Player Agency in Desperate Times

posted by on 23rd May 2019, at 1:54pm | Discuss Article

Based on the title of this article, one might choose to accuse me of being dramatic. You think I may be using some big words to describe events around the large announcements Jagex has been making recently. The title could imply I believe Jagex needs to go through some big course changes or lose the community forever. None of that all. Well… actually, I was going to be writing about the Hunter rework, but after playing the Desperate Times quest, there was something else I really needed to talk about first. So that’s what this article is about: quite literally, the concept of player agency in the quest named Desperate Times.

Before moving on: this article will contain spoilers for Desperate Times and several older quests. Proceed at your own risk.

Desperate Times starts with the players joining a large council of people on the top floor of Burthorpe Castle. I will leave aside the lore implications and credibility of the choice of location and those present or not, and focus on the first task you’re given after the intro cinematic: talk to all the different parties, and find somebody to supply seeds, somebody to supply manpower, and somebody to supply an area for a beautiful lush garden to convince the Elder Gods that life is more than a bunch of meat bags.

So off you go, and soon you find out there are several takers for each of the things you need. Fairly quickly I was making the trade-off between making a garden in the desert – which seems to have less than ideal temperatures for a garden – and the Feldip Hills – a place that the Ogres seem to be just a bit too enthusiastic about.

After chatting with everybody, I came up with a passable solution. The Fremennik would build a garden in the Feldip Hills using Varrock’s seed stocks. No, that wouldn’t do, the Ogres couldn’t be trusted! I had the same reservations, so I can’t blame them. A garden in the desert it is then. That wouldn’t do either, because Fremennik don’t work in the heat!

It is at this point that I started to get somewhat frustrated with the whole exercise. Up to this point, the quest was set up in a way that made me think I had some choice in the matter, but everything quickly seemed to converge on the idea that there was only one right solution. As it appeared a choice of factions would be chosen for me, I was none too pleased.

I was in for a big surprise when after my third failed attempt, our old friend Kerapac showed up. The idea of a garden was outed almost immediately, and onward with Kerapac’s plan it was. Seren was left speechless, and the World Guardian all but ignored. I have to admit, Seren’s plan was nothing if not naive, but I’d still have chosen that over siding with Kerapac, who hasn’t really been our friend in past encounters.

The quest moves on, and we help Kerapac with his plans to use the Needle – an Elder Artefact – to keep the Elder Gods in a long slumber. I am immediately wary of this plan, but the game gives us no choice but to move on. After recruiting Charos’ help, things start to become more interesting as Gail shows up saying that what we’re doing is wrong. If I had not already agreed, the emotional connection we built during The Needle Skips would have definitely caused me to think twice about supporting the dragonkin who is now actively battling somebody who I only recently helped out of a pickle.

The entire rest of the quest revolves around solving puzzles that sabotage Gail and support Kerapac. To quote Star Trek: let this article note that this action is being taken over my explicit objections. Once again, the game forces me into doing something that my character wouldn’t actually do to progress in the game. I am therefore shocked, shocked! Well, not that shocked when Kerapac double-crosses us.

The entire quest had me feeling on edge, and not in a good way. So let’s analyse what went wrong here. I can summarise it in one sentence: my agency was taken away. Let’s dissect that sentence.

Agency means that I, as a player, have a control over what my character would do. RuneScape falls in the so-called RPG – role-playing game – genre. That means I get to choose who my character is. Their motivations do not necessarily have to match up with my own. I could play an evil, heartless character without being one myself. Role-playing games allow us to explore the consequences of choices our character makes, different personalities, or – albeit through proxy – even ourselves. This is why RuneScape’s story is not linear. By making choices, we get emotionally invested in this world. The relations we create in this world almost start to feel real, and this means why choices such as who we let die in The Void Stares Back start to carry weight.

“Taken away” is also vocabulary I chose on purpose. Not all games give agency to the players. Not all games have to. Some games are about characters with an established character. In these games, motivations that are fixed drive the story forward. These games can still invoke emotional responses from their players, but these feelings are often originated through empathy, rather than responsibility for the choices you have made. You are an observer to a story already written, rather than writing the story yourself.
RuneScape is not such a game. It has been pretty heavily focused on player agency throughout its lifetime. If they hadn’t, I would have called the action of my character stupid, I would have been angry with their choices, but I wouldn’t have blamed the game as long as the character’s motivations were believable and explained well (which is another thing the quest lacked). As it stands though, the game funnelled the story of my character into a series of actions that were completely out of character for the personality I have defined for my in-game avatar. It is as if you’re watching a TV show, and the good guy suddenly starts killing innocent children indiscriminately (this is where I would insert a Game of Thrones reference, but spoilers…) for no good reason. It’s jarring, and even more so if you have the deep emotional connection to the character that resulted from years of… being them.

Taking away agency makes it easy to write quests, because you can write one story. That being said, it isn’t as if you can’t do that despite wildly varying motivations. Dishonour Among Thieves is a great example where even players that have no love for Zamorak can end up pulling a heist for this god. In other cases, such as One of a Kind when Hannibal asks the player what to do with Kerapac’s (yeah there’s that guy again!) offer, the World Guardian is asked for their opinion. Depending on your choice, you may later find it wasn’t actually followed through. With sufficient reasoning though, there is no reason to be mad about it (I wasn’t, at least not for the reasons outlined in this article).

I can see what Jagex was going for with the lush garden puzzle at the start of the quest. “Engage rather than explain” is the golden rule here. Instead of telling the player that a compromise can’t be found, make them try and show them it’s impossible. I have personally conducted research that showed that making a player do something rather than telling them about it is more likely to invoke engaging responses, whether that is emotions or improving the attention span. Yet, if you set up a player for failure right from the start, it will backfire. As a Dungeon Master in D&D, it was one of the first lessons I learned: a player will not accept defeat. Don’t expect players to see failure as a way forward.
As for the second half of the quest… I have no explanation. It was either sloppy writing, a big misjudgement, or both.

With some great recent quests, my expectations for this quest were high. I could have maybe forgiven Jagex for the slip-ups on the lore side, but those seem minor compared to the feeling of anger the quest left me with. Not anger with Kerapac for betraying us. Not anger with the game for making me do something I don’t like, because I would have been completely okay with that if I made a bad choice, or I was forced into a situation for dramatic reasons. No, I had a feeling at anger because Jagex has started to decide for me what my character would do. If Jagex keeps forcing my character into doing things they wouldn’t do by my definitions to make progress, then at some point, I might just make the only choice that is left to me: stop making progress at all.

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