Video games (and other kinds of game such as tabletop games) differ from virtually all other storytelling media in that the player can actively interact with the world of the story, meaning that it is theoretically possible to create a game in which any choice the player decides to make is valid and they can dynamically change the story as they see fit. This will never be a practical possibility, however, so most video games with any sort of story focus tend to lead the player through a strictly linear story (albeit possibly one with prominent Story Branching
and numerous Multiple Endings
Non Standard Game Overs
) while continually presenting them with the illusion
of free will and agency, and giving the impression that the Player Character
is acting according to their own free will (with the
typically being significantly disconnected from the player; see Player and Protagonist Integration
). Some developers have picked up on the parallels between presenting the player with the illusion of free
will while their future is predetermined, and classical ideas about fate and destiny
, or the modern philosophical debate about the existence of free will, whether via psychological conditioning or so-called "hard determinism".
This is hence about video games in which the strict linearity of the storyline and the lack of agency afforded to the player is not employed solely as a gameplay contrivance but also as a storytelling device or thematic element. This can be used as a means of Painting the Medium
or Leaning on the Fourth Wall
, a device to express the themes of the game through its formal structure, or simply an amusing way to lampshade
the inherent artificiality of the medium. It can also act as a convenient way to avert Gameplay and Story Segregation
(as many of the examples on that page illustrate).
This can be done in various ways, such as by having characters discuss the concept of free will in dialogue, using tropes such as No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom
to visually represent the player's lack of choice both in-game and in-story, or having characters actively announce their lack of free will. In terms of plot devices, this trope can encompass supernatural examples such as You Can't Fight Fate
; or more mundane More Than Mind Control
plot devices, in which the character's actions are controlled by another party in much the same way that the player's actions are "controlled" by the game itself. It can often overlap with Playing The Player
, in which the player is actively deceived by the game and their expectations about it betrayed, but this trope need not involve deception.
A subtrope of Gameplay and Story Integration
. See also Sliding Scale Of Linearity Versus Openness
, Sliding Scale Of Free Will Versus Fate
, But Thou Must
, Player and Protagonist Integration
, Morton's Fork
and You Can't Fight Fate
Unmarked spoilers below.
- The Stanley Parable is a lengthy rumination upon and critique of this concept, which pokes fun at the concept of choice and free will in video games.
- The Legacy of Kain series takes place in a universe in which free will does not exist and all destinies are pre-determined; the only way to change destiny is to travel back in time and create a temporal paradox, which forces time to "reshuffle". Both player characters, Kain and Raziel, initially believe they have free will, before discovering that it is an illusion. At one point in the final game in the series, Defiance, Raziel is informed by another character that, as a result of a temporal paradox, he was in fact the only entity in the universe capable of free will, and yet his choices were nevertheless staggeringly easy to manipulate by outside influences. Thematically speaking, the series is heavily influenced by Gnosticism, in which a malevolent deity called the demiurge deceives and manipulates humans for its own selfish ends.
- The strict linearity and use of No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom in the Half-Life series is a plot element as well as a gameplay device, reflecting how the protagonist's actions are being controlled by a mysterious entity called the G-Man (who at one point boasts that he'd rather not offer the protagonist "the illusion of free will"). This is particularly ironic given that the protagonist's name is Gordon Freeman.
- The Player Character in BioShock 1, Jack, is eventually revealed to be a Laser-Guided Tykebomb who has been mentally conditioned into following any order that involves the phrase "Would You Kindly...", and Atlas, the mysterious freedom fighter who serves as Mission Control, has been using the phrase since the beginning to force Jack into helping him bring down Andrew Ryan, Rapture's corrupt and tyrannical ruler. The point is driven home twice in quick succession: First, Jack finds an audio diary of Dr Suchong testing the mental conditioning by making Jack snap a puppy's neck. Then, when you finally meet Andrew Ryan, he decides to commit Suicide by Cop and uses "Would You Kindly" to force Jack to beat him to death with a golf club, while repeating his motto "A man chooses, a slave obeys".
- The Marathon Trilogy's Security Officer, in contrast to the other FPS protganists at the time like Doomguy and Duke Nukem, is for all intents and purposes a pawn on the AIs' figurative chessboard, particularly Durandal, who enjoys rubbing it in about the protagonist's lack of freedom while bragging about gaining his. In the second game, Durandal, the Security Officer is hinted to be an Eternal Hero destined to battle evil for all eternity, whatever he likes it or not. And then in the final game, Infinity, the Cosmic Horror screws everything up, and the Security Officer has to take matters into his hands, while going slightly insane in the process somewhat similar to the AI Rampancy, in the end managing to break free from the AIs control. In the epilogue, moments before the heat death of the Universe, Durandal muses about the Security Officer, and concludes that he is Destiny itself.
- The topic of destiny is a major element in Dragon Age II: nobody really asks Hawke's opinion on being the catalyst of the Kirkwall disaster—it's just that no matter what s/he does, everything builds up to a catastrophe that erupts in the game's finale, sending quakes across all of Thedas. Exemplified by this quote from Flemeth:
"There are men who struggle against destiny... and yet only achieve an early grave.
There are men who flee destiny... only to have it swallow them whole.
And there are men who embrace destiny... and do not show their fear.
These are the ones that change the world, forever."
- Tales of the Abyss features an extremely detailed prophecy that dictates the game's plot. It's always correct, and there's an entire religion built around following it. It's called the Score, and part of the overarching story is trying to escape it, because it predicts the end of the world. The game is also extremely clever about letting you think that you've managed to Screw Destiny, only to yank it back again and reveal that you've been following the Score's path all along.
- In Limbo of the Lost, Captain Benjamin Briggs of the Mary Celeste is been chosen as Destiny's champion against Fate. In The Stinger, Fate decides to go for another round, setting up Limbo of the Lost 2: Flight to Freedom (which is unlikely to see the light of day).
- The Chrono series of videogames has this theme:
- Chrono Trigger takes a very light-hearted, and extremely optimistic, view of fate and one's ability to Screw Destiny. The moment that our protagonists find out about their world's Bad Future, they vow to change it without a second thought. The game zig-zags on exactly what the rules of Time Travel are, though, with some parts of it leaning toward Set Right What Once Went Wrong and the entire plot hinging on what's ultimately a Stable Time Loop. In the end, though, the future was changed, and everything turned out for the best.
- Until Chrono Cross was released. It takes a far darker, bleaker, and more serious approach to Time Travel, at one point even bringing up the possibility that everything the original protagonists did made things ''worse''. Replacing the Time Travel mechanics from the first game, you instead travel between Alternate Timelines, and the plot makes it explicitly clear that changing time only replaces one timeline with a new one and implies that our heroes from Trigger inadvertently destroyed billions of living beings in the past, present and future every time they changed time. Further, the plot-centered villain is a supercomputer called "FATE" which is determined to master Time Travel so that it can shape a future which protects mankind from The Evils of Free Will. What happens in the ending is highly debated , as it involves stuff like merging all potential timelines into one, setting a Reset Button on the events of that game, defeating FATE and allowing humanity to pursue a free--if uncertain--future, stopping an Eldritch Abomination from ever coming into existence, and the Deuteragonist finding herself in the "real" world but telling The Hero that they will be Married In The Future someday. So who knows how much of the future is written and how it isn't.
- Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel have fate as one of their Central Themes, though it is only first expressed in the gameplay in the latter: Serah learns to manipulate time and thus to replay events leading up to the ending as many times as she wants, even creating paradoxes along the way, but nothing can really change the conclusion of her story (namely, that The Bad Guy Wins and The Hero Dies).
- The protagonist of the Hitman series, No. 47, is a clone who has been genetically engineered and conditioned for his entire life to be the perfect assassin. Although he is a relatively sympathetic Hitman with a Heart who desperately wants not to be an assassin and often feels guilty about the crimes he has committed (even attempting to retire at the beginning of the second game in the series), he finds it impossible to go against his genetics & conditioning, and continues to carry out assassinations.
- The Metal Gear series has this as an ongoing theme. Creator Hideo Kojima referred to the dominant themes of Metal Gear Solid, 2 and 3 as "gene, meme and scene" respectively, referring to the extent to which these three concepts could influence an individual's destiny:
- Metal Gear Solid's protagonist is, as in the Hitman example above, a clone named Solid Snake who was cloned from the world's greatest soldier, Big Boss. Throughout the game, numerous characters opine that, as he is a clone, his genetic destiny is essentially pre-determined and he has no choice but to become a vicious Blood Knight. This theme is reflected in several of the other characters also, who often insist that they were pre-destined to make the choices they made as a consequence of their genetics. Subverting this, however, the game's "good" ending seems to more optimistically suggest that Snake's destiny is not pre-determined and he can choose to live however he pleases.
- Metal Gear Solid 2 uses this as part of a Mind Screw Playing The Player plot device. The game centres on a new Player Character named Raiden, who is placed in a situation that exhibits eerie similarities with that of the first game in the series. At the end of the game, the villains reveal that their goal is to control society at large by systematically deleting information from the Internet which goes against the party line, and their More Than Mind Control plot was to see if they could control an individual's behavior and choices simply by providing them with the appropriate context and misleading information for their actions (that is, if they could control Raiden by putting him in an artificial simulation similar to the first game). Even after Raiden learns the truth, he still nevertheless follows his orders to the letter, as he has no real choice (just as the player does not).
- In Pikmin 2, if you analyse the Key, Olimar will note that he occasionally feels an invisible hand guiding him.
- Max Payne 2 is entirely linear, with No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom (although there are two Multiple Endings depending on difficulty level). It also features numerous ruminations upon the nature of free will and destiny, with several of the characters debating whether they truly have agency of their own or if their actions are simply pre-determined.
- Spec Ops: The Line plays with this. Throughout the game, the interventions of the entirely well-meaning Player Character Cpt. Martin Walker only succeed in making the game's situation worse until the situation has degenerated to the point that hundreds of people have been killed and the entire population of Dubai is doomed to die of dehydration in less than a week. When questioned about his actions, Walker repeatedly insists that he had no choice but to carry out the actions he did, and so cannot be held responsible for the deteriorating situation. However, at the end of the game, another character calls him out on this and points out that none of the tragedies of the game would have occurred had he simply stopped interfering. Where it gets complicated is that, although in-story Walker could have turned around and gone home at any time, in-game the player is not afforded the choice to do so. The development team have however stated that putting the controller down and stopping playing the game is an entirely valid ending.
- Its interesting to note that simply not buying the game in the first place would also be an effective ending using the "don't play it" viewpoint, but that was not an option brought up by the developers.