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 Analysis:  Story And The Trouble With 'Emergent' Narratives
Analysis: Story And The Trouble With 'Emergent' Narratives Exclusive
July 10, 2009 | By Tom Cross

July 10, 2009 | By Tom Cross
More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive

[Directly following his roundup of design perspectives on "new' storytelling in games, writer Tom Cross continues the piece by defining narrative in the context of games -- and why "emergent" narratives aren't quite a story yet.]

Narrative can’t help but have an internally coherent organizational logic (called "plot"). The important things about this logic are that it a) unfolds in time for a reader, that is, has a beginning, middle, and end, b) that the experience of reading is one of reading—of discovery and deciphering rather than production and self-creation, and c), that because of this, narratives appear for readers as pre-existing objects, things separate from a reader that demand to be seen and interpreted.

This last point is critical: narratives happen to readers, and speak of an intelligent, exterior design to readers. This is true even when we tell stories to ourselves (the principle on which psychoanalysis works)—we encounter a structure of meaning, or plot, outside ourselves, and re-narrate it to ourselves.

Narrative always comes first, and unless we’re very clear about what we mean by "story spaces" or "tools for making narrative," it’s unclear how we might provide readers with tools, rather than pre-existing narratives, out of which they themselves will produce narratives, ex nihilo.

Narrative is, to borrow an academic jargon, always there already. It’s naive to imagine for the sake of polemic that video games, just because they’re new media, are exempt from these rules about narrative, which are something like rules for human psychology. As Peter Brooks, cited in the last article, argues, we’re just wired this way. We see narratives everywhere, and when we as authors (or, yes, video game designers) produce meaningful artifacts, whatever we call them, we can’t help but encode meaning in them that a reader is going to decipher.

fcs_2.JPGNarrative Possibilities, Emergent Possibilities

It’s implausible to think that a game could ever exist where players could continually find a consistent, long-term level of narrative fascination without the aid of game-provided elements that are already narrative, elements that already have encoded in them some meaning that the reader has to interpret and put to work.

A game like Far Cry 2 is successful at playing with gamers’ expectations and goals because it has a strong back-story, varied narrative-based and setting-based game mechanics (the physicality of your character, your animations when healing wounds or taking pills, your connections to buddies) that allow players to create their own (hopefully meaningful) narratives within these game spaces.

To say that this is simply a "game space" is to deny the machinations of the designer (even in designer and blogger Steve Gaynor’s ideal game world), their construction of a world, a chain of actors, and a set of rules and motivations that propel multiple narratives through that gamespace. Still, if this is what narrative is today in a video game, then what could it be? What could the future of narrative look like?

I’m not talking about a set of conversations that you can only have with a set number of people, which, when activated in the (always the same) correct order, leads to a reward of some kind of all-encompassing, culminating narrative climax, or that same climax mixed with or preceded by a difficult in-game dilemma. I’m also not referring to multiple chains of branching dialogue and story paths that ultimately lead to one of several conclusions. This may be the form that narrative takes in modern games, but it’s just a certain kind of narrative, not narrative.

What's The Real Problem?

When I talk about narrative, I’m referring to the product of an author, a collection of ideas, settings and characters (and their actions) that can be interpreted by the viewer or player as a set of related occurrences and human interactions. As a human being who watches events unfold around us, we understand the potential for actions, reactions, missed opportunities (and missed failures).

While games today have rigid narratives, it’s wrong to think that narrative itself is the problem. The error lies in thinking that because some elements of RPGs and open-world games today are or are parts of a narrative, they can never be sufficiently dynamic or flexibly organized enough to allow user interaction with them.

These interactions can produce an emergent narrative, which, on the above definition, is something too complex to have been completely foreseen and provided for by the designers, and was produced by the user’s interaction with the simulated gameworld. This isn’t just the privilege of some soon-to-be-developed toolset of the future; the tropes and technologies are already here.

How? A game could present multiple actors, and in-game entities that had their own goals, made decisions based on their own desires (as created by the designer), and thus affected their surroundings, and possibly the player. If the unit of simulation isn’t resources, vehicles, day-night cycles, but characters, agents with a scripted set of goals and behaviors relative to the gameworld and the other characters in the system, then it is possible to run a system whose compositional elements are narrative.

The possibility of creating such a system clarifies how much the vagueness of the idea of "story space" and "emergent narrative" depends on uncertainty about what narrative is. Saying that if we give users a good enough toolset, they’ll make their own stories, is as much to say, "we don’t know what story is, but we know that it’s out there."

Is Emergent Narrative No Narrative?

To return to Blade Runner: the game created a cast of actors who seemed to follow their own paths dictated by their own motivations. What is so impressive about this idea is that it allows for the “unique” gameplay moments that you’ll find in a game like Fallout 3 for Far Cry 2, but with the difference that those moments carry meaning in themselves that the reader has to decipher, rather than being opaque meetings of meaningless avatars in a simulated world that we naively imagine will “become meaningful” for a sufficiently imaginative reader.

It’s also worth noting that in that game, game spaces abounded. Every payoff for every interaction was determined by your investment in the game and your character, and your reasons for doing what you did, how you expected the game world to react. The fact that it could surprise you, did surprise you, shows that the game allowed for more “emergent” narratives than any recent game.

People like to say that the Fallouts, Far Crys, and GTAs of the world allow for unpredictable, unscripted, emergent narrative moments. In fact, those moments aren’t properly narrative, while Blade Runner was. Think of the kind of moment that people have in mind when talking about emergent narrative in those games.

If I kill a person who I was supposed to help, thus necessitating a firefight with their relatives or friends, then yes, it’s “emergent”—something unscripted and procedural happens and I participate. But it isn’t narrative except in a world where opaque, meaningless random occurrences between human-like entities, empty of content, can be called “narrative” because we’re imagining a user who, like a kid playing with dolls, fills in all the semantic gaps.

bioshockart.JPGAnd so what’s happened is not an "emergent narrative." It’s emergent, and the narrative elements are stage dressing that, insofar as the event was unscripted, cease to matter. If in-game actors start killing each other but there’s no narrative armature for why that happens, then it’s beside the point that the agents happen to represent people, friends and relatives or whatever.

Real Emergent Narratives

The new thing that’s happened with them happens in spite of and entirely separate from their status as characters, because they and the game world can’t speak meaningfully to us as readers about what’s happened. If we project meaning onto it, it’s separate from the meaning that was already coded into it (that the actors are characters in a story)—those elements become throwaway, even though the whole point of making them characters in the first place was, obviously, to create a meaningful world.

Unlike those games, Blade Runner attempted to simulate a game world that could quite happily continue to function without your input at each juncture, and a world in which “function” meant interaction between characters with goals, and “interaction” meant conversation and communicative action. Those things happened in the game, and it wasn’t supposed (impossibly) that the reader would bring it all from the outside. It was possible to miss events and characters, and thus have other events cut off from your purview.

This is not the same as saying “I had a different experience in Fallout 3 because I missed quests my friend did; we can now discuss our emergent gameplay experiences.” Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 may provide users with hobbled narrative tools, but they do not provide actual independence. You may be able to “go anywhere and do anything” in these games, but what that actually means is “go into some areas, fight guys, and wait to activate missions and story segments.”

A game that actually allowed for emergent narratives would need a game with strong narrative blocks (like Blade Runner) to keep the flow of events cohesive, in the face of the player’s actual freedom and independence.

In Fallout 3 quests will never start unless you start them. Alistair Tenpenny will sit on top his tower waiting for a supposedly inevitable nuclear explosion for the entire game, if you see fit. This is in no way interesting or fun, nor does it provide me with an exciting experience.

In fact, knowing that Alistair waits atop his tower for me (and only me, no one else can do it, apparently) is unpleasant. Why doesn’t he go hire someone else? What if I then decided to kill that person, necessitating attacks against me by Alistair?

This is not a far-fetched notion, and games attempt to provide such branching story paths all of the time. The problem is that there is never a question of the world’s self-sufficiency or linear temporality. If I sit on my hands watching zebras frolicking, the Jackal and other warlords will stew in their bases, waiting for some brave mercenary to aid them.

This is where proponents of emergent narrative have a point—the narrative elements of these games are indeed too static. But to say that those games are static because they use narrative elements, and to imagine that there are non-narrative, “emergent” aspects to these systems waiting to be mined (and that can be divorced from the harmful aspects of “narrative”), is to mistake one problem for another, insufficient dynamism for something inherently wrong with narrative.

f3jo.jpgNew Possibilities

It may be quite possible for me to, as Gaynor writes, find developers and games that create spaces to have exciting, new experiences. It’s recently become much easier to find them in fact, in the form of The Path. The Path clearly subscribes to the school of thought that desires emergent, unpredictable narrative experiences and creations (on the player’s and designer’s part).

Yet Gaynor contends that such games “Provide people with new places in which to have new experiences, to give our audience the kind of agency and autonomy they might not have in their daily lives; to create worlds and invite people to play in them.”**

But does this sound like a space that can be differentiated from its user-created adventures? It may all be well and good to have exciting, unscripted firefights against mercs on a field in Far Cry 2, but I would strongly argue that such player generated narratives (maybe, in your mind you’re just trying to let off a bit of steam, hang out in the plains, when you get jumped by soldiers.

Maybe you’re angry at one of these soldiers because they killed your buddy) are inextricable from (and thus highly dependent on) their structured, designer-produced settings and narratives.

In fact, insofar as they require the user to apply the backstory to them, as they surely do, they’re boring because they don’t have content of their own. And insofar as they relate to the broader narrative frame (as they often do despite themselves), they violate the dictum of story space as sole preserve for the appearance of that rare new species, “emergent narrative,” and smuggle narrative in the back door.

Furthermore, to say that a world – where you could do things (any things) and have those things be meaningful – could exist necessitates that the world be carefully, expansively designed, its players extensively fleshed out, embodied, and horribly, plotted. If a game, its world, and its denizens do not impose a logical set of responses upon your character due to your actions, then a player will always know the “gaminess” of their setting.

In most games, gamers instantly (or quickly) recognize the systems of action, reward, repercussion, and recognize their place and weight within the game. It’s rare that you find a game that knows how to make players explore their worlds conceptually as well as physically, and even rarer are the games that get this right.

Creating Meaning

I find it hard to create “meaningful” moments or experiences in a game that so clearly accepts (uncritically) the standards of FPS design as does Far Cry 2. It’s telling that what “emergent” gameplay and narrative amount to in games is a different kind of enemy assault, a riotous, chaotic battlefield. It’s still the Bioshock problem, the “two people killed the enemies with different powers” fallacy of “choice” gaming.

What if your interface for the shooting itself changed? What if the terms by which you “won” or “lost” an encounter changed regularly? What if these stopped being the only possible outcomes? Instead, your goals changed from killing everyone to getting captured, or doing something outside of the shoot/be shot at paradigm.

To move further outside the kill/die and win/lose video game rhetoric (to a more experiential model, say) is almost incomprehensible to games, designers, and gamers, and with the tools and examples we have today, I’m not surprised.

Gaynor’s argument assumes that a reactive, highly realized and modifiable world can elicit genuine emotional responses in me, possibly even responses I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t care how reactive your world is, I cannot be interested in the actions of my character if they are not couched in a broader human context and narrative.

This is why so many games fail to elicit responses from gamers. Their characters, plot, and world are at once artificial, unbelievable, and uncomfortable in their own skin. They consistently fail to transparently direct and modify the world in a responsive, enjoyable way (for the player).

When I relate to fictions, to the actions of my avatar and the hidden or visible results of his actions, it’s because they take place within a recognizable, human spectrum of actions, existence and response. If there’s no reason for the queen dying after the king, after all, I’m not sure I care. And I don’t care to dream up a reason all on my own.

fc2_2.jpgA Hopeless Cause

Much like in the blander shooters of today, all of the emergent gameplay and experience in the world can’t make up for badly realized characters and stories. Likewise (and far more importantly), the autonomy and ability of the game world to function, play out, and possibly self-terminate (in parts) is key to the realization of Gaynor’s ideal.

I think you need a tangible thread of narrative force running through a world to make these things important, otherwise every happening has the potential to be “meaningful” to me.

This thread can exist anywhere, it can be different for every user, but it will exist, and it will not do so just because a user willed it into existence in the absence of coherent emotional and logical stimuli. This isn’t the case in real life, and it’s not the case for one individual.

Yes, one potential gamer may find the relatable experiences of her in game character interesting, but there is a difference between one player and a community of players, and between interesting and engrossing.

Next week, I want to talk about how Gaynor’s goal is one that I appreciate, despite the impossibility or inadvisability of some of his prescriptions. As he hypothesizes: "Under the immersion model, instead of relying on an authored message encoded in a single traditional narrative stream, meaning arises from the content developers' ambient characterization of the gameworld itself and the non-player characters who inhabit it. Instead of gaining perspective by seeing specific events through the eyes of a particular character, the player gains perspective by himself inhabiting a world apart from his own daily experience and coming away with a sense of meaningful displacement."*

I think that this is quite possible, but that there are necessary designer-heavy elements that must inhabit this world, especially if the “sense of meaningful displacement” is to be achieved. I also think that these elements must inescapably answer to the broader rules and results of being part of narratives. To aid me in my discussion, I’ll bring up the notion of “Island-based” tabletop quest creation and modification, and the graphic adventure The Last Express.

* The Immersion Model of Meaning
** Being There
The Challenge of Non-Linearity
A Peek into Game Design

[Tom Cross writes for Gametopius and Popmatters, and blogs about video games at You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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