Low player agency in choice-based games

It’s always impressive when a choice-based game stuns us with the depth of its interactivity, but I would love to hear about your favorite on-rails, low agency, more-fiction-than-interactive games (where the IF format nevertheless enhances the story). Howling Dogs is a good example, in my opinion.


I mean…

The Spring Thing fed us good this year!


Well there is my Twine version of One King to Loot them All of course… absolutely on-rails, low agency, and LOADED with fiction! MIGHTIEST THEWS! And if people think that is NO agency…, There is the SINGLE CHOICE…


Basically half the Single Choice Jam, right? And Bogeyman had important decisions, but only one affected your ending outcome.


The more kinetic entries, yes. They would, by definition.
The branching more branching ones that gave the player agency like If You Had One Shot by mathbrush less so.


It occurs to me that some highly regarded parser games also have extremely low agency - Photopia is practically a short story, but it’s also such a simple and effective use of the parser form.


Does Fix Your Mother’s Printer count as low agency?

OH definitely (from the top of my head right now):


Because I couldn’t remembered if it would fit so I replayed it:


I don’t know if it’s a favorite game (not sure if it quite works, or if it’s possible for anything to really work as commentary on a problematic work as it’s attempting to do) but I’m always going to remember Turandot is as the game that cemented the realization for me that it could be fun to make choices in a game that you know is totally linear. There’s no mechanical push for one or the other, you can just be like “I think this Calaf would pick this one” or even “Haha, how is the author going to write his way out of this one” and it’s all good.


I really am fond of this one


my father’s long, long legs is probably the most famous one that I know of and like that hasn’t been mentioned.

Will Not Let Me Go has some choices that are temporarily meaningful but is otherwise mostly on rails. Harmonia is similar but has more freedom at the end.

I liked Polish the Glass, which had very few choices. When I think of ‘kinetic fiction’ it’s one of the most ‘kinetic’ ones.

Kaemi’s game Queenlash doesn’t have strong interactivity, as far as I can tell.


The first game that came to mind was the non-IF game Passage, but that’s because I was apparently too dumb when first playing it to realize you could go down in what appeared to be a side scrolling interface.


There’s kind of a new thing with parser games that can optionally be low agency and linear. One King to Loot Them All (Inform 7 version), How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title, my own Repeat the Ending, and Wade Clarke’s WIP all have scripted playthroughs as an option.

I also thought of my father’s long, long legs first.


Yeah, I was going to say January too! Awesome game, super engaging, and I didn’t ever use the calendar to do anything except select the next passage in chronological order.

Queenlash is an interesting case because the way its hypertext is set up, which words you select can have a dramatic impact on the story as it’s told to you – you can miss pretty significant events, I believe – but there’s no formal branching or state tracking or like, agentic “choices” at all (I really really love this game).

My Gender is a Fish might count too? It branches a bit but there’s no real agency as such.

(I know we’re talking about choice games, not parser ones, but the Photopia example is an interesting one – I’m reminded of @VictorGijsbers’s SPAG essay which, I think, persuasively suggests that the determinism theme everybody thought was there isn’t especially present in the text, and arose from the then-contemporary audience’s strong sense of what IF “should” be).


(NSFW: adult language and humor, timed text) :point_down:


It’s interesting in this context, because Queenlash actually branches a lot within each chapter. Every passage is completely unique, and you only see a small percentage of them in a given traversal. The chains of passages take you through many different scenes or themes depending on how you choose to click through, and the details of the events can change significantly, even if the plot races on unaffected.

I think the reason it reads as low interactivity is because the branching is primarily reactive rather than active. You aren’t making an impact on the story through decisions, rather the story is threading you through its different elements depending on your intuitive, emotive responses to keywords. The idea is that each traversal is a unique fingerprint of your specific set of associative foci in that moment; statistically, given the large cascade of passages and linkages, it’s impossible that any two complete readthroughs will be the same.

By agency, perhaps people mean incorporation into the narrative drive through gamelike control? It’s noteworthy that people are using agency as a descriptor for “how much does this feel like a video game”, given that most video games tend to present very limited scopes of genuine agency. I think underlying this conversation is a very complicated set of expectations of the purpose and primacy of narrative in an interactive medium. Which is obvious, I suppose, but nevertheless seems salient.


B Minus Seven is one of my favorite IF authors, and all of her stuff is very far on the ‘literature’ rather than ‘game’ side of the spectrum, while still making interactivity central to the experience. A Trial is her biggest game, and it might be her best, but Howled House is a great short little game for a toe-dip. She does experimental, abstract stuff with lots of wordplay. Not to everyone’s taste. No conventional narratives to provide structure. But some of the best writing in the medium, in my opinion. The way she uses language is incredible!


I’ll just go ahead and add my entire library to this – I’m personally proudest of Protocol (winner of Best in Show, Spring Thing 2023 with a total of nine whole choices in the text!) and lost birds, though almost anything I make revolves more around the story being told than the choices available to a player. Choices, in my opinion and in my games, serve more to alter the perspective of the story than the trajectory of the story itself.


Thanks for the greater detail on Queenlash! Yeah, I think it’s way more variable than most choice games – I suspect if someone else told me what their version of the story was, it’d be much less recognizable to me as compared to the more usual thing where someone else might romance X rather than Y, or whatever – but the mechanisms you use aren’t built around traditional understandings of “agency”.

(It’s interesting to think about the “player-character” implied by a game’s choice mechanics – in many, of course, that’s just a specific character, and even in things like Social Democracy the “you” is understandable as a diffuse spirit of the political party, even if they transcend any particular person. The “character” idea doesn’t make much sense as applied to games like yours that are more on the hypertext side of things, but there is maybe still the ghost of a structure that lurks between the narrative and the player).


OK, I’m surely the eccentric one, treating TTRPG sourcebooks as “fictional non-fiction” (lacking better terms…) and I don’t hide that I’m mulling the half-baked idea of exploiting Twine-chapbook as “interactive sourcebook of Railei”… (this eccentricity, I guess, explain the noted extreme care in worldbuilding in both my actually released story files…) but the point is, where one can draw a line between a kinetic novel and, say, Encyclopedia Frobozzica ? my eccentricity obviously blur this line…

On a tangent, what one can think about a linear story with some, or not-so-some, side branching, whose “only” add flavour and depth to the core, linear narration ?

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.