At a certain point, video game developers and critics seem to have agreed that all video game storytelling must include the player. There’s a familiar chorus to this discussion: “games must unite the player and the protagonist,” “the player’s decisions must dictate the flow of the narrative,” and “the world must be built around the player’s experiences.” Thus, a certain line of logic follows. Games that don’t do any of the previously listed things aren’t interactive. If a game is not interactive, it’s passive. Games are not a passive medium. Games that passively tell their stories aren’t really games. The critical consensus seems to then be that the main character in a game has to either be an extension of or a substitute for the player. The whole world must be at the player’s disposal and the world has to be built around the player’s actions (or inaction). The more the player can play with, the better the game respects its medium. This “me-first” approach to video game storytelling is tragically limited.
In recent years, when a game places an event outside the player’s control, or even writes in the details of a character’s life without the player’s awareness, the reaction has been more of a gag reflex than an evaluation of the content. Unless a game is making some kind of commentary about how the game-player relationship works (like the Fontaine reveal in Bioshock or most of what happens after the white phosphorus scene in Spec-Ops: the Line) players have been hostile to scripted events that they don’t feel they have any control over. The prevailing design philosophy is that a protagonist must be a set of boots that the player wears while treading the world.
That sentiment is garbage. Not to knock the silent protagonists, sandboxes, and open-world RPGs that make their heroes a window into a world—there’s nothing wrong with this approach to narrative design—but it is not the only way to write characters. A character—let’s say StarCraft’s Sarah Kerrigan—doesn’t stop being fascinating because a gap forms between her and the player. If anything, StarCraft would be pretty dull if the player only saw the world from Kerrigan’s perspective. Kerrigan is interesting because she’s complicated and dynamic with a crucial but limited impact on a steadily escalating plot. For most of the game, the player is a passive observer to her actions. In fact, as an RTS, StarCraft barely gives the player a character at all, and rather puts them behind a one-way mirror to watch how events unfold. The player has total control over winning or losing each battle in the campaign, but the story only progresses after a win. The scripted story is a part of the reward for succeeding in a tough game. Nonetheless though, the game’s events are predestined and the player soaks them in as the story moves on.
Compare that with 2010’s StarCraft II: the game takes place from Jim Raynor’s perspective. There are a plethora of optional missions thrown in to give the player a sense of agency over the game. Raynor was the closest thing that the first StarCraft had to a protagonist. But he was impulsive, quick-tempered and a perpetual underdog against forces that dwarfed him. In the first game, there were times when he was defeated so badly he all but disappeared from major sections of the plot. Even when he returned, it was only as a small piece of something larger. There was a logical stepping stone between his humble beginnings and his final, grand destination. But by making the player into Raynor in the second game, rather than an observer of him, Raynor is never allowed to fail in any meaningful way because he has to be the one to drag the player from one event to the next. He’s no longer a scrappy underdog that hops back into the story at the eleventh hour. Instead, he has to fart around for fifteen hours of gameplay until the story gains enough traction to noticeably end up anywhere.
The difference between a player that is the protagonist and a player that hovers omnisciently over the events is not a difference between a good and bad game story. Rather, it is more the difference between a first- and third-person narrator in written fiction. There is no right or wrong way to tell the story; there are only effective and ineffective uses of the form. Recent games seem hesitant to treat the player as an observer. They would rather awkwardly shoehorn them into the story by giving them meaningless binary decisions to determine where they sit along the spectrum of a morality meter.
Even Mass Effect’s Sheperd only becomes memorable when she sneaks out of the player’s control and becomes her own person. I have written before about how Mass Effect’s effectiveness lies in how Bioware “opens the plot up to the player and then immediately closes off the path when the choice is made.” Mass Effect (and most Bioware games) are especially effective because they provide an illusion of authority. All Sheperds are ultimately indistinguishable because they all do the same things. There are a few tiny forks in the road along the way, but the second the player misinterprets an option or when they’re stuck in a conversation they didn’t mean to get into until later, Sheperd becomes a distinct entity. It isn’t a design flaw when a character gains a personality without the player’s permission. It is characterization and it ought to be embraced.
Again, this isn’t to speak ill about games that give the player any narrative authority over the game’s events, but players act like it’s the best (or only) way to treat narratives in games. It’s disappointing to hear that considering all the memorable characters that grew independent of player intervention. Characters like Zoe Castillo, Ezio Auditore, James Sunderland, or any of the four characters left alive could not exist if the player was given authority over their development.
Finally, depending more on writing or withholding the player’s authority doesn’t have to mean limiting interactivity. Interactivity in games happens all the time. The images, sounds, and music are all interaction with a game, to say nothing of every response from every button push. Just being in the game-world is interacting with it. The way each scene is shot and how the player responds to it, both in and out of game. Even reading this article and others like it, even just thinking about the work, are forms of interaction. The best art demands “interacting” or “engaging” with a work, games included. So making the player any less ostensibly in control of what NPCs say and do doesn’t take away the secret ingredient that makes games what they are. Interaction without player authority is no less legitimate than a linear, heavily scripted game so long as it is well executed.