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These Games We Play: Emergent versus Directed Experiences

It was 10pm, I turned off the lights, closed the curtains and put on my headphones, just to get in the mood. You know what I'm talking about. I'm exploring what appears to be an abandoned mine. All is as well as I could hope for. There doesn't appear to a lot of supplies left around, and I can find no way to contact others, but there's a roof over my head and it seems inclined to stay there.
My peaceful exploration does not last forever though, as I return to a fork in the path something approaches from the other side. I don't get a look at it, but it is some sort of wolf-like beast. Maybe it's only a regular wolf, I mean, there's no such thing as monsters, right? I hid behind some convenient barrels and do my best to not freak the hell out - which is to say, I completely freak the hell out. Despite this, I manage to sneak past the creature and head down another passage, but I've allowed myself to get confused, I've seen this all before, I've gone in the wrong direction. I need to head back. To the wolf. I take a moment to mentally prepare myself, but when I head back my timing is atrocious and I gaze into the beast's eyes as it gazes into mine.
I slam the alt and F4 keys as hard as I can. I turn on the lights and promise myself I will never, ever play penumbra again. I also vow that should I ever speak of the events that just transpired, I will fail to preface it with spoiler tags, because I am just that bad of a person.

Anyone who has briefly played Penumbra - even very briefly, for I am a total wuss - will be familiar with the part of the game I'm talking about. It will have happened slightly differently for each them, for one, their sense of direction probably treated them better than mine did, but ninety percent of it will ring true. This is because Penumbra, or at least the thirty minutes I've played of Penumbra, is a very directed experience. Someone has sat down and invested a lot of time in making sure that the player feels stressed, and nervous and incontinent at specific points. A lot of games are like that, precisely crafted to feel emotion A at point X and Y, though never at Z, and this means that all of us who play it get that shared experience. It doesn't leave us with a lot of diverse experiences though, even if a game has branching paths, it only means that we have two (four, six...) stories to compare with our friends as opposed to one. Sure, I get to make the decision to tell Subject Zero to go sling her hook for being the most annoying human, but one in every <however many> also do that and maybe it makes the experience less special? Itís certainly less unique.
A lot of people would argue why even make these games at all? Why not just write a book, or a film? I don't have a lot to say in response to that, but what I will say is that I've never had to leave a cinema because a film had shaken me.

On the other hand, we have games that offer more freedom. That offer people opportunity to bust out their favourite buzz phrase: emergent gameplay. Only one person will have the cocktail of genius and cruelty to build the longest coaster to ever be built (link). Only one person will have the patience to watch a world slide into everlasting nuclear stalemate (link). Only one grenade will roll down a hill (55:35).
These are all great stories, right off the bat, even someone who has played those games has to say "that's new" and maybe even a ďwowĒ. This is the power of sandboxes, systems and simulations! These are things that a designer could never come up with, because gamers are smarter, sexier, more creative and super aerodynamic than your average bear (read: designer). I just made some overstatements and spurious claims, but you get the idea.
A designer can do his very best to sculpt an experience, and that might be great, it may score an eight on an arbitrary greatness scale. But if a designer hands you a world and a set of dice, upon which you may perform your own personal rituals - whether that be blowing upon them, throwing them into the air or something more exotic - this gives you the chance to start rolling nines and tens. Twelves. Think of the twelves! But then, there's also going to be a lot of threes.

Right: Bioshockís compelling setting, themes and environments conclusively prove that directed games are the best.

Left: Artemis may not be much to look at but is actually conclusive proof that emergent games are the best.

Hereís some more examples of... stuff.
I have a level 85 Rogue in World of Warcraft. In the more directed Old Republic, I am a member of imperial intelligence, a fierce patriot, that foolishly allows himself to be blind to the atrocities his beloved empire commits.
Conversely, I care not about the plight of Dawn of War's Blood Ravens, but the randomly generated Brett and James Martin are heroes of X-COM, my brain has written them an elaborate backstory detailing how their entire family is simply cut from a finer cloth. It even wrote a song for great Brett. Well, it's really more of a brief jingle if I'm to be honest.
Maybe I prefer my heroes of X-COM, solely because other games, which are similarly mechanically, but directed, are poorly written. Maybe itís a simple case of no writing is better than poor writing. Maybe I prefer my Old Republic character because excellent writing - and voice acting - beats out no writing, or, at least, no real characterisation.

Using World of Warcraft and The Old Republic as examples is dangerous though, because I really want to steer away from including multiplayer games in this discussion. I'm not saying that there aren't great experiences to found in them. We can revisit them another day for sure, because it is a discussion worth having, but it isnít the discussion I want to have now. I feel they're more difficult to deal with, as most of them tend to straddle the line between emergent and directed. I've always felt that Left 4 Dead, despite itsí elements of randomness, was very heavily directed, but you can't help but have emergent experiences when you involve other people, especially when half of those people are handed super powers and rooftops. I'm also not going to talk about any casual games, because this just isn't the kind of topic that applies to many them. Sure,your angry birds may topple a thing in a unique way, but the scope of this uniqueness is comparatively narrow.

Sorry guys, you canít hang. Maybe next time.

I've shared some stories of my own experiences with both sides of the fence and highlighted some other stories many of you have already seen and I feel like Iíve talked about the merits of both schools. But which is more valuable, the experience that is shared or the experience that is unique?
I've always found that the directed experiences are more reliable at eliciting an emotional response, Dear Esther had a powerful effect on me despite it's lack of freedom, which seems to be a common occurrence. Skyrim bored me despite its' freedom, which isnít as common of an occurrence, but Iíd guess - and i admit, I am only guessing - that more people experienced Skyrim as a skinner box than people who experienced Dear Esther as a boring slideshow. Which isn't to say Skyrim is bad, I can understand how it could draw someone in, I just rolled a lot of threes, a thing that Dungeons and Dragons has taught me to expect.
Emergent games though, are so much better at "big bangs", so many games try for that big reveal and so often it feels ham fisted. Games like Far Cry 2 do a great job of creating frequent, stress inducing little bangs - your gun jams at the wrong time, it's time to take your pills, your eyes weren't on the road and now you've taken flight, etc...- and then allow the player to manufacture their own big reveal. This reveal, because it isn't scripted, feels a lot more special than if it had been scripted to happen to everyone at minute ninety. But then, a player may play for hours and never have that moment. Players of Amnesia are guaranteed to see something that will freak them out. Players of Far Cry 2 are guaranteed only of three dick heads slamming into their passenger side door.

Right: Sonic 360 conclusively proves that directed games are horrible.

Left: I couldnít think of anything as terrible as anthropomorphic hedgehog-on-twelve year old action. Seriously, who signed off on that?

Would the death of Brett Martin - hero of the people - sting as much as the loss of one of a less randomly generated, well written, character? I don't have an answer, because I havenít found that theoretical character yet in a similar context. If I it ever becomes possible to give an aswer though, I'll get back to you.
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About Poetasterone of us since 11:18 AM on 06.26.2012

Sometimes I like to write stuff on the internet. I'm a full time student, hobbyist mobile developer and all around terrible person.
Steam ID:Poetaster


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