Emergent Storytelling — Writers Should Play More Videogames

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 a trend away from the highly-narrative RPGs and adventure games of the past, so-called “story-heavy” games which relied on cutscenes and expanded dialogue, at the expense of gameplay.

The new buzz ’round 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 gamer vernacular with the success of games like Minecraft.

Emergent Gameplay is the idea that, rather than shoehorning the player into a pre-constructed story, you should establish a framework, through game mechanics, in which a player can experience 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.  These games give players a world and tools which allow them to experience wholly unique stories.  No two games of Minecraft are ever alike.  Ditto for Dwarf Fortress, or Sim City, or Grand Theft Auto.  Hell, 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, and the mechanics are just there to facilitate.

I’ve been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown recently.  It’s a brilliant game; easily my favorite since Dark Souls.  It 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.  It legitimately makes me misty-eyed every time I do so.

There’s a fantastic article on Gamasutra where the XCOM developers explain this very-intentional approach to storytelling.  Much like Dark Souls, XCOM is a game where, when you really zoom in and take a close look at the game’s design decisions, every single one seems to have been very carefully made, with a thetic and singular focus.

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, Journey — THESE are games whose writing deserves recognition (and which deserve recognition from writers.)

I wish I could bring this back around somehow, and tie my thoughts on emergent storytelling in games to my thoughts on writing episodic fiction novellas about dwarfs.  But really, they’re apples and oranges.  I just think it’s incredibly useful to look at the way the same craft can be applied in different mediums.  I find it instructional.  Hell, if not for my sabbatical into screenwriting, I wouldn’t have learned how to pace a story, nor would I have come back to prose.  Deep Sounding wouldn’t exist.

I wrote almost 4,000 words today.  Setting a hard date for the book’s finish and then sharing it with as many people as possible has had a terrifyingly galvanizing effect on my work ethic.

I think I’ll take a break and go play XCOM.

2 thoughts on “Emergent Storytelling — Writers Should Play More Videogames

  1. 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.

  2. […] storytelling’ which I just did a Google search of and it turns out someone wrote a similar blogpost using this exact same terminology. What this means is that, with video games in general, with the […]

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