Describing games as being about agency, while stories are about empathy1, is an interesting way to define and differentiate those two activities.
Games are commonly defined as a structured form of play, which is recreational pleasure and enjoyment. For the purposes of making games, that definition is very intangible. It’s hard to discuss and point to what makes a game pleasurable and enjoyable.
Agency is the power to control your actions, accompanied by the knowledge that you can do so. When I analyze games as enablers of agency, it’s easier for me to reflect on the choices it gives to the players than the fun the player might have while playing it. The “fun” seems to be an emotional response to the consequences of the game choices.
Another thing that the agency/empathy definition helps with is understanding the relation between games and stories. There’s a growing usage of stories in video-games, to the point that today is rare to see a game that doesn’t come with a narrative to back the players’ actions.
Plenty of games have embraced cinema and storytelling. What this does is to expand the emotional palette of the game. Through empathy, stories give the players extra reasons for then to care and engage with the game.
Choices and agency are the core of what makes a game, while stories bring empathy for the player to care about those choices.
Will Wright, Will Wright Teaches Game Design and Theory, Master Class. ↩︎