On phone so I'll keep it brief.
Just thinking over the most recent posts re: how to have multiple characters with agency, it's kinda cheating but I'd say some jrpgs come closest to this. There's usually a main character, but several party members off ten have their own, sometimes conflicting goals in play. For all its faults (and good lord it has a lot of them), FFX makes a fair example for this with Yuna vs Tidus for the first half at least.
Edit: now that I'm home I can extrapolate a little more. On the one hand, there's the whole "Tidus is saving Yuna by changing her mind" thing, which could be seen as a damsel-type situation. On the other, if he's saving her from something, it's from a) society and/or b) herself, as opposed to an actual imminent threat. The big villain of the game is something she's lived her whole life learning how to defeat (with, y'know, a bit of sacrifice thrown in), so she doesn't really need to be "saved" from it. Moreover, while there's some pressure on her to live up to her responsibilities, as far as I recall it's her choice: she's choosing to follow this path to the bitter end to help everyone else. She's not the screaming blonde tied to a post for King Kong to come pick up at his leisure; she's going out into the jungle to hunt him down, even if she's expecting to not come back from the experience.
Gripes about the quality of writing (and voice acting aslgkjasdnfasdfhs) aside, the characters themselves sorta point this out throughout the game, with Tidus and Yuna sorta competing over whose story it really is. It's Tidus' story since he's this displaced hero-out-of-time here to change everyone's minds and save the world, and in that sense Yuna's as much his goal as his companion. It's Yuna's story since she's the one with the real power to save the world, regardless of the cost, and Tidus is just one of her many bodyguards and travel companions. The other characters have less claim to the main plot - Auron probably has the best argument going with a legacy/carrying on for his fallen friends angle - but Tidus and Yuna have ongoing and somewhat conflicting goals through a good part of the game.
...and then FFX-2 happened. -.-
Just off the top of my head, because I feel like I should at least attempt contributing some kind of game mechanics concept for affording agency/plot significance beyond being a gimmick/tool for side characters (regardless of gender, really), I think timed events might be a way to go with it. I'm thinking about all those games where you have a laundry list of characters who are more or less just designed to be cash and experience vending machines with glowing !'s above their heads: quest givers, plot-movers, whatever you want to call them, particularly in games where there are heaps of these people in big hubs.
What if those quests could be completed without the player's involvement?
Maybe they won't be done as successfully, or without cost, but they still get done. The mail gets delivered, but a few minutes later than it would've if you'd done it for them. Whatever. Things get done without you if you wait too long to do them yourself. Or, as an alternative, maybe the quest-giver decides to do something else entirely, solve their problem in a completely different way. It affords developers some room to give these normally inconsequential NPCs some small leeway, something at least resembling agency, in allowing them to fend for themselves if the player's not actively pulling them into the story. And, of course, this would have repercussions further down the line, probably in the form of less goodwill toward the player, maybe even outright hostility in some cases. Maybe it changes the political landscape of the area later and you have to deal with the fallout of not having gotten in on the ground floor of that revolution you ignored.
The trick to giving non-player characters value in games is to make them important for reasons other than getting a Game Over if you fail their escort mission. Let NPCs interact with the game world the way players do, albeit on a smaller scale and off-screen. Maybe some kind of randomizing program involved so they won't always make the same choice if they're ignored, or won't always succeed at what they set out to do. Maybe sometimes the coup succeeds, sometimes it fails. Sometimes it succeeds but the leader dies and his more conservative second in command takes over - that guy who you seem to recall didn't like you very much. Maybe it fails but causes the current regime to rethink some of its policies. All of this can happen as atmosphere, setting the scene around the player, making the world more active without requiring the player's direct interference at every step along the way. It's when you hold all progress in the game world until the player intervenes that the player becomes the only entity in the world with agency.
Now I have no idea how to program my way out of a cardboard box, so I can't make anything close to a suggestion for how
to make any of that work in a game, but from a big picture/drawing board/brainstorming perspective, I think that's what I'd aim for. Less D&D-style game worlds where you get a quest and set out to act on the world to complete it, more Apocalypse World where the players are just some (admittedly powerful) people in a much, much larger world that expands and breathes and lives
all around them even when they're not doing anything to it themselves.
You mean like this?
After watching this...I find myself more or less agreeing with Consortium. Even if she saves herself, the story dynamic is the same in many ways.
On second thought, while the story she suggests is far from original (and really how many games are at this point), it is
an improvement. I think it's the "princess" part that's throwing me more than the dynamics: if it were, say, a genderswapped Wolfenstein 3D setup, for instance, in which the protagonist is an allied soldier caught behind enemy lines, jailed in a nazi prison and subsequently breaks herself out while foiling Hitler's plans along the way, it'd be essentially the same structure as Anita's suggestion, minus the trappings of kidnapped princess. As Consortium pointed out, as-is, it still starts out portraying females in power as weaker than their male counterparts. I mean, think about it: if it were a prince the council were overthrowing, wouldn't they have just killed him rather than kidnapped him, thereby removing the risk of his possible escape and retaliation? They don't worry about that with the princess 'cause, c'mon, she's a princess
. The fact that she proves them wrong later doesn't remove that initial assumption. I dunno. It seems iffy to me.
On the plus side, it did remind me of a great Jonathan Coulton song.