Can A Video Game Provide Too Much Agency?

So, a couple of months ago, I came across an article in which the author expressed their extreme hatred of L.A. Noire.

The author’s problem with the game wasn’t its narrative, its gameplay mechanics or graphics as often is the case with many such articles, but rather, it was the unnecessary abundance of agency the player experiences within the game’s open-world.

The author argued that it simply wasn’t fun to be Cole Phelps driving around an empty-feeling Los Angeles. Other than the numerous collectible items within the game, there isn’t really all that much driving the player to explore the open-world further as often seen in other Rockstar titles.

LA Noire

L.A. Noire. (Credit: Rockstar)

This assertion got me thinking about the whole concept of agency within video games and whether having too much or too little can really actually affect the overall gameplay experience.

So, is there such a thing as too much or too little agency within video games?

In order to answer this question, one first needs to explore what the concept of agency refers to and then perhaps analyse the manner in which too much or too little agency affects the player’s experience of a specific title through using L.A Noire as an example.

What is Agency?

The term “agency” basically refers to the capacity to act within a given environment. Within a video game context, different types of video games provide the player with different amounts of agency.


Grand Theft Auto V. (Credit: Rockstar)

For example, an open-world title, such as GTA V, gives the player a large degree of agency because they have a number of different manners in which they can choose to respond to the world. Players can choose to play through story missions, create chaos within the city or simply explore the different activities available on offer within the world.

However, linear-type titles limit the amount of agency a player may have in that players move from stage to stage consecutively, sometimes not being able to move back to old stages. For example, in most Call of Duty campaigns, the player cannot explore old environments once they have progressed past them, thereby limiting the agency of the player. (You have one goal to complete and once you’ve completed it you move on.)

It is important to note, however, that there are many different manners in which agency can affect gameplay aspects within a title. To simply suggest that linear games provide absolutely no agency is incorrect. (Something as simple as the developer’s decision to include mission markers could affect the manner in which a player interacts with and experiences the game.)

So, How Does Agency Affect Gameplay?

Returning to the previously mentioned L.A. Noire piece, several attempts were made to explain why the title’s open-world simply didn’t seem to fit the game.

Some readers who responded to the author’s grievances suggested that the reason L.A. Noire’s open-world feels so static is that the game’s concept (being a policeman/man of the law) negates the player’s ability to engage in activities that make games like GTA V so compelling; causing random and unnecessary chaos for no reason at all at any given time.

While a player can go on a rampage as Phelps, the game will actively punish him or her for doing so, in getting negative ratings for cases, which does push the player to engage in the game in a specific manner.

LA Noire

L.A. Noire. (Credit: Rockstar)

In this way, L.A. Noire provides the player with an environment that most players would associate with a significant amount of agency, but then takes it away by forcefully limiting the number of actions the player is allowed to engage in.

It certainly seems as if Rockstar was trying to provide the definitive detective experience in L.A. Noire and thus it makes sense that the player gets penalised for antisocial behaviour, such as driving over pedestrians, etc., but this gameplay dynamic also negated the need for agency.

Perhaps, in this sense, L.A. Noire may have benefited more from linear-type gameplay, in which the player was pulled through each case instead of being given the needless opportunity to drive around the city without really being able to interact with it.

So, Can Games Have Too Much Or Too Little Agency?

Red Dead Redemption 2 2

Red Dead Redemption 2. (Credit: Rockstar)

With the growing popularity of games with unnecessary open-worlds, it would seem that the easy answer to this question is that, yes, a game can suffer from providing the player with too much agency for no reason at all.

On the opposite side, some games can also be too restrictive and push the player too much towards certain goals, in turn, making some feel that they are a passive participant in the experience rather than an active one.

It is important for developers to pay attention to whether certain gameplay dynamics may inherently clash (as some have suggested with L.A. Noire) and in doing so, ensure that the gameplay experience is not compromised.

But, what do you think? Is it possible for some games to have too little or too much agency? What do you think about L.A. Noire? Please share in the comments down below.