The Agency/Destiny Divide
So here we are again, perched at the edge of the value question. The now decades-long rigmarole about games and their nebulous status as art and-or entertainment has exhausted almost all of its vocal participants by now, but not for lack of passion. It's on display everywhere, littering the comments sections of Roger Ebert's website or below each new article by Raph Koster, with every caps-locked troll arguing for or against a particular definition of art before applying it to a fairly broad cast of qualifying or disqualifying games.
I won't bother to support or refute any of the familiar nominees here. Instead, I hope to make a case for why games have been difficult to assess as an art form, and demonstrate how conceptually complex games like Journey can help us steer through our currently muddled approach to the topic. And it begins -- as all discussions of games must -- with the mechanics.
No serious investigation into the worth, value, or purpose of a video game -- or any game -- can begin without first arriving at a clear understanding of the function of its underlying mechanics, and the specific sort of experiences they allow.
Without this understanding we cannot make informed judgments about what sort of experiences are possible within a given game. If this sounds obtuse, the problem can be better illustrated through another medium: film, as understood in the broadest sense possible -- as the medium of moving pictures.
Imagine tuning into an awards show one winter evening, only to find the following nominees up for an award for the "Greatest Film of all Time" -- 2001: A Space Odyssey; The "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" Old Spice Body Wash Commercial; The 1971 Dick Cavett interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono; Orson Welles' F For Fake; and the BBC's Planet Earth series.
What is it about this list that offends our basic sensibilities? The answer is clear: each of these examples of film operates by an entirely separate "aesthetic mode." The first is an imagined narrative, the second is commercial propaganda, the third is an extemporaneous dialogue, the fourth is a polemic, and the last is scientific reportage. And though all are executed through the medium of "moving pictures," each piece operates by a vastly different set of internal mechanics. We cannot therefore directly compare them as we might five fictional narratives.
Something similar can be said for the dizzying variety of video games now available to us. We live in a world where the term "video game" refers both to Tetris -- a "pure game" -- and Dear Esther, a narrative-driven promenade, with the functional difference between the two being as wide as the gulf between a filmed celebrity interview and a science fiction epic.
One proposed solution to avoiding this rupture has been to take a step back and refer to this whole messy collective as "Interactive Digital Entertainment" or something similar -- an ur-category that pushes "games" like Tetris into one camp and "not-games" like Dear Esther into another. But -- while the spirit of this breakdown is sound -- this proposal ignores the hybrid composition of most modern video games.
Better, I think, to leave the term video game in place, and spend our energy further clarifying the categories of mechanics that move the games. Turn inward, not outward, and we'll find the essence of the "game/notgame" argument staring back at us in the form of what I and a few of my colleagues have begun calling Agency and Destiny mechanics, the twin behemoths of video game interactivity.
If game mechanics could be grouped into two loose but functionally separate kingdoms -- in the spirit of the defunct Plant-Animal divide -- Agency and Destiny would be our candidates, for it is these two crucially different breeds of game interactivity that have complicated our discussions about video games since the beginning of the debate.
The term Agency is already well known to most educated gamers, though it is often imperfectly applied as a rough synonym for "player choice." But this generality masks an important distinction between mechanics that allow for the actual expression of a player's creativity (within a bounded set of rules), and mechanics that offer a cleverly designed illusion of choice masking pre-determined outcomes. Thus the need for two more tightly focused terms, Agency and its fraternal twin, Destiny.
The difference between the two can best be illustrated using two common games: a jigsaw puzzle and a game of checkers. The major mechanical difference between these two games boils down to one primary feature -- iteration, or lack thereof. Traditional jigsaw puzzles are non-iterative; each piece has a fixed set of neighbors and the goal is pre-determined -- in most cases, a pleasant picture is the output. Checkers by contrast is purely iterative. There is no fixed order of operations and no fixed outcome. Each "interaction" with a game of checkers is a unique instance.
Already there may be some objections to my examples: "Jigsaw puzzles are not true games!" or "Checkers is a competitive game requiring two human players while jigsaw puzzles are solitary affairs!" Both are fair points. But let's examine a few typical situations found in countless popular video games before addressing these concerns, and ask ourselves how they compare along the Agency/Destiny divide.
A. A branching dialogue tree.
B. Walking across a room in three-dimensional space to reach one of two doors on the opposite side.
C. An adventure game riddle involving a key, a treasure map, and a shovel.
D. Shooting a horde of zombies until they drop.
From the standpoint of interactivity, B and D are examples of true Agency. In both cases the player is utilizing a game system that allows some level of emergent behavior. Forget the fact that there are only two doors in example B; the walking mechanic is the iterative element. The player can choose when to walk, and where to walk, and what route to take on his way to his chosen door -- perhaps walking in a circle for an hour if he so chooses. Theoretically, an infinite variety of routes are available, no matter how dull 99 percent of them might be.