Aleks is an English PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo whose research focuses on narrative design and how it facilitates immersion and roleplaying in single-player videogames. He is also the Section Head of Essays at First Person Scholar and a writer at RPGFan.
In her pioneering book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray theorizes immersion and agency as the principal aesthetics of digital narratives (i.e. videogames and other computer-based narrative forms). While immersion is based on the sense that one feels present within the virtual world, agency “is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (Murray 159). Furthermore, the two aesthetics are connected in how they build off each other in supporting a narratively compelling gameplay experience: “When we are immersed in a consistent environment we are motivated to initiate actions that lead to the feeling of agency, which in turn deepens our sense of immersion. This phenomenon can be thought of as the “Active Creation of Belief” (Murray 114). Unlike the suspension of disbelief that invokes a passive reader/viewer becoming invested in a linear narrative presented in a novel or film, the active creation of belief demanded by games invokes the participatory and involving nature of computer interaction in the context of the nonlinear structure of videogames and the virtual experience they provide: “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience” (Murray 136). As tied to immersion, then, agency is a mental as well as physical creative phenomenon. The player takes on an active role in producing game narrative itself through the material activity of playing the game in tandem with their imaginative role playing of their avatar, with both elements becoming inextricable from the experience of gameplay. In other words, without the complementary variable of a player’s agency, a game’s narrative does not exist. We’d be left with only the code and representational interface that serve as the material for its construction through the activity of gameplay.
The concept of agency in video games gets most readily applied to western role-playing games (RPGs) because the genre is often characterized by multilinear plots offering players branching paths for progression, and thereby emphasize tangible narrative results for the choices players make. These choices are most often presented in conversation trees when the player’s avatar is interacting with a non-player character (NPC), where the player is prompted to select either a line of dialogue or an action from a list of options to proceed the game and enact narrative. Agency in these games is thus most visibly expressed through which NPCs the player chooses to interact with, when, and how. ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium (2019) is an RPG whose gameplay is based almost solely around such NPC interactions and demonstrates the extent to which often seemingly miniscule choices can result in a unique and personal narrative experience for the player. Game studies scholars since Murray, such as Sarah Stang, have backpedalled on Murray’s idealized conception of agency by stressing that the heavily designed nature of video games necessarily imposes limited affordances for the player, making interactivity (and thus agency) a mere illusion. However, Stang’s argument that “video game interactivity is something we feel rather than something we observe” could be regarded as complementary rather than oppositional to Murray’s definition. Indeed, it is precisely this mere feeling of agency that Disco Elysium leverages through affording the player constant micro-decisions that are often useless for progression, yet central to player expression and emergent narrative. At the same time, Disco Elysium’s unique roleplaying mechanics and representation of its protagonist’s internal thought processes call into question just how much agency any individual really has over their decisions—without undercutting the legitimacy of the feelings that expressing such agency might produce.
Like many RPGs, Disco Elysium’s first opportunity for player agency comes in character creation; and, like many RPGs, character creation is primarily handled through distributing points into Attributes and Skills. Where Disco Elysium differs is how Attributes and Skills are represented and the purpose they serve in gameplay. Attributes are divided into four categories of mental and physical constitution (Intellect, Psyche, Physique, Motorics) and each contain six corresponding skills for engaging with the world and people (e.g. Psyche includes skills such as Empathy and Authority, while Motorics includes Perception and Hand/Eye Coordination). The game’s protagonist and player avatar, Harry DuBois, is not a mere blank slate for the player to shape but a character with a complex history—albeit one that is initially hidden from the player. At the game’s beginning, Harry completely loses his memory of the world and his personal history after a (literally) self-destructive drug and alcohol induced bender. The player’s agency, then, from the moment of character creation begins to determine what Harry will become after finding himself in this state of total amnesia as he slowly begins relearning his and the world’s history by talking with NPCs. The central constraint on the player and hook of the plot is that Harry is a detective in charge of solving a murder case that has already begun, which the player can try doing (or avoiding to do) in a number of ways depending on their primary Skills and Attributes. The game thus encourages roleplaying—an imaginative agency—by not having an ‘optimal’ way to build Harry, but rather making experimentation the main draw of the game. Different stat distributions will open up certain doors of progression while closing off others, making failures an integrated part of the gameplay experience rather than leading to a fail state that requires reloading the game. There are also a few points in the game where Harry will fail to accomplish an action regardless of the player’s investment in the related skill. The inclusion of such moments further underscores ‘true’ agency as a mere illusion, yet this lack of player autonomy nevertheless serves its own dramatic and thematic purpose during play.
Agency in this sense becomes more about player expression than providing empowering decisions that drastically change the game world. In Cybertext, Espen Aarseth divides player decisions (or “keyholes,” as he calls them) into “two different functional kinds: those that advance the strategic position of the player and those that don’t. Only the first are gaps in the quest for the solution of the game, but on a ‘narrative’ level there is no discernible difference” (111). The nonlinear nature of gameplay within the fixed bounds of design necessarily distinguishes useful versus useless interaction in games, meaning the player’s attempts to exert agency can either lead to progressing the game (i.e. leading closer to the ending) or a simple detour from doing so. Yet, although both are not equal in terms of gameplay functionality, they are equal in terms of narrative functionality. Disco Elysium underscores and undermines this difference by making many of the ‘quests’ the player can choose to undertake deliberate detours from the main murder plot. One such optional quest line has Harry trying to help a group of speed-fuelled “anodic dance music” loving youth set up a club in an abandoned church. Other optional tasks include the game’s “political vision quests,” which become available based on the political ideology the player expresses through Harry, such as a communist Harry becoming motivated to rally together like-minded NPCs to test their revolutionary faith. Although the events that take part during these quests do not bring the player closer to solving the main plot, they remain essential to the story of Harry that is being shaped out of the player’s actions. Crucially, the game often validates these micro-choices by having them reflected through slight alterations in NPC interactions. If the player’s Harry expresses racist sentiments, for example, it will be more difficult to earn his partner Kim’s trust, which in turn results in more slight deviations in the game’s interactions. What these relatively ‘useless’ quests and interactions provide is are various opportunities for the player to work on their Active Creation of Belief as they interact with more NPCs and continue to shape Harry as a character they can immerse themselves through.
A game’s roleplaying affordances are tied to its mechanics, and the way these mechanics are represented in-game help the player attribute meaning to their gameplay. In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost argues that a videogame’s meaning as a virtual simulation is tied to its use of procedural representation, which selectively “models only some subset of a source system, in order to draw attention to that portion as the subject of the representation. Interactivity follows suit: the total number and credibility of user actions is not necessarily important; rather, the relevance of the interaction in the context of the representational goals of the system is paramount” (46). The ‘system’ that Disco Elysium models through its mechanics is the human mind/body connection. Depending on which Skills the player has invested the most points in, those skills will more frequently insert themselves during conversations with the world’s citizens as characters—each with their own personalities and fixations—that exist only to Harry, yet whose presence is as prominent as the people in his exterior reality. The game, through its procedural representation of internal conversation, puts forth an argument about how our agency as human beings is structured by our personalities. Our interiority, our self, is not a stable, singular subject but a chaotic multitude of personality attributes (and their stray thoughts) engaging each other and influencing us. Yes, the game affords the traditional conversation tree selections that many Western RPGs do to simulate player agency; yet, the manner in which these personality traits insert themselves into conversation inevitably compete for influencing the player’s next decision(s). When engaging with an NPC, will the player listen to the reasoning voice of their Logic, the primordial violent impulses of Half-Light, or perhaps the emotional appeals of Empathy? By characterizing this chorus of internal voices, Disco Elysium puts forth an argument for how consciousness thinks and how it structures and perhaps even determines the agency of the self. The game represents mental processes and corporeal sensations of our avatar that would otherwise be happening exclusively in the player’s mind as they imaginatively engage with the game’s fiction. These internal characters are constantly working on us as we attempt to exercise our own agency—whether in a game or outside.
In most discussions surrounding agency in games, the term is used solely to refer to the player’s diegetic decisions and their impacts on a game world. Yet the range of open-ended roleplaying affordances Disco Elysium grants, paired with how it tracks and represents choices, also invites players to reflect on their gameplay. In this sense, Harry functions as a fictional mirror reflective of each player’s individual subjectivity as it informs and co-creates the narrative of play. Agency in video games need not only account for what we do in a game world, but what we do with the subjective meaning that emerges from our experiences with it. In Hello Avatar, Beth Coleman considers how the concept of agency takes on new meanings in what she deems “the network age”: the successor to the computer age, defined by pervasive media use that bridges the gap between virtual and real spaces—a bridge called the “actual” (or X-Reality) that is based around the material reality of our everyday exposure to network technology and its effects on our lived experience and psyche (38). While Disco Elysium is a single-player digital game with no online components, Coleman’s theory about the dissolution of boundaries between the virtual and real into the actual—and its implications on avatars as vessels for user agency—can be extended even to experiences in offline virtual worlds.
Disco Elysium relies on typical character building and conversation systems found in RPGs, but by tying the former to real political ideologies (including a counter for fascist, communist, moralist, or ultraliberal decisions made by the player) and the latter to internal conversations with personality traits, the player not only exercises agency diegetically in the shaping of Harry, our avatar, but are primed for a reflection on how the character we shape (and his personality/views) differ from or reflect our own. The game encourages such reflection not only mechanically, by associating particular decisions with ideologies or the type of “cop” Harry is becoming (e.g. a straight-edge Boring Cop, or a delusional Superstar Cop), but narratively in key moments where the game confronts the player in terms of the choices they have made and the person Harry has become.
The sum of the player’s decisions can lead to some different outcomes in Disco Elysium’s final act, but I’d argue that the most rewarding part of the game and the sense of agency it imparts does not stem from the plot’s conclusion but from the experience of roleplaying as a version of Harry that becomes one’s own—and the opportunity for reflection this opens up. What skills did you invest the most into? What thoughts/discourses did you internalize? What political ideology did you accrue the most points in? Seen as part of a continuum between real and virtual experiences, the agency a player exerts in Disco Elysium and the material results it reflects through procedural representation can come to have an actual impact on the player and their own sense of self. As Coleman specifies, “avatar identity works within a space of the actual as an X-reality phenomenon. We are in effect, neither purely role playing (pretending to be someone else), nor are we left untouched by our engagement of a persona” (76). The feedback loop between immersion and agency that Murray describes in the Active Creation of Belief thus constitutes a digital narrative phenomenon where the player creatively invests themselves in their engagements with a fictional virtual world—a practice where even a mere sense of virtual agency can produce real feelings.
Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext, John Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games. MIT Press, 2007.
Coleman, Beth. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. MIT Press, 2011.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut. Steam version, ZA/UM, 2021.
Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck, updated edition, MIT Press, 2016.
Stang, Sarah. “‘This Action Will Have Consequences:’ Interactivity and Player Agency.” Game
Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, May 2019.