Games have a rather special feature to them that I'm sure gets talked about to death. I'm pretty sure we've all read at some point some sentence about the idea of emergent game-play—experiences with games that could be considered unique to one's own session(though, the vocabulary is still new and in the process of being defined)--but even if you haven't read about it, you might have experienced it. I mostly wanted to talk about how emergent game-play colored my opinion of games, and asking when emergent game-play is a huge achievement and when it unfairly overshadows what could be better game design. I'll mostly do this through an example of my own gaming history, and talking about games and the emergent game-play experiences I had with one in particular.
Of course certain games come to mind when one mentions emergent game-play. Scribblenaughts, The Elder Scrolls, and more recently Dishonored all make names on giving the player options to have unique experiences. But while these games make their names on emergent game-play, I want to talk about one that impacted me in particular.
The experience that always comes to my head when I think of the idea of experiences unique to a session is my final battle in Mass Effect 2. I think that in a way I still do prefer Mass Effect 2 to 3, not because of the ending, but because the heavy weapon system, while perhaps a a little bit gimmicky, was conducive to a good kind of emergent game play. For me, this is epitomized in my final battle. I won't spoil the plot, but I will set the environment a little bit. The boss is huge, and the arena takes place in the dark, with mostly the glowing eyes of your opponent as the only way to track him. Of course it could have also been that my brightness setting was too low. That actually used to be a bit of a problem with the monitor I was using. A little bit into the match, I bring out the heavy weapon I chose for the mission. On most missions I bring out the Avalanche—the ice cannon—for area of effect crowd control, but for the final mission I brought the Cain--a mini nuke cannon.
With the symbol and everything
Now, if you've played ME2 then you know that the Cain has a lot of problems that make it impractical: a long charge up time, along with a huge blast radius, as well as practically only having a single shot make it a pretty much useless weapon in most respects. Well almost useless. In this case the boss was huge enough and far away enough that neither missing nor getting caught in the blast were going to be a problem. The issue was going to be that start-up time. So you hold the trigger. And wait. And wait. The percentage ticker steadily heats up. The front of your gun, behind cover starts to glow. As the appointed time approached, you poke out. Aim at the glowing weak spot, and...
Looking now, half this stroy comes from being to lazy to change the brightness settings. Also, so much for no spoiler free
Kaboom. Or something. A large chunk of the health bar disappears, but that isn't what this story is about. Suddenly, and only for a little while, what was in the darkness is illuminated in the nuclear green. For the first time, you see this huge bosses face. I'll try not to spoil to much, but I hope its clear that an impression was left. You could it reeling back, and for a second, you understood what it was you were fighting. A set of accidents, not a set of design choices, led to the most dramatic moment of game-play for me.
So how is this emergent game play? Well, it might not necessarily be unique to only my session, it was based on a number of choices, that, in a way, were entirely my own without being judged one way or another whether I was right, with no reward for doing it that way in particular. And it was a good emergent experience too. I'm sure others have done it, but for me, ME2 is better than ME3 because it allowed for such strong experiences to happen through one's choices. It wasn't a practical solution to anything, rather I consider this moment to come from my flair for dramatics. But for that game to give me the options that I needed to preform that battle in a way that could be unique to me, in contrast to say, in God of War where you were shepherded to perform certain actions through quick-time events, where the events are dramatic, but not unique, or even the skill choices in any Mass Effect games, where the choices may be unique, but not quite dramatic on the level of a nuke lighting up the monster in the dark’s face.
I consider this an example of good emergent game-play. I think, that for the next one, it might be fair to look at an example of less good emergent experiences.
Its actually rather hard to think of a what I would call a bad emergent game-play experience. I don't think we call them that. We call them a glitches, or a broken game. Other examples are less obviously negative; I consider the wave-dash in Super Smash Bros. Melee, where a set of movements given by the devs, when combines by players create a new, much more dramatic movement that might give a huge advantage over other players, overshadow the devs work by taking advantage of what they didn't think of. I think I'll leave this end of the argument with this example.
That's an infinite combo against the last boss of the Street Fighter IV arcade mode. Infinite combos, generally by their nature, are made of choices the devs didn't consider, didn't shepherd you to. I'm not going to say this example of emergent game play makes the player bad, but I am going to ask if this is fun. Is it rewarding to use a glitch in the game, rather than one's own skill against the computer(or another human opponent for that matter), even when that computer isn't playing fair, to win? I don't know. To me it seems like it would get repetitive, and rather sad in a way.
So, what else is out there? Whats experiences are unique to you? I know probably everyone can give some version of emergent game-play from their favorite Elder Scrolls game if nothing else. Can anyone think of better examples of negative emergent experiences? I'd like to hear from you.