When Players Feel Helpless: Agentic Decay and Participation in Narrative Games

Kyle Eveleth

The ergodic (participatory) element of games is often cited as the core barrier to overcoming a perceived divide between good ludic (gaming) design and powerful storytelling. The present study examines two Indie games, Braid and Actual Sunlight, and their nuanced treatment of player participation in service of effective storytelling. These games in particular test the limits of player agency by asking the player to make ethically and morally problematic decisions, such as killing the main character, en route to completing the narrative. Such unusual narrative methods allow Braid and Actual Sunlight‗s game designers to unveil the mechanisms that afford, constrain, and ultimately revitalise the player‘s agency within the bounds of ergodic interaction. Narrative here, rather than restricting gameplay, instead enhances it, offering a tragic moment of cathartic relief as the player is exculpated for his or her decisions during the game. The insights drawn from these two examples and larger-studio offerings like Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed suggest a deeply traditional mode of storytelling at work in many narrative video games, an assertion that allows the ludological/narratological divide to be reknit and sets up ergodic media as a whole (video games, physical roleplaying games, interactive books, and more) for critical reconsideration.

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Author Biography
Kyle Eveleth

Kyle Eveleth is a PhD candidate, McNair Scholar and King-Chavez-Parks Fellow at the University of Kentucky, where he specialises in 20th and 21st century American literature and children’s/young adult literature. He has published on the Scott Pilgrim transmedial franchise (in Textual Overtures 1, 2013), on the Bronze and Modern Ages of superhero comics in the United States (in The American Comic Book, ed. Joseph Michael Sommers, Salem Press 2014) and on labyrinthine functions in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (in South Central Review 32, forthcoming 2015). His current work traces precursors to and examines the cultural conditions surrounding the meteoric rise of American young adult literature in the mid-20th century. 

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