Determined as I am not to begin another post with the phrase, "having recently completed X", I shall just say this:
Halo 3: ODST.
I thoroughly enjoyed this relatively overlooked entry into the Halo canon. It's interesting to play with the expansive and imaginative Halo 3 sandbox via player abilities more in line with Combat Evolved - namely, health packs, no Equipment and no dual-weilding. It might not have such a satisfyingly epic scale as did Halo 3, and it might absurdly imply that the events of Halo 2 were spread over more than a month, but Bungie know how to make Halo games, and ODST demonstrates their unparalleled command of meticulous weapon balance, expressive but readable AI and freeform level design - all interconnected toyboxes, revelling in chaos and experimentation - as well as any other.
But there is one thing I took from the experience in particular that I don't think Bungie intended.
In ODST, players assume the role of the Rookie, a nameless, faceless, voiceless new recruit to a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (they fall to earth from low orbit in little shock-absorbing drop-pod things). He's the classic videogame blank slate - less character even than the Master Chief, the Rookie is Gordon Freeman in a helmet. The rest of the squad - mostly played by the cast of Firefly for the sake of their natural chemistry (and probably nerd-cred) - are clearly defined characters, with names, faces and voices.
While dropping to Earth in the middle of a Halo 2 cutscene, all the troopers are separated and the Rookie is knocked out. When he comes to several hours later, the hub world - sadly not quite as interesting a departure from tradition as it sounds, though it does have a lot of character - opens up and the player is tasked with following waypoints to track down evidence of their missing squadmates. Finding something triggers a flashback in which the player takes control of one of the other troopers. So what we end up with is a juxtaposition of the Half-Life tabula rasa approach to first person characterisation versus, well, the precise opposite - with player characters regularly spouting dialogue, and even fighting alongside former and future player characters.
What is interesting about this, is that I feel far more agency in the flashbacks than I do as the Rookie.
I think the reason is this: when a player buys a game, she is already as willing as she will ever be to buy into the narrative and immerse herself in the characters and world. Agency is the default state; something that can be lost, not something that must be earned. The Half-Life approach doesn't (necessarily) damage agency, but it is a total myth that it does anything to aid it.
For example, let us look at a well-known game which did not deliver especially well on agency: Shenmue. Shenmue presents itself as a sort of life-sim; organising your own days as you see fit, taking the story at your own pace, and full of nonessential pursuits to occupy the time. The problems arise with Ryo; the protagonist, and a bit of an idiot. One especially memorable sequence - part of the central plot thread - has love interest Nozomi confessing her feelings for him one night in a playground, and telling him that she may be moving to Canada in the near future. Ryo rather flippantly says, "Oh", then leaves. Later that evening I decided to rectify this ridiculously unfeeling behaviour of Ryo's by calling Nozomi on the phone in Ryo's house. Here is a transcription of the resulting conversation as I remember it:
Ryo: "Hello Nozomi."
Nozomi: "Oh Ryo, have you thought any more about what I said before?"
Nozomi: "Oh... okay..."
Up until this point I had completely bought into Ryo's parental vengeance motivations and his tremendous naivete, but here something cracked, then shattered. In the first cutscene Ryo's flippant behaviour was at odds with how I would have wanted him to act, then in the subsequent phone call - which I had made with the specific intention of damage-control - he acted even worse. When your character makes an independent decision, as Ryo's response in the cutscene, agency can take a hit. When your character does the precise opposite of what you intend, agency is lost.
Ryo was no longer me; he was a dick.
Now turn back to ODST where, like most singleplayer videogames, the plot drives the characters rather than the other way around - things happen to them, and players have no choice but to react to these events in a certain way. The player characters in flashbacks, just like the Rookie, never make decisions at odds with player motivations, so there is nothing to prevent you from buying into your character - whoever he may be - at any given time; and you do so.
When any of the talking characters have conversations about the events unfolding around them, there's no feeling that they are doing something independently, or against your own will. Quite the opposite in fact; when player characters make quips as a direct result of player actions and decisions - vehicle stunts, weapon selections, enemy kills, etc. - it serves to draw you, immerse you, further into the fiction.
By contrast, the Rookie never commented on my skills and kills, never talked about his situation. All he did to express anything more than sheer indifference towards anything I was doing was to grunt when injured (though better at least than Gordon Freeman who actually requires his clothes to say "ouch" for him). Even worse, when the Rookie is asked direct questions by other characters towards the end of the game he still remains silent, and this feels jarringly inconsistent. Annoying even. I expect him to be just as talkative and likable as the other people that had variously been "me" when placed in that same situation, and he disappoints. Lampshading his completely vacant characterisation with the tedious game dialogue cliche, "You don't talk much, do you?" and its awkward variations does not help matters at all.
I'm not saying that the Half-Life series would be better if Gordon Freeman spoke - on the contrary I think his sheer ambiguity aids the story Valve are telling, with Freeman himself being one of the most enduringly interesting mysteries therein. Nor am I saying that Bioshock could be improved with sarcastic quips and James Bond one-liners - in fact I'd argue that the whole point of Bioshock and its final twist is to satirise everything I am describing here. What I'm saying is that the tabula rasa is not a brilliant videogame storytelling device - at best it does nothing to promote immersion or agency, and at worst it can damage it when it becomes conspicuous that your character is inexplicably boring, as it does in ODST.
It's just an excuse not to write properly.