Video games are an interesting medium for storytelling. While in books and movies the consumer’s agency in the story is decided by the author of the work, it is hard to do that in a medium that thrives on choice and branching story elements.
In the early days of video games, developers depended on a wide variety of player choice and their own ability to write for a large number of scenarios and game states. Text adventures often had a wide variety of interaction the player could make, and they had to account for the player possibly missing some element of the plot at every step of the process. This oftentimes led to very convoluted solutions to puzzles as games were usually made by lone developers without direct player feedback.
Fast forward a little bit and things became much more linear. In the era of the NES, things transformed from and endless tree of branching paths to a straight line the player would follow. Some games allowed for branching or doing things in different orders, but linearity became something of a necessity due to the large amount of effort that would have been necessary to program the complex multitudes of game states on the existing hardware.
This cycle has repeated many times, where linearity takes over only to once again die down as openness rises in popularity. Whenever there is a leap in hardware, games tend to become more linear until the programmers become more confident with their new platforms. Then, they begin focusing their time on more complex storytelling and player choice.
One strange side effect of this is that the role of the player character can oftentimes go from something decided by the player themselves to one decided by the author of the work.
When a player has control over the outcomes of game events this is called player agency. This could be anything from side paths the player could follow or dialogue choices to just giving them free reign over which game events they wish to participate in.
But no matter how open the game may feel, every choice in the game had to be programmed, and thus the consequences decided on by the designers. There is always some force trying to drag the player down one path or another, whether the player notices them or not.
One of the biggest ways that developers have attempted to control the player’s path through the game has been the choice to have the player’s character be their own person with their own goals and morals that is not decided by the player. The protagonist in dialogue has their own personality and makes decisions outside the players power, and this can have unintended consequences.
What if the player doesn’t want to do what the character does? Say the character is a kind person who wishes to do good in the world, but the player only wishes to cause chaos and watch the world burn. The game allows the player to act in an evil way, but the story still acts as if that character is doing good in the world.
One time in Skyrim I decided to play as an absolute maniac just to see what the game would do about it. I killed anything with a heartbeat I came across, even the NPCs. I had killed the entire population of Riverwood (at least those that can actually die), yet when I went to Whiterun the jarl still heralded me as a hero for informing him of the danger to his peoples. I did horrible things, yet the characters would only freak out if there was a bounty on my head.
It was a strange dissonance. I tried to be evil yet the game kept pushing me in the direction of good. My character was being revered as a messiah despite the fact that he technically never did anything heroic.
In Fallout 4 all dialogue is dumbed down into 4 choices, each simply being good, evil, neutral, and rephrase. No matter the depth of the situation, you can only steer the type of reaction your player will give in the situation. Where this becomes weird is when you just mix it up. There is no reason the player cannot just choose an option at random all the time, yet the game acts like it never happens. Sure, you may get a few lines in return, but overall it doesn’t really matter most of the time.
Fallout 4 shares one issue with the newest Zelda title, Breath of the Wild. In both games the main character has a set goal that they wish to achieve. In Fallout, the main character wishes to find their kidnapped child. That is the opening event to set up the game, so it would make sense for the character to immediately do everything in their power to find them. This becomes a problem when the player doesn’t care. It’s not their child, it’s the character’s, so why should they change the way they play just to find them.
The player never has to find the child. They can spend their whole time playing doing one of the many things that distracts them. Heck, I forgot about the child because I was having too much fun playing around with the base building.
In Zelda, Link is told that the princess is holding the evil in the castle at bay, and that he should go there to defeat it as soon as he feels strong enough.
This would make sense for a casual player to just explore until they feel they are sufficiently prepared. After completing all 4 plotlines the player is straight up told to head to the castle immediately.
But you don’t have to.
Yup, you can spend hours just exploring the world, taking photos of everything you find. You can spend time building a village from nothing and getting a house. There’s just that one last piece of armor you never wear that needs to be leveled up. Never does the fact that the princess is in danger actually matter. She never loses, and there is no time limit to incentivize that the player should do there, only the words of one woman and a quest marker.
The character would do everything they could to immediately save her, but the player ends up in control of the action.
Now this isn’t to say that it requires an open world game to accomplish this weird effect.
Even in smaller games the player can choose to just do things wrong. I’ve recently been watching a Youtuber called Lets Game it Out who plays many indie games and has had a recent focus on management and building games. One thing that stood out to me is that he always finds a way to play wrong.
In a cooking game he will send out a plate of soggy buns, a burger patty covered in horseradish, and shards of glass from the broken bottles of oils. This is not the way that the developer intended him to play, and as such that the character would play, yet the game barely punished him for doing it so wrong. Sure, it told him that he had done bad, but it still said the customer was pleased in at least on category. It didn’t truly punish him for his purposeful mistake, thus making him more likely to do it again.
Many games have problems like this, where strange or illogical playstyles are not looked down on in game or even sometimes just outright ignored.
When speedrunners play games, they oftentimes do crazy things like breaking the physics to go through walls or just outright skipping story elements. When they do these things the games rarely show that they had done anything wrong and instead act as if they had done everything as intended the whole game. This can get silly when characters react to past events that would happen in a normal playthrough yet were just completely skipped in a speedrun.
Is a mismatch of player-character dissonance always a bad thing? Not really. It can create a lot of unintentionally funny moments in games and can bring the player a special enjoyment for having broken the game, but one thing it does do is break immersion. If a player wishes to do something that the game cannot fulfil, they will often get frustrated and broken from their immersion.
A good way to avoid this is to try and code in more outcomes for both story and gameplay conditions. A developer should try and predict possible playstyles and decisions in order to accommodate for more player agency.
What the true problem boils down to is not an issue between the player and the character, but with the gameplay and the story. If gameplay actions are incorporated into the story, oftentimes this dissonance can be avoided. You can’t always avoid it though, because there are just too many players who will play in unpredictable playstyles. There is also budgetary and time constraints during development that need to be considered, because it could take a long time and a lot of money to implement such a broad range of possible outcomes.
One game that I believe gets this perfect is called Slime Rancher. In the game, you play as someone who is fed up with their monotonous life on earth and has decided to run away to a far away planet to get away from it all. The game is open ended and doesn’t really have many story decisions that happen in the current time, instead acting as a sort of sandbox for the player to enjoy.
Now how is this an example of a perfect player-protagonist relationship? Because this game is meant to be an escape for the player. It’s an escapist fantasy of going to an alien world to escape your stresses and worries. Both the player and the character have exactly the same reason for doing what they do. They are both there to have fun and get away from it all. Escapism in a physical sense for one and a metaphorical sense for the other.
The game markets itself as exactly what it is: a relaxing break away from stresses on a mysterious world filled with adorable creatures. The game can keep its immersion despite any playstyle because it never actually comments on the way that the game is being played. The only interactions you can have with others are ones that are a direct result of the player’s effort, and they are so simple that nothing they can say will fail to describe the player’s actions. They only talk about themselves and why they ran away from earth, allowing for the player to feel a connection with them or not on their own.
None of the playstyles of the game are technically wrong. There could be players that never cage the slimes and raise them fully free-range, ones that turn their farm into a fully automated money-making factory, or just those who keep a few slimes that they enjoy caring for. All of these are right, and the other characters in the game actually exist to provide potential playstyles to those who feel lost. In the end, this isn’t something that matters for most games. it’s a minor detail that many people don’t notice, but if you want to make a great game you need to take it into account. If you have everything else done early and you have some spare budget left over, consider putting some time into incorporating dialogue that notices your players’ actions, or even make them influence the gameplay or story. It’s not big, but people will notice and will thank you