One of the best terms I have ever read, heard, or said as a game designer has to be: “Emergent Story.” Tynan Sylvester, in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences (2013), defines emergent story as:
story that is generated during play by the interaction of game mechanics and players.
Basically, it’s the story of you; the player. These stories don’t consist solely on the “narrative” of a game, although it does play a part. Rather, emergent story is the story of the game and what the player, you or I, experience when interacting with a game. Here’s an example:
Your team needs to rescue the three hostages held captive by the enemy in a barn. Your sniper takes over-watch as you and your other team mates skulk through the tall grass to the structure. You breach the door and throw a flash-bang. Your one team mate takes out one of the enemy units on the ground level and your other team mate fires at an enemy on the balcony but misses, gets hit, and goes down. As you rush to aide him with your medipack before his health runs out your sniper sees an enemy team coming in to trap you in the barn, but swiftly eliminates them from her position on the hill. Meanwhile, your remaining able team mate in the barn takes out the enemy from the balcony and unties the hostages. Your injured team mate survived his injuries, and is rewarded with a medal upon returning to the base.
The narrative written and directed by the designers and writers would be no more than: “the team descends on a barn to rescue the hostages.” The emergent story comes from the minute details in the gameplay generated by the player interaction with the game and its mechanics. In this instance, the designers/writers didn’t script for your partner being shot, or your sniper reacting
Some of my favourite games make heavy use of emergent story, and the best of these have little to no actual written/directed narrative
My favourite types of games are the ones where the story is mostly developed through play, rather than following a certain story arc. One game that comes to mind, right off the top of my head, is the Sins of a Solar Empire Series. This sci-fi real-time-strategy game has no scripted narrative as you play. Basically, the little narrative you get at the beginning of the game (assuming you didn’t skip the pre-menu movie) simply sets up the conflict between you and the other races. How that conflict, and thus the perpetuation of society as you know it, plays out is completely up to the player. From there, emergent story events come about during exploration and encounters with allies or enemies (or space pirates… yea, I said space pirates).
This is in contrast to games like the Command & Conquer Series or the Homeworld Series. These games certainly have emergent story in them, but through pockets of interaction in between an overarching narrative rather than a “free form” story. In C&C it’s during missions after a cut scene while in Homeworld it’s between hyperspace jumps.
For me, games are all about story, but it doesn’t have to be a written, scripted, or directed story. Through game mechanics players can carve out their own personal stories really well. This not only provides rich gameplay, but can give games great replay value; since each experience has the potential to be vastly different every time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some stories to emerge.
What are your favourite emergent story games? Do you have a good emergent story to share? Let me know in the comments here, or tweet me: @adamthegameguy
Disclaimer: All images come from each game’s respective website and link back to such. These are not screenshots from me. I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games.
EDIT: Spelling and grammar (March 13 2015)