The search for emergent storytelling

Will games ever really let us tell our own stories? And if they did-- what would that even look like?

Don’t you hate it when characters in movies make really stupid decisions? Why would someone enter a haunted house all on his own after his entire family was devoured by it? Why can’t she just call her girlfriend to clear up the confusion, instead of breaking into her house and rifling through her stuff? I really think that to a large proportion of screenwriters, “exciting plots” is synonymous with “lethally clueless protagonists”.

Which is where videogames come in, isn’t it? Videogames hand us the reins, let us make decisions and direct the flow of the action. After all, we know better: no stupid, blindsided decisions for us! Videogames offer personalized escapism, where we, the players, can be the stars of our own movies. Right?

Yeah, not really.

“Do you play videogames, or do videogames play you?” Jamin Warren asks in the YouTube episode of PBS Game/Show titled Your Choices DON’T Matter. In it, he discusses how a big part of game design is making players think they’re in control, creating an illusion of choice. “Even in so-called branching narratives,” Warren says, “designers don’t have infinite funds to create infinite paths…so they compromise.” Try replaying any of Telltale Games’ products. They’re kind of like “interactive movies.” But in any Telltale game, you’ll soon notice that no matter how many different ways you play the game, or how many times the game informs you that “Sasha will remember that”, the plot stays pretty much the same, and Sasha fails to actually do anything radically different. In fact, I would argue that in most videogames, players make few real decisions, and affect very little within the game’s fictional world.

Tabletop games, however, offer players a lot more freedom. I caught up with my friend Richard Ruane, avid Dungeons & Dragons player since the 80’s and coauthor of a number of major tabletop RPGs, such as White Wolf’s Mummy: The Resurrection. Richard confessed that he rarely plays videogames, much preferring their meatspace cousins. In digital games, he says, “You’re enmeshed in someone else’s story, and you’re in discovery mode instead of adding or improvising mode.” To him, the ability to take part in key decisions that influence the game world is vital—and right now, tabletop games are the best place to do that.

But all hope is not lost for digital games. Lots of people in digital game development are thinking about “emergent narrative”—systems that let players truly tell their own stories.


So “emergence”: what is this weird and often misunderstood concept? Well, it seems like a weighty subject, given that I found an entire academic journal, aptly titled Emergence, devoted to studying just that one notion. According to an article in its first issue, “emergence” is the phenomenon that occurs when players solve challenges not through some solution predetermined by the designer, but using options and abilities provided by the game system itself. It’s what happens when a game’s system lets a player invent unforeseen answers to the game’s problems.

For example, let’s take a look at 2009 game Auditorium, which has a free version available online. Its basic premise is fairly simple: direct a flow of fluid from one place to another. In each level, you’re given tools that can redirect the fluid and change its flow strength. Once you play the game, it’s obvious that the designers haven’t mapped out a singular, precise path the fluid must travel in each level: rather, the simulated physics lets players come up with different configurations of their tools to reach their desired outcome. Voilà: Emergent gameplay.

One of many ways to solve a level in Auditorium. One of many ways to solve a level in Auditorium.

It’s also good to note what’s not an example of emergent gameplay. Choosing between saving and killing an NPC is not an example of emergence. Neither is picking between stealthy ninja-knives or flashy fire-magic to off an opponent. True emergent properties involve a series of interacting, interlocking systems, out of which arise novel solutions that the designer hasn’t planned.

Similarly, having a vast, explorable world doesn’t guarantee emergence. As Gamasutra’s Josh Bycer puts it, “Emergent gameplay is built around open-ended games, but not every open-ended game is an example of Emergent gameplay.” In particular, he stresses that giving players lots of options isn’t necessarily the key. What matters is how these options allow players to achieve their goals.  “Letting the player do what they want won't matter if the game only has one or two ways of beating it.”

Many physics-based puzzles include true emergent gameplay, and a number of stealth games, like Bethesda’s Dishonored, allow NPC’s and environmental elements to interact with your abilities and equipment in a dizzying array of possibilities. However, Dishonored does not have an emergent narrative. Regardless of how you choose to assassinate someone in the game, the plot will still carry on in the same general direction, pre-written by a team of (very skilled) writers. Even though the game has multiple, branching plot arcs and endings, these can’t be considered “emergent” unless they’re created by the players themselves.

Write Your Own Story

The easiest way to get players to sculpt their own stories out of the bedrock of a game is to make them do all the heavy lifting. Make the players write all the characters, emotions and plot points using their own imagination.

Humans love making up stories, and often do so almost unconsciously. NPR’s Radiolab tells us that humans can be made to react emotionally even to geometric shapes moving across a screen. Sandbox style games make heavy use of this cognitive quirk. Games like Second Life, Spore, or the insanely popular Minecraft rely on the fact that given an open, manipulable world completely devoid of embedded storylines or objectives, players will invariably come up with their own. I mean, who doesn’t remember hours of commanding your favorite Sims characters to “flirt” and “tell a joke” to get them to fall in love (a defining moment for many a young gay gamer like myself)? While player-created stories in sandbox games aren’t necessarily complex, they mean a lot to the people who tell them.

Piece together a story

But sometimes, this kind of freeform play just doesn’t satisfy a player. The reason we don’t all spend our spare time churning out novels is that some people are just better at storytelling. As a gamer, I often want to delve into a world conceived by an inventive author and just do my own thing there. I want to tell my own stories, but I want to do so in a world pre-seeded with possibility.

Tom Cross at Gamasutra illuminates why we might feel this dissatisfied. “Narrative can’t help but have an internally coherent organizational logic,” he says, asserting that “the experience of reading is one of reading—of discovery and deciphering rather than production and self-creation,” and that “narratives appear for readers as pre-existing objects, things separate from a reader that demand to be seen and interpreted.”

To deal with this seemingly contradictory desire to simultaneously discover and create the narrative, game designers often exploit the human ability to “connect-the-dots”.  Some games provide players with narrative snippets, then let them draw their own conclusions about how these scenes are connected.  Titles like the award-winning 80 Days or the hit Rebuild series include reams of texts with hundreds of stories, only a handful of which are shown to players in any game.

Most players probably won't experience every weird event in 80 Days. Most players probably won't experience every weird event in 80 Days.

For instance, in Rebuild, a zombie-survival game about reconstructing your civilization following the zombie apocalypse, every time you rescue a survivor, you’re treated to an algorithmically-chosen glimpse into their past. Never a full biography, just short nuggets about their lives. When I interviewed Sarah Northway, the creator of the Rebuild series, she told me that despite the lack of detail in their histories, these NPCs can enjoy vivid existences within players’ minds. “I wanted them to feel like actual people,” she said. “If I just give you little hints, little bits about them, you’ll kind of fill in the rest…and then you’ll feel really bad when you’re sending them off to do something dangerous.”

Emergent Narratives

“No! No! No!” I hear you say. “That’s not enough! I want TRUE emergent narratives! I need to be able to go off-script, raze a building and then have some random-ass cop come up to me and say, why the hell did you burn down that friggin’ building? Here’s what I REALLY want,” I hear you yell, “robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his [or her] own actions.”

Okay, maybe you don’t say that last part, but game developer Steve Gaynor did, and I hear him (and you, of course). At this stage, shouldn’t it be possible to create games that are so immersive that you can do whatever you want and have the game react organically?

Well… not yet. Despite Moore’s Law and the ever-increasing rate at which computational technology is progressing, it’s no mean feat to package such advanced AI features into consumer-friendly products (hey, this might be a good thing). But we’re getting there.

In Shadow of Mordor, you'll spend a lot of time managing your deadly enemies in the orc army. In Shadow of Mordor, you'll spend a lot of time managing your deadly enemies in the orc army.

Perhaps the most promising title for emergent narratives is Warner Brothers’ Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. SOM’s main plotline is actually pretty forgettable, but its highly-publicized Nemesis system is genius. The game keeps track of a dynamic hierarchy of orc leadership, whose makeup can ripple and shift based on your actions (you can even place your own agents within it). Individual enemies have procedurally chosen personalities, will remember how you hurt them and will bring it up later, can taunt you when you try and run away, will call for allies to help them when they’re in a tight spot, and will gain or lose power within their own organization depending on which other orcs you kill.

Does the Nemesis system really allow players to create narratives, though? The internet is full of SOM reviews where the writers describe being hunted by one specific orc captain and the despair they feel at being repeatedly killed by him, or the sweet, sweet vengeance inflicted by finally dismembering that one orc who’s hassled you for hours. To these players, the nemesis system absolutely facilitates the creation of personalized, memorable stories, grounded within a larger narrative framework. I, on the other hand, wasn’t entirely convinced that this was the kind of emergent storytelling I wanted. Again, the player has to do a lot of the storytelling work themselves, placing their own story onto this enemy-simulation system.

Yet, I contend that where The Sims is a stepping-stone to emergent narratives, SOM is a drawbridge. The Nemesis system clearly has huge potential that is still largely unexplored. I’m confident that future developers will now take note of SOM’s Nemesis system, and improve upon it to create more immersive and more reactive emergent stories.

So What’s the Big Deal?

In the course of this article, I used the word “emergent” or “emergence” twenty-one times. Which is a lot. Is the concept of emergent narratives really that important? Are emergent stories better than traditional, authored ones?

Well, that’s sort of like asking if videogames are inherently better than movies, or whether radio-plays are more important than picture-books. They’re different species. Emergent stories certainly do things other stories don’t:  immerse players more fully in worlds, allow them to roleplay characters very different from themselves, give players an active hand in shaping their favorite fictions…  emergent narratives are a new art form made possible by current technologies, and the field has a lot of potential.

But can a dynamically created story ever be as good as a meticulously authored one? Again, that’s not a very good question. Some people prefer tightly-wound, clockwork narratives, with authored gears of suspense that drive the story’s momentum at just the right pace, drama and adrenaline injected at calculated moments. Others, like my friend Richard, favor stories that are relaxed and airy. They prefer plots held together more by a web of shared storytelling and personalization than the iron rivets of any authorial voice. Instead of arguing which is better, Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit focuses less on “good vs. bad” binary, arguing that a better question would be “Can a systemic narrative effectively do things like foreshadowing, justification, redemption, character arcs and good pacing?” And that is a question that has yet to be answered.

Plus, it’s important to remember that a story depends as much on its reader as it does on its writer. “A text is not what we may read out of it, nor is it identical with what someone once wrote into it,” theorist Espen Aarseth writes in Nonlinearity and Literary Theory. “It is something more, a potential that can be realized only partially and only through its script.” Everyone interprets a story differently. So, the question of “are emergent stories any good?” is kinda up to you and what you’re looking for… much like the emergent stories themselves.

Further Reading

Your Choices DON'T Matter! | Game/Show | PBS Digital Studios, Jamin Warren (PBS Game/Show)

Emergence as a Construct, Jeffrey Goldstein (Emergence)

Auditorium, Cipher Prime

The Winning Side, Radiolab (NPR)

Examining Emergent Gameplay, Josh Bycer (Gamasutra)

Analysis: Story and the Trouble with Emergent Narrative, Tom Cross (Gamasutra)

The Immersion Model of Meaning, Steve Gaynor

Nonlinearity and Literary Theory, Espen J. Aarseth (in Hyper / Text / Theory)

Game Maker’s Toolkit – Telling Stories with Systems, Mark Brown (Game Maker’s Toolkit)