Lack of agency…leading to a feeling of agency?

I am not a fan of trying to write up my thoughts on a game when my initial play was a while ago and my reactions have faded.  Still, I feel compelled to write about one of Terry Cavanagh‘s games: Pathways.

As with How to Raise a Dragon, I don’t want to review the game, so I’d just recommend downloading it here and playing it yourself.  To me, these games are experiments, and ranking them strictly on how entertaining they were would be missing the point.   They are short and cut straight to the core of a particular thought.

Pathways has you take control of an avatar that can only move forward and occasionally follow a path up or down – which means no retracing your steps.  You follow a path until it yields an ending, then you must start over and explore a new path.  The game ‘ends’ when you’ve explored all paths.  Summarizing the story…honor a fallen friend,  get drunk, have an affair, visit your son, fail to pay a bookie, go to war and go off to fight a dragon.  The game is open-ended, it is up to you to connect those paths as you see fit (or to reinterpret those individual paths differently).

The thought that manages to remain from that first play a couple months ago was “I am a sad person.”   I distinctly remember feeling like I was causing the events even though there was nothing I could do to stop them (shy of just not playing).  I didn’t think “this is a sad person,” because I felt like I was throwing the switch.

I think this is, in part, simply an effect of having control of an avatar makes us assume a first person perspective (even if that control is massively limited).  I think the other cause for the agency is the ambiguity around the plot.  Events occur without explanation, and it’s up to you to add an interpretation (particularly the ending).   Similar (in a way) to Scott McCloud’s description of what he calls closure in comics – the implicit filling in that we do when reading a comic.   If you see a guy walking towards a banana peel that is on the ground in the first panel, and you see the guy lying on the ground in the second panel, you automatically imagine what transpired in-between the panels.   I think that the narrative in Pathways has gaps for the player to fill in; the difference as compared to comics is that you control the avatar the story is about, so the closure has more personal implications.

So a game in which I really had no agency in directing the observable events still led me to internalize the narrative.


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