In the last post, I defined what "narrative design" is, and thought it would be apropos to continue on the theme of picking a particular phrase which pops up a lot in this field, that nobody seems to know what they mean.
What Is Player Agency?You'll see "player agency" come up when RPGs are discussed, which should already tip us off that it has something to do with how the player controls the story using their decisions. However, this becomes a Narrative Designer's first quagmire, because the potential decisions need to be designed for the player, and thus, limits the scope of what they can do depending on what you allow. What you allow depends on the game design, and where the story needs to go after that interaction, so managing the entire breadth of choices / consequences + their effect on the overall narrative is a daunting task.
For example, a favourite for story writers is introducing a tale by having the protagonist be confronted by the main villain at the absolute beginning, prompting the player to shout "Pick up the sword and kill him! You can end this game right here!", and that's already one instance where the player wanted to do something, but the game didn't allow it. Evidently, the game needs a reason to happen, and if you give the player the agency to end it at the beginning, it results in an extremely short, unfavourable gaming experience (though, not always—Super Mario Bros. 3 is an example where someone who knows the tricks can use the flutes to speed past most of the game to the final stages).
Arguably, this should be avoided, not just for the aforementioned reasons ("breaking the game" by ending it early), but also because a hero watching his family die at the hands of his nemesis is the most cliché story there is (Max Payne, Shadow of Mordor, Watch_Dogs, and so on), and the unfortunate commonality with too many Narrative Designers out there is that they think they're innovating by imitating, yet somehow miss the fact that the experience they've created is a mishmash of stories that already exist. Then, an entire game gets built on that foundation, and fails to resonate with the market because it offers nothing new.
Player agency is one of the tools you have to create an opportunity to make your game unique, but it's a difficult one to use because you have to foreshadow what the player's journey is going to be, and that depends on a lot of factors beyond story + characters. This is where you need to develop a strong vision of the game design, visual aesthetic, environment, and everything else that's going to make up the game before those things are created and finalized.
The Bloody BaronI'm almost regretful I used The Witcher 3 as the cover image for the last article, because it serves as the perfect example here for excellent agency. It's a game full of incredibly designed questlines that have implications on a lot of things you wouldn't expect (including several endings), but the standout that sticks out to most who play it is one where your protagonist, Geralt, is desperately trying to locate his adopted daughter, and finds that she had a run-in with a local tyrant appropriately named "The Bloody Baron." However, the Baron's own wife and daughter have disappeared, so he withholds that information until Geralt resolves the situation. This sends you on a wild journey that involves investigating the whereabouts of the Baron's wife, heading to a developed town called Oxenfurt to negotiate the Baron's daughter's return, lifting a curse off of a "botchling," among other twists and turns in an immersive, several-hour experience.
The player's agency comes in here. You have a choice if you want to lift the curse, or kill the botchling (which takes the physical form of a mutated baby, making it all-the-more heartwrenching of a decision—but an instance where character design affects narrative design). In order to get into Oxenfurt to talk to the Baron's daughter (a runaway rogue), you needed to get to a certain level of progression to gain in-game items (like a Letter of Safe Conduct, or purchasing a fake Transit Pass), or otherwise take a more laborious approach into the city (swimming across a river, and there isn't much agency with the daughter, since she gives a static rejection anyway you go with the dialogue tree, but there is in how you get to her).
Eventually, you find the Baron's wife, and realize that she's someone you had already met as an old woman taking care of orphans in a swamp, and depending on your previous choices involving said orphans, his wife will either be transformed into a water hag, or otherwise gone mentally insane since the kids will have gone missing. And contingent on your choices from there, it will affect whether the Baron takes his wife to a healer, or if she dies, and the Baron you've built a bit of an emotional connection to by this point (as the parallel of your own player's journey) hangs himself in one of several tragic outcomes that exist in the game.
Now You're Playing with PowerThe Witcher 3 is a good example, but also an inappropriate one since the game is so vast (with at least one-hundred hours of content on the main game alone) that the player can afford to deviate or skip through content without feeling like they've missed a chunk of the game. Whereas most Narrative Designers out there will be working on a far smaller scale of game where designers can't afford to create much expendable content, and consistent to a few-hour experience, there's much more limited scope as to how many branches you can implement on your story tree.
Ultimately, agency is about giving the player a sense of ownership on the hero's journey. This is done by predicting what their response will be to certain scenarios, and designing those options so long as they stay consistent with the integrity of your own narrative, all-the-while doesn't impact the game design in a way that reduces its efficacy.
Mario can use the flute to get to Level 8, but the stages are short 1-5-minute experiences and the mechanics are so fun that the replayability is through the roof. Therefore, the player is much more inclined to play the game the next day, skip the flutes, and enjoy every stage. This may not be the case for most games (especially on the indie scene, at a time when there's more content than gamers can possibly consume), so the idea is to use agency in interactive storytelling to create immersion for the desirable goal that your game becomes memorable on the first playthrough. Give them the power to design their own experience, and they'll appreciate you more for it.
That's how you innovate, rather than imitate.