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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.