The issue of players’ agency in video games has always been a tough topic to tackle. According to Zizek, he forms an opinion on agency and as to why we fail to possess it in our everyday lives: “the system is compelled to allow for possibilities of choices which must never actually take place, since their occurrence would cause the system to disintegrate, and the function of the unwritten rules is precisely to prevent the actualization of these choices formally allowed by the system” (Zizek, 37). This statement can also be applied to the structures of games and the confinement they place players in. That being said, this paper will investigate how games falsify players’ freedom due to the constraints they are placed in by contrasting two different entirely different games: the interactive fiction game, Stanley Parable and the MMORPG, Guild Wars 2.
For example, we have the Stanley Parable which is a game that enables the player to interact within a 3D space while the story is being told by an omniscient narrator. Since the purpose of this game is to unveil its story, the players are kept within specific constraints in order to follow the narrative—the space they are placed in give them the illusion that they have endless possibilities and possess freewill. The player’s agency still lies within the narrator prevents the player to explore and respawns him/her back to the beginning. The player having these constraints, however, are necessary so the narrative follows in a specific way.
However, how about other non-interactive fiction games’ constraints? What if we added more constraints to a game? According to Felan Parker, he says that “adding rules to a video game creates a new range of possible game events and experiences” is called “expansive gameplay”—to have our own personal goals in Recently, in order to investigate how expansive play can amplifiy the enjoyment of our gameplay within games, I have decided to add more constraints within GW2. My constraints included very specific constraints in order to be a “peaceful explorer of Tyria” as a personal goal. Applying these constraints or “these added rules” to approach the game in a different way, my objective was not fulfilled—the encoded rules of the system has proven itself unbeatable. The system forced me to kill in order to complete quests within the zone I was exploring which led me to the conclusion that GW2 does not allow you to be a “peaceful player”, rather, it obliges the player to kill in order to survive.
That being said, there are specific constructions of games that cannot be avoided, especially in interactive fiction—their constraints are established in order for the player to follow branches of narratives which leaves no agency, no freewill. One may be able to expand their gameplay by adding their own personal goals (being a completist, timing your journey to one of the endings. Expansive gameplay enables the player to think outside of the box—to change the relationship between the player and the game in terms of the fixed rules the system has structured for us and the alternative rules players have created to expand new ways to approach a game. However, there is still a “controlling force”/the system that limits one’s agency. Zizek has already stated the system (like games) gives us the illusion that we have a choice in every system we encounter, but it will ultimately prevent the player to fully exercise his/her own freewill within the game…So we can finally ask ourselves: do players really want to have complete agency in a game? What kind of game would it be if players possessed freewill? Are there any out there?
Žižek, Slavoj. “The Empty Gesture.” The Plague of Fantasies. London/New York: Verso, 1997. 36-40.
Parker, Felan. “The Significance of Jeep Tag: On Player-Imposed Rules in Video Games.” North America, 2, Nov. 2008. http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/44/41.