In my previous post
I talked about how one of thing I really enjoy about certain genres of games is the story. Some may disagree, but I have felt invested in the narratives of many games that I have played over the years, and as the medium matures I think more people will come to accept "narrative" as something that's as important to certain genres of games as the graphics or game design. At least, that's my hope. For better
, certain enterprising developers are pushing us in that direction.
Argue all you want about how good scripted storytelling has(n't) gotten in games, there's an entirely different type of storytelling that has been built into the gaming experience from the beginning. And that is the "Emergent Narrative."
I'm sure smarter people than me
have used this term or something like it before. But what I mean by it is pretty simple. The game presents the players the tools to create their own story, or narrative, providing a seemingly unique experience that gives the player a stake in how the game world and the characters within it develop.
There are a few ways to do this, ranging on a broad spectrum of player freedom.
Starting off, there's the "railroad" method of simply laying out the story as a series of objectives and checkpoints like a (very fun) shopping list, having the player do these things in a particular order. The player doesn't make decisions about what to do, only how it gets done. The concept of emergent narrative only applies here in terms of the stories that players tell as they recount a certain task. Even thought the plot itself is well defined, there are still unique experiences that can happen as players react to each individual challenge - and these experiences can stick with players as they recount them while discussing that game with friends.
Moving towards the direction of more direct player influence are simple decision and dialog trees that allow a player to mold a character and a game world based on discrete choices. This lets players take a character down a pre-determined path, usually of "good" or "evil," as the game progresses. The narrative that generates from these types of games
tends to be summed up as "I'm playing a Jedi" or I'm playing a Sith" with additional opportunities to explore parts of the game unique to one leg of the branching narrative path.
This style of the emergent narrative has been around for... a while.
The last chunk of the spectrum is the "sandbox." The player is given elements of the game world to control and can make these elements interact in whichever way they see fit, abiding by whatever rules are established to give the sandbox its structure. Many of these games
are designed with emergent narrative specifically in mind, but many are not.
Being a pretty creative guy I fall into the latter camp. I've been known to take my game experiences and write short stories based upon them and share those stories with other fans of the game. Hell, I might post some of those here before too long.
Because ultimately I think the potential for emergent narrative is where the strength of gaming lies as an art form. There's been a lot of bloviating
about that lately, but to me the discussion is academic. Video games could in their own way be considered performance art
. More than that, they have the power to engage the minds of their players to create their own stories and emotional connections to characters and concepts that perhaps never even existed
before the game booted up.
That's the power of games as a medium and emergent narrative as vehicle for delivering an experience. Anyone with a PC or console can pop in a disc and in a few hours, write their own history of the world
, mold the future of the galaxy
or even pen a sleazy romance novel
The ability to create emergent narratives that these games give us is a powerful tool for our imaginations, unlocking creativity in more people than ever before, and it's exciting to see so many other people manifest their creativity through games in one way or another
. Games, in their own way, provide a creative canvas that is less intimidating than a blank piece of paper, encouraging all types of people to build their own stories within a comfortable framework.
So what's your poison? Do you like games that guide you down a tightly scripted experience? Or do you prefer to create your own story around freeform events of a game like The Sims or Spore? Do you see the emergent narrative as an important part in the future of the medium as a whole or just one piece of the pie?