Agency and Storytelling in Video Games

Weaving a good story is a major achievement for a video game, and it seems that lately we’ve become a little obsessed with this. While we gamers still love our side-scrolling platformers and the modern versions of them installed on our smartphones, there’s been a trend in recent years: We want stories. We want cinema. This is especially true when we’re going to throw down $60 for a game we’re going to play on our flashy new consoles with the great graphics, as displayed on our big, HD TV screens. Let’s have an experience.

That can be a very good thing, particularly for people like me who love stories in any form they come. I love reading and watching television series and going to see films because storytelling is my thing. That’s why I’m a writer, too.

Before I knew how to physically put letters on a piece of paper to make a sentence, I told stories into my mom’s tape recorder and found things around my house to create sound effects. Even as a little kid, I knew I wanted to create an experience — something exciting and filled with noise.

Years later, that’s what drew me to video games. It wasn’t so much the gameplay mechanics for me; I didn’t grow up with those side-scrolling platformers. (It’s sad, I know.) For me, video games offered an entirely new type of storytelling experience, because they were visual and auditory and immersive in a way I had never encountered before. They were interactive.

Interactive Storytelling

That’s what you see a lot nowadays: video games with interactive stories. The games themselves are always interactive, obviously — but now that personal involvement extends to how the tale plays out.

The Telltale episodic games are obvious and very popular examples: In these games, you select dialogue options and actions when prompted to progress the story in a unique way.

I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder just how unique my experience is — would things have turned out that different if I had gone to the other house first, or if I had been a jerk instead of polite in this conversation — but whether or not you have a lot of agency in these games, you are certainly set up to feel that your choices matter.

Mass Effect's dialogue wheel
Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel

BioWare is also known for giving players decisions to make. In the latest games, dialogue wheels make it clear whether each selection is heroic, polite, aggressive, or even a little bit evil. It’s exciting to craft a character who is badass enough to headbutt a big, burly alien character or punch out an intrusive reporter during an interview. Or maybe you prefer a more noble type.

Seeing the consequences of your actions down the line can be satisfying and/or surprising. Characters live or die. They love you or hate you. The world changes based on whether you helped someone or not. And that’s only for the smaller choices.

A conversation in The Witcher 2.
A conversation in The Witcher 2

The Witcher series is another known for decision-making. Unlike in BioWare games, you don’t create your own character — you’re playing as Geralt, a known anti-hero type from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books. However, even while dialogue options keep Geralt as badass as he is in the books, you can choose the direction his personality will take. More importantly, you decide who you want to help and which path feels right for you… or for him. In The Witcher 2, you choose rather early on whether to rescue an elf who once tried to kill you or aid an old friend; each option leads to an entirely unique path for most of the rest of the game.

In these instances, you, as the player, have a sense of ownership over the adventure. Although you’re obviously stuck within strict parameters — a certain type of gameplay, an already-created world, a specific premise or set-up — you are still creating your own experience, at least in some ways. And any amount of agency can make the experience of playing the game feel meaningful.

Agency Instead of Story… Or As Story

The question is, do you really need agency to create a meaningful experience? It seems that a lot of game developers are using player agency as a way to make their games more compelling. Having decisions to make can make a video game feel much more exciting to the player. Because we all love to have a say in things, right?

In a way, these video games that give us decisions are actually doing something much more: They’re giving us the power to become storytellers ourselves. That feels good.

Some games have player agency with very little real story. Or perhaps there is a story, but the freedom you are given to go your own route is what’s most important. The Elder Scrolls games are like this. Sure, they have stories — interesting ones, in my opinion — but you can choose which ones to pursue and even ignore them entirely if you prefer to just explore and see what’s out there. All the while, you’re leveling up your character and gaining accolades for your actions. Whether or not you’re following the stories provided to you — either the main questline or a side questline that allows you to become head of Winterhold College, a decorated soldier, a homeowner, etc. — you’re creating a life story for your character.

Archmage robes -- one of the rewards for completing a quest line in Skyrim.
Archmage robes — one of the rewards for completing a questline in Skyrim

People like Skyrim because of that agency. The freedom to explore. The seemingly limitless options in how to level your character or quests to pursue. It’s about discovery and empowerment more than any meaningful story experience. Sure, becoming the leader of the Thieves Guild is exciting, but it’s a rather shallow experience on an intellectual and emotional level. The story isn’t what it’s about — it’s about being able to pursue the quests related to that storyline, engage in the gameplay, learn some new skills, and then reap the rewards that go along with becoming the leader. You can do that over and over in The Elder Scrolls games, mastering specific skills and becoming important in a variety of different questlines. But, at least in my experience, few people play Skyrim and say, Whoa, that was a great story.

The sense of agency allows that feeling of something being epic. Maybe the story is good — maybe it’s not. But you feel it is that way because you played a role in it. You affected it in some way, and that makes you feel important as a player.

However, too much agency can feel overwhelming. Even if a game has an intriguing adventure, such as Dragon Age Inquisition, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s going on in the midst of all of the side quests and chaos. Open-world games are usually the ones to commit this crime — if you want to call it that. I care about story above all else, so losing track of where I am because of too much freedom is actually a negative thing for me. I want to be a little reigned in sometimes.

Just Tell Me a Story

So what about good storytelling? Is that an entirely different thing than agency or liberty? I’ll be honest here: Sometimes in Telltale games, I feel like I’m being babied a bit — like they’re throwing a silly choice at me that’s not going to mean anything down the road, just for the sake of keeping me involved. They want me to keep pressing buttons so I feel like I’m doing something, but really, the game is just telling its story in its own way. And that’s okay.

When I read a book, I trust the author to tell me a good story. That’s their job. When I watch a film, I feel the same. But when I play a video game, I think about a lot of other things, like gameplay and the agency I’ve been talking about.

You know what would be cool, though? If, once in a while, I was only concerned about enjoying a good story in a game.

To the Moon

When it comes to video games made with the sole purpose of telling a fantastic, memorable story, the best example that comes to mind is To the Moon. It’s a role-playing adventure game by Freebird Games that I reviewed here a while back. It’s not cinematic, exactly. It features 16-bit graphics. But it made my cry. I heard that it would, I was doubtful, and then it did. It’s a simple adventure with simple gameplay and almost no real sense of agency. Sure, you’re picking up clues and solving puzzles to progress from one chapter to the next, but the story is obviously already created for you and has a definitive ending. You can sense that going into the game.

That’s what I liked about it. I knew from the start that I was going to be treated to a really good tale, in video game format. That’s exactly what I wanted. The result was an emotionally-affecting experience that I still remember and recommend to people years later.

Another great story I’ve experienced in a video game is the one spun in The Last of Us. Here, again, you have no real agency, and that actually plays a big role in the ending. (Spoilers to follow.) You’re stuck in Joel’s shoes, and you know his issues. His hang-ups. His past tragedies and the things he wants from life. You feel that way, anyway. And so in the end, when he lies to Ellie so she doesn’t go through with a heroic surgery, just to save her for reasons you may deem selfish, you have to go through with it. You may even understand where he’s coming from. Maybe you agree with him — I’ve heard a lot of players do, but I wonder if it’s because they had to kill those doctors to save Ellie themselves. What if the game had forced you to do something else? Would you agree with that instead, because you’re acting that out? Having to do something makes you feel connected to the action somehow, even if you didn’t get the opportunity to make the decision for yourself. I was shocked at what Joel did, but I forgive him for it because I was him. The game gives you no agency, but that just makes Joel’s actions and the entire story all the more surprising and compelling.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

Agency and storytelling so often go hand-in-hand, it can be hard to remember that you can enjoy a compelling video game with just one or the other. However, while agency can sometimes compensate for the lack of an engaging tale, it seems to me that storytelling is able to stand on its own very well. A video game’s tale doesn’t require player involvement in order to be absorbing.

A truly good story — one that you remember, that affects you, that means something — is a rare thing in a video game. And it’s something I’m always looking for, whether or not I get a say in it as a player.

— Ashley

10 thoughts on “Agency and Storytelling in Video Games”

  1. Excellent post. No wonder I wrote you a valentine: you mentioned To the Moon!

    I love that games accomplish great stories in many different ways. You rightfully point that out. To me, it can be a bit bothersome for the game to get in my way with its own prescription of story. I love The Elder Scrolls, but the reoccurring ‘chosen one’ theme needs a break in the next game. You can ignore it, but doing so often limits certain advancements or access to some exciting areas.

    I think your point about The Last of Us is very important too. It’s important that if you aren’t giving the player choice, that you make them feel immersed in the character. To me, I walked away from that gaming feeling like Joel was a monster, and I think the brutality of that game’s combat really colored my view. Other games can present too much of a disconnect between their narrative and their gameplay, but when you find the two working in sync, it really shows.

    1. Yay! Another To the Moon fan!

      That’s really interesting about TLOU. I felt like you did, I guess… but when I talked to other people about it, they were actually understanding of his choice. It surprised me, but I wonder if they related more to his actions because they were in his shoes and forced to take those actions themselves? I don’t know. Obviously their opinions are completely justified as well as ours!

      So you actually like agency more than story, in some cases? Or a game that’s about exploration, discovery, etc., shouldn’t be bogged down by a traditional “story” just for the sake of having one? I would agree with the latter a lot, actually. I know what you’re saying about The Elder Scrolls, even though I actually find the stories interesting… if a little trope-y and not very stimulating on any deep level.

      1. Of the three Elder Scrolls games I played, only Morrowind has a main quest I cared much for. The guilds, however, have almost always had some of the more compelling storylines in games.

        It’s not that I prefer agency over story, but games can be so much more than choose your own adventure novels. I like seeing what emerges from various rules interacting in a fantasy world with just enough depth/believability to get totally lost in it.

        I think a lot of RPG main stories fall apart. Even Bioware ones aren’t as good as the individual characters or world building.

  2. I love this! I totally agree. [Although skipped over The Last of Us part because I’ve not played it yet!]

    I like games for the story, it’s really rare for me to enjoy a game for anything else unless I get to make stuff like Sims or Minecraft and essentially make up my own story! I’m not into pointless button pressing/shooting stuff. Skyrim I enjoyed the first time – I mean it’s sooo pretty! – but its unlikely I’d ever play it all the way through again because the story is boring and there is zero emotional engagement.

    I’m struggling with Dragon Age Inquisition for the reasons you just discussed, and it’s been on my mind a lot recently because I feel guilty for not being as into as I expected to be. It’s too open world, it’s too big and it’s too “Skyrim” so I get lost in all those boring (and mostly entirely pointless) side quests, so much I’ve almost forgotten the main story and just got fed up with the whole thing. It is my mission over the next few weeks to just crack on with it, I just want to get it done now and finished. I’m praying I get sucked back into the story (I hear it is good!).

    To The Moon sounds interesting, I might have to check that out!

    1. Yeah, I agree that emotional engagement and a good story are the things that make me enjoy a game. I lose interest really fast if there’s no story in a game. They can be entertainment for a few minutes or hours, but I have no motivation to finish them or even go back to them if something else distracts me!

      I totally agree about Inquisition. I love certain aspects of the game, but I believe Origins to be the strongest in the series for its clear story with the perfect amount of choice given to you. I’m not into open-world games that much, and I’m not sure why developers are so obsessed with them right now? The story is the key, in my opinion! Funny you think that about Inquisition too — I thought I was the only one!

      Definitely recommend To the Moon. You can get it on Steam and it only takes about 3 hours to play.

      1. It’s definitely not just you! Origins was almost perfect, like you say it had the balance just right. Inquisition makes me miss Origins. I also feel like I’ve not got a lot of investment in the Inquisitor, they don’t feel like a whole character in the same way that the Grey Warden did (you had a background and a real identity.. as a human warrior I watched me family get murdered, I was out for justice!). I’ve not got much of a connection with her.
        I’ll keep plodding on (if I ever find the time!).

  3. “particularly for people like me who love stories in any form they come” <–right here.

    I could add a couple that seem far more about the storytelling than you really having the reins – Bioshock Infinite, and the Metal Gear Solid series. Both play like you have a puzzle or challenge to solve, followed by some story. Sometimes that story element can be quite long – MGS is known for this, and for getting increasingly complicated as it goes.

    I really enjoyed Dishonored for the story, and for how my agency mattered. I chose to try to play the game with no deaths – which was a much harder challenge than doing anything to the difficulty settings! Some of the fates that the "boss" villains get are almost worse than death… great storytelling :)

    Excellent post!

  4. The best games I have ever played, have a compelling story.
    However, the amount of times I see the following comment from gamers, “If I wanted a story, I’d read a book”, is disheartening for me, as a story lover. For instance, if you go and look at all the comments about the new Battlefront game, after they announced the fact that there will be very little single player, and they will be missions, so not story driven, people were relieved. Not because it’s Star Wars and people didn’t want EA to ruin it, but because they didn’t want it and “I wasn’t going to bother playing it anyway”.
    Wah! I really wish more games like Mass Effect existed. Three whole games in the same universe with the same character, spending hundreds of hours fighting the same cause, and understanding all of the lore that exists while you develop deep relationships with your companions. More please!

    1. Yeah, I have heard that from some gamers too, and it is sad! I think a lot of people are in the middle — they like some story but don’t want to sit through endless cutscenes because they prefer shooting stuff. I definitely get that in most games, there should be a balance.

      But I’m with you that I love games with lots and lots of story! I also wish there were more games like Mass Effect, where you have so much time and opportunity to get to know the characters. RPGs are definitely my favorite. =)

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