Bringing Dramatic Agency to Storytelling

Since discovering Janet H. Murray’s work on storytelling, I have been searching for answers on how to make stories more immersive and, more importantly, I have experimented to see how I can bring dramatic agency into the stories I write. For those unfamiliar with dramatic agency, Murray offers a wonderfully poignant definition on her companion Web site to Inventing the Medium:

The experience of agency within a procedural and participatory environment that makes use of compelling story elements, such as an adventure game or a interactive narrative. To create dramatic agency the designer must create transparent interaction conventions (like clicking on the image of a garment to put it on the player’s avatar) and map them onto actions which suggest rich story possibilities (like donning a magic cloak and suddenly becoming invisible) within clear story stories with dramatically focused episodes (such as, an opportunity to spy on enemy conspirators in a fantasy role playing game).

Those familiar with Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck will know that agency, especially dramatic agency, is a big part of the future of cybernarratives. According to Murray, agency is often limited by traditional forms of storytelling. For example, when we read a novel, there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room when it comes to asserting one’s agency within the immersive narrative world or universe.

I will, however, argue there have been a number of semi-successful literary experiments within experimental novels that have attempted to give agency to their readers. Those familiar with the work of Mark Z. Danielewksi know that agency is a big part of works like House of Leaves, The Familiar, and The Fifty-Year Sword. The use of typographical tricks, puzzles, footnotes, colors, textures, and other visual stimuli have created a rather unique form of storytelling. Unfortunately, with the cancelation of The Familiar series by Danielewski’s publisher, there is some doubt as to what the future of immersive and agency-filled narratives will be.

Prior to Danielewski’s bizarre and oddly satisfying work the Web gave us hypertext fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry. For those unfamiliar with hypertext writing, you might be surprised to know that vestiges of this school of thought concerning writing and the construction of story are still with us today — albeit in more nuanced and linear ways. Hypertext promised to recreate fiction, and writing in general, but it didn’t last, much like Danielewski’s promising Familiar series. To the hypertextualists, who were squarely in the camp of postmodernism, the text is constructed by the reader-participant. However, as Steven Johnson pointed out in Wired, people didn’t want to just click links and craft the stories themselves. Instead, people wanted something like the novel — linear in the sense of being able to read from page one to page 999, without having to piece together the narrative through links (so many links!). Johnson further pointed out that people enjoyed hyertext, but it had to be linear in fashion. In other words, people enjoy having linear text punctuated by hyperlinks to other linear texts. (If you don’t believe me, consider this article, which is linear in fashion, punctuated by hyperlinks to (mostly) linear texts.)

Dramatic Agency (Janet Murray)

With the failures of nonlinear, agency-oriented texts, where do we go from here? The answer to this question is simple enough. We go to one of the fastest growing staples in entertainment: gaming. Agency and game play have a cozy coexistence when compared to narrative or storytelling and agency. Games, by definition, require a form of agency in order for players to play them. In other words, for it to be a game, a game must allow for players to participate willingly. This gives way to a form of agency that is missing from storytelling in its traditional forms.

Agency in gaming as we know it has deep roots in role-playing games (RPGs), where one can participate within a given environment, acting as the main character within the game’s story. For those familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, or any tabletop role-playing game for that matter, will recognize just how important agency is within the game. Players are characters within a grand narrative worldscape or universe. While playing, players are expected to act in character, to interact with the DM/GM, who plays as the non-player characters (NPCs), to interact with other players at the table, and to interact with the collective imagination of the group that fashions together the world or universe of the RPG in question.

Video games have taken on this sense of agency from role-playing games and have adapted it to the digital/virtual realm. Games like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and even Mass Effect, have allowed players to experience new worlds/universes through the comfort of their television screens or computer monitors. The immersive quality of these universes invite players to want to have agency within their boundaries. In other words, we want to have the ability to roam, to explore, and to test the laws of the worlds or universes we play within our gaming computers or consoles.

In traditional media, RPG gamebooks or Choose Your Own Adventurenovels gave readers a new sense of agency within a traditional format. However, these books were limited. As more choices are made available to the reader-participant, the harder it ts to stay within the bounds of a cheaply made novel. Thus, we must ask ourselves, do we need to look elsewhere? Do we need to look to the computer? Do we need to look beyond the printed book for a space to offer reader-participants the chance at having a bit of agency within their favorite story worlds or universes?

Firewatch Trailer from E3 (2015)

I believe that the computer has untapped storytelling potential. The computer could, very well, offer us the ability to create agency-oriented and immersive worlds or universes people want to be a part of. Moreover, cheap computing could offer storytellers the opportunity to push beyond the bounds of traditional storytelling models, including the novel-dominant paradigm we find ourselves living within today. We are already stretching the limits of the novel today with the uber-novel. The uber-novel spans several thousand pages, clogs up wikis, blogs, and vlogs, and, more importantly, it is immensely immersive in its depth, accessibility, and richness. We could, technically speaking, take the uber-novel and transform it into a computer-mediated experience. Games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls have provided the depth, richness, and accessibility that comes with uber-novels or novels in general. However, what they have that is different from the uber-novel is that they allow for the reader-participant to have agency within the game universe or world. Thus, we might want to look toward the powerful game engines currently available for the next storytelling experience, in order to bring real agency to storytelling.

How Video Games Turn Players into Storytellers: David Cage (TED)

Although one could argue that video games have taken over where traditional storytelling has left off, I would argue that video games could do well by continuing or building on the traditions of storytelling that came before. Instead of relying on the pulse-pounding shoot-’em-ups like Call of Duty or even Battlefield, we need to look to truly interactive and introspective works like Firewatch, which unravels much like a traditional novel does. To borrow a term from Murray’s Hamlet in the Holodeck, video games today are currently incunabula. That is, they are still in their developing stages, in their swaddling clothes. Shoot-’em-ups are merely the easiest to build in a medium that is being continually honed by designers. In other words, we should not see the saturation of shoot-’em-ups as the degradation of storytelling in the digital realm. Instead, we should see shoot-’em-ups as a sort of low-hanging fruit that are easy to profit from in the short term. Moreover, they are the easiest to build, in terms of game development. (However, I must note that even shoot-’em-ups are beginning to rely on rudimentary storytelling techniques to add depth to their violent landscapes.) Writers, especially those with backgrounds in dramatic structure, realistic character development, and even world-building, could bring a depth to video games, to immersive digital environments, that is currently missing from the shiny, high-budget games we see on consoles and computers. In other words, the very real agency found in video games mixed with immersive qualities found traditional storytelling models could build a storytelling experience that many of us crave. In the words of Murray, we should not see the digital realm as antithetical to traditional storytelling methods. Instead, we should view it as a continuation of storytelling we are familiar with. After all, video games, despite arguments by ludologists, are indeed the inheritors of print and storytelling traditions that have complicated and rich histories that can’t — and shouldn’t — be ignored.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico