Emergent Storytelling

Can I do a post about videogames?  Would that be weird?

It’s no secret that games are a huge part of my life.  In my interview with YR Jones, I said that games were as foundational to my childhood, and my understanding of fiction, as books.  To some extent, that’s still true.

But my taste in games has changed in recent years, and so too has the way games approach narrative.  There’s been a recent trend away from the highly-narrative RPGs and adventure games of the past, which relied on cutscenes and expanded dialogue to convey narrative at the direct expense of gameplay.

The new buzz around the water cooler is “emergent gameplay”, a term that’s been around for a while (and would even be useful in describing some classics), but has only recently jumped into gaming vernacular with the explosive success of  Minecraft.

Emergent gameplay is a simple idea. It states that rather than shoehorning the player into a pre-constructed story, you should establish a broader narrative framework, through game mechanics, in which a player can experience and create their own stories. One  Minecraft player might have tales of subterranean exploration, while another might tell of his Fitzcarraldo-like endeavor to build a stronghold on top of a mountain.  No two games of Minecraft are ever alike.  Ditto for Dwarf Fortress, or Sim City, or Grand Theft Auto.  Board and tabletop games are a study in emergent narrative, where the stories that emerge depend more on who you’re playing with than the game itself.

I’ve been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown recently.  It’s a brilliant strategy game, and plays like a cross between Gears of War and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  Its genius, however, lies in the way it allows you to customize and become attached to squads of soldiers whose survival within the mechanics of the game is perilous and brittle.  These grunts WILL die.  And, because you’re allowed to customize them and dress them up and give them nicknames based on past experiences with them, when they die, it’s not just a non-event.  It hurts.  It becomes an event in an ongoing story.  Whole squads die save for one rookie survivor, who goes on to become a veteran, train up a team of new recruits, and then die saving their lives.  Dead soldiers are memorialized on a wall which bears their pictures and plays bagpipes whenever you look at it.  Just looking at it is enough to get me all choked-up.

There’s a fantastic article over on Gamasutra where the XCOM developers explain this very-intentional approach to storytelling.  Much like Dark Souls, XCOM is a game where, when one really zooms in to examine design decisions, it becomes immediately clear that every single one—from UI to autosave functionality—has been made with a thetic and singular focus tailored toward allowing for a specific range of narrative experiences.

It’s strange to me that games like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, and Dishonored win all the fancy writing awards.  To my mind, these games are lazy half-way creatures, not sure of their storytelling techniques, and desperately straddling the line between game and film.  Emergent narrative seems to me an inherently truer way for a game to tell a story, and much more worthy of recognition.  Games like XCOM, Dwarf Fortress, Sim City, or Journey — THESE are games which I feel deserve recognition for strong storytelling, and which warrant closer note-taking by writers.

  • Great post! Quite a few of the panels I attended at GDC touched on what you talked about (mainly because that’s the reason why I attended them, emergent gameplay being a favorite topic of mine as well). One of the panels I did attend was one about Dishonored, and I think you would have actually liked the thought that went into their player-driven narrative, the emergent gameplay. Granted, I think they should have taken it even further, and that overall “plot” of the game isn’t anything special, but they certainly gave the player a lot to work with, allowing them to do a ton of actions the developers themselves didn’t anticipate.

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  • Hi Brandon! You’re a man after my own heart. I’m a narrative designer in the games industry and have been struggling to find the ‘true storytelling’ within games. Emergent Narrative is it for me! Pirates! and Civilization, not The Last of Us and Dragon Age. We should talk some more about this, you and I!

    • BCarbaugh

      Hey, thanks! (And thank god someone else is throwing shade on The Last of Us; I’m not insane after all!)

      I just got your email and sent a response. I’m on twitter, too, if you ever want to talk in a more real-time-y sort of way.