Let’s talk about stories.
The Archival Story
Imagine this: you’re a historian in the far future. All of the records of our era have been lost.
One day, an archive full of records on population, births, deaths, hospital records, industrial output, temperature and rainfall records, election tallies, price records and migration records is found. It seems like a historical windfall. There’s only one catch: it’s all just raw data. Numbers, categories, and names. There isn’t a written sentence anywhere. No emotions or idea. No record of cause and effect. No interpretation.
Is this archive a story?
A story is a sequence of related events. All games have sequences of related events, thus all games have stories. Even abstract games like Tetris have stories.
That time when you were about to lose and barely survived when that long skinny piece showed up? That was a story. What’s special about this story is that it wasn’t written into the game. It emerged dynamically.
There is something fundamentally different about experiencing an embedded, pre-scripted narrative versus an emergent narrative. When I’m playing Half-Life 2 and Alyx comes and saves me at the critical pre-scripted moment, it’s cool, but it doesn’t feel like it actually happened. I know that these events were pre-ordained. It’s similar to the difference between watching a war movie and watching a war documentary. Even if the events are the same, the fact that one is real makes it much more poignant.
When I’m playing Halo, though, and I’m gunning from the Warthog and we get hit by a missile and fly through the air upside down, and I manage to shoot a guy using a gun attached to a jeep which is spinning upside down through the air, that is really cool. Bungie didn’t script that experience. In a very real sense, it actually happened.
This is why I love emergent narrative. They happen within an artificial space, but they aren’t forced or invented. They’re true stories, and they feel that way.
The problem is that there is something very important missing from emergent narratives.
A Ledger is Not a Story
Let’s go back to the archive. Does it tell a story? The information is there, buried in the billions of data points. But a story is more than data points. The historian’s job is to sort through all this data and try to identify cause and effect relationships between the data points.
This is the kind of problem that games have with emergent storytelling. We have no historian. We don’t interpret anything or pick out relevant data. Emergent narratives in games tend to be shallow, confusing, anticlimactic, meaningless. The narratives tend to be short action vigniettes or data-heavy strategy reports. Never does a game emergently generate a clean narrative arc in the traditional sense of the word.
If you’re playing Civilization, your faction can conquer many enemies, resist invasion and cultural domination, trade, gain allies and betray them, and ultimately rule the world. But the game doesn’t emphasize the importance of key battles. It doesn’t tell you that a particular trade agreement needed to be preserved so that you could maintain your uranium supply and continue your plan to build an unstoppable nuclear arsenal that you can use to blackmail a particular neighbor. These causal relationships are all there, but all the work of interpretation is left up to the player.
There’s a really fascinating site called BattleReports.com that has a huge database of written reports about video game matches. Each report is a written and illustrated story explaining the events in the match. The cool thing about it is how much more interesting these matches can be with a decent interpretation than when simply viewed raw.
Connect the Dots
I think we should start trying to thread this interpretation into the game design itself. The game should tell a story together with the player so that the player understands what’s happening in the game. Every action and reaction should be imbued with a sense of meaning and emotional gravity, and should be connected to everything else inside and outside the game. We need to embed an artificial historian in the game,who can pick out meaningful data and cause-and-effect relationships.
Doing this with past events is called storytelling. If you are playing Civilization, and you are at war, and your enemy captures your uranium source just before you finish building your nuclear weapon, which leaves you defenseless against their onslaught, the game should tell you that you lost the war because you lost the uranium, which deprived you of a key strategic resource. As it stands, the cause and effect are there, but the player is the one who has to extract all the information.
We can also connect the dots into the future. This is about identifying important events as they happen. This is hard because the same event can be either world-changing or completely unimportant depending on context. In Starcraft, if a Marine dies in the middle of a massive, pitched battle, it’s not a very significant event. If that Marine is the only defense against an early-game rush of two zerglings, however, his death is a significant event because we know that it will leave the base defenseless, which will allow the zerglings to do significant damage before they can be destroyed, which will place the Terran player at an early disadvantage which will be very hard to reverse, likely causing him to lose the game.
Imagine a Civilization game where one of your allies comes to you and says, “You need to send troops to help me in my war against the Germans because if they capture my uranium supplies they will build a nuclear arsenal and end your nuclear world domination.” Imagine he begs or cajoles or threatens the player. That’s emergent storytelling, and I’m looking forward to it.