Control Hero: Participatory Storytelling and Gaming


Dakota Sexton

When I was 14, I was an antisocial teenage gamer with a boyfriend who I thought looked a bit like Vin Diesel. He also owned a dirt bike. We both played an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game, for the uninitiated) called Lineage. On off days, I should add, I also killed a lot of virtual shit with other dudes. But I’ll always remember him.

Maybe it was just because of the crush on Vin Diesel. Or the fact that I did almost nothing else. But without even having the vaguest sense of a running plot in Lineage, I felt part of something bigger. Unlike now.

Now I mostly think of MMOs as a mess of level-grinding and economics-based weirdness. And I talk more about video game-obsessed webcomics (Penny Arcade, MacHall, Little Gamers, Ctrl+Alt+Delete, Manly Guys Doing Manly Things, and so many more) than I actually talk about games themselves.

I decided to try to recapture the old flame by signing up for the Elder Scrolls Online beta. Within minutes of logging on and getting to a character creation page, things are pretty cool. There are just short of a bajillion ways to customize a character, but I can handle it. Do I want to wear a tiara while slaying undead corpses? Of course not—it’s silly. I do want to wear delicate, dangly earrings, though. And I don’t give a shit about hand size or forehead height.

But then there’s the screen with boobs. I can’t decide how large my boobs should be. Do I go big? I briefly feel completely unsure about this. I highly doubt it feels this existential to most gamers. People immediately know exactly what kind of boob they want, probably. Just like people know which way toilet-paper should be facing in bathrooms and whether they care about sports.

Yet I can’t help but wonder how that’s supposed to reflect on me. Being able to choose the size of my own boobs hardly embodies (or affirms) my own sexuality or my desires. It’s not like my identity even boils down to having boobs or not having boobs—something that is also particularly relevant in discussions of the feminism (or lack thereof) at play in the movie Her.

Eventually I decide that I just shouldn’t care so much. So I go for middle-of-the-road boobs and start playing.

In past versions of this game, players have had a lot of control over how to respond to morally ambiguous situations. That included being able to choose to lie, steal, or even assassinate innocent folks. And that opened to the door, predictably, to more favors or additional story. The game also built in a lot of completely unexpected continuity, however, as well—and that trend definitely continues in the online beta.

At one point, out of nowhere an attractive NPC named Jakarn I’d once chosen to sneak out of prison appeared behind me. He’s not exactly a “necessary” character. After recruiting him to the crew of a ship and going on my way, I didn’t expect to see him again a whole lot. But then he appears behind me, in the middle of nowhere, and cat-calls me.

He then claims that he’s been following me silently from a distance, ever since I left town. That’s not creepy. Do all the ladies he knows get this treatment? What about his bros?

Clearly, I have loads of objections to a guy being able to be super creepy simply because A) he’s perceived to be handsome and B) I’m a woman that must want that attention. But this is also a great example of exactly the kind of participatory storytelling that I want.

I don’t necessarily need a story to be that original. In the Kickstarter-funded, choose-your-own-shenanigans version of Hamlet by Ryan North—To Be Or Not To Be—no one expects to be able to get a brand new ending. But most of us still want to be able to have the enjoyable experience of getting to choose just how they get to the point where either they die, or everyone dies.

It’s that idea of [limited] choice that’s most important here. I want to be able to feel really guilty or excited because of the consequences of how I navigated a storyline. I want to feel like some of my past actions really mattered. If I can do that, plus actually be able to succinctly talk up a game’s plot while drinking [or playing] with friends? Then I will totally consider paying a monthly subscription for an MMO.


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