The Power of the Player:
An Analysis and Taxonomy of Choice-Based Video Games
As Interactive Narratives
By Christina Masucci
20 December 2017
The realm of storytelling is vast and varied, offering readers a wide range of narrative experiences from linear to nonlinear, static to dynamic, nonreciprocal to interactive. For centuries, the traditional, text-based narrative has been at the forefront of studied literature. These narratives give to the reader without asking for anything in return or giving the reader much agency. In such stories, there is a one-way line of communication: the text feeds information to the reader, the reader takes it in to process, and that is the end. Even today, it is the norm, and it has its merits, of course, and this is not to say that the reader cannot have a complex relationship with a narrative. It is worthy of note, though, to say that other forms of storytelling are bringing new perspectives to the fields of narratology and literary analysis. Interactive narratives make use of audience participation, drawing the “readers” into the story and setting them in a role where they themselves affect the outcome of the story.
Regardless of the medium and style, a story has an effect on its audience, and seeks to evoke some emotional response and reasoning from said audience, calling upon their innate sense of morality to do so. One medium of storytelling that often does this explicitly is the video game—a controversial and contested art whittled down in modern research to whether or not it makes children violent. Despite the banality of this claim, studies of narrative and player morality in video games are far from new. According to Hans-Joachim Backe in his research study “Narrative rules? Story logic and the structures of games,” the ambiguous concepts of ‘game’ and ‘narrative’ have been analyzed countless times, with findings ranging in the amount of differentiation between the two. Backe seeks to understand the synthesis of “the rigidity of narrative … [and] the openness of play” and later compares the structure of narrative to that of games, which is what this researcher hopes to accomplish, among other goals, by the conclusion of this project (243-244).
More explicitly connecting the interactive narrative style with games is the choice-based game. While a staple of games is player interaction and influence, choice-based games consider an extensive amount of variables and opportunities for audience input that can change the course of a game’s storyline. This, more often than not, leads to the creation of multiple endings to a game. Amanda Lange, in her study of gamer engagement with moral choice systems, illuminates the increasingly popular trend of a strict, “binary moral choice system,” claiming that,
Though all games seem to define good and evil slightly differently, most games are explicit about indicating which choice was made after it was made or during that choice’s execution . . . Games generally consider non-violent solutions to be good solutions when they are available, and consider overtly violent solutions to be evil regardless of the context or amount of violence elsewhere in the game. (Lange 2)
With a thoroughly branching story where several endings are possible, including more gray-area endings beyond the binary Lange suggests, more than one narrative is the result, creating a more interactive and worthwhile experience between a work and its audience.
Such a concept has been seen before in text narratives. In the study “Interactive Narratives: Processes and Outcomes in User-Directed Stories,” games are examined for their interactivity—a term with varying definitions, depending on the specific medium—under the umbrella of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” genre of text-based narratives (Green & Jenkins, 479). The genre makes use of incorporating the reader as a character—most often the main character—and allows them to be in control of the path of the narrative. Green and Jenkins offer R.L. Stine’s late-1990s Give Yourself Goosebumps and Spike, Cole, and Buday’s 2012 The Brewsters as examples of these “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. The researchers document the varied audiences and uses for the genre, mentioning how the latter series acts as a training manual of sorts for adults pursuing medical professions. The researchers conclude that the “unique narratives” are not widely used, but have a practical purpose in “gaining a greater understanding of narrative processing ... [particularly when narratives] provide an opportunity for active participation” (480). The genre is a good middle-ground between text narratives and video games which, as will be seen shortly, have more in common than originally thought possible.
Through examination of past literature regarding elements of narrative, three recent, morally-challenging, choice-based games will be analyzed in how they relate to these elements, specifically in terms of the roles of the narrator/narratee/etc., the audience’s agency and dilemma of choice, the “replay value” of games, and the overall uniqueness of games that text narratives just cannot provide. The particular games reviewed will include Toby Fox’s 2015 roleplaying game (RPG) Undertale, Supermassive Games’s survival-horror game Until Dawn, and Dontnod Entertaiment’s episodic adventure game Life Is Strange.
I. The Stories We Read & Games We Play
In order to be able to effectively compare the elements of traditional text narratives to those of new interactive narratives, a background understanding of certain narratological concepts is necessary. From a Reader-Response perspective, as described in an early essay of the theoretical approach by Walter Gibson entitled “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers,” it could be said that the roles often associated with traditional, linear narratives—(see essay title)—coincide with those of the game medium of storytelling. In all forms of literary study, the reader should differentiate between the speaker and the author of a text. While the author is, in simplest terms, the creator of a piece of literature, the speaker is rather “that voice of disguise through which someone ... communicates with us” (Gibson, 1). All that makes up the speaker is what is in the text—possessing a personality, opinions, and morals of its own.
Along the same line concerning a degree of separation between the real life and internal entities of a work, a more interesting and less discussed relationship is that of the reader and the mock-reader. While the former is the actual, real-life individual reading the text in their hands, the latter is, as Gibson describes, “a fictitious reader ... whose mask and costume the individual takes on in order to experience the language” (2). In other words, the mock-reader is to whom the speaker is speaking—someone who understands all language, references, etc. and adheres to all the speaker’s assumptions of them. For example, if the speaker says “You should already be aware of the battle between the humans and monsters that forced the latter into hiding underground,” then it is to be assumed that the mock-reader knows this information. The reader, on the other hand, could have no idea what the speaker is talking about, and yet will take on the façade that they are aware so as not to disrupt the relationship between the speaker and the mock-reader.
Such roles in narratives are also defined in Gerald Prince’s essay “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee” with the terms narrator (for speaker) and narratee (for mock-reader). Prince, too, sees both roles as “fictive [creations]” of a fictional work’s author, and argues that there is more diversity amongst narratees than narrators (226). Additionally, while the usual purpose of the narratee/mock-reader is to take the information given by the speaker and act as a filter between said speaker and the “real” reader, there are circumstances where the narratee/mock-reader is an actual character in the story. Here, the narratee/mock-reader is addressed specifically with more than just “dear reader” (235-236). This particular classification is what is most commonly seen in games.
Additionally required for complete background understanding is a brief description of each game chosen by the researcher. The three are all narrative-heavy games with unique choice mechanisms that affect the outcome of the story based on player input. While there are similarities between them, they are also as varied as literature can be, ranging from independent, “rated E for Everyone” role-playing games to mature, survival horror AAA/Triple-A titles. (This classification term denotes that a game has the highest level of development budget and promotions.)
Undertale is a single-player, role-playing adventure/puzzle game created by indie developer and composer Toby Fox about a small human child falling into a subterranean monster society known as the Underground and having to traverse through the kingdom to escape. Whether or not the child fights the monsters—and in reality, they do not have to—is up to the choice of the player, and from very early on determines which of the three radically different paths—General, Pacifist, or No Mercy—the player will take through the course of the game.
Along the same vein of self-preservation, Until Dawn is a choice-based, interactive drama/ survival-horror game developed by Supermassive Games. Rated M for its violence and horror elements, the game itself is basically a “Choose Your Own Adventure” horror movie, with the cliché narrative of eight teenagers in a cabin in the woods with a killer on the loose—or so they think. Adding a twist to the game are additional “outside-looking-in” psychological elements, very nuanced choices, and prophesizing collectible totems, all of which can lead to one of over 200 possible endings, depending on the player’s dialogue and exploration choices.
Life Is Strange, an episodic graphic adventure game from independent developer Dontnod Entertainment, also utilizes detailed choices to affect character arcs and storylines. It is the story of photography student Maxine “Max” Caulfield who discovers she has the ability to rewind time, a mechanism which sets the game apart from others in terms of outcome predictability and player choice.
As can be seen, the games range in style and genre, and each brings into play certain issues of morality that, when analyzed, allows us that “greater understanding of narrative processing,” as Green and Jenkins claim (480). With a general basis of knowledge for the roles in a narrative as well as an overview of the main games to be discussed, the researcher can begin to make the connections between those utilized in text narratives and those utilized in video games. Overall, there are definite connections between the two genres’ roles, albeit altered slightly due to the interactive nature of games.
II. The Roles We Become
So long as there is narrative in a game, so too will there be the previously discussed roles as set by the narratological theories, though they will tend to take on different names than “mock-reader” and “speaker,” etc. As such, for the sake of ease, the reader/audience will be referred to as the player and the mock-reader/narratee will be referred to as the playable character (as opposed to non-playable characters or NPCs) when discussing these roles as they appear in games.
First, the author—the real-life entity—is still just that: the “writer” of the work, having created a story with a specific purpose, view, plot, etc. The speaker/narrator, though, may or may not be as evident. Some games may include an explicit narration—some overhead voice documenting background details and storyline that is not able to be portrayed well through play alone or context clues. Other games may include a guide or mentor of sorts, introducing the audience to the game’s world more naturally, particularly in a more tutorial-based framework. Then again, there could be no guide/narration at all, as the player could be left with the environment alone, forced to seek out answers/information without a guide. It could also possibly be a mix between the three, with an explicit narration at the beginning of the game, providing context clues and backstory, before withdrawing and leaving players to fend for themselves in the world of the game.
In a similar fashion, the “reader” or player of the game is, again, just that: the “real-life” person with the game in hand/on-screen. The mock-reader/narratee, or playable character, is the visage players take on, fitting themselves into the world of the game and accepting any assumptions about their character. In the grand scope of games, oftentimes the playable character can be a blank slate, whose sole purpose is to be the player in mind and soul. Other playable characters can take on a role of narratee-character, as Prince describes, who has a set of defined personality traits and an established position in the game’s world (236).
Additionally, there can again be a mix, where there are defined traits in the narratee, but there is a certain amount of blank spots left to be filled in by the player. These blank spots often come into play during tense moments of decision in games, where the player can take one of several perspectives in decision-making: (1) “attempt to understand the character as presented in the story and make the decision based on what the character would do . . . [(2)] project him- or herself into the story, and make a decision based on what he or she would do . . . [or (3)] treat the story as a game and simply choose the option that seems the most exciting or seems like it would make the best story” (Green & Jenkins 485). Such forms of connection between playable character and player (or lack thereof in the third option) can lead to the exploration of players’ mindsets as pivotal characters in stories—a topic that the researcher believes can be translated back to text narratives.
For now, though, it would be appropriate to point out the aforementioned roles as they appear in the chosen games. In Life Is Strange, the player assumes the role of playable character Max. The timid high school student, set up already with her own personality and views, is the only character the player is able to control. She follows the characteristics of Prince’s narratee-character, though the player is able to make decisions on her behalf, effectively altering her personality throughout the story. For example, there is a choice in Episode 3: Chaos Theory, where the player can either have Max kiss her best friend Chloe or not. Depending on what the player chooses here, along with other choices throughout the game, there could be the option to kiss Chloe again at the end of the game, confirming or denying the change in Max’s feelings towards her best friend (Life is Strange, 2015). Such a change is solely up to the player.
There is no set narrator in the game, as the “narration” comes from the surrounding environment and inner thoughts of Max. Though, the player is able to access Max’s Diary, a section of Max’s Journal where she keeps a record of the story, updated continually throughout the game. This can act as a narration of sorts, though delayed, and allows the player to see further into the character of Max. Whether or not Max’s original personality remains intact, though, is again up to the player. In this sense, it could be considered that Max is the playable character/mock-reader/narratee-character as well as the narrator.
The option to alter character personalities can also be seen in Until Dawn, where the player is able to play as a total of the eight main characters. In this way, the player has eight points of view to control, as well as, once the characters disperse (as is always advised not to do in horror situations), several storylines and character arcs to keep track of, giving the player more of an omnipresent, omniscient role rather than the first-person point of view of Life Is Strange. The main goal of the game is to survive, and it is up to the player’s quick and logical thinking to determine who amongst the group will make it to the end. Similar to Life Is Strange, there is no actual narrator, but an explanatory backstory regarding the origin of the Wendigo—the actual monster on the loose—is available as an extra, achievable bonus. Also, the Butterfly Effect, which details the choices and consequences a player makes, acts as a record, keeping track of the story thus far (Until Dawn, 2015).
Undertale, though similar to Life Is Strange in that there is only one playable character to keep track of, differs in the tabula rasa characteristic of its playable character, Frisk, who truly does not show any emotion other than what the player has them do. A curious instance in the game is that, at the very beginning of the game, the player is asked to “Name the fallen human.” It does not specify what human, though, and the player is led to believe that the playable character is being named. This is incorrect, as it is discovered at the very end of the game—only in the Pacifist and No Mercy routes, though—that it was the first fallen human later described in the lore of the game to whom the beginning text was referring, and the playable character is actually named Frisk (Undertale, 2015).
Why does the player have the responsibility to name the first fallen human, then? Do they have any control over the story? What connection does the fallen human, whose “true name,” as described in the naming sequence, is technically Chara, have to do with Frisk? It is speculated in the fan community for Undertale that the narrator that provides explanation and backstory, is in fact the soul of this first human Chara, whose body was buried under the golden flowers that catch Frisk’s fall at the beginning of the game. The narration is similar to that of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories and of past, text-based games that employ second-person narration such as “(The shadow of the ruins looms above, filling you with determination.)” and “(You call for help.) … But no one came,” and seems to know quite a bit about the underground, giving fuel to this theory (Undertale, 2015). In the end, though, it would appear that there are three powers in the race for control in Undertale: the player; the playable character, Frisk; and the potential narrator, Chara.
As can be seen, the alignment and similarity of roles in text narratives and games is as varied as the stories themselves, demonstrating somewhat of an active power struggle in certain games and introducing the idea that the “reader” of a work has influence over the “mock-reader,” just as the “speaker” has influence over the “reader,” depending heavily on the choices made.
III. The Choices We Make
The first notable difference between text narratives and interactive narratives is the element of player agency and choice—that much is clear. R.L. Stine’s novels were just the beginning of bringing narrative and interactivity together. The uniqueness of the choice systems and endings as they vary per game elevate the genre much higher, offering to the player far more than just one story.
Lange’s discussion of the binary moral system—with distinct tells for the “good” and “evil” paths in a game—can be exemplified perfectly through Undertale’s Fight or Spare/Mercy system. There are, as mentioned, three paths a player could take: the Pacifist Route, where no monsters are killed; the Neutral Route, where at least one monster is killed; and the No Mercy Route (also known as the Genocide Route), where every possible monster is sought out and killed. Choices early on in the game can determine the specific course, and it is clear that the game itself wants the player to take the Pacifist Route, as each monster, from King Asgore to the lowly, common Moldsmal, has a story, a personality, and a reason for the player to think twice before killing them. So, from the beginning, though the player is tempted by main antagonist Flowey to Fight, there is all manner of other sources—including characters and a welcoming atmosphere—encouraging the player to do anything but Fight. Sing, dance, smile, flirt—anything. It is only in the battle with King Asgore that the player is forced to Fight, and by this time, it is a daunting choice to make.
The choice systems in Life Is Strange and Until Dawn differ somewhat from this binary—the former, more so—as the smallest, seemingly inconsequential choices cause a Butterfly Effect, building up to affect the story in ways that are far from inconsequential. Coincidentally, the Butterfly Effect is the name of mechanisms in both games regarding their choice systems. Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect, as said, keeps track of the effects choices have on the story. For example, early on in the game, the player has a choice to, as playable character Chris, either shoot at a squirrel or ignore it. Shooting the squirrel leads to, as the game puts it, nature being out of balance, and animals in the game act more hostile towards the characters, resulting in the inevitability of Sam’s capture later on (Until Dawn, 2015).
The Butterfly Effect employed in Life Is Strange is similar to a small degree; it warns the player that a choice made will have consequences later on, a mechanism similar to that of Until Dawn’s totems, which, when found, show a brief, foreshadowing clip of an event to come, and perhaps even how the player can avoid a deadly fate for one of the characters. In Life Is Strange, though, the player has the ability to immediately rewind their decisions and view the immediate outcome of each option, giving the player the feeling of more power in their decisions, when, in reality, the long-term effects are always unpredictable.
Funnily enough, though, the storylines of Until Dawn and Life Is Strange both lead to unavoidable, final, climactic scenes. The former always leads to a final stand-off with the Wendigo, after which can result in one of over 200 endings, with any and all possible combinations of surviving characters. The latter, meanwhile, culminates in the final decision to either “Sacrifice Chloe [to save the town of Arcadia Bay and everyone in it from the impending tornado caused by Max’s rewind power]” or “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay [to defy fate and ensure Chloe’s safety],” regardless of any choices made throughout the game (Life Is Strange, 2015). Only minor details are different in the respective epilogues of each end: who attends Chloe’s funeral, whether or not Max kisses Chloe again, etc. It is interesting to note this, as it would seem that while the smallest choices do matter in one sense, they could matter much less in the grand scheme of things.
IV. The Mistakes We Make & Things We Remember
The first time a reader reads a text, they reach the end and that is the end. All the choices the author made in telling the story are finite, and while a reread would surely bring to light details missed, the ending would remain. In contrast, the first time a player plays a choice-based game, they reach the end, are able to replay the game, alter their choices, and discover a different ending altogether. That is what makes interactive narratives a more heightened genre of literature: the guaranteed ability to start over anew.
With that in mind, moving away from similarities between text narratives and choice-based video games, the ability to reset and replay a game allows for the player to repeat a story and achieve a different outcome, possibly satiating some curiosity of “what if I had done x instead of y.” While text narratives have attained the ability for multiple outcomes with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” genre, games remain the more immersive of the two by nature. Whether or not a game is worth a second, third, etc. playthrough determines its replay value, and choice-based games almost always are worthy of at least that second playthrough.
When made well, narrative itself is attractive to a reader; the want and curiosity to seek out answers and endings is at the core of human desire, as described by Peter Brooks in his essay “Narrative Desire.” There is that innate need to complete, just as there is “a force that drives the protagonist forward [in a narrative,] assuring that no incident or action is final or closed until such a moment as the ends of ambition have been clarified, through success or else renunciation” (Brooks 308). Here, Brooks is only describing text narratives, where the reader finds out the ending, whether the protagonist succeeded or failed, and has to deal with it, since the reader has no agency over the story. If that drive for completion in text narratives is as pronounced as Brooks claims it is, then that drive is applicable to games to an elevated degree, as players are not only striving to complete a story themselves, accepting failure or otherwise, but they are striving to complete it several times over, exploring every nook and cranny for every bit of information just to satisfy their own curiosity and ambition.
In Until Dawn, a player can find out the consequences of their choices—with decision-making assistance from the Butterfly Effect and totems—deal with them as the story continues, discover their ending, and can replay the whole story with better knowledge and no lingering consequences. Meanwhile, in Life Is Strange, the player can find out the immediate consequences of their choices, rewind and see the immediate consequences of other choices, then debate those consequences instead of the choices. Even then, they can still replay the entire story from the beginning with, again, better knowledge and no lingering consequences.
Undertale is a little trickier, as the player finds out the consequences of their choices, has to deal with them as the story continues, can reset and replay, but the game remembers any and all previous choices and playthroughs, so there are still consequences regardless. A benign occurrence of this is when a player replays either the Pacifist or Neutral Route twice in a row. Characters will mention that you are familiar to them, as exemplified with a phone call from Toriel near the beginning of the game: “When humans fall down here, strangely... I... I often feel like I already know them. Truthfully, when I first saw you, I felt... like I was seeing an old friend for the first time” (Undertale, 2015). Now, this “memory” the monsters possess is not only eerie, but dangerous, as well, particularly where the No Mercy Route is concerned.
Thus leads to a brief discussion of the ability for games to seem “self-aware” or break the fourth wall. The concept is not particularly common, but independently developed games—Undertale, OFF, Pony Island, to name a few from recent years—have taken a liking to the idea. Truthfully, narratives in general are able to do this rather easily. Oftentimes, moments where the fourth wall is broken are taken as jokes, before the view is pulled back to the reality of the narrative to continue on. The aforementioned games, however, take this “self-awareness” seriously. At the end of the No Mercy Route of Undertale, surprise final boss Sans the Skeleton—a light-hearted but mysterious character in any other route—sheds the harmless façade and presents himself as his universe’s final protector of sorts. His dialogue throughout his fight alludes to knowledge about the player resetting the game, and for a good while, directly states how many times the player had been killed by him.
The best part of this circumstance, actually, to draw back to a player’s want to discover and complete, is that the only way to learn more about Sans is to go through with the No Mercy Route—to kill every possible monster, go against every moral lesson the game tries to teach, and accept every permanent consequence the game throws at the player. The desire to know more is a dangerous thing, and it is absolutely intriguing to see how many players who play the Pacifist Route, who achieve the best possible ending for the characters, reset and take it all away.
V. The Company We Keep & Stories We Need
Taking into consideration all the complexities of choice in these games and the varying amount of agency and responsibility the player has, the researcher is led to wonder: what is the reasoning behind the choices these players make, and what is the relationship between the player and the game where they are able to make these decisions?
As described earlier in the introduction of roles in narratives and games, the player can assume the character’s pre-established personality, assume the player’s own personality, or adhere to a set of choices that will lead to a certain desired outcome regardless of adhering to a set personality (Green & Jenkins). It would seem that, with the first two options, the player is attempting to connect to the game. Well, Wayne C. Booth would argue the opposite based on his speculation of stories as friendship offerings in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Booth claims that “the implied authors of all stories . . . purport to offer one [of three kinds of friendships]” to the reader. These include friendships of pleasure, of gain, or of both, while also being wholesomely good for all parties involved (173-174). The same can be said for these games; however, though on the surface they could seem to be inherently good “friends” with a desire to teach, it can be said that the games’ purpose is to test the player, to judge the player, to almost a cruel degree.
In the chosen games, the playable character is oftentimes the one who is being judged and/or tested, but as the player wears the character’s mask, so too do they take on the guilt of the character. Themes of revenge, challenge, guilt, and judgment are prevalent, and it is a wonder if a majority of choice-based games strive to dig at the core of a person’s humanity and moral standing, just to see how far that person would go. Undertale, as seen, seeks to directly judge just that: a player’s curiosity and need to experience all possible outcomes—whether good, bad, or anywhere in between. Both Asriel of Undertale and Josh of Until Dawn, interestingly enough, challenge the playable character(s) in their desperate need for revenge over the death of their respective sibling(s), and the player feels the brunt of the need for revenge, particularly in the Pacifist Route’s final battle and through the “deadly” games Josh puts his friends through. Also in Until Dawn, flashbacks for Josh’s therapy sessions are set up in a way where Dr. Hill, or The Analyst, seems to interview the player, asking for the player’s fears to utilize against them later in the game. And finally, in the case of Kate of Life Is Strange, it is up to the player to have paid attention to Kate’s surroundings enough to offer the right dialogue to prevent her from committing suicide. Failing to do so sets an incredible amount of guilt on the player, striving to evoke the emotional responses that would drive the player to replay and fix their mistake.
So yes, there is a relationship between the player and the game, just as there is one between the reader and the narrative, but in games it might be to a more extensive degree than Booth would think. In a story where you, as a player/reader/etc. are in control with no “real” consequences, it is easy to succumb to curiosities and desires, as Brooks discusses—and these games tempt us to do so. They have a viewpoint for the player to see, pointing towards the “good” end, then challenge the player to challenge that viewpoint, making them rethink their own morality in hindsight. Text narratives do this to a degree, as readers have been, are, and will forever be able to immerse themselves in a written work. The player’s agency, though, along with the complexities of the player’s role, the player’s desires to complete a story and fix mistakes, and the forced lesson to accept consequences—all of this culminates in a newer form of interactive narrative ready to be studied more extensively from a literary perspective.
It is the hope of the researcher that this project has acted as an appropriate introduction between the literary analysis field and choice-based video games. It is also the hope that future literary researchers share a passion for the narrative elements of games, and that future studies furthering the examination of players’ narrative processing take place.
But, of course, the choice is yours. Do you wish to continue?
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