emergent narrative video games

The art of make believe: emergent narrative in games

The truest form of Choose Your Own Adventure

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I think by this point it’s pretty clear that my favorite thing about games is how they can tell stories in whole new ways. Usually that means games that put narrative design at the forefront, with cinematic cutscenes or branching storylines that let you choose how the characters move forward through the plot. One type of narrative design I don’t think about as often as I should, though, is the idea of emergent storytelling in games, which has been around for years.

What is emergent narrative?

It’s a bit of a complex topic, mostly because emergent storytelling has a ton of crossover with the design of gameplay systems. The idea is that emergent stories aren’t plotlines that were placed there by the devs for you to find, but instead, they’re the stories that you create on your own based on how you play.

These narratives come about in just about every game genre, with the only real criteria being that they’re stories that the devs didn’t put there intentionally. They may have put the tools in place for you to be able to create a narrative of your own, but you’re the one who has to put the pieces together.

Totally didn’t just run across a half of Hyrule for this star fragment…
by inBreath_of_the_Wild

One of the best ways I’ve heard to know if something has an emergent narrative is if you tell your friends stories of your time playing the game. You know, the classic “you had to be there” story. It’s like trying to tell someone about something awesome that happened in your Dungeons & Dragons game, or a really cool dream that you had. We love to share these stories regardless — you see them all over Reddit and Twitter.

The stories write themselves

I recently started playing Pokémon for the first time ever as an adult, and the way the gameplay is designed, it’s so perfect for making you feel like you’re on your very own adventure. I had one of those classic narrow escapes where I was about to be team-wiped, but then one of my benchwarmers swooped in to triumphantly save the day, and it was awesome.

The list of video games with these types of stories is endless, from open-world games like Breath of the Wild to rhythm games like Beat Saber. While I find conversations about more structured, traditional kinds of stories in games can be equally as gratifying, there’s something so special, so electric about creating your own stories from the pieces the developers gave you. When we give in to the fantasy of the game we’re playing, whatever that might look like, it gives us the autonomy to make-believe in ways that we haven’t done since we were kids. I also love that no one sets out in a game thinking “I’m going to make a really cool story happen.” Instead, these meaningful moments come about as a direct result of us just playing and trying to have a good time.

Gayle, thievery is wrong.
byu/Syncryptica inAnimalCrossing

Trying to tell other people about our endeavors may feel a bit like an attempt to relay something that happened in a dream — you kind of had to be there, but that’s kind of what makes it feel significant. It was a singular moment that only you were there for, where you truly felt something based on how you chose to interact with a virtual world. Sometimes it’s thrilling, other times it’s somber and moving, and some of the most enjoyable moments of emergent gameplay are when you’ve accidentally launched yourself off a cliff, and suddenly you’re busting a gut at what a ridiculous, futile end the hero of the game has just suffered.

The freedom to explore

There’s some really great literature out there that discusses how we can use games to explore new ways of seeing the world. It’s a super low-stakes environment, because whatever happens, you can always restart the level, or create a whole new save file, or just shut the game off for good. Even with the heaviest of in-game consequences, there will never be any real-world consequences for what we do in a video game, withholding obvious exceptions. In a world that demands perpetual perfection from us, being able to enter a space where we can just throw ourselves at the wall to see what sticks without any fear of judgment, I think, is one of the most freeing things we can do. It’s why I love picking the mean dialogue choices in games — that’s not something I do in the real world (or at least I try not to).

I invaded someone’s swamp…
byu/Superstick15 inEldenring

Then there’s the world of multiplayer, which allows for a whole new slew of emergent narrative possibilities. The Soulsborne games are an amazing example of emergent multiplayer gameplay, and if you need convincing, go and watch any Bloodborne invasion compilation on YouTube. Epic sagas of betrayal, humiliating moments of crushing defeat, genuinely touching moments of unspoken friendship — it’s all there, and it’s all because those situations arise organically from players interacting with each other online. It’s amazing, and it’s so unique to games.

I think that’s what really gets me about this whole thing. Games can do their best to replicate film or TV, or even carve their own path by taking well-known story conventions and reimagining them for the interactive medium, but the kinds of stories that come from the act of play itself? Only games can do that, and at risk of sounding so cheesy, I think that’s beautiful.

That sentiment is one of the hardest things to get non-gamers to understand, and yet it’s one of the most important things to telegraph if you want them to see why we love not only the art of games themselves, but the art that comes from playing them. Try as I might, there will always be important people in my life who will never be able to understand the gratification and artistic autonomy that comes along with the act of play, and honestly, that makes me really sad for them.

Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

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Image of Noelle Warner
Noelle Warner
After a few years of working in game development, Noelle joined the Destructoid team in 2021. She particularly loves interactive storytelling and cuddling with her cats!