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Books vs videogames: it’s a matter of agency

There’s only one thing in the world that I love at least as much as I love books: video games. This fascination dates back to when I was a child and a cousin of mine gave me a bunch of 1.44 MB floppy disks with some games on. In my parents’ office’s closing hours, I plugged one of them in and played one game after the other (I remember a kind of SuperMario clone, a Flipper, and a Soccer simulation).

Minimal as they were, I fell in love with those games and was fascinated by all those pixels moving automatically on screen and reacting to a key being pressed. The fascination and the desire to grasp the nuts and bolts of it was so strong that when I grew up I ended up enrolling in a Computer Science degree: it hasn’t allowed me to get a job in the game industry so far, but at least now I see the strings behind the puppets. And my fascination still stands strong.

For years I’ve thought a very few people were as interested in both games and books as I am, for several reasons:

  1. Videogames are usually considered leisure for kids.
  2. Adults still playing games are often depicted as immature and/or untidy loners. (Luckily enough, this statement gets weaker every day, but not thanks to the hardcore gamers community).
  3. Consequently, there’s a kind of stigma, or at least of suspicion, that comes automatically when someone defines themselves as a “gamer”.
  4. The videogames my generation grew up with weren’t very rich in story, and the ones who had a story still looked very much like each other.
  5. Among my circle of friends, they tended to get bored with every cutscene they met (one of my best friends even slowed down his Gears of War campaign by a lot because he overlooked some important information conveyed through one of the few cutscenes).

Maybe it’s because I began to study the matter on my own, or maybe because advances in technologies allowed videogames to become richer and more complex, but nowadays I see that the relationship between games and other kinds of media (books, movies, tv shows) is tighter than ever. Story elements in a game have become so important that any team working on a AAA game has at least one specific role as a narrative designer, who works closely with the rest of the team to make each game’s story as unique as possible.

Still, there are a few differences between a game and a book, the biggest one being the following: agency. When we read a book we have to follow the path that the writer has chosen for us. We’re a passive audience, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. What we usually do when we read a book is to picture the character and the setting in our head: it’s fascinating and it makes books much better than tv or movies in this regard and allows our fantasy to wander with no effort. But still, the story follows a linear path or the path someone else has chosen. An exception to this is Interactive Fiction, but it’s a topic that deserves to be expanded in an upcoming post.

Many games, on the other hand, usually present the player with different options: think about World of Warcraft or any other MMORPG, where the story is built by the player and their interaction with other players and with the game elements quest after quest. Or a game like Skyrim, where there are so many side quests and missions besides the main one: to complete the core of the game it takes an estimate of 30 hours of gameplay, while the hour count jumps up to 300 to complete all the side quests1. And sports games (NBA 2K, FIFA, Madden series), fighting games such as Tekken, or war games such as Call of Duty are best known for their PvP modality rather than for a defined storyline. The story of each game or campaign is created by the players as they play against each other or chase and shoot each other’s avatars.

Aside from MMORPGs and Open World games, though, the main AAA titles still seem to follow a defined storyline: think about The Last Of Us and the Uncharted series, God of War, etc. Are they really more “open” than books when it comes to the story they’re telling? Keeping track of all the possible outcomes of many different choices would be too much effort for the developing team to introduce, and besides, it would be impossible to figure out in advance every single choice that every single player could make. Some games allow a few choices affecting the rest of the game (e.g. how to deal with Megaton in Fallout3), but in the majority of cases, there’s a script to follow and a limited set of possible endings.

What really separates authored stories-driven games from other kinds of media in this regard is how good they are in giving the player the illusion of agency. The first and foremost factor in allowing the player to feel like they have agency is the fact that they’re actually performing the actions required for the game to progress: they’re following a path but on their own terms. The game story doesn’t progress if the player doesn’t make it. Without deviating from the story, the player can usually decide which items to pick up, the order of some missions, or how to deal with enemies (Dishonored and Dishonored 2 grant a specific badge if a player clears the game without killing a single enemy2).

The point of this post is not to say that one medium is inherently better than the other: my point is that they are two of the possible ways to enjoy a story. Each one of them is unique in what experiences it brings to its audience, and I think in everyone’s life there is room for both kinds of entertainment. Sometimes I need to feel like I’m living inside the story, and that how it will unfold depends on me. Sometimes, instead, I’m fine with just running my eyes on the page and picturing the story in my head as if I was looking at it from outside.




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