These Three Australian Games Are Showcasing The Surprising Impact Of Choice
Decision-making is something many people enjoy about games. Three Australian game developers show how player agency can be more than just binary choices and linear consequences.
Mars Underground casts you against March the 15th, on your first day at a new school, in a (seemingly endless) time loop; again and again. As a narrative concept, this isn’t new or especially unique. Groundhog Day would be a first point of comparison for many but, more recently, titles like Before I Fall and Russian Doll have also explored the idea of consecutively living a single day.
There are common themes to these stories, including the absence of lasting consequences for decisions made, positive or negative, and that gaining additional insight into a puzzling situation might be the key to escape. Expressed like this, time loops could be an ideal context for a videogame, especially when the designer is interested in challenging how players engage.
I chose ‘no response’ dialogue literally hundreds of times in Mars Underground, which is nothing like how I’d usually play. The kids at Phobos High thought I was “weird”, but what could they do? Hurt my feelings? Hurt my body? Provoke me into hurting them? This is not guesswork. This is exactly what previous, temporary (yet enduringly nasty) versions of the bullies had done, so it became easier to move on, in silence. Choosing to be so dismissive (including towards my own mother and her pointless, endless breakfasts) had a surprisingly depressive effect on me, however. I even stopped talking to the nice girl who gave me a single friendship band.
Designer Matt Sanderson defines player agency as, “The sense of control (or lack thereof) a person experiences as they interact with a video game.” If there’s a better condition for helplessness than being forced to experience the same day forever, I don’t know it. Yet, in Mars, you can learn to influence events; wake up earlier, get your bossy sister off your back and (eventually) explore beyond the bus route. You can come to know characters you couldn’t even meet on your ‘first’ first day and help them to find peace. Unlike in almost every other videogame (except as a ‘joke’), you begin actively seeking ways to die.
Partly due to its complexity, Mars was difficult to finish. I near-finished the game in 48 same-days, using the developer’s hint guide five times. Russian Doll, as a TV series, concludes its narrative eventually, requiring only that you keep watching, but an adventure game’s ending happens after you’ve solved puzzles, causing the end to happen.
Except, of course, in games which finish when they’re ready to finish instead, unfolding with little or no player intervention at all. The exhaustive, goal-driven approach required in Mars Underground seems worlds away from the opt-in, player-driven mechanics presented in narrative, farming-simulator, The Stillness of the Wind. It still explores how players engage, but the outcomes are quite different.
Talma is the aging, sole operator of a small farm in an increasingly inhospitable desert. You can (among other things) plant crops, milk goats and wander the gentle dunes, collecting mushrooms or memories; a small host of menial tasks that largely only result in what you can choose to make for dinner. It’s a peaceful existence, apart from regular, disquieting letters from loved ones.
Solo developer, Coyan Cardenas, says, “I wanted the player’s experience to mimic what the main character would be feeling; a sense of struggle and isolation, not being as able to deal with manual labour as when they were younger and fitter, the feeling of progressively losing control and not being able to cope with everyday chores and responsibilities.”
One activity makes Talma laugh; drawing with a stick. I scrawled ‘Talma’ in the sand and watched the word get gradually stolen away on the wind, shocked by the meaninglessness of all that I’d chosen to do, and regret for all that I hadn’t chosen to do, with the time I had left. It was very evocative. Cardenas, says, “A big part of the game’s design philosophy was to not extrinsically reward the player for engagement, in an attempt to convey the message that the engagement itself, and the experience that results from that, is the reward.”
In a third, different-again kind of way, Sydney-made game, Objects in Space, also unfolds around you, yet your smallest decisions do lead to meaningful change, in the moment and into the future. Even the choice to be anywhere at any given time (in this expansive space frontier) will influence which quest-givers are present and which have already passed by, unnoticed.
You’re a colonist, but 45 years late. Few people care you’ve arrived, so you’re free to pursue any kind of life you desire. Fancy yourself as an interstellar taxi driver, poking into the lives of passengers? You can be that. Want to explore every one of humanity’s shiny new space stations, one by one? You can do that. Aim to be rich, feared and hated, punching holes through every tempting cargo ship that crosses your path? Why not? You may face authorities, murderous rivals and ostracisation, but you’re allowed to try.
Choices in Objects are not limited to grand quests, however. You can dig very deeply into the game’s minutiae; every piece of your spaceship works with every other piece. Designer, Leigh Harris, explains that as well as potentially breaking thruster functionality, comms and nav map, “you can even leave port without a helm system. All of your ship’s parts are functional, but your input fails to send messages to the correct modules to tell them to fire. There’s a terminal buried in engineering which accepts DOS-style commands where you can manually type which direction you want to rotate to, whether to turn your main engine on/off and so on.”
“People think player agency means choice, but what is choice if it’s not informed, uncoerced choice?” – Leigh Harris
As soon as I could afford a jump-drive, I struck out towards the ‘uninhabited’ systems, then returned in dire need of ship repairs, learning a swift lesson about the fragility of existence in space. Harris says, “People think player agency means choice, but what is choice if it’s not informed, uncoerced choice?” You’re often only partially informed, in Objects. I found my feet by freelancing as an explosives courier, discovering later what my cargo might have been used for. If initial decisions are made simply for money, later motivations are more nuanced and political.
Objects is incredibly detailed attempt to provide players with the freedom to decide how to play. Yet, Harris says, “Agency only extends as far as the systems which govern your game world will allow. So it’s never a question of whether or not players have agency, but how much they have. And how you want to create the intended player experience.”
Ultimately, Leigh Harris believes, “The nature of agency is just as much philosophy as it is a humble, ludic definition.” And, as with any study into the nature of how we exist and the why of taking action, things got meta and I learned a few things about myself as I wrote this, beyond games.
I get sad if I don’t value the people around me (like in Mars Underground). I want to use the time I’m given thoughtfully (like as Talma on her farm). I feel like an insignificant part of our immense universe, but that’s a good thing (especially when hiding from pirates in Objects in Space). I also want to play many more thought-provoking games, much like Talma drew with her stick, and share them with you.
(All three games are released and ready for you to decide whether you’d like to play them.)
Meghann O’Neill writes about indie games for PC Powerplay, PC Gamer and her own site www.kidsaregamers.com. If you need something new to play, ask for an indie game recommendation on Twitter @indiegames_muso