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Agency on the Holodeck

by Jesse MacKinnon

          Janet Murray discusses the concept of “agency” in her eponymous chapter from Hamlet on the Holodeck. A major issue she discusses is the freedom to move about in environments which respond to the player. Yet in the admittedly limited architecture of the game structure, there are only a limited amount of solutions, all bound by the architecture of the program.
          In certain video game adaptations, creators have found novel ways of expanding the storyline to accommodate additional gameplay. GoldenEye64 set a very high bar in this regard. Yet even in the best case scenario, there is something of a fatalistic determinacy. No matter how the player succeeds, the outcome will always be the same. This is particularly vexing in the RPG genre. Fantasy genres have a long role-playing tradition; therefore when adapting Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, the tendency is to give the games a similar architecture to the games that they spawned. Yet given the preexisting narrative, there can be only one conclusion.
          The Star Trek franchise has addressed this issue of agency in a game space before. As mentioned in my last post, most of what the characters engage in on the Holodeck is adaptations of classic literature. Yet to give some dramatic flair to the episode, something always goes wrong, and the scenario necessarily deviates from its source—almost always in amusing ways.
          In Elementary, Dear Data, LaForge is frustrated that Data, having a perfect recall of the entire Sherlock Holmes canon, easily solves most mysteries within the confines of a Holmes-esque scenario. In order to confound the android, LaForge must order the computer to conjure a unique antagonist worthy of battling Data. (Honestly, I wish I could upload the entire episode here, but the initial scenario itself will have to suffice on this one.) It is interesting that in a game that ostensibly requires deductive capacity, knowledge of the text effectively circumvents any obstacles in the game. And at the end of the episode, the antagonist—an enhanced simulacrum of Moriarty—is itself given greatly expanded agency as a human player in order to flout the protagonist.
          Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the most cited of the Bard’s plays in the Trek franchise. Though the play never makes an actual appearance on the Holodeck, Henry V does. This scene from The Defector hints at a tantalizing possibility: as Data recites the scene verbatim, Picard interrupts. Yet the characters (one of them played by Patrick Stewart as well!) react to his interruption, breaking the established script of the event. Instead of being a staged performance, it is implied that this too is a game, and that the player has a degree of agency.
          Finally, in Our Man Bashir, the intrepid doctor chooses to enact a James Bond-like fantasy in one of Quark’s Holosuites. In a combination of two omnipresent Trek clichés—a transporter accident and a Holodeck malfunction—the characters in his game become embodied by his crewmates. Now instead of playing the game as scripted, Bashir must complete a Bond scenario without killing the antagonists; nor allowing any of his allies to perish. In a last desperate bid for time, he drastically deviates from the expected script, demonstrating a degree of agency that even the computer didn’t anticipate.

DS9 S4E10 - An Unexpected Solution

Bashir's solution to the James Bond mystery is completely unanticipated--even by the program.

from Our Man Bashir (1995)
Creator: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Posted by Jesse MacKinnon