Renegade or Paragon?: Categorizing Narrative Choice in Video Game Storylines

Graham Oliver
Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas, USA


Choices made during video game gameplay set the stories told in that media apart from other media. Narrative-affecting choices have existed since the earliest games, from character creation in role-playing games to performance-based narrative changes in Metroid to morality-based choices in Ogre Battle. In the contemporary gaming landscape, some games derive a significant portion of their gameplay from character decisions: exploration, dialogue options, quick-time event reactions, etc. In this article, I give a history and breakdown of how choices have existed and evolved in gaming narratives since their inception. I then propose three categories for significant narrative choices: aesthetic, social, and reflective. 

The aesthetic choice is one influencing surface-level elements of the game. An example is Kentucky Route Zero, wherein dialogue choices largely serve to fill in the motivation and background of the characters while not actually influencing the narrative trajectory of the game. The social choice is one which impacts the characters’ relationship with one another. Perhaps the most well-known social choices are Dungeons and Dragons character alignments, Fallout’s Karma system, or Mass Effect’s renegade versus paragon. The reflective choice is one that asks the player to consider the gameplay or the ramifications of the decision. Spec Ops: The Line, to widespread acclaim and criticism, centered its story on calling into question the typical structure of kill-everything-that-moves first-person shooters.

While these categories do not account for every possible decision in a game, they work toward a structure that will allow for a more nuanced dissection of gaming narratives. By focusing on choice, it highlights an area of storytelling that gaming is constantly pushing the boundaries of.

Keywords: game studies, narrative studies, player studies 

Author bio:

Graham Oliver holds an MA in Rhetoric and Composition and an MFA in Fiction from Texas State University. His reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Harvard Educational Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives and teaches in Taipei, Taiwan.

Suggested Reference Citation

Oliver, G. (2020). Renegade or Paragon?: Categorizing narrative choice in video game storylines. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 7(2).

Oliver, Graham. “Renegade or Paragon?: Categorizing Narrative Choice in Video Game Storylines.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 2., 2020.

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