Player Agency – The Experiences Only Games Can Bring Us

Pope’s follow up to his 2013 hit “Papers, Please” has a stunning 1-bit art style, adding to it’s unique charm even more.

I recently played through Lucas Pope’s new game “Return of the Obra Dinn”. It’s an amazing game and I can’t sing its praises enough, but I’ll just be focusing on one key aspect of it, and that’s how it made me feel. The game has been getting a ton of comparisons to “Her Story”, a wonderful 2015 title by Sam Barlow, and I absolutely see the connections too. But the game that Obra Dinn reminds me of the most is Johnathan Blow’s 2016 masterpiece “The Witness”. Both of these games elicited an emotion from me that most art never even tries to achieve: the feeling of epiphany.

In doing research for this article I found an amazing piece about romance in games by Andrea Phillips, which you can read here. I’ll try not to retread what she has said too much, but she does come up with a great term that I’ll borrow here: emotions of agency. These are the emotions that only video games can produce. The best stuff that any media has to offer will elicit strong emotions from you. Most of these are second-hand though, games can make you feel these emotions firsthand.

One of the first puzzles you’ll solve in Obra Dinn. All of the pieces are available to you, you just have to find out how they fit together.

I’ve seen tons of mystery films that don’t feel like a tangible, solvable mystery to the viewer. I often find that we simply get to see the characters show off their wit as they unravel clues. We marvel at their intelligence, but the audience doesn’t get to experience these eureka moments for themselves. To be fair, it is possible to experience the feeling of epiphany in other mediums. I can think of a few films whose plots unwrap like puzzles, where dedicated viewers will guess a twist ending thanks to some subtle clues. These moments are pretty rare though and will usually only come once a movie, if at all. Video games however can make you feel like the detective, and you’ll get all the satisfaction of solving the mysteries. Games have the ability to be based entirely around making the player feel clever, and like they’ve figured something out using only their ingenuity.

That’s exactly what games like Obra Dinn and The Witness offer. In these two games you’ll always have all the tools you need to solve the puzzle, so it’s up to you to see how everything fits together. And when it finally clicks, it’s an immensely satisfying thing. While these games are amazing in their own right, the reason I admire them so much is because puzzle games are so rare. I love a good action game, but it’s such a well established genre that you need to do a lot more to stand out. A good puzzle game on the other hand is much harder to find, and will offer an experience that tests your intellect where most other games will challenge something like dexterity. This makes puzzlers unique experiences, even in the realm of games.

But there are other games that elicit emotions that just cannot be replicated in any other medium. You can’t, for example, feel embarrassment by watching a movie or reading a book. When something awkward happens in a movie, you might be embarrassed for the person, but you’re not embarrassed yourself. With the interactive medium that is video games however, we can experience these feelings for ourselves. Hence first-hand emotions, emotions of agency.

Shadow of The Colossus is a pretty cliched example to bring up when talking about this kind of thing, but it’s so trite because it just works so well. No other game has even attempted to deliver the kind of experience that it brings. I’m going to dive into the main plot of the game, so if you want to play it but haven’t yet, I would highly recommend that first. It’s an incredible game for many reasons but in order to discuss a lot of them, I will have to spoil it.

The following section contains spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus.

A picture from the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. Here you can see Wander clinging onto the massive colossus’s weapon. Needless to say the game’s sense of scale is incredible, and it looks gorgeous.

Shadow of the Colossus is about remorse, and it’s the only game I’ve seen even attempt to capture that emotion. The game lets you control the protagonist, Wander. We don’t know much about him, except that he’s grieving after the loss of a young girl named Mono. We don’t know anything about their relationship, but the journey Wander goes on to try and save her speaks volumes. He takes nothing but his horse and his sword, and sets out to slay the sixteen colossi across the land (you can see one in the picture above), being promised by an ancient entity named Dormin that if he does so, Mono may come back to life. That much is never even made a certainty.

This is the exposition you get at the start of the game, more or less, and the rest of the story is incredibly minimal. You follow Wander as he seeks to kill the colossi. These gigantic beasts are majestic, and mysterious. They’re beautiful, yet you have to kill them. Unlike most violent video games where you just assume the people you’re killing are evil, SotC makes you feel guilty for slaying these creatures. Many of the creatures aren’t hostile at all. One of them merely holds you in its hand and glares at you as you stab it, as if it’s just as curious about you as you are as it. You gain a strong sense of empathy for the creatures as you’re causing such pain, and no doubt it starts to give you some hesitation.

You may start the game with no qualms over killing these creatures, feeling like a badass for taking them down, but by the end you start to feel intense regret and guilt. These emotions are not second-hand, they’re very palpable and real. You didn’t watch a character in a movie slay the colossi, you slayed them. These creatures were beautiful, most didn’t attack you unless provoked, and some were entirely peaceful. Yet you killed them, and you’ll finish the game feeling that maybe your task wasn’t as heroic as you originally thought it was. Long after the credits roll you’ll still be thinking about the consequences of your actions.

Spoilers end here.

If you don’t understand the desire to experience things like this, that’s fine. I personally think it’s fantastic that art can create safe places where we can experience things we never would be able to in real life, uncomfortable or otherwise. At the very least they can offer us a valuable new experience we would have been missing out on otherwise, and at best they can teach us something new about the world, and maybe even help us grow as people. These are the things I love to feel when I’m enjoying a piece of art, and video games are no exception.

I think games as a medium have an incredible amount of potential to provide people with unique experiences like this. I love and care about this medium dearly, but it is far from perfect. There’s many things I think the medium could accomplish, and will in the near future, but we aren’t quite there yet. Romance is a big one. There’s a lot of reasons games have never been good at portraying romance. Dialog and story standards have been incredibly low up until the past couple years, and the medium has a spotty relationship with women. This year though an incredible little game called Florence came out, telling a slice of life story about the relationship of two young people as they fall in love for the first time.

I won’t go into detail about the plot, but at it’s core is a love story. You play as the eponymous character Florence Yeoh as she meets a man named Krish, and you’ll follow their relationship through its highs and lows. The gameplay is simple, consisting of WarioWare-like micro-games, an example of which you can see below. In order to talk about what’s going on this picture, I need to explain a very useful term: “mechanics as metaphor”. Mechanics as metaphor was coined by the wonderful ExtraCredits team in 2012, and it’s essential to talking about art games. It’s pretty self explanatory, it’s when the mechanics of the video game represent something other than the literal. In the example of the picture below, you just arrange puzzle pieces into the shape of a thought bubble. Literally you’re solving a simple puzzle, but metaphorically you’re Florence going on a date, thinking of things to say. Over time she gets to know Krish better, and the number of puzzle pieces decrease as it becomes easier to think of what to say, and their conversation flows better.

One of the many examples of how Florence uses mini-games to show the characters’ relationship.

I know these mechanics are incredibly simple, and their metaphors are obvious and perhaps even shallow. But I think it’s a wonderful first step for the medium. Florence was created in the hopes of being a unique experience among the hundreds of derivative games out there that offer the same mechanics and themes, over and over. A first hand look at relationships and love in the modern age, told in a way only video games can tell a story. This interactive medium has so much to offer us, it’s growing and will only continue to grow as time goes on. Games like Florence, Obra Dinn, and SotC are just the beginning. Every year, amazing new video games come out that can offer us experiences unlike anything else. It’s an amazing medium, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it goes from here.

Thank you for reading.