The concept of agency, which can be broadly defined as the capacity of an individual to fully act within any given environment, has been explored throughout every art form. From Shakespeare, to Bugs Bunny, to Captain Beefheart, to FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, we are continually intrigued and inspired to challenge the structures we are told to obey, through literature, television, music, and film. This article will explore how artists have used agency to explore and challenge the norm of one of the youngest emerging pillars of art: video games.

 

Agency is an interesting concept to explain. From Plato’s Cave to THE MATRIX, many have attempted to explain, both simply and broadly, how important the concept of agency is. One of the many metaphors of agency is imagining walking down the street and being accosted by a street performer with three cups. The performer states that you can place $5 dollars down, guess which cup has the ball under it, and either win $10 dollars, or lose $5. Now when people chose to walk away, that is an example of agency. However, in this example, the ramifications of agency aren’t fully felt. When broadening the action of challenging the options placed in front of an individual, it becomes apparent in certain lights. Maybe that light is recognizing the expectations of western music dictating how a musician should compose a song, or how a television show should be cut to accommodate commercials, or how a film’s editing should be paced for certain audiences. By understanding the pressures felt by the forces around them, and embracing the full capable capacity of action—otherwise known as agency—one is able to break free from those pressures. The creator is allowed to let the work dictate how it lives, and in turn, allow the work to be more pure. Video games, despite harboring a community renowned for being caustic and volatile, has done well in applauding artists, such as creator of UNDERTALE, Toby Fox, that chose to embrace agency and challenge the norm of video game storytelling. As opposed to the box office or TV advertisers, games who choose to break the norm are rewarded both monetarily and with critical acclaim. Two developers who have been celebrated for doing this are Ken Levine and Hideo Kojima.

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BIOSHOCK, released in 2007, was marketed as a horror video game, but as the game progressed and ultimately reached its climax, it called out the barriers in video game storytelling, and encouraged the viewer to think beyond the normal run & gun games that had cluttered the industry. With his previous work on SYSTEM SHOCK 2, whose story also challenged players’ expectations of who their quest giver actually is, Ken Levine further explored the theme of throwing the player into a new world, with the player aimlessly following along in the BIOSHOCK franchise.

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In the original BIOSHOCK, the protagonist Jack is thrown into the deep sea, stumbling into a dilapidated, Ayn Rand-inspired utopia known as Rapture, where man is his own God and supposedly his only barrier is himself. Jack’s only guide is a seemingly polite Irish man who is trying to save his family, but ultimately, upon their death, seeks revenge by killing the creator of Rapture, Andrew Ryan. The player only communicates with Atlas via a radio. Atlas stands as the quest giver of BIOSHOCK, prefacing all of his requests with the statement “Would you kindly….?” Like many other games, to progress the story, the player does as Atlas says, going where Atlas tells them to, obtaining the powers Atlas tells him to, traveling to murder Andrew Ryan as directed to. The only choice that is up to the player is how the deal with Little Sisters, children tortured into harvesting corpses to fuel the so-called utopia’s addiction to a drug called ADAM. The player, per the behest of Atlas, who dehumanizes them, can choose to kill the little children, and receive an immediate boost in ADAM to use to upgrade abilities. However, the character can choose to disobey their quest giver and cure the Little Sisters, and allow them to be turned back into normal children, who gift the character ADAM and plasmids throughout the game as a thanks.

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Ultimately, at the halfway point of the game where Jack confronts Andrew Ryan, it is revealed there is no Atlas, and that Jack has been taken advantage of by Frank Fontaine, a mobster who was forced into hiding by Andrew Ryan because his empire grew large enough to take over the city’s growing dependency on ADAM. Andrew and Frank point out that Jack, and in turn the player themselves, had been Frank’s puppet and was being controlled with the phrase, “Would you kindly…?” Even upon this revelation, the player kills Andrew Ryan, who reminds the player, “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” Then the player is commanded to shut down the self-destruct operation Ryan began. The player is helpless at this moment, and the game’s attempt to push the boundaries of storytelling are felt. Despite being told they are a pawn, the player is unable to do anything. They can’t disobey Frank, because then the story wouldn’t progress. Even from the very beginning of the game, Atlas/Frank kindly asks the player to pick up the radio to communicate with the player, and the player doesn’t bat an eye in doing so. BIOSHOCK shows there is no true free will in games, reminding the player that he or she is a slave to the infrastructure of the game and that the player has no true effect on the game they invest hours into.

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Despite telling the player they are a slave in killing Andrew Ryan, and obviously in following Atlas/Frank’s commands, the silver lining of the game is shown only if the player does embrace the one moment of agency the game offers in the Little Sisters. Despite the behest of Atlas/Frank to kill the Little Sisters, if the players chooses to save every Little Sister, then the game rewards the player with powers and a fulfilling ending. In regards to the story, it is only with the help of cured Little Sisters that the player is able to break the psychological leash Frank has on the player. Ultimately, BIOSHOCK rewards the the player for embracing agency the one time it allows it with an ending where the player sees he’s provided the sisters he saved the greatest gift he could: an opportunity at life. Ken Levine’s follow up, BIOSHOCK INFINITE, challenges the agency of how storytelling needs to be structured to accommodate video games, but it is in BIOSHOCK where Ken Levine succinctly points to one of the greatest flaws in video games, and a challenge he himself faces in creating the best story video games can tell. Despite being a medium where immersion and interactivity is supposedly the driving force, the player ultimately has no choice and is a slave to the infrastructure of the game, calling out and challenging the lack of agency in video games by putting it right in front of the eyes of the player. Ken Levine fully utilized every action at his hands to convey to the player the inherent flaws that any video game story, even the one they are playing, will need to acquiesce to; that the player needs to realize there free will in a video game is based on the video game industry providing the creator himself as much free will as they desire too.

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Another game developer who chooses to use every action available to him and push on the boundaries of the infrastructure of a video game’s story and how they are told is METAL GEAR SOLID creator Hideo Kojima. An insight into how Hideo Kojima approaches design game can be seen in the infamous boss fight with Psycho Mantis in METAL GEAR SOLID: TWIN SNAKES. From reading the player’s memory card to duping them into thinking their TV was broken, to telling the player to plug their controller into a different port, Hideo Kojima designs games that don’t follow the traditional route. He creates gamers with a strong sense of agency, embracing every action available to him both in the game’s design and its story’s structure to deliver an experience with impact. The two Kojima games that show this are P.T. and METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN.

On August 12th, 2014, during Sony’s press conference at GamesCom 2014, a small amount of time was set aside for the unknown 7780s studio’s P.T., whose mention during Sony’s keynote was odd. The game was downloaded and the video game community began working overtime to unlock the mysteries of P.T. Walking through a seemingly normal hallway, which looped over and over, quickly became claustrophobic. As the unnerving cries of a child echoed through the hall, playing P.T. felt fearful for its lack of background while traversing the unknowns of this mysterious downloadable game. Players were haunted by a mysterious lady in white, hearing seemingly demonic language inter-spliced within a broadcast detailing a gruesome murder of a family at the hands of their patriarch. Refrigerators hung from the ceiling, hallways became a deep blood-red, shadows loomed around the corner, a dead fetus cried in the sink of the decrepit bathroom, and a head in a bag asked if the reality you perceived was truly reality. The game wants you to go insane, with your perception increasingly becoming stressed due to the motion blur, indicating your loosening grip on sanity as you continue to get lost in the house of P.T. As you continue deeper into the game, mystery continues to surround you, with a persistent question pressing on the back of everyone’s head for that short period of uncertainty: “What is this game?!”

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Ultimately, twitch user Soapywarpig was rewarded with being the first to crack P.T.’s secret and the world was graced with their first glimpse of Kojima’s SILENT HILLS. The trailer begins with a shot looking down at what seems to be a recently abandoned street, with an unseen figure walking down the street. Kojima’s name appears and already the adrenaline is pumping, as the whole experience of P.T. was drastically different compared to anything in recent memory. The unseen figure continues to walk with caution as the next name appears: Guillermo Del Toro. It’s at this point that P.T. has cemented itself in video game history, with Norman Reedus’ face appearing as the protagonist, revealing a trifecta of worlds colliding across mediums. The screen goes to white and then Akira Yamaoka’s original theme to the first SILENT HILL begins to crawl up your spine, with the revelation that the SILENT HILL franchise has just gotten an adrenaline shot to the heart with this new title, SILENT HILLS.

Looking beyond making a traditional horror game, a genre that has been all but dead, Kojima looked to film for inspiration. To take a game beyond the echo chamber that is the video game industry, Kojima collaborated with Del Toro and Reedus, to both revitalize the horror video game, and challenge how video games both get announced. How Kojima revealed and constructed the creative minds behind P.T. was an attempt to encourage the gaming industry to look to other mediums of art for inspiration to create a story that uses everything available to a video game designer, be it sonics, visuals, or the tale itself. The reveal of the game was exhilarating, leading to a month-long period where individuals around the world attempted to see the reveal with their own eyes and project order onto the operations of P.T., shouting into microphones, figuring out the English transcript of what the demonic voice was saying in Swedish, what the various numbers mean, what connection P.T. could have to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. The excitement for P.T. was exhilarating to be a part of, and took a famously fickle and jaded community back to those halcyon days on the playground, before all of a game’s secrets were revealed with a few keystrokes, discussing with peers how to unlock everything a game could offer. By usurping the dull announcement cycle that most games get revealed to the world, and using every capable action in front of him, Kojima and P.T. brought a breath of fresh air to those who passionately engaged with video games, and made being into video games exciting again.

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Despite the fervor and excitement P.T. created, Konami and Kojima acrimoniously split, leaving the future of Del Toro and Kojima’s SILENT HILLS all but dead.  This didn’t stop the release of Kojima’s swan song for the franchise he created. On September 1st, 2015, Kojima released his final Metal Gear game, METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN. Developed on the gorgeous Fox Engine, METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN is a sprawling landscape, where the player sneaks through Afghanistan embroiled in creating an empire known as the Diamond Dogs (named after the David Bowie album of the same name, another indication of Kojima not shying away from calling out and praising works in other mediums), whose sole drive is to get revenge for the destruction of their previous comrades and destroy Cipher. Cipher’s goal is to capture language, and kill those who speak a certain language.

The theme of language in METAL GEAR SOLID V is also thoroughly explored, specifically the notion of the sign and its components, the signifier and the signified and the relationship between physical objects (signified) and abstract concepts (signifier); a concept being taken advantage of  every day. When someone says the word “chair,” individuals understand that the speaker is referring to something you sit on, but the chair in each individual’s head is different. One could be thinking of a regal chair, or another could be thinking of a lawn chair. The word chair also refers to the concept of a chair itself. Once thrust into an environment where your words mean nothing, you become crippled, and lose all power and a sense of identity as well. This concept is explored thoroughly throughout THE PHANTOM PAIN, from the villain, Skull Face, who has had his tongue robbed from him several times, to the FOXDIE virus, which kills those who speak a certain language, to Quiet, a sultry character who is pressured by Kaz and Ocelot to either kill or save Quiet, respectfully. This concept also applies to the supposed main character of the game Big Boss, a name the player is reminded throughout the game which strikes a sense of inspiration to the soldiers the player commands.

Throughout the game, Kojima reinforces the idea that the word is as vital as the actual object it refers to. So in turn, whenever anyone heard the term Big Boss, especially the individual the player controlled, the NPC’s treated the character with the respect they give to Big Boss, because that is who they believe they are speaking to.

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The game oddly begins with the player creating a character while a doctor holds a mirror to the player. Once the player completes the character creation, the image on the mirror doesn’t return the reflection of the character the player created but that of Big Boss. We are then, with the assistance of a bandage-clad man, assisted out of a hospital under attack until the bandaged man disappears. Ocelot, a figure that resonates throughout the METAL GEAR universe, then appears and begins our endeavor to find Kaz, a commander of Snake’s now destroyed unit, and start METAL GEAR SOLID V. It is only at the end that we realize that the real Big Boss was the man clad in the bandages, and the character the player created was a medic in Big Boss’ unit who had been in the helicopter crash with Big Boss. It is revealed that the doctor had performed plastic surgery on the player’s character to make them look like Big Boss, while the real Big Boss went into hiding, leaving behind only a tape entitled “The Man Who Sold the World.” (Big Boss sells himself, the concept of Big Boss, to a medic; Big Boss is the sign, and the signified was the Big Boss named John and is now the player’s character Venom Snake.)

Throughout the game, the concept of breaking the relationship between the signifier and signified was communicated to the player throughout the game, but in this twist, it makes the character subject to that reversal. While on the surface level it may be Machiavellian, in reality it is the Big Boss letting Venom Snake, and in turn the player, know that anyone can occupy the legendary status of Big Boss. The legend and accomplishments are as much as Venom Snake’s as much as it is the players. As Big Boss says on the tape, “You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too. He’s the two of us together. This story—this ‘legend’—it’s ours.” By using this reversal, and considering METAL GEAR SOLID V is Kojima’s final Metal Gear game, this is in a sense Kojima using every narrative tool, as well as the video game’s tools (setting up expectations with the manner in which the menu appears) to have the story come out of the game into reality, and thank the player for elevating Big Boss to who he stands as in the video game canon. By using the tools available to him, Kojima challenges the expectations of narratives that the character and their accomplishments is only theirs, and reaches beyond the screen to let the player know that any success of the franchise or the character are shared with the player. Big Boss is not a character named John written by Kojima; it is the player.

From BIOSHOCK’s exposure of a key chink in video game storytelling to Kojima reaching beyond the narrative cliches of video games in his final METAL GEAR game to include and thank the player for entering the Metal Gear Universe, agency—as a tool for storytellers to create a truly immersive and memorable experience—is rarely embraced in  the video game plane. When every action available is used to its fullest capabilities, from how the climax of the story plays out, to how a demo is marketed, to how a swan song is conducted,  a talented artist can push on the boundaries of the agency afforded to them to execute tropes that can never be found in other mediums and push forward the experiences video games are capable of.

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