We're smarter than you think

Over the years exploration has been rewarded with collectibles. Mario taking a separate path got him to a magical switch. Items you scoured levels to collect rewarded you with items that provided minor gameplay benefits. Exploration made you stronger or let you continue playing the game.

Bioshock challenged this paradigm. You found collectibles that would make the game easier, but you also found audio diaries that allowed the player to delve deeper into the history and reality of the game world. Go to the arts district, for instance, and you’ll find stories of artists living in the city of Rapture; these diaries gave life to the world. And while they were definitely referenced, they were in small, noncritical ways: for instance, you read a report of Rapture’s security chief electrocuting a man as interrogation. Then, you find the man, dead in a pool of electrified water. It’s a lovely moment created by optional information, but it’s in no way critical to the plot: all the characters are long dead. These moments existed in previous games, notably System Shock and Deus Ex, but Bioshock made them vogue again. It picked up those games’ arrested influences and ran with them.

What Bioshock popularized, Deus Ex: Human Revolution drove off a cliff. And indie games like Analogue: A Hate Story might be telling us how to do them better: by giving the player narrative agency.

Human Revolution takes the central concept of Bioshock’s audio diaries and kicks them up a notch: that is, they push things too far. Human Revolution‘s diaries take the form of emails sent by major characters in the game, accessed by hacking into their computers. Lots of these are side stories or little things the protagonist, Adam Jensen, can do to get stronger; in this regard they aren’t different from classical collectibles. They’re just paired with narrative.

The problem comes when the game alludes to aspects of the main plot. The difficulty with giving the player “secret” information about the main plot is that they can draw their own conclusions. The player is a wild card: if they are intelligent enough to put plot points together, they might be able to guess at what’s about to happen.

This is a natural occurrence in other media, particularly mystery stories, but it’s more difficult in video games. A mystery character is one hundred percent outside of the viewer’s purview. While knowing what’s about to happen changes the genre around (it’s the difference between mystery, where we are unknowing, and horror, where we know the awful thing that’s going to happen; see Alan Wake), it doesn’t substantially alter the work. The character isn’t us: we have no influence over what’s happening.

Video games are different. If we’re reading thinly veiled references to how an event is a trap, in text or in level design, we’re not going to want to walk into it. We’re going to want to circumvent it. This might be impossible, but we don’t know that: our goal goes from, “Getting to the end of the level,” to “Avoiding the trap at the end of the level.” Our goal changes, our interest changes, and suddenly we don’t want to do what the game wants us to do. Human Revolution, of course, needs us to spring the trap, being a game with a linear narrative. So we’re forced into it.

This sort of thing can also be communicated via design, of course. The first boss in Human Revolution is terribly telegraphed: we have to walk for a minute to get to his “lair”. As player character, as narrative agent, we don’t want to go there. This is what produces most of the existential angst of the game’s boss fights: not that there are encounters we cannot solve through means besides violence but rather that we have to consciously approach a situation violently. If we were skulking around in an air vent and the boss is scripted to rip it off the wall, revealing us? This would not frustrate us, because we would have the illusion of agency. We’re making a choice, and the game is producing consequences.

Agency is the one feeling that video games can offer that other mediums can barely attempt. Video games, by nature of their interactivity, empower the player: they make us the player agent, rather than passive observer*. It’s why we feel resentful when we see twenty minutes of cutscenes where characters do things they could not do under our control: our agency has been robbed. We spend the active portions of the game sharing narrative agency with the playable character, but in cutscenes it’s exclusively the character. We have no control. We have no agency, and we feel neglected, even resented by the game. We feel worse when the game forces us to use our agency to do something stupid, however. If we know something is going to get us killed, we don’t want to do it. We want to refuse, because we’ve been making smart choices for hours: we don’t want to exercise our agency poorly.

Analogue: A Hate Story represents an interesting way to give, and remove, agency from the player. As a visual novel, it’s expected we wouldn’t have much control, but we possess a great deal of control over the story: in fact, we structure it in its entirety! Analogue’s narrative takes plenty of cues from ergodic literature: instead of a visual novel structure it embraces the log, the diary, telling all of its story through text emails. Few characters are represented visually: only the game’s two AI companions, both of whom have direct relevance to the story.

As a work it resembles House of Leaves or other ergodic texts. The player isn’t quite a character in the story but rather an impassive reader who has the ability to effect the events that occur. In House of Leaves the reader exerts agent status by way of copious footnotes alluding to parallel narratives; in Analogue the player can assemble the offered texts in any order, putting the emphasis wherever they so choose.

There’s two moments in particular that emphasize Analogue’s approach to agency. The first comes when one of the two AI companions (the two cannot communicate with one another; only one can be active at a time by way of dramatic device) presents you with a series of questions for the other. The game’s mechanics allow you to ask your companion about what they think about certain messages, and compounded with this is the fact that your companions have seen what you’ve read. Ask the companion about a few of her questions, and she poses a question to you: the other AI will see what questions you’ve read. If the other AI sees this, her reaction will change. She’ll know that the player isn’t on her side anymore, and that the first AI has poisoned the player’s mind.

It’s a wonderful moment. In most games players are encouraged to explore every optional dialog, but here you’re discouraged: doing so could lock you out of a lot of different perspectives. The game offers you agency: which texts are more important to you? Whose perspective is more important, even though you don’t know the answer to the mystery? Of course, a close reading of other texts will clue you in to what happened next, what the mystery is, and gives you perspectives and prejudices you can use to make a more informed choice.

It’s a level of agency obviously difficult to accomplish in big budget games, where everyone has a voice actor and run times are longer than Analogue’s svelte running time. Analogue can give us multiple perspectives on different issues without a lot of technical trouble, and its impact is enormous: we feel like it’s important to explore the nooks and crannies of the narrative because these elements are going to give us more than just a pat on the back. Rather than help us understand the world, they become the world.

This decision in Analogue is backed by another later in the piece. Faced with major technical problems, you’re forced to switch off one of the two AI companions for good.

It’s an interesting situation to force the player into. We’re being forced to make a decision without all the facts, something terribly frustrating in other titles. Lots of people were turned off to the arbitrary deaths that happened at the end of Mass Effect 2, for instance, because you didn’t have all the information. But in a game like Analogue, a title where the facts are everything, this is like sending the player into a boss fight without letting them recover all their health first. It’s the challenge of the game: how good of a judge of character are you? How much do you want to know the truth, and what kind of truth do you need to set yourself free?

The difference between this and Human Revolution’s first boss fight are night and day. The abruptness of Analogue’s incident leaves us without the ability to enact a “good” solution, but we don’t feel railroaded. This is an event we could neither predict nor avoid, and as such it feels like just another problem that’s facing us down. It occurs on a different track from the game’s “collectible” conversations, and therefore we don’t feel like it’s something we could predict. Meanwhile, Human Revolution telegraphs its big negative events through text documents or through level design, ostentatiously to reward the completionist but instead punishing them with a lack of agency.

That said, this is a complicated issue. It’s difficult for big budget games to work player-created narrative devices into their stories: making thirty minutes of a big budget game probably cost more than Analogue did to make. So there’s understandable difficulty in the cards, here. That said, we should celebrate games like Analogue for telling stories so far outside the sphere of popular video games: stories where the player, the non-player characters have so much agency over their world.