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How important is player agency in a RPG?

For a lot of people, this seems like one of those no-brainer answers, decreeing “very important” to the rafters. Like everything, however, the amount of agency injected into your game experience has varying degrees of mileage. Recently, TechRaptor’s Robert N. Adams wrote a sound argument as to why video games need interactivity to them, in effect, to be video games.

One example used is the game Dear Esther. According to Adams:

One of the more classic examples is Dear Esther, a game that is sometimes derisively referred to as a “walking simulator.” It has one of the lowest forms of interactivity one could expect; you have to move through the world to advance the story, but that’s pretty much it. You don’t really have much in the way of change you can affect upon the game world or variety in playthrough. If you were to sit next to someone and watch them play Dear Esther (or a similar game) you would largely have the same experience.

This becomes a question of mechanics and presentation in one way; if you recall from our discussion on the Philosophy of Design, the systems in which a game are made, the MDA paradigm (mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics) is a prevailing theory as to how the very guts of its inner code translate on the screen for the player. All actions, big or small, affect the game through such a paradigm; so simple titles with limited interactivity such as Dear Esther or complex, dynamic games like The Witcher all have mechanics tailored to this paradigm in certain ways.

What differs is our interaction, but the question is how do players get involved fully with such experiences? I’d argue it is not based upon how much agency the player has when it comes to game mechanics. Rather, the individual’s own preference is at play here, which opens up new possibilities for games to experiment further with mechanics.

The term player agency is often used as a blanket statement to refer to such interactivity, but the term “agency” itself has meaning in both philosophy and sociology; basically, agency refers to the ability of a person to act, to perform actions in your environment. Player agency then, in its base form, means giving the player the ability to make meaningful decisions about their actions while participating in a game or event. So do you equip the big or small sword? Do you choose to be nice or amoral? Do you continue to walk forward or stop and explore?

These type of questions go hand in hand with the player and their actions. This prevailing idea is first traced back to the tabletop realm, as role-playing games allow for player agency to give power and credence to the player characters. Even here though, there is still a problem—no one can agree what actually gives the players that ability, hundreds of long, pedantic discussions on what player agency can truthfully mean can be repeated. However, what we see outside of the realm of games and tabletops can shed light on this concept when it comes to these preferences, and possibly formulate a psychological profile to follow when playing video games.

Take, for example, media intellectual and philosopher Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan, whose heyday was in the 1960s with such works as The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. In Understanding Media, McLuhan discusses how all forms of media invite participation of an individual through varying degrees, which he sets as “hot” and “cool” forms of media. Hot media refers to forms of media and entertainment that enhance a singular sense so well a person doesn’t have to exert much effort in their participation. Cool media, in contrast, refers to forms of entertainment that engage several senses at once.

Examples McLuhan uses to emphasize hot and cool media include movies and radio, which are primarily hot, and comics and television, which are primarily cool. The bigger point McLuhan presents, however, is how everything isn’t simply to a category, but rather a certain degree. A movie can be interactive and engage other senses, in effect, become “cooler,” but that depends on both the presentation of the media and the perspective of the consumer.

Because McLuhan would not live to see the rise of video games, it would be up to us to determine what constitutes their place on his media scale. It is arguable that McLuhan would categorize video games as a cool media; the levels of sophisticated interactivity through tactile feel, visual representation, and mental focus constitute effort by the player to be an active participant in the game, seeing our button inputs play out on screen, and the feeling of satisfaction that we get as we participate in the said game. Of course, like all forms of media, it is to certain degrees; role-playing games in particular arguably jump back and forth between being hot and cool—cut scenes accented by player choice through dialogue, for example. Since RPGs require a high degree of input by the player, however, this effectively gives player agency a major foothold in its design, essentially rendering RPGs at least to be very cool on the scale.

Critics and theorists have argued against McLuhan’s approach in defining or preserving media since the 1960s, and to a degree they are correct because McLuhan’s theories are not proven facts, but rather a philosophical ideal. It is open to interpretation as to whether or not McLuhan’s ideas make sense, but one thing is for certain: McLuhan has at least approached the topic with an interesting starting point. All forms of media and entertainment have agency to them—be it passive or active—and for video games, such agency is important because it is tied directly to how all games work through the design. Since this is a philosophical concept, and not a hard truth, the ideas behind McLuhan need to be applied to other fields or else they sit there and wither. In other words, McLuhan provides us a hypothesis as to much agency we may have in a form of media, but doesn’t tell us why we may see it that way.

It is once again through role-playing games where we see this idea put into action; what gives us player agency in an RPG can be a number of things, but they are almost always the player’s choice through input. It also stretches beyond the typical choices we would expect in an RPG, encompassing all choices, big and small, into the picture. McLuhan’s philosophy can, and has, been put into practice before, in particular through the psychology of the player.

The Bartle Test Graph

The basic construction of the Bartle Test, the four categories with the lines showcasing where they may intersect.

Perhaps the most famous example stems from the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology. The idea was first proposed by Richard Bartle in 1996, in the essay “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and Spades: Players who suit MUDs.” Bartle’s work was an effort to categorize the players of MUDs, or Multi-user Dungeons, the precursor to modern day MMOs and MOBAs. In his essay, Bartle opines whether or not MUDs are even games, or are they seen as some other form of entertainment to those who play them. Throughout the essay he makes references to four broad categories: killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers.

For multiplayer RPGs, these four categories formulate the base reasons for a player’s own entertainment. Killers are described as those who are proud of their fighting prowess and skills in combative situations, while socializers are out to socialize, the game being a secondary mechanism to interact with other characters or players.

These four categories are also not in a vacuum either. Bartle states “How many players typically fall within each area depends on the MUD. If, however, too many gravitate to one particular style, the effect can be to cause players of other persuasions to leave, which in turn may feedback and reduce the numbers in the first category. “All four categories are explicitly connected and have different, chronicled interactions with each other that can lead to camaraderie, tension, rivalry, or even satisfaction. The conclusion to Bartle’s question, effectively, is that all forms of fun through these categories are paramount to the enjoyment of the player base and the player-base looks for different forms of agency to be entertained.

This concept was put into practice on a wider scale with the “Bartle Test” in 2000 by Brandon Downey and Erwin Andresen, who composed a 30 question test that would determine which category a typical player may fall under through varying degrees. While the Bartle test has been used to discuss modern MMORPGs, it can also be applied to single-player games; all four categories can serve different objectives and even emotional responses to a player through interactivity of the environment, of characters, plot, and even finishing the game to its conclusion.

For RPGs, the theory presented by Bartle offers the perfect foil for McLuhan’s philosophical ideals; that is, if we argue player agency in video games being a cool medium, then video games speak to players on different levels along that scale, becoming cool or hot media that is consumed based on individual tastes. RPGs and, in effect, all types of video games have the players desiring different stimuli to not only find entertainment, but to simply interact with, engaging us on our basic senses and through complex emotions we subconsciously enjoy.

Player agency, in effect, is a determinant quality that can’t be defined. It is not just the game having mechanics to it, but rather it is what we, as the player, search for when we play the said game.  The categories proposed by Bartle are a good jump-off point to determining our likes or dislikes in many ways. Role-playing games especially can be seen through this lens, particularly because Bartle’s ideas stem from MUDs and social interactivity. Another reason, however, is the diversity of games out there with a role-playing slant. The buzz word “RPG elements” is thrown around and utilized to give more interactivity, more agency, to what could be a game that is not effectively an RPG.

There is much debate on what constitutes an RPG already, a discussion that is slowly becoming obsolete as role-playing games already out in the market are homogenizing quickly. The point, however, is to perhaps look at RPGs in this light to determine what grants you maximum player agency and, in effect, formulate a good game.

This can, and I argue should, be used in conjunction with new categorizations, but even the Bartle test is not foolproof. It is limited, according to psychologist Nick Yee, because of it’s own framework is in categories and not components, which provide more flexibe analysis. Bartle himself amended his own categories, adding eight sub-categories to his player model.  I propose we take some of the blanket terms we use to describe RPGs to categorize them further, such as dungeon crawler, narrative-driven RPG, and so forth, in an attempt to determine which type of game in a given genre gives us player agency.

Let us take two examples: Dark Souls and Planescape Torment. Both titles offer high degrees of player agency, but both are vastly different role-playing games in terms of design and mechanics because of it. Lastly, both offer different parts of the RPG experience and arguably those parts make one game more attractive than the other.

Dark Souls, a game developed by Japanese company FromSoftware, would likely favor those of the achievers and killers category by Bartle, as the driving force is mostly trial and error and player skill in combat to survive the game’s crushing, oftentimes unfair, difficulty. Learning the controls is key to Dark Souls. Optimization and survivability, blocking attacks, avoiding ambush spots or hidden surprises—all of this is the primary focus.

The emphasis on preparation and tenacity lead to great stimuli for those who wish to overcome impossible odds and achieve the endgame. However, exploration and socializing still play an important part. Interacting with other players for the occasional hint or taunt and searching the environment and solving puzzles of combat to proceed give Dark Souls different categories for players to participate in. Despite this, Dark Souls is clearly designed for a certain type of role-player in mind, the min-max dungeon crawler fan who wants to prove their prowess against overwhelming odds.

Planescape Torment Player Agency

Dialogue in a game like Planescape Torment is detailed and offers choice to feed that agency to the player.

Planescape Torment, developed in 1999 by the now defunct Black Isle Studios, offers a game that is more defined in the socializer and achiever categories. The powers of your words are king in Planescape Torment; the game allows you to avoid almost all combative situations with a silver-tongue. This form of socializing leads to a richer, more detailed world around you; one with characters, both large and small, that allow the player to form a degree of meaningful relationships with if they choose to. Your followers, quirky manifestations from the world of Planescape, are mostly social misfits, much like yourself, with strong personalities. NPCs around you fit into the macabre world of Planescape fully, giving the player an abundance of memorable moments and lines, simply through dialogue.

For achievers, Planescape Torment offers the challenge of its narrative, finding out who you are and why you are dead as the crux of your journey. Throughout, the other categories of exploration and killers are present, but much like Dark Souls, take a backseat not due to their lack of content, but due to the narrative focus being so prevalent. For Planescape, the type of role-player that would gravitate towards would likely be narrative-driven RPG players, to see the story unfold and the characters grow from that experience. 

The truth, though, is that both games, while well made in certain respects, do not necessarily attract the same type of role-player. From personal experience, Dark Souls is not a good game if you ask me, because I feel it robs the player of agency too much in its own design, requiring me to conform to what the game expects out of you in terms of character builds and progression. There is little freedom to experiment when some elements are almost necessary to just survive encounters. Planescape Torment, however, makes such character building almost secondary and focuses on its narrative and presentation. I enjoy the game much more than Dark Souls because of that, because I feel like a participant that is being challenged, but not punished, and subsequently rewarded for being clever and working within the confines of the game to achieve victory. I enjoy the camaraderie and interpersonal relationships between characters and how they need to work as a cohesive unit to survive. I become invested in the story through the narrative, which drives me more than the challenge of escaping death. That gives me a sense of agency Dark Souls does not. 

Does that mean Dark Souls is a bad game? Of course not; it is simply a game I do not care for. It failed to engage me fully, failed to give me agency in the way I prefer. It has some of those elements to it, but because of the lack of focus presented on them it is relegated to a sub-status compared to the core of the gameplay. In that way, Dark Souls fails as a game in giving me player agency, while for others, it excels properly in providing that interactivity that players may enjoy. 

The hard truth we always face is that games always comes down to preference, much like anything regarding commercial art. What matters is that we find enjoyment in what gives us agency through playing a game, big or small. Due to the diversity of role-playing games, it arguably serves a fantastic study on our own personal psychology in that regard, as fans have different preferences and opinions on games in the genre. To really get into the psychological heart of this, however, we must first really ask ourselves a few questions:

What am I looking for in this game?

Do I care about my character build when playing the game?

 Is my character optimized or functional?

Do I care about the world around me when playing the game?

Are companions and NPCs memorable to me?

Are enemies and encounters memorable?

What parts of the game did I enjoy?

What parts of the game did I not enjoy?

This will not determine the merits of  a game itself, but rather how much impact the game has on us, at least hypothetically. After a few titles through this lens, perhaps we will notice patterns in the games we enjoy more over games we enjoy less. I fully admit I am no psychologist, but perhaps with these few questions above we can at least discern our own values regarding player agency and think about these questions the next time we sit down for a long session of Planescape Torment.

*This editorial was altered after release to fix some minor gramatical issues. 

Thank you for checking out this episode of Playing Roles. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or send me a tweet @LinksOcarina. See you next time folks, and remember, ask yourself those questions from time to time. 


Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.