The Problem with Emergent Stories in Video Games

Some weeks ago, Dan Whitehead of Eurogamer wrote an article about how stories are best told in video games. In short, he suggested that games excel when they let their systems tell their stories, and he criticized games that rely on cinematic tropes of storytelling and presentation:

“[T]hat’s where gaming’s strength lies, not as storyteller but as story generator… Only when games accept that unique strength, take pride in it, and stop borrowing the clothes of others, will they truly achieve their potential as the only truly new creative medium of the last 100 years.” (‘Systems Vs. Stories’, Eurogamer, 22 June 2013)

I have to question the core of his thesis: Why is it bad to borrow tropes from another medium? Games are already an amalgamation of several other mediums. They contains elements of theatre (each performance/play session is slightly different), elements of cinema (a reliance on cinematography), elements of painting (wildly different visual styles mimicking surrealism, impressionism, pointillism, hyperrealism, baroque, etc), and elements of literature (using narrative asides for character/plot/theme/world development). With such a wonderful melting pot of artistic inspiration as its foundation, why on earth would anyone want to limit the definition of “video game” and what a video game is capable of doing?

More to his point, I don’t believe that gaming’s strength lies in being a story generator. It’s true that games have the unique ability to tell emergent stories, but most of those stories aren’t actually very good.

(It should be noted upfront that all this argument only applies if you’re trying to tell a story. Games can exist without a story. That’s another unique feature of the medium. Those games work by different rules. This whole argument only applies to story-driven games.)

Emergent Stories Aren’t Stories

Emergent narratives are stories that are not authored by a single person or by any person really. They are stories that emerge from the interaction between players and the systems that govern gameplay. They are random, transient, ephemeral things that only ever exist for one person at one moment in time.

I like emergent stories as much as the next person. There’s something empowering about being witness to a singularly unique series of events, watching systems interact with systems in a certain way at a certain location that might never happen again for any other player. Even if such an experience is not really that unique, it still feels that way. Yet when I look back at my emergent experiences or when I try to tell the stories to others, I realize just how shallow an experience they really are.

Emergent stories feel more engrossing than authored stories because they’re personal for the player, and that personal interactivity gives it the illusion of importance. I assume that because this event was exciting for me, it must be exciting for others as well. But it’s not. My adventures in Skyrim, my tense game of XCOM, my rooftop chase in Assassin’s Creed, my war against komodo dragons and cassowaries in Far Cry 3, all of these stories seem much more exciting in the moment than they do in the retelling, and that’s because they’re missing the key component of any good story. They’re not about anything.

Emergent stories are not complete stories, they’re just outlines of a story. They’re living outlines that can be rearranged on the fly, but they’re still just outlines — nothing more than a sequence of vaguely related events.

A story is more than a sequence of events. It’s also a commentary on those events. Through that commentary the story expresses its meaning, its themes, its morals. It becomes something greater than us. This is the key part of any good story because this is what makes it interesting to more than one person. A good story is about some universal human experience. That’s what keeps me interested even if the specific sequence of events depicted don’t relate to me personally. This is where emergent stories fail. An emergent story is just a sequence of events devoid of context and commentary that is only relevant to one person. Interactivity gives it the illusion of importance, and that illusion allows games to tell cheap stories without us noticing until they’re long over.

Emergent stories only become meaningful when they’re given context by an author’s voice. Any good article written in the style of New Games Journalism is evidence of this. People writing about their personal experience, but adding commentary to it to make it relevant to a wider audience.

The best example has to be Quintin Smith’s “Planetside: The 1%”, a story about an Alamo-like last stand. Planetside was a persistent online game about a perpetual three-way war, and one day there was a bug that prevented new people from logging in — but only for one of the three sides. On the surface, it’s a funny or frustrating story about how a bug can ruin the balance of an online game, but in Quintin’s hands, it becomes a story about the camaraderie that grows out of hopelessness and how we cling to the things that we believe in against all logic.

The bug would be fixed in an hour, so the dramatic last stand was pointless, but the article is about how it wasn’t pointless for those involved. Essentially, it’s a story about the wonders of an emergent story, but it only achieves that universal meaning because of the author’s guiding voice. Remove that author, remove his narration, his contextualization, his commentary, and you’re just left with a Wikipedia article.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was praised for the intensity of its emergent battlefield stories, and make no mistake, a game of XCOM can be as mentally and physically exhausting as any good war movie. However, it’s hard to express that intensity to an audience. Why should you care about that time my best Assault Soldier ran too far ahead and got flanked by two Mutons, but my Sniper saved her by successfully landing two fatal shots with only a ten percent chance of success for each target? I care because I’m invested in my soldiers’ well-being. They’re important cogs in my battlefield machine, but they’re not characters. They’re chess pieces, and you have no reason to care about my chess pieces.

This is the point that Roger Ebert got hung up on in his infamous declaration that games can never be art. Even the best game of chess is never about anything more than victory or defeat. Emergent stories need more context. Who is my best Assault Soldier? Does she have a family, friends? What’s her life outside of XCOM? Does she even have a life outside XCOM? Why did she join? Why did she accept the procedure to test for psychic powers? Why did she go through with this dangerous, untested experiment with alien tech? What drives her?

Even the worst stories are about something. Amy, a universally reviled game, touches upon themes of motherhood and uses caring for a child as a central mechanic. Lost Planet 2 is a crappy game that eventually reveals itself to be a metaphor for environmentalism. I Am Alive (a much better game) is tarred by its clunky controls and systems, but it takes its themes of survival seriously: You meet deformed people begging for extra food, hurt people too scared of you to accept your help, healthy people who ward you off with a gun, and other healthy people who attack you on sight. Encounters are designed to showcase the breadth of human experience in a survival situation.

By contrast, what do Don’t Starve or State of Decay say about the human experience? They claim to be about survival, but they’re only about the point-by-point progression of survival. They ask us to survive without asking us what it means to survive.

Emergent Narratives That Work, or Almost Work

Given the sheer number of games that exist, it’s not surprising that some have managed to find an interesting, if not good, balance between the intimacy of an emergent story and the universal themes of an authored story. Valkyria Chronicles and Cart Life stand out to me as different examples of how this new form of storytelling can evolve.

Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based war game, similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, except that it wants your soldiers to be more than chess pieces. It wants them to be real characters with real likes and dislikes. Each soldier that you recruit has a series of unique personality traits that affect their competency in battle. For example, a “Hard Worker” will occasionally get to take an extra action during a turn. A “Challenge Lover” gets a boost in attack power when charging into the fray. Being “Meadow Bred” increases one’s defense while in grassy meadows. The game even labels some characters as racist. Darcsen is the game’s fictional oppressed race, and you can recruit Darcsens as well as “Darcsen Haters.” If you pair them on the battlefield, they both suffer a penalty to their attack and defense stats.

This is a wonderful melding of gameplay systems and characterization. One reinforces the other. It’s a massive improvement over the characterization in XCOM because Valkyria Chronicles gives us the necessary context that makes a character more than just a pawn in my personal war story. Valkyria Chronicles tries to answer the question, “What drives her?”

Now, this added context isn’t emergent. It’s all completely authored. Before the game was released someone had to write and code those traits to those specific characters. However, the added context does make the emergent scenario better since it populates that scenario with characters that are relevant to a wider audience. Also, from here we can see how a developer can push these systems into crafting a real story and not just a scenario. Allow the traits to change.

Of course a Darcsen and “Darcsen Hater” wouldn’t get along at first, so they’ll suffer a stat penalty, but what if that penalty was lessened the longer they stay together? What if a “Darcsen Hater” could become a “Darscen Lover?” The same applies to all traits in the game. What if a “Meadow Lover” could become a “City Boy” or a “Hard Worker” could become a “Procrastinator?” Now you’d have an arc, a character arc and a story arc, and now the emergent battlefield story would be about more than just victory or defeat. It would be about the cost of victory and defeat, how either one can change people for the better or for the worse. Valkyria Chronicles still just gives us scenarios, but it provides a roadmap to how those scenarios can become stories.

Cart Life tackles the emergent narrative issue from a different angle. To date, it’s the only game that I’ve played that I think offers players a truly emergent story. That’s because it doesn’t have a purely emergent story. It’s more of an authored story with emergent themes.

The author’s hand is obvious from the very beginning since you play as one of two very distinct and very defined characters, each with very defined goals. The general gameplay loop has you trying to balance multiple time-sensitive systems at once. Eat enough to stay healthy, sleep enough to stay competent, take your daughter to school, pick her up from school, get to court on time for child custody hearings, get through the red tape of setting up a cart in the city, and so on. It’s extremely hard to keep up with all of these systems, and the game feels purposefully designed to overwhelm you and revel in your struggle. But that’s the point.

The author provides us with a general scenario, not an actual story, but in this case, the scenario is so narrowly defined and the gameplay is so tightly focused around that scenario that the gameplay can’t help but fill in the details to give the scenario context and meaning, thus turning it into a genuine story. Cart Life puts you into a difficult economic situation and asks you to thrive. Your success or failure in this task gives the story its dramatic arc. Do we persevere through the initial hardship to make a successful cart, or do we give up in the face of a seemingly unfair economic system?

Cart Life can be about a number of things depending on how well you play. It successfully turns gameplay into commentary, and so our emergent experience becomes representative of something more than just My Story.

Currently, systems-driven stories are too focused on their “systems.” Games with emergent stories tend to just loop the same general scenario over and over again (a reflection of the programming loop at their core) without asking us to think about what any of it means. If that programming loop could change, then the loop can be made to comment on itself and thus give its emergent, systems-driven story meaning. Or, a developer could just tailor their story into something that naturally comments on the endless loop of a program’s code.

Either way, systems-driven stories need to evolve if they’re ever going to be taken seriously. Thankfully that evolution is happening. We’re still discovering what it means to interact with a story, but I’m not ready to abandon the authored narrative, just yet.