The Emergent Game Dilemma

The bear came closer, obviously angry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shot it with an arrow. I dismounted and backed away, but my horse was oblivious and stayed directly in the path of the bear. Claws slashed, hooves flew, and there was a terrible cry from above the clouds. A dragon landed in the middle of the scene. I could only stand in shock as my horse, the bear, and the dragon all fought each other.

Thankfully my horse won.

Emergent gaming is when complex situations arise from relatively simple rules. The above scene occurred while playing Skyrim, a game set in a ridiculously open-ended world that allows for spellbinding emergent gaming moments alongside equally spellbinding glitches in the game mechanics. You wouldn’t necessarily expect the same sort of situation to happen in a more linear game, but then I have also stumbled across zombie-on-zombie brouhahas in Left 4 Dead.

According to game designer Dave Braben, emergent gameplay is the “Holy Grail we are looking for in fifth-generation gaming.” If that is what game designers are striving toward, why haven’t we seen much of it yet, beyond some relatively silly examples that fall completely outside of main story arcs? The problem is that there are inherent limitations in the two major game design mindsets – open world and linear design – and how they deal with the art of telling a story.

Open World Methodology: The Endless Quest

Open world games allow you to tackle the story any way you see fit, but this approach ends up pushing the narrative towards a series of checkpoints, usually in the form of quests which must be completed before allowing you to attempt the next set of objectives. The result is a shallower story arc, although not necessarily an unsatisfying one. The primary story design challenge ends up being two-fold: maintaining interest in the main storyline and allowing for episodic plot development that can proceed at whatever pace the player chooses.

These two challenges are often at odds with each other. Maintaining interest requires you to give enough information that the next quest/challenge/plot point is still a mysterious and delightful enigma.  Usually this takes the form of forceably chopping up the story through the ol’ “now run over to this place and do this thing” type of quest, which quickly becomes monotonous as you continually traverse the world with only a dim view as to what you’re actually on about.

The job of keeping the player coming back, in this case, is then partially downloaded to the richness of the diversionary tactics that entertain, between solving the individual story elements of the game. These distractions include everything from side quests to the community-building exercises found in more successful MMORPGs. In Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), for example, these communities are called “kinships” and players may join/create kinships with their online amigos in order to pool resources, knowledge, and to help each other complete group-based quests.

Having a richly detailed extracurricular world, as it were, has its own hazards in terms of story design. In Skyrim, for example, you can just go off into the wilderness, chop wood to make your living, buy a house, marry someone, and, oh yeah, there are some world-threatening dragons that you can go fight if you have the inclination. In LOTRO you can spend all your time gathering resources found in the world (different types of wood, metal ore, herbs, arcane knowledge found in ruins, &c.) and work on your skills as a historian, bowyer, metalsmith, farmer, or a half-dozen other “careers” instead of actually caring about helping the Fellowship do whatever they’re doing with that pesky ring. In most MMORPGs you can buy a house, or two, or three, and outfit it like some medieval East Side Marios, with bric-a-brac over all of the walls and littering the hallways, everything from smoking helms to in-game artwork to an enormous fountain that just sits in your living room for no reason.

While this is all in service to something that is outside of the story, it is also the space within which emergent gaming is most likely to occur; perhaps because it is outside the rigorous definitions of the plot design.

Linear Design Methodology: Run This Way, Idiot

Linear games put you on rails. They sometimes allow for multiple methods of achieving the objective, but generally, with linear design, you accept that you are just along for the ride. Although the gameplay can be more stultifying, the stories and characters can also be that much richer for the simple fact that most plots are linear in nature anyway. The distraction element of open world game design is not necessary because you are most likely playing the for the story — the “guided experience.”

This isn’t to say that emergent gaming experiences are taboo in linear game design, just that they have to account for in the plot in other ways. Level design is really what linear games are all about, in the same way that the richness or tone of the environment often categorizes an open world game. Considering the reduced computational power required for even the most complex level design verses an entire open world map, it is surprising that there is such an inflexibility to linear game levels. For instance, in I Am Alive, you are able to jump and climb certain fences, but are unable to get over a low concrete barrier topped with barbed wire. That is just poor level design.

Games like Half-Life 2 are intriguing from a level design perspective because they have no set map. The realism of needing to find your own way through a level without that quick map-check aid is refreshing, but ultimately doesn’t change the feeling of being led by the nose at times. And while the enemies can interact with, and kill, each other — as is the case more and more often, even in linear game design — this only helps you save that first-aid kit for the end challenge of the level.

Level design has become an art in the way that the screenplay how-to guide “Story” has made an art of filmmaking. It becomes about hitting certain moments and working them into the concept of the level, as opposed to making something truly organic. There are mini-adventures within each level, sometimes called “boxes” or “gates,” where the player is forced to sit and wait and defend while some game mechanic takes its sweet time to allow you passage to the next area.

Even if these hindrances serve the story (as they do in Bioshock 2, when your Little Sister is gathering Adam and you must defend her) they are still about as organic as a robot with a typewriter. In Left 4 Dead, on the other hand, you can get blitzed by a box-type challenge at any time by getting covered in zombie-attracting bile by a “Boomer.” This mechanic adds to the fear factor, that at any moment you could be dealing with a high-speed horde of zombies while backpedaling and trying to reload your shotgun.

Solutions? No, More Like Heuristics

Neither of these options allows for a truly emergent storytelling experience. But without massive advances in AI, what possibly could? How can you deal with giving players free rein, not just of an environment, but of the actual direction of the plot? What will feel realistic, what will become a dead end, or even worse: what will become boring? Implementing a few heuristics as a part of the overall design can at least push a game toward a more emergent experience.

1. Stop Designing Open Worlds That Aren’t Open

Compare and contrast the island world of Just Cause 2 vs. Crysis. In Crysis there exist cliffs you can’t climb, and large portions of the island that you can never visit. Just Cause 2 has a game element (the grapnel) that allows you to travel virtually anywhere(not to mention the fact you can jump in a helicopter, fly up to a remote mountaintop, jump out, and parachute down through the greatest fake view of all time). It all adds up to a feeling of limitlessness, which makes the player more invested in exploration.

2. Don’t Be Afraid To Open Your Linear Game

If a character can climb over a chainlink fence, they shouldn’t be stopped by a low wall of sandbags. Not only does it not make sense, but it points out how linear the game actually is. Let players climb anything and everything. Yes, maybe it means they will get past a really tough area with surprising ease by doing something unexpected, but that has two bonus side effects: the player is rewarded for doing the unexpected, and they are encouraged to explore.

3. The Same Corner, The Same Enemy

Linear game design suffers not just from a closed-in map, but also from closed-in interactions with non-player characters. Do guards really only walk in one circuit, over and over again? Let the guards explore, let the player find enemies in different places each time they play and encourage unexpected outcomes during replays.

4. Let The Players Make Stuff, Even Story Elements

There are games that allow the player to create structures that persist within the game. Finally, you can create that high-tech space lab you’ve always wanted and invite your MMORPG friends over! There’s a limit to how much interactivity you can get from simply allowing new spaces to be added, but this type of design does alter the game landscape in fresh and unexpected ways. Allowing players to create equipment goes even further, but requires some devilishly complicated programming or a fairly restrictive set of choices. Allowing players to create new characters, new quests, or other story elements is going to be even harder,but without that creative impetus, a fully emergent experience will remain out of reach.

5. Design Interaction, Discover Emergence

Simple rules lead to complex interactions. That’s the emergent gameplay mantra, and following it to the bitter end makes games feel more responsive. Imagine a maze-like game that sometimes has boxes and barrels littered around the maze. You can blow them up, perhaps, but can you move them around? Could you block off one section of the maze so monsters/enemies from that section can’t come find you while you’re working on that vault door you need to open to move forward? Can you make your own traps, so a barrel falls from a height when pushed? Can you stack them up and climb over walls? Can your enemies follow you over those same impromptu stairs? Once you allow the mechanic to happen, players will find new ways to interact with the game, and that leads to enhanced replayability and more out-and-out fun.

The End of The Plot

Modern games have received their share of criticism for not yet achieving the mature artistry of literature or film. This criticism seems at once unfair and true, for as deep as the stories can be, that final step — the one that involves finding some transcendent moment — is still in the future of game design. As frustrating as that may be, it simply is a matter of time. Someday soon we will be able to buy a game that will blow our minds wide open by having a truly free-form plot constructed by us, the players.

Does that mean the death of the traditional story, with its Aristotelian arc, climax, and denouement? Not truly, because we all understand story structure innately — it’s part of how we communicate. The stories will remain, but the storytellers will change. The experience will be at once entirely yours and entirely out of your hands, as every controlled decision branches into a billion possibilities.

The stories we tell will be about the stories we make, and that will be all the difference.


Graydon James delivers your mail when he’s not making music that disappoints his parents.  He’s a tea enjoyer and a dad, therefore he only experiences video games in the most casual, between-diaper-changes kind of way.  But he has a lot of opinions and sometimes he writes them down, usually on Twitter under the handle @graydonj.


Ed. The header image is taken from a children’s book — Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon (R.S Gannett, R.C Gannett) — I found searching for ‘surprise dragon.’ I liked it too much not to use it.