enclosure. The point though is not whether it’s good or bad. The point is that “having agency” is not a bragging point when it comes to video games. Agency is not something games really have and looking at games through the lens of “player agency is a core element” is a mistake.
In the overarching nature of of my coin experiment I knew exactly which coin you were going to pick even though “exactly” means “an exact range”. Your only real option was to play along or not at all. And if my coin experiment was a video game then if you refused to play along or if you refused to play by my rules then you wouldn’t be able to read the rest of this article. That’s not agency. Once you’ve agreed to play along there is no choice.