Telling Stories: The Continued Rise of Emergent Gameplay

Telling Stories: The Continued Rise of Emergent Gameplay

Written Monday, November 12, 2012 By Lee Bradley
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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?


User Comments

Forum Posts: 22
Comment #1 by Robin183
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 03:18:34 PM
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Excellent post. Totally true. I've very rarely gone back to a purely linear story-driven game after beating it, but games like Minecraft, GTA and Skyrim keeps me occupied for a long time and I always find my way back to them at times. Freedom is truly the way to go when developing games.

Forum Posts: 88
Comment #2 by Talos26
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 03:44:38 PM
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After the Skyrim trophy video, one of the promoted videos was one leading to a nudity mod for Skyrim. Thought it was an apt promotion given the material of the original video.

On topic, at this point I've all but given up my 360, that's how deeply Minecraft PC has me hooked.

Forum Posts: 0
Comment #3 by 232323jvc
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 03:45:59 PM
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Nowadays lack of freedom and creativity in games has made gamers crave for a game where you can express yourself and actually enjoy expressing yourself, like Minecraft's endless combinations, or strategies that you can apply in games like Battlefield. In the end for me if a game is fun, to put it simply I'll play the FUCK out of it:) I really enjoyed this article kudos for Mr. Bradley;)

Forum Posts: 9
Comment #4 by TheBrute1997
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 04:32:42 PM
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Games with freedom and creativity has some of the best replay value. Great article!

Forum Posts: 206
Comment #5 by ChipmunksRus
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 04:35:04 PM
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Interesting article. For me, Skyrim lacked the story/purpose that draws me into a single player game. While some games like Dark Souls (that lacks a true story), can completely hook me, I really enjoy playing something like Bioshock 1 every once in a while because if I wait long enough, it feels like a fresh experience. A compelling narrative really adds to the quality of the game. Sure, you won't be picking it up every day and playing it, but to me a well-done story displays the effort put into the game by developers.

Sandbox games like Minecraft, however, fail to grab me as much as they do to others. Same with MMORPGs. To me, a good story trumps everything, but that's just my opinion.

Forum Posts: 868
Comment #6 by Hurricane Of 87
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 05:38:32 PM
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This is why loads of once single player only franchises are adding multiplayer to their packages. That'll be lost on some people though...

Surely at some point in playing GTA/AC III/Red Dead you've had your fill of killing people and running away or murdering animals en masse and need to move on to a totally new game? P. sure I've experienced the shit out of the single player in these games and have no desire to go back to them. The 'emergent gameplay' you speak of is just something that fills in the gaps whilst trying to hit 100% on these games. Once I've done all missions, side quests, collectables is the emergent gameplay going to keep me coming back?

Good to see people on Twitter are willing to drop £40 on GTA5 to 'get bored with the missions 5 minutes in, then just kill prostitutes' yet again, but with a brand new lick of paint on it. That behaviour's just dull to me unless it's in some kind of context, whether it be of the game's making or my own.

Still have Max Payne 3 on my shelf because of the multiplayer after 1000ing it. Hopefully everyone will realise how great this is when Rockstar do a similar MP for GTA5. the reasons are plentiful and obvious, but I've gone on too long. Need to watch Robocop.

Forum Posts: 2153
Comment #7 by mjc0961
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 08:44:57 PM
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"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."

Of course it wasn't a victory for indie titles. Minecraft isn't an indie title. It stopped being one a long time ago. Once you've made millions of dollars, enough to start your own company and hire a bunch of people to finish making your game for you and to start making other games, you pretty much cease to qualify as indie. Mojang may not be EA, Activision, or Ubisoft, but they're certainly no Team Meat either.

Minecraft was indie, now it's not. Time to stop treating it like an indie niche title and start treating it like the mainstream game that it is.

Forum Posts: 85
Comment #8 by LeeBradley [STAFF]
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 @ 01:47:11 AM
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You've opened a can of worms there. Indie is a horribly slippery term.

It should refer to whether a studio is owned by a publisher or not. That's the true definition of indie. It's independent from a publisher.

But then Epic would be indie and that doesn't seem right.

Now indie has come to mean a dude in his living room, or a small team working on games about esoteric stuff. It's pretty much become a genre.

With Minecraft it seems funny for it to be considered indie when it comes out, but not indie when it makes money.

BUT, even Notch says he's not indie anymore so I suppose you're right. :D

Cheers for the comment, man.

Forum Posts: 85
Comment #9 by LeeBradley [STAFF]
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 @ 12:28:35 PM
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Here's an alternative view. It's a blog post by Adrian Chmielarz, former gameplay director at Gears of War Judgment studio,People Can Fly.

Chmielarz reckons that the most memorable moments in games come not from emergent gameplay, nor from gameplay at all, but from those times you're not doing much at all.

It's an interesting argument. Give it a read and let me know what you think:

Forum Posts: 103
Comment #10 by cdawgoku
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 @ 12:54:11 PM
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never understood the appeal of minecraft. tried it literally for 5 minutes and called it boring.

Forum Posts: 751
Comment #11 by Grummy
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 @ 11:22:42 AM
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When you think about it, this is why many genres are dabbling in RPG elements, RPG's and RTS games are defined by their 'emergent gameplay'. The freedom these games provide, where to go, how to go about it, naturally adds a new dimension to the experience that, for example, a strict corridor shooter never allowed. Halo, as much as I loathe the series, was a smart game, one of the first to do this. Bungie understood that just being a corridor shooter wasn't enough, they needed to allow people choice, but still within the confines of the game, which is why, even though progress is linear, each new levels is wide open for you to explore and plan your way through. Along similar lines Deus Ex Invisible War did the same. Yes, Deus Ex did, but that was a true RPG, IW was a hybrid, it was primarily a shooter that added RPG mechanics to make it more than the FPS genre traditionally provides, choice, consequence, character creation etc.

Even sports games do it, every sports game now has a career mode, letting you create a new player and advance them, improve their skills, see them through their career. Again, it adds a new dimension. A game that is essentially as linear as they come, football, everything is on the pitch, you have one thing to do, score goals, has suddenly exploded by allowing you to control the team, sign and sell players, play a single player through from youth player to leading player then into management once retired. It is all emergent gameplay that has taken liberal dollops of influence from RPG's and strategy sim games like Football Manager.

This is also a reason why many people, aren't happy with the direction GTA V is taking. There is a fair number of people who wanted to see GTA take on more 'emergent gameplay', like it used to. San Andreas for example, allowing you to hit the gym and become stronger, become better with weapons the more you use them, taking over territories. Perhaps taking on some of the aspects from the Godfather games, taking over businesses etc. A whole plethora of RPG and RTS influenced gameplay that adds so much to the experience, and they've announced that none of it is there. Disappointing to say the least.

Forum Posts: 525
Comment #12 by I CR0W I
Thursday, November 15, 2012 @ 10:38:45 PM
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It's funny you mention Skyrim as of all the Elder Scrolls games it offers you the least freedom to do what you want.

Anyone that created their own spell/enchantment in Morrowind to jump around the map like a giant flea will know what I mean.

Forum Posts: 403
Comment #13 by Lord Arkhan
Friday, November 16, 2012 @ 01:48:16 PM
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@9 I agree with his perspective to a point. While there are many games I have played that the most memorable experience was while I was not engaged in anything mission related, such as in Gun I found a couple very nice pieces of scenery while I was just exploring. However I think that eliminating more of the story is not always necessary.

What he is describing is already in a lot of games if you choose to do it. Take Skyrim as an example. They may have taken a lot of things out from games like Morrowind but that is more of a gameplay thing. You could spend days(real-time) just riding a horse around the map experiencing the scenery, listening to random conversations and enjoying random encounters. Exactly the type of stuff he was talking about. Not following any story or any type of script yet the game does have a lot of story and side missions to complete. I would say that what would need to happen is to combine his view of how worlds work and other peoples views.

Have a game that you could not do anything other than explore and experience the scenery and all the small random things that you can just sit back and enjoy with zero engagement required on your part for many, many hours but still include a story and side missions that once you get tired of exploring or just want to try something different there is still an option available.

That is the genre most people refer to as 'Sandbox'. It sounds like he considers that to be any game where you can do whatever you want in the story but all the gamers I know consider it to be doing whatever you want inside AND outside the story. Pretty much what you want, when you want, for as long as you want.

Forum Posts: 80
Comment #14 by Benmahalf X
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 @ 08:18:03 AM
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"Emergent" or "sandbox" or whatever you want to call it, sometimes it's OK but overall I just don't like it. If there's a complete lack of direction I'm stuck wondering "What the hell do I do now?"

Oblivion and Skyrim were great because you had the option to play both ways--do whatever the heck you want, or plow through a guild or the main story nonstop, then move on to the next path.

Plus, unless I'm on a vacation, I don't have loads of time to wander around an area. I want to get in, complete an objective and get out. I don't have as much time for RPGs as I used to. Although, I put a LOT of time into FFVI, VII (and X, which is fairly linear TBH) back in the day.

But truth be told, yes, there should be more of these types of games to offer gamers what they want, just as linear games should also be available for the rest of us.

Forum Posts: 38
Comment #15 by thenewpeter
Sunday, November 25, 2012 @ 09:05:52 AM
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@14, look around you're self in the real world, you where brought here with no direction, left to practicly you're own device's, you chose all of this, that is the freedom in game's that people love, to be able to choose everything that they shape, leave their mark, ect.

@10, That's exactly why you didn't get it, you played it for 5 minuets, then gave up. That's not how you play minecraft, if I'd judged it off my forst 10 minuets of gameplay, I'd of thought it was boaring, and given up and left it alone. Yet I played it more, and loved it. In all honesty, it's one of my all time favourite games, and always will be.

Forum Posts: 0
Comment #16 by gloing29
Sunday, November 25, 2012 @ 08:56:30 PM
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Forum Posts: 1
Comment #17 by NakedSnakeFB
Monday, November 26, 2012 @ 07:51:59 AM
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I like to be able to anything when I want to do it. Like on fallout for example, I can choose to not do the main story and go check out this cool ass building or something. And not have to worry about what my dads doing till I'm done doing what ever it is I'm doing.

Minecraft, you can do whatever you want! "Sure, I'm going to build a helicopter right beside my giant fountain today or make a huge sugar cane field." The freedom in the 'emergent' games are wonderful, you don't feel hassled to get things done.

Forum Posts: 108
Comment #18 by Slayinfool
Sunday, December 09, 2012 @ 04:41:45 PM
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I think for me it's definitely lack of new idea's, new IP's . We're getting forced so much of the samething every year it' s impossible for me anyway, to challenge my mind in games anymore. I need and love new stories, new and original ideas in gameplay. I understand the value of the almighty dollar and why publishers push out the same content every year. However for a gamer like me it's caused me to actually spend less money on gaming now. I realize I am in a very small boat here. People buy up every Call of Duty, every Battlefield, every Assassins Creed year after year. Why is that though? Is it more of a popularity issue then actually buying a good game? I believe most people buy Call of Duty every year because it's the new flavor of the year. We find ourselves every year with the same complaints, same nagging issues with the game, yet it doesn't stop sales. Sales get better and better. Advertising, marketing, believing Call of Duty is the holy grail of gaming when in my eyes doesn't come close to even being an average good game. It simply caters to all skill levels.

Developers out there taking new risks, setting the bar, pushing the limits of the hardware, not being afraid of change. They're the ones who should be deserving of our money. Give them the opportunity to create what we're so passionate about. I've become an almost exclusive game renter. I won't buy just any game anymore. I have my favorites of course but we the gamers have a responsibility as well. Thats to encourage developers that we want change, we want exciting new ideas to explore. Right now the way things are going, there is no reason for publishers to feel any differently then they do now and force the same content down our throats every single year. That's a shame.

Forum Posts: 0
Comment #19 by gloing67
Monday, December 10, 2012 @ 09:03:53 AM
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4J Studios


US May 09, 2012

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