Stephen Cosgrove looks at how games have been messing with your agency
This article contains spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight, Cyberpunk 2077, The Last of Us Part II and Red Dead Redemption II
Batman hits different in a video game than in a movie or a comic book. I mean, literally. You’re not watching him doing it, you’re technically watching yourself doing it, controlling his action to the extent that the game lets you. It’s still vicarious in that you’re obviously not literally performing the actions, but the thrill is different because, unlike other mediums where the tendency is to experience the story and the world through the characters – the characters are instead experiencing both through you.
So, a punch from Batman or a headshot from Nathan Drake has a different emotional reaction for the player. In this case it’s a form of escapism and empowerment and immersion – mostly positive since you get to briefly become these overpowered characters and play through almost anything, usually the way that you would personally want to. It’s one of the reasons video games are so goddamn fun. But… what if they took this agency, this freedom, this control… and turned it into a weapon against you? We’re truly in a golden age of video games right now, and for me the most shining examples of the medium’s flexibility is in how it takes the mechanics of gaming and uses them to tell stories and convey ideas in a way that only they can.
In terms of agency, video games (and especially RPGs, right?) are the most freeing art form because of how you can be anyone and do anything… supposedly. But what if, despite all of this, the game still made you feel powerless? There are so many recent examples of this; two recent games that compliment each other in this specific way are Batman: Arkham Knight and Cyberpunk 2077. Alike not only in how both had useless debuts on PC, but in an integral part of their story.
Arkham Knight makes you feel bad to be Batman, but in this case it’s the exact nature of the story that Cyberpunk resembles. In both games, the protagonist’s mind is slowly being taken over, rewritten. With Batman it’s the reveal that the recently-dead Joker has poisoned Bats with his blood, which is slowly corroding his personality from Dark Knight to Clown Prince. And Cyberpunk features the playable character V having the misfortune of getting a chip forced into their brain that is slowly turning them into (of all people) Keanu Reeves’ decades-deceased anarchist/rocker Johnny Silverhand. The main action of both games is Batman and V desperately trying to find a cure, and fight their own mind, their own nature and agency that is deserting them minute by minute.
Of course, every story is about change, and some of the greatest stories have put the nature of change front-and-centre of their narratives. Think Breaking Bad’s deliberate but steady mutation of Walter White from mild, repressed chemistry teacher to sociopathic drug kingpin, or in a more recent example, the absolutely brilliant The Father that conveys the agony of dementia in an all-too-understandable way. But with films or television, we almost always have no say in what goes down, or how exactly it does. We just watch. Unless you’re watching Bandersnatch, every exact decision has been made for you, unlike video games, where despite their (often multiple) forgone conclusions, the way that road is travelled is up to you.
What AK and Cyberpunk achieve so cleverly is how you get so much choice in so many aspects of the game, but it all seems to be leading to something that you have no control over. Those stories eventually become about not exercising agency as you can in a video game, but reclaiming it. Not only do they have to displace the invader, but they also have to affirm their own identity, and who they are and want to be. All of that wouldn’t have half the emotional impact if it wasn’t also you controlling (or trying to control) all these actions.
Red Dead Redemption II
An even better example of this is how Red Dead Redemption II decided to mess with its players. Immediately in the game you are bombarded with near-infinite amounts of choice and abilities in how you control Arthur Morgan, our weary new cowboy protagonist. His appearance, his weight, his hair, his horse, his camp, his everything, is seemingly in our power to mould him in our image. We ride around, doing whatever we want in our own order and our own time, whether it’s a main mission, some hunting, shaking down some coughing guy for money, or merely just sitting around the campfire with your family, soaking in their company after a long day in the Old West. All this is in your control. Until the tuberculosis diagnosis.
That coughing guy I mentioned? It takes hours for that to mean anything, but when it does, it changes everything. Arthur goes down with TB and must suffer through it for the rest of his time in the game. And that’s where you, the player, really feel it. My Arthur started losing weight, so I made sure to feed him and give him as much rest as he needed. It didn’t work. I bought so much foodstuff and medicine to keep my cores up. They just kept depleting further and further. I was absolutely powerless to do anything.
Eventually I stopped saving my money and just started buying nicer things, just to cheer us up a bit. I also stopped riding past the various people who needed help in chase of something more interesting to do. I stopped robberies, I helped old ladies find their things in the mud. After spending so much time with Arthur, I wanted this to be what he was remembered for. It fits so well because Red Dead II is a prequel, and if we’ve played the first game we know where most of the characters are ending up – and the game knows you know – and beats you over the head with it in the most emotionally devastating ways. Using Arthur’s illness is a further exploration of the decay and seeming inevitability of the game’s story, and a way to immerse myself in the character and his plight in a way that I really couldn’t if it was artistically explored any other way.
The Last of Us Part II
So I’ve offered ways that players get their agency taken by something external to them, but what about a situation where the person removing your agency is… you? That’s what The Last of Us Part II accomplished so magnificently last year. In terms of gameplay it can’t compare as well to the games we’ve already talked about due to its streamlined, linear narrative as opposed to their open world settings – but it’s in how Naughty Dog deploys this narrative for maximum emotional effect that makes it so compelling. The first half of the game has you play as Ellie, the second main character of the original game, on a dogged quest for vengeance after a personal tragedy suffered at the hand of the mysterious Abby and the WLF “Wolves” militia group she belongs to.
As Ellie we go on a bloody, bloody warpath tracking down Abby, killing Wolves and infected alike with all the psychopathic freedom the game allows you, all because of the burning hatred of this woman that you’ve inherited. The revenge takes various forms, but it gets personal towards the end when you kill two of Abby’s closest allies, only to be cornered by her in a theatre later. And just when you think the game is about to kick into its final gear…
We travel back to the beginning of the game. And we’re playing as Abby this time.
I honestly have never personally played a game that has had a braver twist. After putting us in the headspace of a young woman we already loved, whose struggle and pain we could absolutely emphasise with, we’re going to have to do the exact same thing with the person all this rage was focused at the entire time? This was impossible to pull off. But they did. Abby might be an even more likable character than Ellie. Her first playable scene after the switch is a flashback of her and her father rescuing a zebra from wires – a traditional ‘save the cat’ moment that instantly endears you to her. And not just her, but the people close to her, friends and family alike. You know, the ones you spent the last 15 hours of gameplay butchering.
As you, despite yourself, begin to emphasise with, understand, and even (god-forbid) actually start to like Abby, you play through the three days the game primarily takes place over, but powerless to stop the destruction that you yourself have already caused as Ellie. All the catharsis, all the freedom the game offered you by wreaking havoc and vengeance on the people who supposedly wronged you, is snatched away by simply putting you in the shoes of one of the victims. Of course, Ellie was wronged by Abby. But Abby was deeply, irrevocably wronged by the events of the first Last of Us.
By telling this story as a video game, it’s emphasising the cyclical nature of violence and pain that can only end when people truly grapple with the fact that it is a cycle. That despite how much it might feel satisfying or even moral, at some point, it just has to stop, or you’re not ending your pain, but continuing it in someone else. We’ve seen this before, but never in such a visceral way when you control the actions of both parties. And it’s never more agonising in the final fight between Abby and Ellie, when the game sticks the knife in and twists it in how it constantly has you switch between controlling either one of them in any given time. At this point, I just wanted to put the fucking controller down and cry.
Again, all these stories and ideas have been explored in other mediums. But when they put you, the player, at the forefront of these decisions and then slowly tamper with your idea of control, the emotional effect is infinitely more impactful, immersive and personal. There’s a forever-ongoing debate as to whether video games deserve to be considered an art form, and at this point, it’s honestly almost tiring. They are. Not only because of the games I’ve mentioned, but for the ones that are yet to come. Games are really the one medium where technology means they can only get better, and if they follow on from the techniques and the risks taken in these games, then we’re truly in for some incredible stuff down the line.