Not-so-secret agency

In addition to slowly writing novels and taking on swathes of freelance work, I like running roleplaying games, which I think everyone who reads this blog knows by now.

Well, this week I ran a really shaky gaming session, one that wasn’t much fun for either the players or myself. The game was a weird horror RPG called Don’t Rest Your Head, and it wasn’t to blame – it’s a very neat game that you should totally check out. But the session I read was kind of a failure, and after several days of introspection and self-flagellation, I think I’ve worked out why- it’s all about character agency.

(If you’re curious about the game, by the way, you can read summaries of this and other games on my Obsidian Portal page, and my navel-gazing thoughts about GMing on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt. Go on, live a little. Leave a comment, even. It’s so lonely over there.)

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‘Agency’ is one of those terms that writers bandy about, and better bloggers than myself have worked on defining it. But from my point of view, it’s about whether characters – more importantly, protagonists – make meaningful decisions that impact the narrative. That is, do the characters’ decisions (and decision-making processes) matter?

When characters have agency, their decisions drive the story – but more importantly, they make those decisions deliberately, with some degree of understanding of possible consequences and a willingness to accept those consequences if necessary. When characters don’t have agency, they’re propelled through the plot by external events or circumstances – and when they do make decisions, those decisions aren’t any more meaningful than random chance.

Let me put it this way: If a character has to choose between two doors, one with a lady and one with a tiger, with absolutely no information to draw upon about which is better, that’s not agency; that’s no different to a coin toss. If the character has spent time uncovering the secret of the doors, or practised the mysterious arts of tiger-taming, or shoots the door controller and leaves the TV studio, then that character has agency; that character has a chance to drive the plot, rather than being driven around by it.

Actually, you know what? I have better examples, courtesy of the two big-budget, ensemble-cast superhero movies I saw this month, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, because they portray both ends of the agency spectrum.

(No specific plot spoilers here, I promise – but if you haven’t seen these movies yet, and want to, you might want to stop here and come back next week.)

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Civil War is fundamentally a movie about character choices, and the consequences of those choices. The two main protagonists (Captain America and Iron Man, because Cap doesn’t get to headine his own movie for some reason) are faced with situations where they have to decide what they think is right and appropriate – and after thought, discussion and a modicum of punching, they make their choices and they live with the consequences, where ‘consequences’ = ‘pretty much the entire movie’. And they’re not alone in this; almost all of the other eleventy-dozen heroes in the movie pick a side, and we get to see why they make the decision that they do. (Not so much with Ant-Man, but Bobby Newport just does what he’s told.) It’s a film with a very strong foundation in character agency.

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Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a film where the plot pushes on characters until they go where the plot needs them to be and do what the plot needs them to do. Many of them are just stuck in place, waiting to be acted upon, or make decisions about action in which there are no real choices or alternatives – it’s all ‘I have to do this or we’ll all get killed’ or ‘sure, I’ll join Team Evil and then not have any further dialogue’. Only a very small number of characters get any real moments of agency, points where the audience gets to see them actively make a decision or change their arc – and those are primarily the characters who headlined the previous films (Magneto and Mystique), or Big Bad Guy Apocalypse. It’s a film with very thin levels of character agency; it has lots of interesting characters that act out of dramatic necessity rather than something that feels real.

Now, I’m not trying to say that one of these films is good and one is bad.

Okay, I am saying that X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t very good, but let’s move past that.

What I’m saying is that agency is complicated, and that a narrative with lots of colour, movement, story, characters and skin-tight body stockings can still be lacking in agency – and that that can make a big difference on two narratives that, on the surface, seems pretty similar in genre/tone/mood/explosion level. And that that difference can be enough to make a story work or fall apart.

I have more thoughts on this. Many, many more thoughts.

So let’s leave it there and come back next week.

2 thoughts on “Not-so-secret agency

  1. Hey Patrick,

    This one’s really interested me because I’ve just discovered “Dungeon World” which seemed to hinge *entirely* on player agency. The whole system seems to promote a minimalist GM approach and to embrace ‘the conversation with players’ and ‘play to see what happens’ in order to do everything from character development to world building.

    Would like to hear your thoughts on the Dungeon World / Apocalypse World systems if you know them at all.

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