Devlog #2: Escalating Agency in Interactive Fiction

I've been thinking about and trying to implement something in my game American Angst I call "Escalating Agency". I'm not assuming I'm the first to have thought of this, but as a) I am too lazy to google it and b) this is my first game development endeavor, I hope you cut me some slack and bear with me and my possibly incoherent ramblings:

Agency ("the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power" – Merriam-Webster) is maybe the core factor in gaming in general, and no less so in interactive fiction, the genre I am developing my game in. Choice is what set CYOA books apart from normal novels and it transforms prose into hypertext or: Interactive Fiction.

Working on American Angst, I realize that part of the process of creating interactive fiction is finding your place on the spectrum between open world / sandbox games and a rail shooter, between leaving it up to the imagination of the player and an exposition dump.

The way I see it, creating an open world-like work of interactive fiction is practically impossible (at least for a one man team). Take GTA, for example: a simple process like strolling down a sidewalk past cars would require an unreasonable amount of nodes, provided you don't settle for a cop out à la "You are strolling down the sidewalk, when you pass a couple of cars. Do you want to steal a car?", which is fine, but, in my humble opinion, not an open world.

The interactivity of a game should not be mistaken with the freedom to try things out and see what works. – Paolo, Molle Industria

And even if one were to create an open world as interactive fiction, I dare say one would be moving away from another core element of the genre: narration and story. Which brings me to this:

As I see it, good interactive fiction is the perfect balance of agency and story / narration. Meaning: You will want to find a rhythm, a beat of enough exposition coupled with sufficient choices. 

My immersion in interactive fiction was always killed when I reached a point in the narration where I thought: "Hang on, I would have loved to have a say here, because, frankly, this is not what I would have said or done." But then again, I'm often annoyed if get held up with decisions like "What color are my socks?" – especially when they have no impact on the story whatsoever.

So neither does one want to produce interactive fiction that basically just uses links to replicate the turning of a book (i.e. an ebook on Kindle), nor does one want to end up with an overly clicky game that resembles Mindsweep as a story.

Which finally brings me to the topic of this devlog.

Following the introduction of American Angst, this is what I would like to accomplish with the initial passages (a passage is what an individual node is called in Twine): 

  • I want to supply enough exposition to set the tone and establish the setting and atmosphere of the story
  • I don't want to give away too much and I most definitely don't want to bore the player
  • I want to organically introduce core elements of the game (inventory, combat system, et al.) without killing atmosphere
  • I want to provide sufficient choice so the player senses agency
  • I don't want to overwhelm the player with decisions he isn't qualified enough yet to make (which would be totally my fault)

I feel the last two points are especially significant. While I personally love being thrown right into the story of an interactive fiction and being able to influence it from the get go, it might set me off if the scope of the decision and its consequences are too large. The reasons being I am not immersed enough yet, I have too little knowledge of the character, the setting, the goals, of what's at stake etc.

So, I want to create enough choice for it to feel like yes, you have agency as a player, but not so much that you get the feeling your choice could be world-shattering right in the first passage. 

I hope I'm getting across what I am trying to say. Because this is what I call escalation of agency, i.e. increasing the stakes of your decisions as the game unfolds in alignment with your investment in the game. My theory is – and I am sure this is a no-brainer and I do not assume to be the first to have thought of this but I wanted to jot it down for my own sake anyhow: the risks you are willing to take and the scope of decisions you are willing to make in a game are relative to how invested you are in a story, a character or ideally both, and the investment of course is relative to the strength of the writing as well as the time spent playing a game. Especially in interactive fiction.

Without giving away too much, this is the challenge I am trying to master in American Angst. As I wrote in the first devlog, every choice you make will impact the story one way or the other. One choice may take you down a different branch with totally different experiences (but ultimately the same, only slightly different ending), another choice will keep you in the same branch, seem minute, but will influence your personality significantly which ultimately takes you to a different ending. 

But in my humble opinion it is paramount that the stakes are increased gently, subtly; the decisions escalated little by little. Whether this increase in agency takes place linear or exponentially, well, that depends. But the basic premise, that agency must align with a player's investment, stands.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts? Feel free to follow me on Twitter!

UPDATE: As Emily Short added on Twitter, there are exceptions: "Choice of Games-style protagonist-backstory choices can have a big early impact." Which I would agree with. In that scenario, the protagonist is not static, meaning the players's choice will help form the narrative for a particular personality. Good point.

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