What We Talk About When We Talk About Agency: Part Two of Question Mark Parts, or: Non-Normative Play

“Haha, wow, Kat,” you are saying to yourself. “That sure was a lot of theory you talked about in your last post about agency. Also, kind of a bummer – talking about existential hopelessness, illusions of agency, and people being not so chill?”

“Yeah, dude. I know. Probably a lot of that theory was unnecessary.”

“Maybe we could have a recap?”

Can-do, strawman. We have agency in digital space as Murray defined it in 1998, which is the opportunity to see the meaningful consequences of our decisions and choices.

Then, we have agency in the digital space as I, a presumptuous Kathryn Brewster, have decided to define it almost 20 years later: Agency is the set of actions we choose to make and imbue with meaning in the face of existentialist dread, which, in turn, is the overwhelming nausea we feel when confronted with limitless choice in the universe.

But dang, it definitely feels like we don't have limitless choice in linear video games. When looking at the dialogue wheels we are given, they feel paltry compared to the nearly limitless options we have when deciding, for example, what moves to play in chess (which, by the way, has more potential board positions than there are atoms in the knowable universe (!!!)). Where we get hung up is on the word meaningful which is SUPER subjective!

When playing most games with dialogue wheels, we are told that the story choices we make through dialogue is what matters, and we assume that what makes those story choices meaningful is that it affects the narrative which takes place within the confines of the gameworld as it is presented on the screen. All those pesky and hardwired if/if else commands, which are just going to loop back around to give us the same dang story anyway.

So. Where do we, as players, get to find meaning?

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that meaningful autonomous play in the digital space comes from play which recognises the extent of that autonomy as players within that space. It's a combination of recognising how we have to operate within the confines of the gameworld, and then experimenting with all the ways we can operate within those constraints, mining for meaning. Sometimes we see this in more technical feats, like speed runs. How can I, as a player, behave the most efficiently when presented with gameful constraints which, by their very nature, exist to constrain my free activity?

In turn, this kind of play can change how we feel about the experience as a whole. Playstyles start to acknowledge not just technical constraints, but flavourful, experiential ones. For example: in Dishonored, Corvo is given non-lethal options to neutralise enemies. So, what does it mean if you still choose the lethal option, knowing full well that to behave nonviolently is a viable option? Dunno, man. That's between you and Corvo.

Play which subverts the typically designed experience, often the AAA Hollywood-linear model, I've taken to calling "non-normative play," and it takes a lot of forms:

Technical challenges, like speed runs, percentage runs, and completionist runs are fairly atypical from the average play experience, and generally focus on high-efficiency within added or existing constraints.

Experiential challenges, like pacifist runs, genocide runs, and other narrative-justification heavy playthroughs take a given narrative, and subvert the co-authorship model of game design to give more weight to the player's interpretations of events.

As a side note, pacifism/genocide is a popular non-normative playstyle, as it's a fairly good mixture of tangible technique and flavourful experience.

Then there are, for lack of a better word and keeping with an existential theme, absurdist challenges. Absurdist play says, "I'm going to take the tools you have given me, Game, and use them as a platform for something entirely different, and largely removed from the overall narrative or theme of mechanics." A good example of this last one might be the McElroy's Monster Factory series, or Pippin Barr's permadeath speed run of Half-Life 2.

This is not to say that a playstyle must fall into either one category or the other, but rather to consider all the various webs and overlaps alternative playstyles have to offer! There are a bunch, and increasingly, there is really no "normal" play experience to be had.


Further thoughts: As I consider all of these runs and playstyles, I wonder what it means when the style of play is organic and community-grown, versus when these playstyles are offered in the design of the game. Does it mean more to kill nobody in F3NV than in Dishonored because there's no achievement for it? Will we continue to see an increase in game design which offers meaningful and thematically harmonious alternative playstyles, as in Undertale, and if so, do we lose a sense of agency because of it?