Perhaps the most common criticism levied against the now-infamous ending of Mass Effect 3 is that, in a trilogy emphasizing player choice and the long-term consequences of those choices, the ending fails to adequately provide the player with either thing. Without spoiling the story (yet), the claims are that Shepard’s actions leading up to the climax seem to have no substantial bearing on how events ultimately unfold, that the game’s sequence and ultimate decision are tonally incongruous with the rest of the series, and that this decision and the events following it introduce thematic inconsistencies, significant plot holes and an unsatisfying denouement. I agree with the bulk of those points, and don’t worry – I’m not going to waste your time writing more about them. My issue is that, in attempting to articulate how these things diminish the quality of the game, some say that there is ‘no agency’ involved in the ending, or that it only provides ‘the illusion of agency’. This stuff troubles me, because it seems like we are using ‘agency’ as one of those nebulous blanket words (‘fun and engaging!’) to help express our disappointment without being clear about what we’re saying.
So, what is agency? I like to use the definition Janet Murray proposes in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: Agency is “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices”. Importantly, she defines it as an aesthetic; that is, as a feeling. Agency happens when we feel like our actions can be meaningful, and we become confident that after taking certain actions we will observe meaningful results in the game world. Yet by contrast, sometimes we prefer to view agency as a sort of ‘narrative variance’ metric wherein an interactive story has n number of choices that using some valuation technique give you x amount of story difference, and if there isn’t enough story difference then agency cannot exist or it is somehow illusory.
I believe that in truth the second definition is not very useful, and that people only apply it while seeking tangible details to explain why they didn’t feel agency in some game they played. Players might say something like ‘the ending is the same no matter what you do, so there’s no agency’. Indeed, they may start an online petition demanding 126 unique endings complete with cinematics and even more Tali. Yet the lack of those 125 extra endings is not the root of their complaint; if they had felt in the first place like their decisions mattered and the game respected those decisions, the only ending they’d care about is the one they got. Remember that games are works of fiction; nothing is ‘real’ but what you think and feel about them. When a game makes you feel angry, that is anger and not ‘the illusion of anger’; anger can’t actually be an ‘illusion’ in that sense. Likewise, when a game makes you feel agency it isn’t (and cannot be) illusory. The ending of Mass Effect 3 obviously did not accomplish this for all players; interestingly though, ME2’s suicide mission did manage it for most. What does it do differently?