The Zen of emergent narrative: how to let go
Creating a game is hectic. There are assets and people and all manner of other complicated factors to manage all while you’re working against the clock to try and make your vision a reality. In a traditional narrative, the designer knows what is going to happen, where and when. The events are planned meticulously and the designer attempts to account for every facet of that event. Non-linear narratives aren’t like that at all. In a non-linear narrative version of Mario Bros., Mario may go to the castle at the 9th world and ignore all the others. This would lead to all the other non-princess bearing castles remaining under the control of king koopa. Does that mean that princess Peach is now a princess in exile? As you can see, non-linear narrative can result in a story that is heavy with personal meaning. It becomes your story about Mario saving the princess. At the same time, there is a dark side. For every princess in exile, there is a dovahim lost in the woods.
I happen to love Bethesda Games’s, Skyrim. Every game that seems to come out of their studios is a monumental undertaking that supports an insane level of player agency. The game world is a rich tapestry of visual delights with new secrets and unique flourishes in every remote corner. I love the game so much that I have yet to see the end. In fact, I haven’t gotten much farther than the part with Parthenax and the greybeards. Once I learned to “foos,” I “foos”ed my way out of there, down the stairs and completely ignored the plot. I get distracted, you see. It’s one thing to look at something on the horizon in a different game and think to yourself, “that is a mountain.” In a Bethesda game however, that thing on the horizon is a playground that begs to be explored. And explore it I do. Then, I explore the other side, then I find a small cave, then I kill some cultists, then I wander off, then I spot a giant, then I… You get the picture.
The typical response is to call my experience with mario as superior. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. However, is that always the case? It certainly isn’t in Skyrim. When I’m lost in the woods in Tamriel, it feels good. This is my story of the wayward and incredibly forgetful adventurer. A character who will protect someone from bandits but will also steal all the plates and silverware in your home. He’s not exactly macbeth but, he is mine. That is the power of emergent narrative. When you remove the rails from the experience, the world itself opens up and blossoms. Things feel more real because we know that they are actually there not just some image in the distance. The story isn’t just some story that some writer thought up in his living room, it is a living breathing thing crafted by the player. This is the incredible power that emergent narrative has. It hands the player the keys of creation.
Often, I consider myself a storyteller. Whether it’s literally telling stories to my young nieces and nephews or running games as a GM, I tell stories. I love them. If it’s okay for me to get philosophical, I think people naturally think in stories. We see ourselves as the hero in our own story. So, it’s difficult for me to deal with the idea of an emergent narrative. I keep looking for the exact moment when the narrative “emerges.” Is it going to pop up from behind me at some inopportune moment? How could the player have a story if I don’t put it there? If the player’s character goes to confession and then right afterward, chases a terrorist through traffic, how does that connect? So, it was with a heavy heart that I realized that I don’t have to control every aspect of the player’s experience.
Eventually, I likened it to my pen and paper role playing games. When I was younger, my plots were tighter focused. I would sit for hours before each session and plan out every interaction. Then, when the players would show up, reality would quickly wipe away everything that I was thinking. The players would inspect the delicately runed box that I had reams and reams of paper devoted to and then they would sell it to a passing trader. Or, they would inspect the doomsday device, note the warnings and then proceed to activate the device to find out what happens. All of my complicated notes and designs would mean nothing because the players wanted to spend their time talking to every single no-name NPC.
Eventually, I learned my lesson.
I learned to design top level situations that the players could all respond to. My worlds went from places where my players had very little choice but to play through the scenarios that I had designed. To a place where adventure hooks lay around every corner. I was happier because my work wasn’t being torn to shreds and my players were happier because I gave them full control over their own destinies. Essentially, I had changed my approach from that of a novelist to that of a playground architect. A novel is like the writer telling you a story. The writer takes all the burden for your entertainment. A playground architect gives you the tools to make your own fun. The player can be in charge of making their own fun in the environment that you’ve created.
Ultimately, it’s about the player, not you.
So, let go.