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As part of the GDC reports he's been writing for his ex-employer PC Gamer, Tom Francis has penned a short but sweet write-up for the talk Meg Jayanth, a writer for the narrative-based 80 Days, has given at the industry-oriented conference. In the presentation, Jayanth argued that videogames currently give protagonists too much agency while giving the NPCs with too little, which leads to a situation where players are able to solve and involve themselves in problems that they would have realistically very little to do with.
The talk doesn't necessarily focus on RPGs (and indeed, 80 Days isn't an RPG at all), but given it references Dragon Age II and touches on a problem that's been part of the genre for decades now, I thought it was actually worth reporting on:
Agency, here, means the power to change something if you wish. Jayanth is tired of game protagonists who storm through people's lives solving every problem they have. It frequently doesn't make sense, and it also robs those characters of their own agency: apparently they're all helpless to decide or accomplish anything until you show up and do it for them.
When a protagonist meets someone with a problem, she says, their relationship can be more like the ones we have with our real life friends. (You probably remember a time when a friend was going through something. and they told you about it. You listened to them, you might have even offered them advice. They might have even done what you suggested, or they might not have. That doesn't really matter, you're still part of that story. Your relationship isn't based on the other person following your directives exactly. unless you have some incredibly unhealthy friendships.)
Anders, one of your many companions and optional love interests, is lying to you. For much of the game, whether you're reluctant companions or madly in love, he's sneaking around behind your back. (Instead of having an affair and cheating on you, he turns out to be plotting a terrorist atrocity.)
(And what I love about this,) Jayanth continues, in a sentence that doesn't often follow the words '˜terrorist atrocity', (is that there's no way to stop him, or to convince him out of it, or even find out what the plan is, no matter how many times you shag.)
(If you're romancing him, the other characters give you, the protagonist, a hard time about the fact that your boyfriend's a secret terrorist. Which is fair enough.)
(Usually in games the protagonist's actions ripple out into the world, and the entire game is about seeing the consequences of your choices. But in this instance you're the one stuck with, and having to cope with, the consequences of an NPC's actions.)