Lack of agency…leading to a feeling of agency?

I am not a fan of trying to write up my thoughts on a game when my initial play was a while ago and my reactions have faded.  Still, I feel compelled to write about one of Terry Cavanagh‘s games: Pathways.

As with How to Raise a Dragon, I don’t want to review the game, so I’d just recommend downloading it here and playing it yourself.  To me, these games are experiments, and ranking them strictly on how entertaining they were would be missing the point.   They are short and cut straight to the core of a particular thought.

Pathways has you take control of an avatar that can only move forward and occasionally follow a path up or down – which means no retracing your steps.  You follow a path until it yields an ending, then you must start over and explore a new path.  The game ‘ends’ when you’ve explored all paths.  Summarizing the story…honor a fallen friend,  get drunk, have an affair, visit your son, fail to pay a bookie, go to war and go off to fight a dragon.  The game is open-ended, it is up to you to connect those paths as you see fit (or to reinterpret those individual paths differently).

The thought that manages to remain from that first play a couple months ago was “I am a sad person.”   I distinctly remember feeling like I was causing the events even though there was nothing I could do to stop them (shy of just not playing).  I didn’t think “this is a sad person,” because I felt like I was throwing the switch.

I think this is, in part, simply an effect of having control of an avatar makes us assume a first person perspective (even if that control is massively limited).  I think the other cause for the agency is the ambiguity around the plot.  Events occur without explanation, and it’s up to you to add an interpretation (particularly the ending).   Similar (in a way) to Scott McCloud’s description of what he calls closure in comics – the implicit filling in that we do when reading a comic.   If you see a guy walking towards a banana peel that is on the ground in the first panel, and you see the guy lying on the ground in the second panel, you automatically imagine what transpired in-between the panels.   I think that the narrative in Pathways has gaps for the player to fill in; the difference as compared to comics is that you control the avatar the story is about, so the closure has more personal implications.

So a game in which I really had no agency in directing the observable events still led me to internalize the narrative.

> Mike


What is streetlight studios?

We aren’t really a studio. We’re just three friends who are trying to make some games in our free time.  Technically, none of us are artists, coders, designers, sound engineers or musicians.  So yeah…fun times!

I’m Sean. He can write like 207987982735 pages a minute.
I have a bachelor’s in psychology, a minor in biology, and a huge interest in interactive programs, video games, and writing. I’m also interested in international relations, the relentless advance of technology, and the intersection of science and humanity. My current favorite AAA games are Deus Ex, Starcraft, and Half-Life 2, and my favorite indie ones are Gravity Bone, Majesty of Colours, and Spy Party, though that doesn’t come close to encompassing all the developers that I look up to and enjoy.

I program (as I go), write (as best I can), and haven’t messed up level design too much (so far). I like discussions about — well, just about anything; hit up my AIM or gmail. Bonus points (and a character named after you in our next game, pending teammate approval) if we can have in depth conversations about five different topics in thirty minutes: let’s start with narrative in gameplay and end with UI design, and hit social change, art, and education along the way.

I’m Ray. Lifetime achievement for spending more hours in his office than anywhere else.
I majored in Economics and minored in Psychology and Computer Science. My current job doesn’t have much to do with either but that’s quite common. When I’m not busy at work I catch up on TV shows and lament over the glory days of Counter-Strike. I dream about being a race car driver and love eating food.

Music can make people smile; movies can make people cry; books can make people laugh. Games should do this as well. A few have, but not enough do. That needs to change. Also I think the realm of multiplayer interaction has not been fulled explored. With the growth in social media networks come interesting augmented reality possibilities. Interactive scavenger hunt? International hide and seek? That’d be neat.

When you’re sitting down and deciding which one of us to contact just know I am probably the best looking one, definitely the most sarcastic, and I have the strongest cravings for ramen. If you would like to chat or Mike and Sean have neglected you, shoot me an email or find me on AIM.

I’m Mike. This guy was voted most likely to be holding a frisbee at all times.
I’m a computational neuroscientist/cognitive scientist according to my undergrad degree. Which is just another way of saying I am interested in how we construct, perceive and experience the world. Since games are all about creating worlds, that is how I ended up here. Wherever here is.

I’m a programmer in the sense that Python and I were best buds in college.  I’ve also been given the task of drawing a lot more than I have ever before.  Hurray for pixels?  My hope is that the fatality rate for people playing Convergence isn’t too high.  Bleeding to death through your eyes isn’t fun way to go. I kid. Maybe.

If you want to chat about anything Sean doesn’t cover, which leaves essentially nothing, I’m always on gmail and aim.