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Player agency in videogame narratives (now with video!)

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This is a companion post to a video essay which I made on YT. I make the same points in both, so choose whichever format you prefer.


There is a problem that’s emblematic for videogames: the conflict between player agency and a prewritten narrative.

It originates from their analog predecessor – tabletop roleplaying games. A group of players controls their avatars within a game world controlled by a game master. When the latter presents an obstacle to the former, he might be surprised by a clever and ingenous solution that he didn’t anticipate, which might potentially result in skipping parts of the narrative which he worked so hard on. This situation might tempt the game master to tell his players “no, you can’t do that because ” , and force them to go through the setpiece on his terms. However, he might instead choose to allow his players their moment in the spotlight, and let them solve the problem at hand using their own imagination and creativity. That option almost invariably results in higher enjoyment for the players, and it shows how respecting player agency in a narrative context can be such a powerful tool for creating engaging stories.

However, while the choice to constrict or respect player agency in tabletop games is up for the GM to decide, videogames are made by teams of designers, programmers and artists – so there’s little room for risky design decisions. Videogames are also released as finished products, so there’s no room for improvisation. With that in mind, is combining interactive gameplay and non-interactive narrative the only way to tell compelling stories in videogames? Let’s look at a few games to examine that idea.

Spec Ops: The Line asks lofty questions about the nature of armed conflict and the moral status of violent action games. I like it more for the former, than the latter. It’s one of the best stories in videogames that I had the pleasure of experiencing – but as a videogame itself, it’s not great. Partly because of the generic gameplay, but mainly because it tries to make you feel guilty for doing something you had no other choice but to do. Of course, I’m talking about its signature scene – so if you haven’t played it yet, consider this your spoiler warning.
At some point in the game, you’re presented with a heavily guarded enemy outpost – and the protagonist decides to bomb it with white phosphorus, killing not only enemy combatants, but also innocent civillians. It’s a big shocking moment that left some players shattered, and I can’t deny how well directed the reveal scene was. But I just didn’t get anything from it on my first playthrough, and on my second it just made me angry. I’ve seen arguments that the lack of choice was the whole point of the scene – that just as Walker’s actions inevitably brought him to genocide, you as a player were brought here by your decision to continue playing the game. But I don’t agree with the notion that putting the controller down is somehow a conclusion to the story, anymore than walking out of a movie theater mid-seance is.
That scene is mirrored by another moment later where a group of civillians kill one of your squadmates and then threaten to do the same to you. The obvious (and instinctual) decision is to shoot them, but you can actually fire into the air to scare them off, and not kill anyone. It’s a choice that doesn’t change the narrative in any significant way, but it remained memorable to me because I made it for myself, with no clear indication that it was a choice at all. That's what made it meaningful, and why it's my favourite scene of the game.
Ultimately, I think that Spec Ops: The Line’s biggest fault was putting so much emphasis on a singular scene. The white phosporus setpiece was a sleight of hand that worked on some, and alienated others – because of the way it discarded the player as an actor capable of making choices within the story. It was a good story, but I don’t think it was well adapted to videogame form. Mixing player agency and prewritten narratives is tricky. Perhaps the better option is to just leave everything up to the players?

Rimworld offers no scripted narratives, instead simply giving you the tools to create stories on your own. The classic scenario starts you with three survivors of a spaceship crash, and charges you with building a functional spaceship to get off the planet. But it’s up to you whether you’ll pursue that goal, or whether you’ll start in that scenario at all. Perhaps you want to drop a single man naked and alone into the thickest jungle to see if he’ll survive and thrive? Maybe you want to lead a group of primitive tribesmen towards the discovery of cocaine? There’s tons of options, even more considering the sheer amount of mods in the Steam Workshop for this game. And with the different AI “storytellers” (basically difficulty settings for random events), and with the fact that your characters are unpredictable to the point of disobeying orders if they get stressed enough…Rimworld is pretty much one of its kind (besides Dwarf Fortress), and it’s one of my favourite games of all time – but it’s a pretty niche title, averaging around 15k players on Steam. Having full agency is a pretty amazing experience, but it seems that not everyone appreciates it.
So let’s consider ways of easing the transition, and merging pre-written content with player expression.

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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and its sequel, Shadow of War, also provide good examples of player-driven stories, but served in a more focused package. Not in their main storylines though – they are painfully generic, and seem to be there strictly out of obligation. The main focus of those games is the now famous Nemesis system, which procedurally generates unique and varied enemies for the player to fight – and in doing so, create highly personalized stories that make use of all of the core mechanics. And not just involving the player – those orcs come into conflict with each other as much as with you. You’re given various opportunities to influence relationships between them, including the option to put them under your control and order them to do various unpleasant things to the other orcs.
All of this is impressive even from a strictly technical standpoint, as no two orcs are the same, and the sheer amount of voiceover work that also stays consistent within an orc’s character is quite simply astounding. Nemesis system works both as a tool for providing varied gameplay challenges, as well as story generation.
The main issue is, those system-driven stories are still separate from the main storyline. The game tries to merge the two in one scene where it presents you your “long standing nemesis” – but to me and a lot of other players I’ve talked with, it was just some random dude.

There’s a lot of work to be done with these kinds of systems before we arrive at fully procedurally generated stories. But I’d like to see that avenue of game design explored a bit more – I think it’s a window into new methods of storytelling that might be a better fit for videogames.
But what if you had no agency at all?

What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking simulator in the purest sense of the term. As a player, there really isn't much there for you to do besides moving along a linear path through the gamespace, to slowly uncover the game's story. The game offers you various short gameplay sections, each with their unique gameplay mechanics, and some of those sections are actually quite interesting. In fact, I think the game is worth playing just to experience a certain couple of those sections which I won't spoil.
But I'm calling it a "game" pretty much out of habit. By most definitions, What Remains of Edith Finch is not a game at all. It offers no challenge, be it motoric or intellectual, and no meaningful form of interaction. It stands purely on the merit of its story, and you as a player are only there to push it forward. And you could argue that the mere fact of using your input to keep the story rolling is enough to make it more engaging than if it was a movie. That's fair enough, but here's my counter: wouldn't it be better if you had a real role in the story?

There is another game that some have classified as a walking simulator, but this one has had far more impact on the medium of videogames. The Stanley Parable. By all means, the main verb of this game is walking – but this time, moving yourself to one place instead of another has implications on the game's plot, which is loudly and often hilariously highlighted by the game's Narrator, who is an analogy for a story designer. The game uses this interplay between your agency and the Narrator's control to create some truly memorable scenes, and provoke thoughts on the nature of stories within videogames. As could be expected, it provides many possible endings for you to discover – and I want to focus on a particular one that illustrates the main point of this essay.
By disobeying the Narrator at every possible turn, you reach the "real person ending" – where he decisively breaks the fourth wall and addresses you, the player, in an attempt to coerce you to follow the narrative he's planned out for you. But the damage to the story is already done – even if you decide to start cooperating, it all just breaks apart. You're suddenly pulled out of Stanley, the protagonist, and your viewpoint is placed outside of the game's space, overlooking him standing in front of the game's first major choice – a set of two open doors. The Narrator addresses him as he normally does, but upon noticing Stanley's lack of motion (because you can no longer control him), he realizes that he has nobody to share his story with, and promptly breaks down. To me, the point of this is clear.

Interactivity is the defining aspect of videogames. For so long it has only been applied to gameplay, while the narrative side remained stagnant and subsisted on tropes borrowed from other forms of media. But is it not more interesting to give players the ability to interact with the story itself, and not just be used as engines to keep it moving forward? In my opinion, if you, as a game designer, forget that your player is a real person, and treat them as nothing more than a camera on rails, you only have yourself to blame when they rip out the pages of your script to make paper airplanes out of them.


Greetings traveller, glad you could make it! Please share your thoughts on the topic in this thread – I'd really like a discussion on this, because I might just be reading too much into the whole thing.
Also, if you have watched the video, please tell me what you thought of it. Since I plan to make more videos on topics like these, I'd like some suggestions on how to make the next one better.

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