So, my friend and I have been discussing Alpha Protocol, which is an unforgivably samey game with extraordinarily shitty moments, but that's not what I'm here to discuss. Instead, I'd like to talk about agency.
That friend, and many others, are willing to forgive the crap and give a positive review because the game features a fair amount of agency, most notably through dialog options. Of course, the game has a linear plot which doesn't change (and, frankly, is bad). But they still rave about the agency.
It was at this point that I realized our definitions of agency were very different.
Most of these people seem to mean "immersive agency", where the agency exists specifically to lure you into the game. We've called this "illusion of agency", but I think that term is misleading. It's real agency, it's just that the agency doesn't really affect the game much. This is easy to see in any game which gives you "choices". Most of these choices result in either a very short term major change, or a very small long-term change. For example, if you save the princess, the guards won't attack you in this level OR if you save the princess, she exists afterwards, you can talk to her, she'll give you a magic bean.
Immersive agency is apparently very effective on many players. I find it infuriating because there's always a "best path". Even if the writers go out of their way to make the choices "equal", as a particular person, I judge the different choices according to my preference, and usually there's a best choice and two incredibly dumb choices. For example, if you're allowed to date any of the three possible romantic characters in the game, one of them is obviously the one I like best, and offering the other two might as well not exist. For me.
Because of this, to me immersive agency always feels like random added-on failure conditions, rather than agency. Best case, it feels like a reason to replay the game, but even then, it still won't feel like agency to me, it'll feel like a slightly different linear plot.
My definition of agency involves affecting systems. We'll call it "systemic agency". Systemic agency is when your choice affects the long-term play of the game. For example, when you choose to attack or not attack Greece in Civ, and in turn both your future and Greece's are very different.
This is hard to script because of the very wide branches: choosing to kill or save Magus in Chronotrigger, for example, required a fair amount of programming. And still it only mattered a little. It's rare for plot-based games to have much systemic agency because plots aren't systems: the writer is the system, the plot is the product. In order to give the players access to that system, the writer has to imagine what the player might do ahead of time. This is why most games that offer you plot agency only offer you immersive agency: tiny details that make you feel immersed, but don't matter much and can be easily scripted.
I like systemic agency. I understand it's hard to put in plot-based games. But immersive agency always hits me the wrong way.
So when I play Alpha Protocol, I see a linear plot with a lot of arbitrary failure conditions where everyone else sees a detailed and interesting series of choices. What they see may rescue the game from the bargain bin of samey play and shitty bosses, but what I see does not.
Please, somebody, give me systemic agency in a plot!