In narrative mediums (books, comics, tv shows, movies, recordings), Suspension of Disbelief is an integral piece for a consumer to appreciate, enjoy, or even accept the basic premise of fictional works. In video games, Suspension of Disbelief exists, but I want to propose that something subtly different also exists: Suspension of Agency. Suspension of Agency is loosely defined as the player accepting the mechanical restrictions and lack of mechanical systems which enable Free Agency.
I say the difference between the two is subtle because at first it isn’t obvious that the difference particularly matters. When Suspension of Disbelief is combined with Ludonarrative-Dissonance, we can cover most all aspects of when a player must suspend their critical analysis skills in favor of accepting the “truth” of the universe they inhabit.
Imagine the given simplified game: a player character, a narrow and fenced road that prohibits leaving the path, and inputs to move around within a 3D world along the ground. No narrative or narrative elements are present to implicitly or explicitly tell the player to perform any action, and subsequently Ludonarrative-Dissonance isn’t possible as there is no narrative to contradict the player’s actions. As the player moves along this road, they come upon a fork in the road, and can move down the left or right path.
Under this system, does the player move down the left or right path? All other options are excluded as possible: we can’t go “down the middle” of the two paths as the fence prevents such an action. We can’t jump over the fence as no such input is allowed. The player can’t sit down, or draw on the ground with a stick as again, no such inputs/mechanics exist to allow such actions.
If we were to call this player’s false-choice as Suspension of Disbelief, we would have to suspend the notion that our character can do something other than picking one of the two paths. But the character can turn around. Can spin in circles or can stand in place for eternity. These are all explicit choices of Agency the player performed, for which the game merely affirms through showing on screen those actions working.
If the player can do all sorts of totally nonsense actions within this game, is that because the universe/narrative of the game is an emergent and implicit property of the mechanics of this game, which permits such things? That seems awfully difficult to suspend the entirety of one’s belief to support such a narrative. The player may be more likely to reject the game.
Let’s simplify this game even further: The player can press one button to move forward until the fork in the road, then can only press one of two buttons to choose a direction in the fork. As we simplify the game, Agency is restricted further and further. While they are choosing to “progress” through the elements in the game as presented, these elements are hardly accessed in a means different from a passive narrative medium. Pressing “play” on a movie wouldn’t be called a video game. Likewise, turning a page in a book or reading the next sentence wouldn’t be called a video game.
Once we strip away nearly all meaningful actions and distill them into simple, obvious choices, Suspension of Disbelief seems clear, as nearly all agency has been removed, and the narrative dominates all the possible actions of the player.
This seems to be a contradiction, then, or at least a slightly circular argument. Perhaps because we need to recognize what games are: an interactive system. The only way for a game to be interactive, meaning to provide feedback about their inputs, is if the player can believe they can affect the game world through their explicit choices and actions, or Agency.
It is this initial belief that the player has control over the character, the world, and the systems presented that separates passive narrative mediums from video games. This belief is substantiated through complex inputs and systems which elevate the notion of Agency to something that can be believed as “real” within the game world.
Without Suspension of Agency, the player might wonder why they can’t scratch their nose, or break their own arm, or move things off a table. The player might quickly assume they have the Agency and control to affect and do anything. But, it just isn’t possible to provide inputs for every form of Agency, and it isn’t possible to build systems which can accommodate every explicit or implicit choice. This isn’t a failing of narration, but a failure of game systems to support complex Free Agency.
Suspension of Agency helps to keep the game system constrained enough to create a cohesive product which a player can interact through. Complete Free Agency isn’t technically possible, and in many ways would so dominate as to make a meaningful “game” impossible to define outside of a sandbox. Narrative is difficult to build when it isn’t known what the player may at all do.
Narration would be a totally reactive/gated system: if the player finally performs the right set of actions to trigger it, it plays. But it otherwise has no “staying power” of its own to establish it as a meaningful part of the game. For that matter, Complete Agency may counter-intuitively reduce the player’s own meaningful Agency through an overwhelming amount of choice.
Now that we have established Suspension of Agency we can take this one step further: as a game creator, one has the option when constructing their game to leverage various degrees of Suspension of Disbelief or Agency through the choice of elements, systems, narration, presentation, and feedback given to the player. Nearly all games will in fact employ both elements, and sometimes a similar narrative element in one game can lead to totally different mechanical systems and Agency within another.
We can also see how the two can build on one another. A player which can jump 50 feet might wonder why they are the only one that can do that. A narrative which tells the player they are a super-hero helps to smooth over the absurdity of the Agency they were given. Likewise, a player which just runs away from the city they are in may wonder why nothing is happening. An invisible wall which prevents the player from leaving the city helps to keep the player within the limited confines of the narrative.
In this way, we see how Suspension of Agency is different from Suspension of Disbelief and integral to the development and joy of video games.