Game Cultures Blog – Playing the Game and Death, Interrupted – February 16th 2022
In the first of the 21-22 BCMCR research seminars for the Game Cultures Cluster, we focused on the theme of agency, which remains a hot topic in Game Studies as the exploration of how much a player is able to directly affect and change the game world they find themselves in – whether low agency, where there is no interactivity or nothing for the player to affect directly, or high agency, where every action or choice the player makes changes the entire world, or the state of it. Dr Bettina Bodi (uni) and Dr Felix Schniz (uni) joined us to talk about their work and how it aligns with this topic.
First, Dr Bettina Bódi (De Montfort University) presented her paper Playing the Game: Agency in and Around Videogames. Her work draws on game design theory and game studies to explore four dimensions of agency as defined by Dr Bodi that can support or hinder each other. She broke these four dimensions of agency down as follows:
Space as agency (spatial-explorative): thinks of games according to avatar functions and locally represented situations (events and situations a player has caused within the game world) vs global storyworld (where the setting, characters, objects and events within a game exist) as discussed by Thon (2016a:47), visual mediation vs fiction (Arsenault et al 2015:93 – using graphics to guide the player through a game, or telling the story like a visual novel) and Ludic space (Schell 2008 159-163: systems of experience incorporating game related concepts such as gameplay).. Space can be ludic or representational but Thomas Was Alone as a game space demonstrates rudimentary representation that also has the capacity to create storyworlds.
Time as agency (temporal-ergodic): Bodi suggests that… games such as Fallout 4 have real world repercussions for the player not hurrying to their objective vs Skyrim where the player can linger without death or issue. Bodi argues that this disconnect between ludic and representational urgency allows games to utilise temporal agency in their design, and ergodic agency in how the player can manipulate time through the avatar or other means.
Customisation of Avatar and Surrounds (configurative-constructive): the player has configurative agency in how they can customise the avatar’s appearance, name, weaponry, costume, and inventory with some trackable progress such as in Disco Elysium where smoking raises the player’s intellect. Constructive Agency is represented in how the player/avatar can determine the perimeter of the world they are in through direct effect on the terrain or building/destroying structures.
Narrativity (Narrative Dramatic): videogames have the potential to generate narratively charged events through narrative agency surrounding the story beats, cutscenes and scripted events, whereas dramatic agency is facilitated not created and is unpredictable, as per Binding of Isaac:Rebirth which, like most roguelike games, relies on random level design to challenge the player.
Bodi’s paper was useful because it challenges the notion of agency as an umbrella term to cover all of the effects the player has on a game space, instead asking us to think about how agency is presented to us in many different forms through gameplay, design and narrative. Keep an eye out for her book, titled Playing the Game: Agency in and Around Videogames, which will be released as part of the Routledge Advances in Games Studies series soon.
Dr Felix Schniz (University of Klagenfurt) Death, Interrupted: Meaningful Non-Spaces in Cyclic Videogame Geographies
Dr Schniz joined us from the University of Klagenfurt to explore his work on how games also have non-spaces inbetween gameplay that have meaning. From a brief tour of how games moved from the single screen e.g. Pacman, to the scroll as seen in Super Mario Bros, to 3D geography in games like Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith and Tosca  2016, 136-140) , asking how these encouraged exploration, orchestrated player experiences and handled transit.
Using Dark Souls and Returnal as case studies, Dr Schniz argued that inbetween states and spaces such as load screens are important as even though they break immersion they are still connected to videogame spaces. Both games are examples of seamless virtual geographies with minimal interruptions in terms of cutscenes but move the player from one location to the next seamlessly, whether exploring Lordran’s dark fantasy setting or the planet of Astropos. Dark Souls uses bridges and staircases and other inbetween spaces to connect one part of its world to the next, and it uses death defiance as agency to encourage the player to continue.
Death is also unavoidable in Returnal as every death and alleged escape from the planet resets the game and changes its geographical layout, yet death provides players with additional narrative glimpses into the main character Selene’s life before Atropos. The game defines trauma as cyclical and explores the alienation of cyclic psychosis, using agency as a duty of re-experience.
Both games provide seamless gameplay flow in which non spaces serve as meaningful disruptive rites of passage – the player is led or pushed through these non-spaces as much as they navigate the spaces within the world, and death is never just the end. Dr Schniz’s work was interesting to shift the focus away from gameplay and narrative in terms of their design and how they approach spaces to adjust our lens slightly to what happens when we fall onto the spikes, succumb to a dragon’s fiery breath or are blasted away by an alien and the subsequent developments we find in a game when given time to breathe, or more accurately have our breath returned to us.
Dr Schniz is currently working on two books, one titled “Fictional Practices of Spirituality” with Leonardo Marcato from the University of Venice, and a second titled “What is a Videogame Experience?” Keep an eye out for these books before the end of 2022.
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