Video Game Character Agency in The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Disclaimer: the following article contains *SPOILERS* for the novel The Starless Sea and the video game Bioshock. Enter at your own risk.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea winks at the contrast between the perception of agency within the main character of a video game and that of a novel. Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the hero of The Starless Sea, pursues his graduate degree in Emerging Media Studies with a focus on video games, a character detail as meta as his recognition that “there is plenty of subject overlap [between video games and books].” Throughout the story, Zachary seems asleep. He solves puzzles on his own and asks questions that progress the narrative (much as a game character would), but on several occasions believes he lacks choice and “can handle being a sidekick for whatever comes next.” He completes side quests demanded of him by the other characters and gets pushed or tugged along to the next important point. He follows a pre-set path, much as a video game player immersed in video game structure might.

Bioshock, a 2007 first-person shooter, interrogates the same question of agency through the main character of a video game. The twist midway through the game reveals that the player’s character, Jack, has been brainwashed to do anything asked of him when he hears one phrase: “Would you kindly…” In the video game review podcast The Besties, co-host Justin McElroy points out that you, as the player of Bioshock, commit atrocities while following those marching orders, but when you recognize the brain washing at the midpoint and free yourself, you continue to commit those atrocities, because that’s the way the game developers made the game. The point, as McElroy suggests, being, “…when you are playing video games, how much are you questioning what you’re being told to do?”

The overall narrative of The Starless Sea contains an underlying theme of fate, expressed many times by portrayals of Zachary’s future in found media that was created in the past. Ultimately, Fate herself says to him, “…you want to think that you were supposed to but you always had a choice.” While a novel character, as written by the author, has the same lack of choice that a video game character has, perhaps Fate speaks directly to the reader. Because readers and players should always question their chosen entertainment media and the choices presented in a story. 

Thanks for reading!

Summer’s latest:

With Words We Weave 2022: Hope

Featuring an exclusive Hopeful Wanderer short-story!

For over 100 years, Texas High Plains Writers has been a part of great storytelling in Texas and beyond.

This year, our anthology offers a collection of short-stories, memoirs, inspirational essays, and poetry filled with hope.

With 22 talented authors, from best-sellers to the first time in print, there is something for everyone. 

Great heroes of legends past sit side by side in these pages with the unsung citizens showing kindness to strangers. Humor, adventure, and nostalgia combine to remind us all that hope can be found anywhere. 

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