Opinion Piece: Emergence in Games

Opinion Piece: Emergence in Games

I play games to lose myself in other worlds, ones that are arguably much cooler than the one I presently occupy. We often read a book or watch a movie as escapists departing from reality, slipping into the skin of these characters and visiting the fantastical locations they inhabit. In this way games are an inherently superior vehicle; eliciting a constant interactive link that shares much of its DNA with the relationship we have to the world around us.

As gamers we are accustomed to a certain level of order being maintained within the game space whether it’s a single or multi-player experience. But with games that incorporate emergence as a core principle of play, suddenly all the heavy-handed structure goes out the window and we are left with our own human nature and that of others to dictate the terms of the game. The culture within these types of games is fascinating, often forcing players to relearn how to approach and interact with them because human tendencies now rule in place of pre-determined guidelines.

A few years ago I got interested in a multiplayer space simulation game called EVE Online, not for its graphics or fast paced action but because it was an entirely player-driven universe taking place on a single massive server. “Any way you want,” he responded when I asked a friend how to advance myself in the online world. He explained that I could become a con artist specializing in corporate espionage or a hired gun whose combat skills went to the highest bidder; dominate the marketplace as an economic powerhouse, take up pirating and pillage the deep space trade lanes or collect bounties on those that did. I could choose the path of an industrialist, instigating turf wars between player corporations and supplying armaments to both sides or carve out a piece of the galaxy to take by force and call my own; it seemed sky was the limit as I stepped into this new frontier.

While it takes a considerable time investment to do these things with any real success they are all nonetheless plausible endeavors for the creative and entrepreneurial player. Lying, extortion and deceiving your fellow player is not only allowed by the developers within the game space but a mentality that is often encouraged—dastardly individuals welcome. This was my first foray into a game specifically tailored for emergent game-play and its resultant narratives to take place, where players are given the freedom to determine their experiences by the choices and interactions they make within its virtual world.

Since its inception EVE has played host to a string of major historical events made all the more profound because they were driven by the interactions, machinations and egos of real people instead of scripted fabrications. Even though EVE has been referred to as “spreadsheets in space” it bestows players with the power to be a true participant in the world instead of just an audience member. In this, EVE effectively uses that which sets games apart from other mediums by using their natural strength of interactivity. Your decisions and actions, however small help to shape an entire world. While these magnanimously depicted events by no means reflect the day-to-day existence of your average player, the butterfly effect and causality videos help to accurately illustrate the types of emergent situations that can occur. This is not a game that says here are the rules and this is the story, instead it says; here is the world, create your own rules and tell your own stories.

When an emergent game ecosystem is properly implemented, self-motivated player interaction can also create spontaneous events that make for unique and exciting narratives from the players’ perspective. Ask any D&D player worth their salt and they’ll tell you this type of narrative is often more exhilarating than the typical pre-written faire. In Dungeons & Dragons you have players motivated by their characters personality traits, personal characteristics and the challenges they are introduced into. A dungeon master exists to run the mechanics of the game, provide background settings and even a guiding hand to keep the players on track when necessary. Yet in a well-run campaign it is player actions that ultimately determine how the story unfolds, often in ways unintended by the DM.

Players build the story in an improvisational manner as they interact with each other within the pre-defined rule set. In the traditional sense an author controls the direction of their work with the intention of making it a well-balanced and enjoyable experience for the spectator. Conversely, the participating player requires a certain amount of freedom to act and react without the linear constraints that the customary story structure maintains. It’s important to remember that in an emergent gameplay setting the player is both author and participant of the narrative that takes place. In describing the core concept of emergent narrative I think Warren Spector said it best, “Sharing authorship is where the sweet spot of game narrative is.”

I would be remiss to cover this topic without paying homage to the breakout hit mod for the Arma 2 engine called DayZ; a multiplayer survival simulation that pits you against a harsh open-world with dozens of other players trying to survive on an island ravaged by a zombie outbreak. Players begin by waking up on the coastline with nothing but a flashlight and a single bandage; your first major decision is which direction to walk. There are no waypoints and no on-screen objectives, an almost non-existent HUD lets you know the conditions of your thirst, hunger, blood levels and body temperature. You scavenge a desolate world for basic needs like food, medical supplies, and if you’re really lucky a firearm with some ammo to defend yourself with. Bones can break, mobility can be hindered and sickness can set in without proper precautions against the elements. This is an unforgiving game where death means losing hours of collective progress and survival gear, making for some severe keyboard face-rolling.

DayZ does an elegant job of introducing a distinct backdrop and adding a simple, yet malleable catch-all objective of survival. But the special sauce that makes the game stand out is leaving players to their own devices within the established setting to do as they please. Survivors may decide to turn to banditry as a means to their ends, lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting travelers for their supplies rather than risk venturing into the zombie-ridden cities. Others prefer to avoid confrontation wherever possible because after all, trusting a stranger is a dangerous gamble in this desolate world. Day-Z has often been considered something closer to a social experiment than an actual game and it’s easy to see why. The undead will charge after you with the speed of an Olympic athlete and the intent to chew your face off without fail; if nothing else you can trust in their predictability. Dealing with players on the other hand is always a gamble.

Early on in my time with the mod I rescued another player from becoming a zombie chew-toy. After spending hours sharing the road, adventures and beans with one another—even forming a rapport through voice communications, this bastard shot me in the back of the head so he could roll me for the goods in my inventory. When altruism and safety in numbers fails does deception and betrayal become a necessary evil in order to survive? Most zombie fiction is about people eating people, but it also touches on themes of the human condition and how we react to being thrown into a world of hopelessness with our fellow man. DayZ does a fine job of keeping in step with these transcendental questions as you try to balance morality with survival among your fellow living man as well as the undead.

Since its launch, DayZ has generated hundreds of firsthand accounts ranging from the fascinating and endearing to the absolutely bizarre. There was the story of Dr. Wasteland, an elite player who became something of a folk hero amongst the community by traveling around the island rescuing survivors from certain death and providing them with medical treatment. He established a log known as the ‘white list’ comprised of other like-minded medics that were vetted for their trustworthiness, each given a stamp of approval that they wouldn’t shoot you in the face and loot your corpse when asked for assistance. When asked to do an interview by about his virtual adventures, he agreed on the condition that they rendezvous at a discreet in-game location.

Another DayZ curiosity involved someone being kidnapped by a group of survivors and the subsequent insanity documented as he proceeded to tweet the whole thing as it happened. The group forced him to throw down his weapons at gunpoint to be disposable scout and zombie bait for them, repeatedly referring to him as their slave. This went on for quite some time until the group (by this point being referred to by the kidnapped individual as ‘his’ group) was taken out by rival bandits; the abductee was jokingly cited for showing early symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. Then there’s the instance of unsuspecting survivors getting picked up by a bus and being told they will be taken to a refugee camp banding together for safety, but instead ending up in a two-men-enter-one-man-leaves initiation into their ranks.

Of course this kind of approach to game design can have its drawbacks; gameplay can break down or become cheapened if players are given too much freedom. I’ll be the first to admit that the concept can be undercut by the reality. A major risk of emergence in games is that it may not emerge at all –the unpredictability that makes it interesting also makes it fragile. So while the existence of other players is necessary for adding the crucial ingredient of unpredictable human interaction required for true emergence, they can also represent a hindrance to the formula. I also understand what an unpalatable idea it can be for developers to leave so much in the hands of their player base given the stigma of immaturity amongst gamers, but the payoff for doing it right can be ground-breaking.

I see is a huge amount of future potential for emergence in games, and while it is a passionate subject of mine, I am not taking an elitist stance by holding it to a greater standard than other forms of games. I strongly believe that trying to deny any aspect of video games takes away the very thing allows it to be such an amazing medium unconstrained by form, format or style. In its current state, there is no question that player-driven content can’t compete with a thoughtfully crafted game when it comes to pacing, quality of themes and content. But the consistent innovation we’ve seen in linear games for years has been a trend in making them less linear, giving players more options for how to approach a situation and greater influence over how everything plays out. There will always be a demand for a well-spun yarn in games but I believe it can only be taken so much further. It’s only logical that the next step would be to craft virtual worlds that allows for an endless combination of player-driven stories and events to naturally emerge.