Transitive (Efficiency Race) vs Non-Transitive (Rock Paper Scissors)

So I’ve said that there’s 2 types of multiplayer game fundamentally: Efficiency Race and Rock Paper Scissors. This video (re)introduced me to the mathematical concept of Transitive and Non-Transitive relations. This is an amazing lens for describing the difference between these two fundamental games.

In an Efficiency Race, there is always one option, or set of options that is always better than the others, per some metric of efficiency (time or victory points). This means that options (or combinations thereof) can be ranked against each other in a transitive fashion. If A > B > C, then A > C. Trackmania is the most pure example of this out there, since you cannot interact with the opponent in any way and a given route will always be faster or slower than another route (assuming you follow it exactly).

rockpaperscissorspayoff - Copy
This is the payoff matrix for an efficiency race version of rock paper scissors, notice that rock always wins, and scissors always loses, unless they tie

In Rock Paper Scissors (or the Shell Game), the correct option is different depending on your opponent’s option. A > B > C might be true, but C > A, making a loop. In a game like this, there isn’t a clear best answer, the best answer will always be a mix of your options rather than any clear course. In order to make a decision non-transitive, there must be hidden information about what the opponent’s option is (or which options they have available, or chose in the past), such as by going simultaneously, or having a hidden hand of cards, or an army hidden behind the fog of war.

This is the payoff matrix for normal rock paper scissors, notice how each option wins against 1 option and loses against one option.

There’s another element at work here too, which is brought up in the video, luck or RNG. Luck can also have a transitive or non-transitive relationship with player choices. Luck can have a static effect on game state regardless of choice, thus being transitive (ie. you get the same lucky effect regardless of what your choices are). Or luck can have varying effects depending on your decision, making some decisions more powerful than others. On top of that, there’s input-randomness versus output-randomness, which can both be either transitive or non-transitive. Transitive input or output randomness isn’t very influential on a multiplayer game typically (everyone being uniformly closer/further from winning usually isn’t that big a deal unless someone was about to win/lose). Non-transitive input-randomness changes how much every option rewards the player, which jumbles around what the optimal solution is in an efficiency race game, and jumbles the payoff matrix of a rock paper scissors game. Non-transitive output-randomness is the worst kind of randomness because it essentially screws with your ability to make decisions.

This also makes a statement about single-player games. Ideally, single-player games are fair. Fairness includes a few things, like providing clear information about your choices, and clear feedback about the results of your choices, but it also means not randomly screwing you over. You should always have a choice that will lead to success (unless you checkmate yourself, which should also be clearly communicated). If there’s hidden information that causes you to fail, such as output-randomness, that’s not good.

For this reason, single player games CANNOT have truly non-transitive decisions. A single player game cannot be true rock-paper-scissors like a multiplayer game without becoming unfair. This means that every situation in a fair single-player game always has a knowable optimal solution (per whatever metric you choose). What a game can do however is non-transitive input-randomness, which jumbles what the optimal solution is. The most common form of this in action games is enemies using random attacks at random times and random positions, but the attacks are slow enough that you can react to them. Picking the best way to avoid an attack (and punish it) might be difficult and the random variation means you need to resolve over and over as a fight progresses. If the state space of a given fight is big enough, then hopefully you’ll never encounter the same exact situation twice, keeping you solving fresh problems the whole time (and this also shows that the issue with grinding or enemies with too much HP is that either you intentionally limit the state space to keep things quick, or you exhaust it through enough repetition, which is bad pacing).

Single player games always have this type of payoff matrix, but eliminating choices to get to the optimal payoff takes time, and if the choices get jumbled, it requires you to recalculate, meaning you’ll choose less optimally every time and need to rely on heuristics. Source

When I say that I want single player games with counters, I mean that I want them to have this type of non-transitive decision-making property that comes from non-transitive input randomness. In aggregate, all the choices you make throughout a single-player game might be perfectly transitive, but games can do a lot to make individual choices along that road more or less transitive, and can leverage input-randomness or deterministic chaos to affect the payoff matrix of those choices, which makes finding the aggregate optimal solution really hard! I usually sum this up as saying choices are situational or not, lead to interesting decisions or not. This is a shortcut to this more fundamental rule.

Fundamentally, fair single-player games are always going to have an optimal solution for every situation, but by varying the payoff of each option in each situation, single-player games can emulate the counters of multiplayer rock-paper-scissors games, without becoming unfair to the player by invoking output-randomness.

By making these counters “soft” instead of “hard” (making the payoff or success rate a continuous range of values that varies depending on the situation, instead of a binary that flips, in other words, avoiding the silver-bullet problem), single player games can have fair interesting choices. This is what brings a game closest to the type of interesting decision-making and strategy that I find in multiplayer games, like Fighting Games, RTS, or FPS. There are a few games that I think have really succeeded at this, the best of which I’d label as: Nioh, Dead Cells, God of War 2018, Doom Eternal, Metal Gear Solid 3 (and V), Thief 2, Cosmic Star Heroine, and Starcraft’s campaign (at least, SC2’s campaign on a difficult that’s right for you, maybe with some modifiers, like in coop).

This counter-based design isn’t specific to any genre, a platformer can achieve this, driving game, stealth game, FPS game, RTS, RPG.

Even without a counter based design, a game can still use this design pattern (non-transitive input-randomness affecting limited choices with a continuous range of payoff values/success rates) to create interesting decisions, such as in the best 2d zelda games and Ittle Dew 2, where hitting enemies knocks them into different positions, and their attacks moves them into varying positions, changing the angle and timing you need to approach for an attack. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy offers a deterministic version of this, thanks to the high amount of chaos inherent in its physics engine and level design, mimicking the effect of input-randomness, but ultimately allowing players to master the system as they get more precise.

Golf games have really clear meters for the continuous ranges of values players select between, making them a clear example of the type of interaction going on across many games.

On the side of multiplayer games, I think Efficiency Races and Rock Paper Scissors should be mixed together in any good multiplayer game. Pure RPS makes the game inconsistent and flat. Pure efficiency race means the better player will usually win way too consistently and the game is less about actually interacting with your opponent than your single player skill, so playing a match isn’t much different than playing by yourself. By mixing the two, it allows different players to be good in different areas, which makes the individual player matchups different, because different players will have different payoff matrices versus you, which makes playing each new player an enjoyable experience, it allows different players to have a unique playstyle, both in which options they favor, how often they win with those options, and their payoff for winning with those options.

Having a low threshold for efficiency in an RPS game (every player can do the optimal combos/setups with ease) means every player gets the same payoff for a given option, so the game comes down more to which options players favor rather than the more intricate game of which options the players have mastered and to what degree. There might still be differences in each player’s knowledge of the state space (if the state space is large enough), but it can lead to the game feeling really samey once you hit the skill cap, and further skill improvements become more and more gradual and less rewarding.

I think with this framework, I’ve tapped into something more elementary about interesting decisions than I have in a long time, making what I previously called, “fuzzy evaluations” and “situationality” a lot more clear. Haven’t done this in a long time, I hope I haven’t alienated people too much with the technical jargon. In retrospect, I probably should have called, “efficiency races,” “optimization competitions”, but eh, hindsight’s 20:20 and both are pretty good for getting across the gist of what they mean and I think it would be too much work to go back and change it all now (vote in the comments for your favorite).

Are Fan Expectations More Important Than Quality? ft. Durandal

Editors note: This article was co-written by Durandal and I. We each contributed a number of paragraphs and edited back and forth to make the final product.

If you stick around gaming discussions long enough, you might hear the phrase: “it’s a good game, but it’s not a good [franchise/genre] game”. Meaning: while the game might be fun, it does not fit the identity or expectations of a particular franchise or genre. A game not matching expectations is a valid reason to dislike a game, but there’s a tendency amongst fans and reviewers to treat not meeting expectations as an objective flaw with the game’s design. So when there’s a new game which breaks the mold of its genre/franchise, many would criticize the game’s design for not meeting their preconceived notions of how a game in said genre/franchise should play.

This can happen when a game tries to take a classic genre in a new direction, such as Ikaruga. During location tests it got mixed reactions because it didn’t play like any other shmup at the time. Most arcade veterans liked shmups for their straightforward appeal of dodging bullets and blowing everything up. But here the polarity-switching mechanic gives you a shmup that makes you rely much more on strategy and routing over reflexes, making the game more puzzle-like than your average shmup.

Instead of judging Ikaruga in a neutral light from a fresh perspective, many people judged it purely through the lens of what they think a shmup should do. But being a “puzzle shooter” doesn’t make Ikaruga worse or better, just different. Instead of acknowledging that the game is not up their alley, they view the game’s design as objectively flawed. Only how objective can said flaws be to someone with no experience with the genre/franchise?
Continue reading

The Souls Story Formula

The Souls series and its imitators have a pretty consistent formula for their stories and lore that generates a cool “story-sense” for games about exploration without straightforward cutscenes, but the formula has a particular weakness too.

The first setup is that there’s a great kingdom, or town, or space station, or so on that has a rich history, and many geographically distinct areas. This kingdom was usually great because it relied on something dangerous, like souls, the first flame, or the blood of the great ones. Continue reading

What makes good combat?

Combat in a video game is good when you have a variety of options (discrete verbs that have unique animations, state, or use of unique entities) or sub-options (things like position, timing, rotation etc that modify the function of a verb) which have varied outcomes, and determining which option/suboption to use for a more/less optimal outcome in a given situation is unclear, but can be logically deduced.

If elements of your combat system are random (have output randomness, as opposed to input randomness), such as randomizing which attack you’ll perform when you press a button, then the best option for a scenario cannot be logically deduced. The same is true if the way that attacks function is unclear or inconsistent (like funky hitboxes producing drastically different outcomes with similar inputs, or the visuals not clearly communicating how the move works). Ideally the player should be able to visualize in their mind the outcome of different inputs, working it out like a math problem (“oh, I could have done that instead”). This makes a game fair and understandable.
Continue reading

What should be in a review?

Include a basic summary of what the game is about and how it’s played.

Contextualize how you played it, so people can get an idea of your process and extrapolate how that may have shaped your review. (in playing BOTW, I made it clear that I aimed to play the game a certain way)

Make clear observations that attempt to explain how things work in a nuts-and-bolts way (pointing out velocity, acceleration, state, etc), instead of unclear descriptive words (smooth, slippery, tight, etc). Build up to a conclusion, don’t start with one and forget to justify it.

Never mark a game down for being hard. You’re allowed to say it’s too hard for you, or one part is too hard relative to others, but difficulty isn’t inherently bad. Difficulty affects depth, which is more important. Does the way the difficulty was implemented create more or less depth? (more by encouraging you to try different things instead of stick to one thing, or less by requiring a specific solution) Remember, there is no such thing as artificial difficulty, it’s hard or it isn’t. Continue reading

Why FEAR 1 Is The Most Important Hitscan Shooter – ft. Durandal

This is another guest post by Durandal. If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact me on discord.

In the 00’s, developers forgot how to make singleplayer shooters with deep combat anymore. For the sake of realism most weapons were made hitscan to resemble how guns work IRL. Enemy variety suffered, since hitscan tracers don’t have as many mutable properties as projectiles do. Weapon variety suffered, since identical enemies don’t warrant a varied weapon arsenal as much. Finally level design suffered, because there isn’t a whole lot you can do with identical weapons and enemies.

So what do you do if the core gameplay lacks variety? The common approach taken by most developers was switching to another style of gameplay to avoid wearing out the core shooting. Instead of running, you’re now driving a tank. Instead of gunning, you’re now forced to be stealthy. Instead of depth, you’re shooting for breadth. Shooters became theme park rides where every half hour they introduced a new mechanic or mode of gameplay and then threw it away for good. Remember all the vehicle sections? The turret sections? The sniper sections, forced stealth sections and escort missions? They weren’t mechanically deep, but they were at least something different.

Soldier of Fortune, No One Lives Forever, the Medal of Honor games, the Call of Duty games, TimeSplitters, Black, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, XIII, the new Wolfenstein games, the Gears of War games, the Killzone games, the Resistance games, even exceptions with standout combat like the Halo games and Vanquish all fell prey to this need to completely change the mode of gameplay for the sake of variety. That’s what happens when you don’t believe your core gameplay can carry the game — when you don’t know how to iterate on hitscan combat.

Stealthily sniping spotlights on a slowly moving monorail really plays to the strengths of Vanquish’ rocket-boosting combat

And then there’s FEAR. On the surface it’s identical to other shooters at the time, save for a slo-mo power and a three-weapon limit instead of the usual two. Here you’ll be fighting the same grunts over and over using a shotgun and some assault rifle variant. Yet despite this generic premise, FEAR managed to stand out in an oversaturated market. Not because of gimmicks or unique mechanics, but somehow good hitscan combat and “good” AI. So what did FEAR do right?

First, FEAR’s combat arenas are circular — meaning each path you can take is surrounded by one or two covered flanking routes. These allow you to circle around the main path and get the drop on enemies, which beats taking guaranteed hitscan damage in a direct firefight. Without these you’re left with a hallway (similar to the left layout in the above diagram) that only allows you to move back and forth, where all you can do is sit in place and play peekaboo; only moving up when most of the enemies are dead. Circular map design (like the right layout in the above diagram) then discourages simple and repetitive strategies like these by giving you the opportunity to move around enemies.

Second, the Replica AI can also make use of these flanking routes. Since no position is safe, both you and the Replicas are always trying to outmaneuver each other for a better angle. This new dynamic gives level designers more options to play around with: arena layout, height variation, player/enemy points of entry, cover density, and other opportunities for creating varied encounters can be used without resorting to gimmicks. More importantly, the levels provide the AI with options too. Without them the Replicas would be stuck playing peekaboo, just like you. “Good” AI is pointless if it has no meaningful options to use.

Third, FEAR grants you the initiative. Before the fight begins, the Replicas will spread out across the arena, unaware of you. This allows you to scan the arena layout, set up traps, and choose how to start the fight. This not only gives you more engagement options, but gives you more courage to start in the middle of the action.

Compare this to entering a new room only to find several Replicas inside already firing at you. Here your only options are to rush in for a better position, or retreat behind the doorway and take potshots. The former will kill you; the latter is boring, because it leaves you with no other viable movement options. There the Replicas can only flush you out with grenades, or waltz into your choke point one-by-one. Even if the room ahead is a well-designed circular arena, it’s wasted if you’re already pushed out of it when the fight begins.

But there’s another aspect to FEAR that sets it apart, and that’s information warfare. Here you have to deal with a fog of war. Enemies are spread out in such a way where you can’t see them all at once, and you’re rarely given a full overview of an arena. So without perfect information, you have to improvise through prediction and info gathering.

One such layer of information is sound, like how the sound of footsteps can give one’s position away. The Replicas are very vocal not just to appear smart, but also to give you more information. This way you can hear what their status is, or what they’re about to do next. Other sources of information may include lighting. Shadows reveal enemies around corners, and Replicas get alerted to your flashlight. And by knowing that Replicas prefer to flank, you can predict the path they’re more likely to take.

Compared to shooters with a similar focus on positioning like Quake 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege, FEAR’s info warfare is very basic. The former pit do pit you against actual human opponents, after all. But FEAR proves there’s untapped potential for singleplayer hitscan shooters where the AI can outmaneuver you. FEAR only doesn’t take the idea that far. To that end, there could be secondary objectives. Vying for resources or having to capture/defend a target would expand the mindgames; force both parties to consider more than killing each other. Diverse enemy behaviours (sneaky, distant, aggressive) could expand what you can predict/exploit. More movement options (destructible surfaces, teleporting, grappling hooks) could expand how you approach each other. Tools such as radars and drones could expand how to gather information. Both parties could spread misinformation using holograms, cloaking devices, traps, and smoke grenades. Most of the Siege operators would make for interesting enemy types, actually.

The flanking game is what makes FEAR great, but the slo-mo power and being able to carry up to 10 instant-heal medkits conflicts with that. Both allow you to tank damage that would have killed you otherwise. And because slo-mo energy refills fast and medkits are handed out like candy, you have a lot of resources to tank through enemy fire; playing down the flanking game in favor of a shallower yet more effective playstyle.

Mechanics that mitigate damage (regenerating health/shields, portable medkits, slo-mo) do allow more aggressive playstyles in the face of hitscan. But these tend to have the opposite effect of encouraging thoughtless brute-force playstyles. Why think about movement if I can tank most damage anyways? To compensate, games could offer you tools to gain the positional advantage. In Crysis and Vanquish you can spend your energy for a positional advantage (Maximum Cloak/Speed, knee thrusters) or an offensive advantage (Maximum Power/Armor, slo-mo). So could FEAR’s slo-mo energy also be used for a speed boost.

FEAR managed to remain engaging despite its limited enemy/weapon variety and it being all hitscan by adopting a new design paradigm. One where positioning and constant movement are emphasized rather than tanking damage or trench warfare, proving that interesting combat can be had with only hitscan. Sadly, no singleplayer game tried to follow in FEAR’s footsteps since, despite the massive unexplored potential of this new paradigm that Rainbow Six: Siege also hints at.

SFV Proposed fixes

SFV’s final version is approaching, and I realized that I hadn’t published this, so I might as well get it out.

SFV is kind of a mess, kind of controversial. I’ve done my fair share of defending it in the early days, but I eventually quit the game because I wasn’t really happy with it or the direction it was going in. I’d say that the core issue with the game is forced commitment. People had a lot of issues with SFIV being non-committal, things like invincible backdashes, crouch tech, safe sweeps, uppercut FADC, too many features like this tend to make the game about forcing the opponent to endure your shit and hoping they eventually mess up. On the other hand, having high commitment to everything makes the game more like rock paper scissors, as things more cleanly win or lose versus one another, and you don’t have ways to hedge your bets to get a draw.

I admit I’m not an expert player, and since I quit a while back, I don’t really know what’s up with the current round of patches or more character specific issues. If I were to do a balance patch, I’d exclusively buff lower tier characters. I don’t think the top tier have any degenerate tactics that need nerfing, they’re good all-around and don’t violate the spirit of the game, and it’s been this way for the majority of the game’s life. I’d probably revert each character to the point they were at their best, or slightly below that point if their best was truly broken (Mika, Abigail), but largely buff lower tier characters.

  • Increase pushback on sweeps (making sweeps unsafe was a good move from SFIV, but making them unsafe when spaced is too far)
  • Increase pushback and decrease startup/recovery of fireballs to be closer to SFIV standards (fireballs being unsafe on block as well as being very high commit is a large part of why they’re bad)
  • Revert command grab recoveries to before season 2.5 (having them vulnerable to neutral jump is reasonable, having them vulnerable to many jump back punishes is crazy)
  • Increase distance moved backwards on air reset, to prevent jab anti-air from air resetting
  • Make all reversal uppercut moves invincible without spending meter, or at least invincible up to the first active frame.
  • Remove counterhit property from backdash, make it airborne from frame 1 (lets you use backdash to evade throws and minimize melee damage without avoiding it completely, giving you another wakeup option vs throws without letting you ignore meaty pressure like invincible backdashes) Alternatively, just remove the counterhit property, but make it throw invincible at the start for like 6 frames, so you can get a combo, but not like a crush combo.
  • Increase the number of normals with enough frame advantage to link into other normals (linking routes on most characters are rather boring due to this). Avoid doing this for light attacks, unless they cannot be self-chained or linked into from other light attacks.
  • Decrease the hurtbox size under jumping attacks so they’re closer in dimensions to the hitbox size (weakens anti-air jabs significantly, makes AA in general slightly less guaranteed)
  • Increase the duration that hurtboxes stay out after a move whiffs, animate to generally match the limb as it retracts, rather than jerkily appearing/disappearing (make whiff punishing more viable)
  • Increase the range of the hitbox on poking moves, in particular crouching medium kicks, so that they feel less stubby.
  • Allow any special that is forward jump only to be performed on neutral and back jumps, except divekicks, where only EX versions can be performed on back jumps.
  • Allow chip kills with EX moves (a decent compromise from only supers chip killing and allowing any special to chip kill)
  • Bump up character walk speeds slightly, like 6-10%.
  • Make overheads safer on block, or only punishable with light attacks (decent risk, low reward instead of  moderately high risk, low reward).
  • Make it so crush counter moves are never plus on block, and so poking ones are not plus on normal hit.
  • Add charge partitioning??? (this one is kind of off the wall, and I don’t really know how it would affect the game)
  • Make limb hurtboxes slimmer, so limbs that visually appear to go over/under each other do so with more reliability.
  • Reduce min heights on air specials.
  • change all hits of all attacks to be JP6 at minimum, make all EX attacks JP∞. (More Juggle Potential would open up the combo system a lot without much more effort, dunno if this would fuck anything up, but whatever, I’m not here to do a careful study)
  • change V-reversal to be more similar to GG’s dead angle attacks, rather than GG’s bursts. So 10-13 frames rather than 17-18 frames, early frames are completely invincible, later frames vulnerable to attacks.
  • Bring back advantage on throw, increase throw invincibility on wakeup to 4-5f, so you need to scare the person knocked down into throwing, like in every other game.

I don’t really have a solid solution for “robbery V-triggers”, V-triggers that can result in extremely high damage combos for late-game comebacks. Nerfing them is the obvious solution, but that would seriously reduce the number of skillful combos in the game and change the feel of many characters. I think a more healthy move for the game would probably be to integrate a lot of the alternate V-Trigger movesets as basic moves, and removing V-trigger entirely, or toning it down significantly, but there’s no clear solution.

Similarly, I don’t have a solid solution for the way that nearly all combos are too easy. I think average combo length is good currently, and making average combos harder would require either reducing hitstop (like 3rd strike), or reducing the buffer (which honestly wouldn’t be a horrible idea, a 1f buffer instead of 2f. The smallest link window being 2f wouldn’t be terrible). However I feel like these changes would also hurt the accessibility of the game. Over time Capcom has implemented V-Triggers that allow for harder combos, thanks to negative edge, quick stance cancels, quirky button combinations or the like, but working more skillful combos into the game without also increasing combo length and the difficulty of basic combos is an extremely tricky problem. Having more meaty-only combos, or combos based on delays or moving hitboxes could increase combo difficulty and situationality.

It’s relatively easy to mod SFV, if someone wants to make a mod with all these changes, that would be pretty cool.

Objectivity vs Subjectivity

Okay, so a topic that has been kicked around a lot over the past decade (and generally forever) is the concept of objectivity in reviews or critiques of works of media. There seem to be two sides, the side that wants all critique of media to be objective, based on verifiable facts about the work of media (which you might typify as MauLer), and the side that wants to use media as a lens for interpretation of ideas, and doesn’t care so much about the contents of the work so much as what it represents (which you might typify as modern art critics).

Of course not everyone is so far to one side or the other, there’s a lot of people in the middle, a more common position from the subjective people is, “this review is my opinion, therefore it’s subjective. Anyone else’s review is their opinion, and therefore subjective.” and a more mediated position from the objective people would be, “I think based on evidence of the work that the work is this way, and we agree that these criteria in a work are generally good, and thereby we can agree this work meets or does not meet those criteria if my assessment is correct.”

To make things simple, I’m going to call our sides objectivists and subjectivists. Please don’t mistake objectivists for Ayn Rand Objectivism, which is not objective at all and is generally kind of a joke. Continue reading

What’s the point of combos in fighting games?

Many beginners get into fighting games and see these COMBOS and feel like, “bullshit, it’s not fair that they can deal a billion damage. I hit them twice as much and they win off one hit.” While that can be frustrating, combos add a lot to the game that you can’t get any other way.

The deal with combos is they make certain hits under certain circumstances more damaging than just any random hit. Games with longer combos allow players to find different combo routes that lead to different types of advantages, like more damage, better screen positioning, knockdown, meter gain, easier confirms, and safety on block. Continue reading

What does Agency mean in a Game?

Sometimes people refer to features as affording the player agency. Agency is held up as a value intrinsic to games. Many games enshrine the concept of player choice and consequence. This value mystifies me because it doesn’t seem to map to a distinct thing in video games. Agency in the real world represents power over your circumstances, but in games, your circumstances define what power you have in the first place. When the rules are defined, all the possibilities that can ever be are defined as well, unlike the open-ended real world. Can you have agency when you’re just following rules?

In the real world, agency is your ability to affect the world. Money gives you agency by allowing you to invest, buy things for yourself, move from place to place, seek different jobs, and so on. Your health gives you agency by allowing you to move unaided, lift heavy objects, guarantee your personal security against others. Your connections allow you to call in favors, delegate tasks to others, get information you wouldn’t know yourself, get additional financial aid, conduct work remotely, or change policy for other people.

In a game, the concept doesn’t really map, because what would be described as agency is either an illusion or completely non-applicable. What agency do you have in rock paper scissors? What agency do you have in tic tac toe? Tetris? Soccer? Which game has more agency, checkers or connect 4? If we go back to the definition of agency, power to affect your circumstance, we can see you are afforded choices in how you play the game, and some games have a larger branching factor than others, such as Go (361 starting moves) versus Checkers (4 starting moves). The problem is, does it make sense to call this agency, when we could just say branching factor, or state space?

In narrative games, such as Mass Effect, you’re allowed to make choices that affect the world. You choose which characters live and die. You choose which missions to pursue. You choose the fate of the government. You save the galaxy. These actions seemingly impose agency, because in real life, if you could choose who lived or died, travel wherever you wanted, overturn the rule of government, and be responsible for the fate of the world, you’d have tremendous agency as a person. However lets imagine you had no choice but to save the galaxy. Lets say you had no choice but to kill or not kill certain characters, no choice in what happens to the government, and followed the missions in a linear order? Do you still have agency when you’re fated to do all these things?

Lets play a game. Please choose whether the following characters live or die: John Cena, Mike Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Shigeru Miyamoto. Please choose which order you’d like to visit these places in: Mojave Desert, Shibuya, Dubai. Please choose one form of government: Democratic Republic, Communal Anarchy, Anarcho Capitalism, Fascist Dictatorship. Please choose a color: Red, Green, Blue.

Okay, across these options, there were 1152 different possible combinations of choices you could have picked (2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 6 * 4 * 3). Across 3 turns of Go, there are 46,655,640 possible combinations of choices (361 * 360 * 359). This is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison obviously, but agency is frequently used both to refer to large storyline choices (“you have the agency to affect the world around you”), as well as the styles of play afforded to the player (“You have agency in which path you’ll take through the level”), and level of nuance players are allowed to express in their actions (“This jump lets you control how high and far you go, giving you more agency over how you fly and where you land”).

I think every use of the word agency for video games is kind of nonsense. I view all choices in a game as being a branching point, whether they’re storyline choices, or where you place your piece on a board. These choices and the resulting states are a fungible currency across games, and the word “agency” doesn’t really correlate with them, or match any real world sense of the word. If I hack my Mass Effect save file before transferring the data over to Mass Effect 2, am I expressing agency over the world of the game by flipping a few bits? If you don’t have a save file, you get asked a few questions at the start of ME2 about what happened in ME1, which retroactively determines what possible ME1 events will be reflected in ME2. Is this agency?

Mass Effect 3’s Red Green Blue ending was derided for overriding player agency, funnelling a few hundred choices down into a single 3 pronged decision that ignored all of them, but are any of those choices, or even the sum total of all of them, really that deep? When you have a conversation with someone in real life, think of all the things you could possibly say to them. Think about their internal emotional state and yours and how it contextualizes everything you say. Think of how you could stutter, misspeak, say the same words with different intonation, creating a different meaning. Think of your body language, your position relative to them.

Agency is a concept that works in the real world, it’s useful for understanding how different people have power over their lives, and how to gain more power over your own life. Agency works because the power you have can be contrasted with a hypothetical lack of power, where in the world of a game, there is only what you’re given, no more, no less. Agency can be fictionalized, represented in stories by fictional characters, and the feeling of agency can be a pillar for a game’s theming, but on the level of game design, agency isn’t a real thing. There are choices, and there are states. It’s better to deal with these directly instead of appealing to a more vague concept that doesn’t really map.