Telling Stories: The Continued Rise of Emergent Gameplay
Written Monday, November 12, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
When Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition temporarily displaced Modern Warfare 3 from the number one spot in the Xbox Live Activity charts recently, it wasn’t just a victory for XBLA games and indie titles.
As remarkable as it was for a digital download game to be played more online than Activision’s record breaking FPS series, it was also a victory for a particular type of game design.
While single-player Call of Duty-style campaigns are incredibly tightly-controlled experiences, Minecraft is gloriously freeform. You can do whatever and go wherever you like, unconfined by invisible walls, unlockable doors, and inflexible environments.
Minecraft’s freedom is the key to its success. You can play it as an adventure game, a building game, an exploration game, a farming game... just about anything you like.
In heavily-scripted single-player titles, meanwhile, you are limited to doing what the developers want you to. Games of this type can provide exhilarating experiences, yet emergent gameplay, as displayed so skillfully in Minecraft, is at the heart of a number of the very best titles we’ve played in recent months, from Skyrim to XCOM, Dishonored and beyond.
It will also be a key factor in next year’s biggest, most exciting release, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V. As such, it demands some extra attention.
Initially born of players exploiting glitches in games to create their own amusement, emergent gameplay refers to a particular type of game design that allows you to mess around freely within a set of rules, encouraging the use of your imagination to craft your own experiences.
It can present itself in a number of different ways. Skyrim, for example, encourages emergent play with the breadth of its chilly Nordic world and the sheer number of things you can do within it.
If you want to be a humble blacksmith trying to bash out a living, a master thief sneaking and snatching your way around Skyrim’s bustling cities, or a heroic dungeon raider, you can. Or perhaps you'd rather decapitate everyone you meet and use their heads to decorate your trophy cabinet instead, like in the vid above. You freaking weirdo.
The beauty is that you can do all of these things - and lots, lots more besides - while acting out your own personalised narratives without even touching the game’s authored, quest-based storyline.
Add in Skyrim’s randomly generated events and suddenly a quiet sunset stroll with Lydia can turn into an epic battle with a giant, a mammoth and a Blood Dragon at the drop of an Eidar Cheese Wheel.
The point is that Bethesda offers you a huge world, gives you masses of things to do within it, then leaves you to choose your own path.
Meanwhile, Bethesda’s most recent release, Dishonored, offers similar freedom but in a much more constrained environment. The city of Dunwall doesn’t offer the same vast expanses as Skyrim and the tool set is far smaller, but the ability to experiment is no less pronounced.
With your limited active and passive powers, you’ll sneak, teleport, possess, eavesdrop and stab your way around Dunwall with a liberating sense of freedom.
The game rarely pressures you into adopting a particular approach or play style. Instead you are given a target, an environment and a bunch of badass toys, before being left to mess around with them however you see fit.
It’s about choice and expression. In Dishonored, the game’s larger narrative takes a back seat to the stories you create. For all of the game’s cut-scenes and Hollywood voice talent, it’s your choice of actions and their knock-on effects that linger longest in the memory.
The notion of freedom enabling you to create your own stories can expresses itself in other ways too.
Firaxis’ XCOM takes emergent storytelling and presents it in an entirely different genre: a turn-based strategy title. Utterly removed from the sandboxy freedom of Dishonored and Skyrim, instead it achieves this through a lack of authored characterisation.
XCOM has a story, but it’s pretty lightweight. The game’s tale of escalating alien invasions and your team’s attempts to thwart them is little more than contextual dressing, really. Instead, it’s your own battle stories that take precedence.
Aided by the fact that you can name your squad and outfit them with a small degree of flexibility, XCOM’s lack of troop characterisation allows you to paint in the gaps with your imagination.
Though they are little more than rather drably designed character models mindlessly carrying out your commands, your soldiers are bursting with life.
In the shifting ranks of my squad I marked soldiers out as heroes, cowards, useless twats and fearless bastards, based on their performance. Then as their careers continued they were able to either confirm or subvert my expectations.
Suddenly, their actions weren’t just the result of the game’s calculations and invisible dice-rolls, but acts of triumph, heroism, failure and redemption.
I became more attached to some of my team than a thousand AAA heroes with their carefully authored, focus-tested character designs and rambling backstories. And when my longer-serving, more storied soldiers died? I was heartbroken.
Of course the flaw in my opening comparison is that Call of Duty does feature emergent play. Indeed many heavily-scripted titles do, from Gears of War to Uncharted and Battlefield. But you won’t find it in their single-player campaigns. Well, not much anyway. Instead you’ll find it in their multiplayer suites.
How many times have you regaled friends with you multiplayer exploits, with that time you pulled off something insane and unbelievable by pure fluke, or outrageous skill? And how many times have you seen others do the same?
The truth is that some of the most memorable moments in gaming come not from the pen of a writer, but from the freedom offered by these multiplayer sandboxes.
This is perhaps best expressed in the Battlefield series, with its broader fields of battle and rich toolset. Have you seen the stunning mid-air jet-jumping kill vid above? And the one that came after? That’s emergent gameplay at its finest.
Jet-swapping isn’t a deliberate part of Battlefield 3. It’s not a feature. But the thing that allows it, the freedom offered by the game’s design, most certainly is.
All of which is why when Rockstar announces storyline and character details for Grand Theft Auto V, I’m not really that bothered. By this point in the company’s history we can be fairly confident that the game will offer an entertaining, heavily movie-influenced narrative with considerable style.
Instead I want to know about the city and the things we can do within it. I want to know about the cars and the planes and the boats, the pedestrians and the guns. Grand Theft Auto is the daddy of emergent, sandbox experiences and I can’t wait to play around in it once more.
Video games are interactive. That’s the single most profound advantage they have over every other form of media. In games we have the ability to tell our own tales, to have our own adventures and define our own characters according to our own desires.
Emergent gameplay and storytelling plays to the very heart of these strengths. So while tightly controlled, authored single-player games can and do offer up countless thrills and spills, it’s those more freeform titles that keep me coming back for more. Because who wants to listen to someone else’s story when you can make your own?