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 or worse, 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.
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 wayor 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?
"Wasn't it your own Hartley who said 'Nothing reveals humanity so well as the games it plays?' Almost right. Actually, you reveal yourselves best in how you play.
- Q to Riker
Star Trek: The Next Generation - "Hide and Q"
I was 14 years old, sitting on the gray twill area rug that sat in the middle of my parents' finished basement. The soft, high pitched whine and click of a spinning disc emanated from the little gray PlayStation that rested next to a 19" CRT television older than I was.
On the screen was a grungy slum. People milled about next to their make-shift homes and an eerie green light permeated everything. A lone hero in dark blue outfit and bright yellow hair ran haphazardly around the screen, pestering everyone he saw.
Who knows exactly what he asked them. Based on the answers people gave, the question was probably something like "What do you think of SHINRA?" or "Do you know anything about AVALANCHE?" or "Are you worried about the MAKO reactors?"
It was me who was really asking those questions. At least, vicariously. I paged through the answers dutifully, talking to the same person at least twice, sometimes three times, to make sure I had absorbed absolutely everything I could about this strange world.
One day my Mom sat down in the fluffy gray recliner that was perpetually pointing at the TV host to my venerable PlayStation. It was during one of these story sessions where I was scouring the locals of Neibelheim for more information about Vincent Valentine or Dark Materia or some damn thing.
"So are you... learning about the story or something?"
I craned my neck around behind me to see my mom staring at the TV with a skeptical look on her face. "Yeah." I mumbled. "This game's story is pretty cool."
In the back of my mind I chuckled. She didn't understand! Learning about the story! Wasn't that the whole point of this game? Why else would I play it? Why else would I spend dozens of hours staring at a glowing tube with 27 cents of chinese plastic in my hands?
Final Fantasy 7 was the first Japanese role-playing game that I had ever played. I have since played plenty more RPGs, some from this side of the pond, and I've never lost that fascination with the the video game as a vehicle for narrative.
In fact, I'd say that's the primary reason I play video games. If you asked my friends behind my back how good I was at video games they would probably say "He's OK."
Which is true enough. FyamanD, copilotlindy and some others regularly stop the comps in a variety of games in a variety of genres. I generally pull my weight, but I am rarely the top scoring player.
That's OK though, because the scores aren't really the point for me.
I play games to explore new worlds. I want to engage my imagination and get lost in this alternate universe where humanity has been conquered by a race of mysterious aliens or where a human kingdom finds itself caught between the machinations of gods and madmen or where... well, you get the idea.
Whether or not I stick with a game to its conclusion has a lot to do with how invested I am in the story. In fact, my sense of accomplishment from "beating" a game is more akin to the feeling I get when I finish a good book as opposed to the triumph I feel beating another person in a challenge of skill.
But a game doesn't have to actually have a plot to satisfy my thirst for a good narrative. More on that later...