Welcome to “Emergent Systems as Narrative Devices”, a look at how stories and play come together in the least likely of places
Stories are important to us – they’re how we remember things, and they’re essentially how we experience our lives. There’s something natural about them that is hardwired into how we think. When it comes to games, people often debate the issue as gameplay vs story – but when we talk about games, we’re sharing stories about playing games. In my previous studies, I asked people for memories of games, and what I found was that almost nobody told me about the actual “plot” of a story-driven game – they almost exclusively spoke about what they actually DID in the game. The truth is we want to tell OUR stories about games.
A lot has been said about emergent games – they’re essentially the most “pure” of games experiences. Some of the biggest games of today are almost completely emergent. But all too often they are viewed as having “no story” – possibly by the same people who think that you can only have story OR game. Hopefully today I can show you something different.
In order to do this study, its important we know what we mean when we say “Narrative” and “Story”. To this end, I’ll offer these definitions: a story is a sequence of events, preferably structured & compelling, while the narrative is the means by which they are portrayed. Thus, we can have numerous different narratives with one story.
Plot is what drives a story. This example here comes from EM Forster, who described plot as sequence of events that are not necessarily linear or sequential, but have a chain of causality running through them.
But more than any of this, we have to understand what story really is. Jean Luc Goddard described it as a beginning, a middle and an end – but that is up for debate.
Traditionally, games have more or less stuck to that structure and that structure alone. Any deviation is created by forming extra lines, essentially just making many stories and overlapping them.
A lot of role-playing games work by using “side quests” and diversions to pad out the experience. A lot of drama uses alternate stories. Emergent systems creates these minature quests by creating needs for the player and placing obstacles in their way, but there’s no structure.
This lets the player derive more of their own story by giving a basic structure and implying connections between events. This already happens in the space between frames in a comic book, or between scenes in a movie!
To understand where this comes from, we need to visualise the story. This is a very standard diagram of story intensity over time. As our story progresses, the tension of the story and the intensity of the confrontations increases, reaching an eventual climax just before the end.
Minecraft creates complex networks of desires based on the interactions between the elements in the game. One of the first desires it instils in the player is security, a desire it creates through the dangerous enemies in the game and that it exploits and drives by tying the defense against these dangers to the central play mechanic of mining and crafting. This in turn takes time, bringing the onset of night, and slowly rising the tension.
This system creates an implied narrative that makes the game’s story compelling. The game implies a goal to the player without stating it implicitly. The rules of the game impede the player’s progress, creating rising dramatic tension. The player then overcomes the goal, resulting in a denouement and resolution.
You might have noticed, but rising tension is not anything new to game designers. Jenova Chen likened it to the concept of “Flow”. The challenge of a game increases as play progresses. This is how we’re used to interacting with a game system – in the same form in which a story operates. The structure of compelling play is closely related to the structure of a compelling story.
So we’ve seen that the structure of challenge within a compelling play experience closely mirrors that of tension within a story a story. In 2004, Randy & Harvey Smith demonstrated emergent game systems with this diagram. This shows how emergent systems are, in fact, a network of causal events. A network of causal events, as we saw from EM Forster earlier, is a plot. So we have rising tension, and now we have a plot.
So where does this leave us? Do we have a story in our emergent game yet? Or do we just have a bunch of causally linked events arranged into a rough storylike fashion? Where does that last leap come from? The answer lies in other media – after all, what are comic books other than a series of unconnected images? What connects the separate cuts of a film into a cohesive storyline?
Scott McCloud wrote about this in his book “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art”. He calls the concept “Closure” – it’s the ability of people to see a story in a series of otherwise unconnected images in a comic book or scenes in a movie. Its what makes us see a face in a group of dots and lines, or see an axe, hear a scream and “commit the victim to a thousand unseen deaths” (as McCloud put it). In games, its why we talk in stories about Minecraft, but are a lot less to talk about Tetris beyond our high scores. If we can’t identify with the game elements, we won’t find the story.
Looking forward, we can see how emergent games – the games where we can’t fully predict the outcome of the player’s actions – are right at the heart of what it means to make games. We can see that just because we’re creating emergent games, we don’t have to create them without story. Creating a network of causal events creates a sense of plot, and creating cyclical conflict within the interactive elements of the system can drive up the tension as the player explores the possibilities in the system. Finally, to make that last leap, by making those elements familiar to the player, we can breed a sense of closure, and suddenly our “storyless” games because story engines that allow people to not only have an experience that is their own, but take a story away from that experience by which to remember it.
Emergent Systems As A Narrative Device
Emergent Systems as Narrative Devices
The Importance of Stories “ Man … is the storytelling animal. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. Even in his last moments, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall--or when he's about to drown--he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.” Graham Swift, Waterland How many stories have you told about Halo? How many of those were about toppling the covenant? How many of them were about messing around with plasma grenades? We want to tell OUR stories
Emergent Systems “ Complexity is intrinsically linked to meaningful play. Playing a game is synonymous with exploring a game’s space of possibility. If a system is fixed, periodic, or chaotic, it does not provide a space of possibility large or flexible enough for players to explore through meaningful play” Eric Zimmerman, “Rules of Play” “ When we’re at our best [as game designers] we can even create systems that allow [users] to set in motion events that we don’t control, can’t anticipate, and didn’t plan for … and that’s when things get really interesting!” Warren Spector
Definitions Story: A sequence of events, preferably structured & compelling. Narrative: The means by which these events are portrayed or communicated.
Plot: A sequence of events that show causality. The King died, then The Queen died. = Story The King died, then The Queen died = Story OF GRIEF PLOT EM Forster
“ A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end … but not necessarily in that order” - Jean Luc Godard “ My wiener dog has a beginning, a middle and an end, but that doesn’t make him a story.” - Anonymous Beginning Middle End
Standard Game Narrative (Half Life) Beginning Middle End Branching Game Narrative (Mass Effect) Beginning Optional Branching Paths Funnelled Back To The Middle More Branches Small Number Of Endings
Beginning Middle End Standard Narrative + Side Quests (Fallout / KOTOR) (also most dramatic cinema) Beginning End ? No Central Narrative (Emergent Games) So what drives the player?
Middle End ? The Player’s Own Story “ Implicit Narrative” It happens in comic strips & movies already!
Darkness = Danger Coal = Light Mining = Time Night = Darkness
A Typical Minecraft Story I need Coal! I Seal Myself In A Cave And Wait … The Sun Is Setting! Coal! Glorious Coal! I have Torches … I am Secure!
Jenova Chen’s “Flow in Games” Abilities increase over time when playing Abilities = Time Tension rises with increasing challenge Challenge = Tension
Emergent Game = Chains of Causality Chains of Causality = Plot
Do Emergent Games Have A Story? So … Do Comic Books Have A Story? Well … Do Films Have A Story? And …
“ Closure” It’s what Scott McCloud called It’s why there’s a million stories about Minecraft … … but not so many about Tetris. The natural desire to see characters and stories in things we recognise and understand.
Looking Forward: Emergence is the Essence of Gaming Emergence doesn’t mean No Story Creating a network of causal events can create a compelling plot Conflict between interactive elements creates rising tension Familiarity breeds Closure