Player Agent

So apparently, this week is Mass Effect Week over at Kotaku. If there is a game series with which I could be considered “obsessed,” it’s Mass Effect, so I feel as though I have some sort of obligation to post about it. However, this week has been spent playing Bioshock Infinite, so my thoughts are going to come across as a muddled mess of both.

This morning, Gamasutra posted a piece about Infinite as a metacriticism of game narrative (spoiler alert, for those of you who haven’t played through Infinite yet). The premise of the piece is that Infinite’s thematic messing around with time is designed as a critique or commentary on the increasing complexity of game narratives… which I can understand, but honestly don’t really buy, if only because Infinite doesn’t participate in the kind of narrative complexity that we find in Bioware games.

Now I don’t think that all games should have the kind of branching, complexly interwoven decision tree narratives that Bioware games have. Sometimes as a player you just want a story to be told to you, rather than to participate in the telling of the story yourself. Sometimes you want a game that just puts you inside a character and lets you experience a story as that character. But – and this is especially true for Bioware fans – sometimes you want to have a lot more control over the narrative. Sure, I can see how the (SPOILER) tears in Infinite seem to symbolically represent the decision tree kinds of choices that appear in Mass Effect, but, ultimately, they aren’t. Booker doesn’t have the choice to enter the tear or not (unless the player chooses to stop playing the game). In fact, Booker has very few choices at all that can be made or influenced by the player.

And, honestly, some of that lack of control was bothersome to me, probably because I’ve been spoiled by Shepard, Hawke, and the Warden. I want to be able to be my own character, design my character’s personality, and have control over whether or not I choose – as Booker does not – to accept baptism, to enter a tear, or to comfort Elizabeth. That said, I don’t think Infinite should have been a Bioware game with a complex set of conversation trees and branching ludonarrative choices. That wasn’t what Infinite set out to do. It wasn’t designed to give the player agency – it was designed to take it away (although to a lesser extent than the original Bioshock).

And that’s really what I’m getting at here: Bioware games like Mass Effect are about player agency (at least until the ending of ME3, which I think is why so many people were upset by it), Bioshock games like the original and Infinite are about taking away that agency. And that’s fine. We need both kinds of narrative in a maturing industry so that we can 1) make the choice as players about what we prefer, and 2) because the industry is developing into a complex and rich artform, and art has different genres and styles. As a player, I like agency, but I can also appreciate that sometimes a story needs to take away that agency to be told.

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