Broad agency is important to have in a video game. The ability to change your environment and change how you interact with it helps to set the game apart from how the player will experience one game over other games. That’s not to say that agency is the ultimate goal in all games. Plenty of games have very minimal agency and are still fun, ala Super Mario Bros. Agency is just another vector to follow in the pursuit of why we enjoy certain games. But the point of this isn’t to write about the player’s agency because that gets entirely too much focus. The agency of those that the player interacts with is equally important to focus on because it determines how the player will interact with the environment as well. The agency of the NPCs (non-playable characters) changes the agency of the player by changing the rules of interaction within the game.
Grand Theft Auto (Changing the Mayhem Engine)
Look at a game like Grand Theft Auto, a series known for its open world sandbox. If the game’s NPCs were overly stupid, they would just be standing in place as markers for where sidewalks exist. If they were overly complex, they would have the same instinctual faculties that most modern humans operate on. Instincts of self-preservation, risk avoidance, hunger, sleep.
At noon-time in the game, there would be an abundance of NPCs at the restaurants and diners scattered throughout the city and driving around these areas would be a nightmare. The player would have to plan when they would pick up a mission because police chases and getaways would be a lot more problematic when rush hour hits and you’re stuck behind a conga-line of cars on the highway and the whole of the city’s police is on rubbing your butt with their car bumpers.
If you’re walking around the city and word is spreading about how much of a menace you are, you need to be more careful about when and where you perform your ruthlessness. You can’t just look at a car that you suddenly feel the need to have, pull out the driver and peel out cackling. You can’t play “beat-up-a-businessman-who-was-too-self-absorbed-and-bumped-into-you-while-walking-along-the-sidewalk-even-though-you-were-being-polite-and-honking-your-horn-while-driving-his-direction”. It might make the game harder to operate within because the vigilience of the environment is increased and suspicion of your actions makes them scrutinized more heavily. But this would take away from the mayhem engine that is GTA by restricting the player’s agency or at the least creating harsher consequences for the player’s agency which is a punishment for exercising your agency and ultimately restricts the player’s agency.
Giving a new dimension of agency to the NPCs of GTA forces the player to be more deliberate with their actions. For better or worse, better NPC agency can change the player’s agency dramatically.
Looking at a series that’s not normally talked about for its agency, Red Faction is normally talked about because, while being a standard FPS, it had a manipulate-able environment. You could destroy most walls and burrow within the crust of Maras. Need a place to hide to recoop but in the middle of a firefight? Blast a hole and burrow for a few minutes while the enemy AI is resetting. Baddies behind a wall making it hard to give them some bullet surprises? Just put some explosives on the wall they’re hiding behind and giving them more presents just became a whole lot easier. Avoiding a conversation with baddies as they patrol one of their many favorite corridors? Just make a path around them and they’ll be fired eventually for missing the giant hole and noises obviously coming down the hallway that they’re stationed near.
Giving the player the ability to manipulate the environment created a different dynamic of how the player solves the problems within the game. The player learns to adjust their problem-solving to incorporate the changes that the new game rules can facilitate.
If we also changed the agency of the AI to incorporate the same adjustments in problem-solving that the player experiences, we can also affect the play of the game dramatically as well. If enemies thought you were hiding in a cave that you designed for yourself impromptu, then they might just throw a grenade down the hole and the concussive force should be enough to kill you instead of the naptime that you had originally expected. If the baddies wanted to get behind you while you were taking cover behind a wall, they might blow a hole to your back just before they return the favor of the bullet surprise that you sent over the first time around. Maybe they’ll be smart enough to notice changes in the environment and go investigate because there aren’t any moles on Mars big enough to burrow this much into the walls surrounding the facility. In the middle of a firefight? Maybe about to start one? Would be a shame if the enemies blasted a hole just behind your while excavating and ruining your ambush that you so painstakingly planned for the past few seconds.
Because the actions that the bad guys can perform are more advanced and better reflect the reactions towards your abilities, it changes the influence that your abilities enact on the gamespace. You are no longer outsmarting an AI because only you know how to manipulate the environment to gain an advantage. Giving the AI advantages of their own, ones that are integratable to each unique situation, changes how the player chooses their actions in these situations. Is there someone popping up behind me? Are there suddenly less people in front of me and could they be making a tunnel around me to get to me? Could I catch them by surprise and flank their tunnel before they do? It changes the player’s decision making strategy which changes the dynamics of the game and how the game ultimately feels.
Focus on the player’s agency is important because it changes the player’s experience with the game, but adding more things that the player can affect doesn’t just mean adding abilities for the player. Adding abilities for the NPCs, ally or enemy, can change how the player can affect the gamespace as well by changing the player’s perspective in the game.
Thoughts and Discussion can be placed in the naughty place (The Comment Box).