There are a variety of barriers that come up when you try to coerce someone into engaging with a video game’s narrative. The first inclination is to have them roleplay a character that lives in that story. This has a few problems. For starters, the player might be repulsed by the role you’re asking them to inhabit. They might not like what they have to say and do in the story or game design. If you solve that by completely removing all traces of personality, then the player may be irritated at the lack of expression and feedback available to them as a deaf-mute protagonist. The natural solution to that dilemma is to give the player absolute control over their character’s appearance and personality, but this tends to alter the roleplay relationship into one of caring for your creation. Attempts like Mass Effect or Fallout are impressive, but they are still operating on a connection much more similar to a parent-child scenario than actual roleplay. The peak game of this parental connection, The Sims, illustrates this psychological shift best. It isn’t you inside that house, it’s your little man or woman or whatever. So it still leaves a fundamental question: is there some way to engage a player with characters and story in a game that circumvents all of this?
Yes, and it’s surprisingly simple: chuck the baby and keep the bathwater. Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller is a flash game in which you don’t play as any particular character. You instead control three separate characters in a three part story-panel. Depending on where you position the characters in the initial ‘Once upon a time’ panel will affect their presentation in the middle ‘When they grew up panel’. Put the girl on the poor, deserted half of the panel and she becomes an evil wizard. Leave one of the men on the green, white castle portion and they become an armored knight. The middle panel features a similar set of options: place the man inside the cage as the prisoner, make the woman the knight, and then dictate the outcome of her duel with the wizard (whom you created). You can use this character placement to dictate how the romantic relationships turn out in the final panel along with who dies and who wins the battle.
This engagement method is, like The Sims, founded along the principles of giving the player a dollhouse to play in. When you add a narrative though, a distinct shift occurs: I’m not guiding the characters to see what happens to them in the plot, I’m directing them to the outcome I’ve created for them. Frankly, given the amount of time I spent exploring and tweaking three little people and seeing the results, I’d say it solves the engagement problem quite nicely. You can find more of Benmergui’s stuff here.