Peter Parker made a choice when he witnessed the thief stealing from his wrestling manager. A player, acting as Jack, saves or harvests Little Sisters in BioShock. Agency reflects the desires and values of the character or player upon and within the fictional world they inhabit.
I've discussed matters of agency in video games twice now, but haven't really discussed the concept itself in-depth. So I decided to take a bit of a closer look at two kinds of agency present in video games, both character agency and player agency.
To make sure we're all on the same page, however, let's first come up with a simple definition. In this case, agency is the illusion of free will. It is the idea that the player or a character is acting in accordance to their own directive and choice, marching to the beat of their own drum.
While there are a lot of other more complicated discussions on agency within fiction and entertainment, this should give us a good, basic place to start.
Fiction relies on characters that the audience can, in some way, identify with. The easiest way to manage this is usually the same as in real life, by making a character funny or amusing. Making your protagonist a bit of an underdog typically helps as well, as everyone likes to see the character(s) accomplish something. A sense of growth and development, of conquering some personal trial.
All of this can shatter the second the audience no longer finds the protagonist(s) to be believable. Once the character does something that breaks the audience's understanding of the character's established personality or logic, then the audience is abruptly wrenched from the film, book, television show, or even video game. "That doesn't make sense," they may exclaim, watching as the characters decide the best option is to split up inside of the horrifying cavern. Or perhaps the girl that gets all A's in class sees the door is ajar and thinks "That's funny, I know I just locked it before bed," yet she simply closes the door and shrugs it off, proceeding on her predetermined demise.
Even antagonists are not immune, however. Look at the rogues gallery of James Bond villains and how many chose to leave him in an escapable situation rather than pulling the trigger themselves. These elements do not often reflect the actions of rational people, and are instead cheap gimmicks of suspense on the part of the screenwriter. Even if we were capable of forgiving such transgressions, the many questions of "why" would certainly come about in time.
Contrast this with Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring. A simple Hobbit that enjoys tales of adventure, sure, but once he is informed of the true, dark nature of his uncle Bilbo's ring, he panics. He's been given what amounts to having the launch codes to the world's nuclear arsenal. Attempting to reject that power, he tries to shove it into the hands of Gandalf, the most powerful and wise person he knows. Fortunately for Middle Earth, Gandalf restricts Frodo's options. As with his uncle's adventure, the decision was made for him. The Bagginses are given a charge — a mission, should they choose to accept it.
Of course Gandalf makes it clear that not accepting is not much of an option. There are no others who can make the journey. With little choice, Frodo ventures to Rivendell. He is reluctant, but chooses to go forth and begin his adventure. The actions make sense, and we can accept the bravery because we've seen Frodo consider other options. As a result, when he makes the choice to venture to Mt. Doom, we can believe he is brave enough, despite his fear, to do such a thing. His decision is consistent with his earlier choices and actions in the film.
The illusion is that Frodo is acting of his own free will, when in truth he is merely a pawn in the game J.R.R. Tolkien is playing. It doesn't feel like that, no, but it is true. If Frodo did not behave as he did, however, if he didn't have to face reluctance and fear, we'd never buy into the story that Tolkien was trying to sell. Instead of being a story about struggles and strife, it would have been about guys fighting stuff in places with trees.
Have you ever been exploring the various corners of a map when, suddenly, you crash into an invisible wall? The road ahead continues onward, but the game prevents you from proceeding without giving any reason why. This is often labeled as being "immersion breaking," primarily because the player's sense of agency is broken. The player suddenly becomes aware that they are not truly free in this world, that the freedoms apparent aren't as they seem, and that they're simply following the breadcrumbs and restrictions left by a developer.
A player can never be given absolute freedom in a game — that'd be impossible to code — but a good design team will be able to craft a world that hides this fact. There is an illusion of free will as the player uses the tools and follows the rules provided to accomplish predetermined goals.
It sounds like a difficult task, but it actually varies on the complexity of the game. In the original Super Mario Bros., having to travel to the right is simply one of the laws of the game world. As you can only travel side to side to begin with, you're willing to accept this further limitation. The world makes up for it by allowing you to leap and find a variety of surfaces to walk or run on. In addition, the player can travel down pipes or up vines and into the clouds. While the player is still essentially following the same rule (progress must be made towards the right, not to the left), it feels like there are a variety of options within that ruleset. The player is not simply restricted to holding down the D-Pad, moving in a single direction the entire time.
Modern games, however, tend to become more complex and, as a result, can find it harder to construct that sense of agency. In the recently released Batman: Arkham Origins, there are a series of buildings that, despite appearances, the player cannot grapple onto. This is to prevent the player from accessing story content too early, but similarly breaks the sense of freedom. The illusion of freedom and choice is immediately broken. The player thought they could grapple to any ledge or surface in order to navigate the world, and instead they discover only surfaces deemed capable of being grappled. The player is now removed from the game world and sees it for what it is: an artificial construct designed to constrain the player to behave a certain way.
The original Arkham Asylum hid these points much better. Anything that could not be grappled onto either had spikes jutting out, preventing a grapple, or the surface was simply crumbling and too frail to allow it. The game communicated this reasoning. Even if the player recognized these gateways of progression, there was a clear and visible reason that made sense within the game world. In Arkham Origins, the roof of one building can look no different than another, but Batman cannot grapple simply because the designers do not wish for him to do so.
Dishonored, on the other hand, allows the player to travel nearly anywhere with the Blink ability. Typically any surface that does not permit Blink is too steep or simply not a sturdy surface. This ability could have shown the holes in the game's sense of freedom, but instead that range of movement reinforces that freedom. The player suddenly has more options available throughout the game world, and any surface that cannot be Blinked onto is typically insignificant. There is always a path available, and there are always many different ways to skin a rat, so to speak.
Every power and ability in Dishonored works like this. Each power or weapon, every upgrade, increases the ability for the player to approach a situation in a different manner. Just as Super Mario Bros. kept the rules of movement simple (you can only progress to the right, never to the left), Dishonored too keeps rules simple. You must defeat your target, lethally or non-lethally. The game often provides special tools to accomplish these goals, but the player does not have to make use of them. They have plenty of other tools at their disposal to accomplish the same goals.
What makes Dishonored a truly special game is that the player's agency extends to the narrative. In many games, player agency can potentially conflict with character agency. For example, it does not make sense for the Master Chief to kill his fellow humans in the Halo series (and if you do, well, let's just say killing Captain Keyes in the opening of Combat Evolved is a bad idea).
This is why a lot of games implement silent protagonists or allow the player to customize their own. In Dishonored the player acts as puppeteer to Corvo. Despite having a face and a name, the player has total control over Corvo's actions. If the player kills ruthlessly, the game world will reflect their habits by flooding the streets with zombie-like Weepers and hordes of hungry rats. If the player spares the majority of guards and hostiles they encounter, then the streets will be relatively clean (for a plague-ridden city). Each option has merits and consequences in relation to gameplay, despite effecting the narrative.
Speaking of, if the player is a cold-blooded killer, then the heiress Emily's personality will be affected. Her demeanor and her drawings will be more hostile. Characters will betray you that might otherwise not have done so. The final conflict will take a very different shape.
Visible changes based on your behavior are a necessity to providing a sense of narrative agency to the player. It's not enough that their choice results in, say, red, blue, or green explosions. Telltale's The Walking Dead is a great example of choice and consequence. Even if the overall story is linear and protagonist Lee has a predetermined personality, the game manages to present difficult choices with apparent consequence. The player knows going in that a decision will have an immediate or gradual consequence, and the game is sure to remind players of that. So while the game is certainly linear, it feels as if the player's choices and decisions resonate.
Which is what agency is all about. What makes video games different from other media is that you not only have narrative agency, but you also have mechanical agency. While narrative is not a necessity or can cross over with character agency, mechanical agency is the key to a game that keeps the player coming back. Narrative agency can help out, but if the mechanical strategies, tactics and interactions are the same every time, then the desire to return to that game world diminishes.
The key to enjoying a good fictional product, be it video game or film, television or literature, is that the audience can suspend their disbelief and accept the illusion of the world presented. Characters and their decisions must make sense. Game mechanics must adhere to their own rules in a logical manner. There must be visible feedback and consequences of any decision, even if it is a simple success (press the jump button, and Mario leaps into the air).
Without these elements, a story is just a series of events with no emotional purpose or connection. A video game would simply become a session of Simon. Neither of these truly engage the emotional minds of the audience, and without that engagement, well, what's the point?