The Game Space of Dear Esther and Beyond: Perspective Shift and the Subversion of Player Agency

The Game Space of Dear Esther and Beyond: Perspective Shift and the Subversion of Player Agency

Harrington Weihl (Northwestern University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0261-6.ch004
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This chapter argues that the spaces created by video games are central to the formulation of player agency in the game. More precisely, this chapter analyzes several recent independent and experimental games—Dear Esther, Menagerie, and the work of games collective Arcane Kids—to argue that the dislocation or alienation of player agency through the formal category of game space has political and aesthetic significance. The dislocation of player agency sees ‘agency' taken away from the player and granted instead to the game space itself; players are placed at the mercy of the game space in such a way that their lack of agency is emphasized. The effect of this emphasis is to enable these games to critique the atomized, neoliberal undercurrents of contemporary cultural production.
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Game Space As A Category

Game space is used here to talk about what appears to be the physical space that the player character moves through in a video game. This definition, of course, leaves a lot to be desired. What would the game space of Tetris (Pajitnov & Pokhiko, 1984) be? Or of Street Fighter (Capcom, 1987)? These are potentially illuminating questions, but the preponderance of contemporary games that use first or third-person control of a character in a three-dimensional space impels us to define the category of game space—for our purposes—as content of a video game that is viewable and/or accessible through the movement of the player. More often than not, this content fundamentally resembles the world as human beings normally experience it. Some games, such as Prey (Human Head Studios, 2006), defy the laws of gravity, yet nevertheless these deviations still understand the rules of our universe as the norm.

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