Toxic Community and the Illusion of Agency

by jachilli

Bioware has a reputation for storytelling, but it’s taken some hits recently. Over at, I saw an article about the negative environment at Bioware’s social site, however.

Part of the negative attention Bioware has received lately I think comes at the intersection of predetermined narrative and player input. With the negative reception for the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy, I think this is a self-created problem for Bioware.

Plainly stated, certain single-player and quest-heavy computer RPGs cultivate the illusion of choice, that you’re in control of the character’s fate. Over time, as the player experiences the game, the illusion grows, but in the end, when the game (or trilogy) concludes, that illusion evaporates abruptly. The end — whether it’s a single ending or one from an array of multiple endings — happens and the player responds with, “What? That wasn’t what should have happened at all!”

dragon_problemAnd that “should have” is the point of divergence from player expectation and the game-as-product that was delivered. In a scripted storyline, as all narrative-construction games must be, because that’s how they’re coded, the player is not in control of his fate. In tabletop RPGs, the gamemaster can’t help but give a mutually achieved story result. In most computer games, particularly those that rely on scripted stories, it’s all but impossible. Marketing, positioning, and development promises for computer RPGs, however, very often posit just the opposite, that every decision the player makes ultimately collects to create a unique ending that is the culmination of his — the player’s — story.

This simply is not true. In any game with a scripted narrative, the best the player can accomplish is some amount of steering the story toward one of the pre-written eventualities built into the game during development. This has always occurred to me as a weird way to allocate development, as well. Your player won’t see a significant portion of the experience you’re paying to develop. It’s as much movie as game, and the player isn’t really telling his story, he’s only pantomiming his version of the permitted story. I remember seeing a marketing promise about Dragon Age’s story component: The claim was that it had as much “content” — a word that represents a loathsome reduction of the craft of storytelling to a product — as nine fantasy novels! Well, so what? If I wanted to read novels, I’d read novels instead of playing a game. And most of that, the player won’t even see, given that he’s making choices in game that wall off a distinct portion of it. “Features a ponderous volume of writing ill suited to the medium into which it’s been crammed, but don’t worry; you’ll never see most of it” makes for a poor bullet point.

The blame here, unfortunately falls on both sides. It falls on the side of the developer perpetuating the lie that the player controls his fate, when really, he’s in control of (meta)gaming his experience toward his desired result. It also falls on the side of the player for not adequately understanding what he’s buying, or, worse, willfully ignoring that reality. Certainly, the player is less culpable in this arrangement — he’s actively being lied to — but, as the old saying goes, fool the player once, shame on you, but fool the player twice, shame on him. For many players, I believe the potential of the outcome outweighed the inherent limitations of the medium, and then reality intruded.

Games that make this plain don’t suffer the same sort of hostility, at least with regard to the illusion of determination. You’re telling Niko Bellic’s story, or Ezio’s story, or Gordon Freeman’s story: There’s no misstatement there. But when the scope of the degree to which the player’s ownership of that story conflicts with what the player has been led to believe, when the amount of Shepard’s destiny that the player controls is at odds with the amount he’s told he controls, that’s where the letdown of expectations occurs. I’m not generally disposed toward the use of phrases like “entitlement,” but in this case the player has been told one thing and given another. So long that continues happening, especially in the epoch of eight-figure development budgets, the feeling of frustration will persist.

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