Once Upon A Playtime, Redux

Yesterday, producer Ted Hope (who is also the producer, along with Anne Carey, on our upcoming feature film, HiM), was gracious enough to let me come and stomp around his sandbox with a short post called, “Where Storytelling And Gaming Collide.” There, I said the following:

Traditional storytelling seeks to tell the story of the author, the director, the creator.

But storytelling in games is about empowering the player to experience and tell her own narrative.

I believe this more and more. I believe that games — from the smallest “casual” game to the hardest of the purportedly “hardcore” — are powerful and compelling to us as players because from the experience of playing games we gain narrative, and from that narrative we gain… well, all kinds of things, really. We gain perspective. We gain entertainment. We can be enlightened, amused, disturbed, challenged. And this is true of games even without a traditional narrative. It’s true of a game of checkers, or chess: the two opponents sitting over a board, learning about one another, traversing the peaks and valleys of competition, exploring strategy. You come out of a game of chess, you have a story — and often the way we see and retell it (in our own heads or to others) bears the elements of escalation, climax, and resolution.

(I play a killer round of Angry Birds or Words With Friends, I’ll tell my wife. It’s probably an awful story in terms of what I’m telling her, but in my head? It’s the shit.)

Anyway. Go read that post, if you please, but here, also, consider the question: how can you allow a game to tell a meaningful story? To me, the key word there is “allow.” Emergent gameplay is ultimately about emergent storytelling, and maybe that’s how we need to frame it: games do not need to tell a straightforward narrative as much as they need to leave room for emergent play and emergent narrative.

Emergent narrative.

I like that.

How’s it sit with you? Swish it around your mouth. Bulge your cheeks, get it in between your teeth. Is it minty fresh? Or is it sewery spew? If you dig on it, what can help a game offer greater opportunity for emergent narrative? I could make a case that Minecraft is hella good at this “emergent narrative” thing I just made up two minutes ago, and that I didn’t actually make up at all — turns out wiser minds than mine (which is to say, most) already conceived of it and use it for games like The Sims or Deus Ex, though I’d argue the idea suits games that go beyond the expected roster.

It also occurs to me that sometimes, when I talk about games, I don’t even know if I make any damn sense. But it’s fun, innit? I mean, sure, my extremities have gone numb, and my shirt is missing.

Ultimately, what I’m saying is —

Aren’t the stories born from gameplay just as important — if not more important — than the stories the games purport to tell in the first place? Isn’t that what playtime is all about?

How can game designers and game writers facilitate this?

(Remember, if you’re in NYC, to swing by DIY Days. There I’ll be talking about the collision of gameplay and storytelling with game designer Greg Trefry. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, of course. More information can be found here: DIY Days.)


  • To me one of the shining examples of how to create emergent narratives is Dwarf Fortress. I know, I know, I keep talking about this game, but in this case, I have a very legitimate reason: the emergent narrative you describe, the one that finalises in a re-telling of the game, has long been a DF staple. Most people have been introduced to this game via the legendary Let’s Play of Boatmurdered, which jumpstarted the After Action Report forum on the game’s website.

    The AARs are sometimes epic in scope. Long, character-driven stories of building and fighting, told many times from the perspective of the dwarves or a fictional overlord. They can be funny, dramatic and poignant. Also, insane. Especially when you try to fit the various idiosyncrasies of the game into a narrative.

    Analysing the example, I can say that probably the key for a sandbox game to generate emergent narrative are characters. Dwarves have sometimes very discrete differences between them and are all named. You can thus grow attached and project personality on an abstract piece of the game. From that point, creating stories is easy.

  • Never heard of Dwarf Fortress, but I am definitely going to have to check it out now.

    I think that is what I still like about MMOs. It may be the 10th goblin or the 1000th, but I am constantly making up a story about why my character is doing this thing or helping this quest giver. Granted, most of the time I don’t vocalize these stories, but they are definitely there for me. It is rare that I reach max levle or “end game” stuff in them, but my character is always living out his life in these worlds.

  • I think the comment about Dwarf Fortress really nailed it. You need a way to draw the audience in, to show them that this is their story. Little details, slight variances that let the audience attach themselves to one person, and make distinctions between others, are important. They help draw the audience in, and make it something more of a game.

    I mean, anyone can play Halo or Call of Duty, but not everyone necessarily gets the sense of defying the odds that you get off of a particularly good run, or – to reference one of your earlier escapist posts – of having an insanely awesome emergent teamplay experience.

    Ultimately though, it is also up to the audience. Emergent Storytelling, at least to me, seems to be about providing the tools and the prompt, and then letting the audience craft their own story. Not everyone is going to do this. Some people are happy without the story, and their round of Dwarf Fortress is just going to be a round of Dwarf Fortress. Even in RPGs I’ve had friends who skipped the cut scenes because they didn’t care about the story, they just wanted to interact with the mechanics. In table top RPGs you can see it the most clearly. The GM can only prompt so much before the game loses that spark when the players don’t respond and add back to the story.

    Nothing is wrong with not wanting the story either, but to get emergent narrative, what narrative is there needs to be engaged and not just by t he creator.

  • You want emergent storytelling? For my money nothing beats a tabletop RPG with friends. I mean sure in novel writing collaboration is twice the work for half the pay but having the guidance (or witless help) of a DM as you stick to some stories, resist others, and accidentally foil even more makes for a compelling tale if you tell it right. Just never write a novel based on your gaming groups exploits. And with that sort of gaming you get two stories really. First you have something like the Harrowing exploits of Jacob Fletcher, Mallory, and the rest of the party as they fight evil, fight good, try to get a pay check and keep soul attached to body in a hostile world. Then you get the story of how one player messes with another in session since player B is on a webcam. Humor and drama blend together as the sessions wear on and as they say “No adventure as ever survived it’s first encounter with the players.” I’m not sure if I’m making sense but the gist of it is boils down to the concept that you put PCs in a world with some guidance or goal to get them started but they will write the story their way, hopefully with a helpful and not overbearing GM/DM/storyteller. Meanwhile the players will write stories of how they interact in reference to the game. Oh and just a thought for the overbearing railroading GMs out in the world: DM also traditionally means Dungeon Monitor. So sit back, monitor to make sure nothing gets out of hand, and enjoy.

  • Very interesting, I make games, and I find it interesting to see the perspective of a writer, please keep posting your thoughts.
    In the indie game “Spelunky” there are many narrative little things that happen through gameplay too, try it.

    I also write a bit about game design, but I don’t have the expressive power you have, keep it up 🙂

  • Emergent narrative is definitely a hallmark of sandbox games, and I think that’s one of the reasons people are so drawn to them. But I think Anthony makes a great point when he mentions the ‘audience participation’ bit. A great designer should provide a player all the tools he or she needs to engage in a personal story, but not all players are going to do that.

    RPGs have been trying to hit the sweet spot here for a while, but too many end up missing the mark. Dragon Age was the last game I played where I really felt that I was playing the character I designed as opposed to the character the game set out for me. It’s a much different feeling.

    The ’emergent narrative’ paradigm is going to be a bigger part of games going forward. I mean, that’s sort of the MMO dream, isnt it? Personal stories have long been the stuff of RP server legend, crafted by-and-for players in spite of the game, not because of it.

    Guild Wars 2 is one upcoming MMO that looks like it’s building in a personal story right into the game. I’m anxious to see how much control the player really has over this, or if it’s going to boil down to a ‘choose your own adventure.’ Which, to be fair, is a step in the right direction.

    I mean, the worst role playing games I have ever been in were the ones where it felt like the GM was there to tell his story, and the players were merely meant to bask in it. I think a lot of games take that attitude, when it should really be the other way around: GMs and game designers both should be providing the players with the tools they need to be impressive. To tell a story.

    I think it boils down to more personal decisions. Who we want the love interest to be, if any. Where we go, how we spend our spare time. The details. I mean, sure, it’s important to know if the player wants to talk to the bad guys or stab them or sneak up on them. That’s part of the personal story, but by comparison, in – say – The Sims, there are are more small decisions over the course of the day than large ones.

    Even if the large ones are where the ‘character advancement’ comes in. Leveling up, changing careers, and whatnot.

    I also think it would help for player decisions to have lasting in-game effects. It’s not a story if the decisions are trivial; it’s customization. Skinning, really.

    I’m rambling. But I think you get the idea.

  • My pleasure, Joshua D. I feel I should warn you, however, that Dwarf Fortress can be described as the flinty-eyed child of Nethack and Sim City. It is notoriously aloof, requiring new suitors to work hard to appreciate its charms. Those who persevere either swear their eternal love or throw all of its things onto the front lawn and change the locks.

  • Being an antediluvean crumudgeon, most of the “games” you speak of, I got nothing to say ’bout them. Chess, sure. But the story coming out of that is math almost. And I look at you picture at the top, at that numbered tetramadranazoid whatchamafuck, and I think dice, really? We gotta fuck with dice?

    Here’s what I remember about games. It’s summer. We’d all head over to Lincoln Park. Me, the DeGetanos (Jim and his kid brother), Scott Haiduck, Mike Teller, the Griffins (Mike, Tom, Peaches). Most days we’d play Combat! Scott always wanted to be the boss, Lt. Whomever. Me, I always wanted to be the grizzled seargent. Didn’t even know what grizzled meant back then, just knew there was always some hard-ass guy that got the shit done when the shit needed doing. The Griffins, bless their facist little souls, they always wanted to be the Nazis — and they wanted to win. Funny, because they were the only ones who didn’t have their own guns. The rest of us, we had our plastic imitation Viet Nam era weaponry, but the Griffins had hippie parents – no toy guns in that household – so they always had to rummage through the bushes, find some sticks that were shaped right. Those guys could make a weapon out of anything, and they made the best goddamn gun noises.

    And we all had our personal dramatic cliches. Me? I was always getting shot in the leg. You get to stagger around, drag your leg after you, plus I had a lot of orthopeadic issues as a kid so I already had the limp. This way, it wasn’t the bane of my existence anymore, it wasn’t the thing I got made fun of for, it was my own personal red badge of courage. Jimmy DeGatano, he was always getting killed. We’d be making our final charge at the Griffin Nazi’s pillbox, and Jimmy D, he’d always catch on in the chest, and he’d flop down on his back, and he’d give his little death speech – whatever he pilfered off TV that week – and the rest of us, our blood up, would root out the Nazi vermin, and if any of them tried to surrender, we’d gun ’em down. Just like they done to Jimmy.

    And it’s all there, isn’t it? World building, characterization, bad dialog. We were a martial improve troupe staging our daily jingoistic morality tales, telling our stories.

    Too bad they hadn’t invented paintball guns yet.

  • I’ve been thinking about the same thing for a while. I like your phrase, “emergent narrative”. I think it fits it very well.

    “Aren’t the stories born from gameplay just as important — if not more important — than the stories the games purport to tell in the first place? Isn’t that what playtime is all about?”


    In fact I’ll go with “more important”. Because the events we remember aren’t the flow of the story, the plot points, the game’s events, but how we dealt with them, approached them, handled the aftermath.

    Like how we outvoted Bob the Halfling thief and tied a rope around his waist so we could chuck him into all of the rooms first to check for traps. Ah, The Tomb of Horrors. Is there anyone who’s played D&D who doesn’t have a story of that nightmare train?

    Dan beat me to the comment about child’s play and paintball. I haven’t played in a few years, but it’s the same thing as when I was a kid running around making “pew pew” noises instead of, “Holy fuck, that hurt!”

    Play with this one guy who likes to come up with scenario games. Hostage scenarios, Ruby Ridge scenarios, things like that. They’re a blast. And we remember them. We remember the times we snuck up on somebody to pop him in the back of the head, or the time the grenade went off when it wasn’t supposed to or the lone 12-year-old who single-handedly kicked all our asses because he was like a fucking ghost in the jungle.

    And it informs things outside the game itself. The times not playing where people are coming up with strategies or writing up scenarios or figuring ways to game each other.

    Like when I bought my brother a ghillie suit for his birthday one year because A) he loved doing the sniper thing, B) he thought it would give him an edge and C) we played in the desert so he stood out like a turd in a punchbowl.

    Took him a while to catch on to that one. Bless his heart.

    Oh, and while I’m here, I’ll gripe about narrative in video games. Build it into the goddamn environment. Cutscenes drive me batshit. It’s the gaming equivalent of an infodump and does nothing but yank the player/reader/experiencer… I need a better word here, right out of the story.

    The best narratives don’t drag you along for a ride, they stick you in the shotgun seat and tell you to go ahead and fiddle with the radio. They make you an active participant.

    And I think you can do this in any medium. Lots of ways to do it in books, short stories, movies that don’t stand out as cheap tricks.

    Okay, I’m done ranting now.

  • @stephen —

    I’ve never tried paintball yet. Friend of mine did a few years back — went out with his 16 year old and the kid’s buds for a birthday thing. He came back covered with welts. Lesson learned? You don’t want to be the one, slow, fat guy in the paintball battle. So I guess I’ll have to wait until I find a slow, fat guy paintball league.

  • @Dan

    No, no, no. He’s doing it wrong.

    The slow fat guy has to hunker down and be the sniper. Find a good position, get behind cover, rain fiery death upon the heathen.

    Seriously, you want to win a paintball game? Patience. Let spazzes like me run around like idiots and hoot and holler. We draw fire and bring your targets to bear.

    Done right, the slow fat guy is god.

  • This principle probably goes a long way towards explaining why my players from games I’ve GMed want me to run another, if you listen to them I’m some kind of awesome story-telling machine, but I’m not, I’m the world’s laziest GM, I make the players do (almost) all the storytelling themselves, I just set up a world and a threat of some kind and let them do pretty much whatever they want. The trick I’ve found is to make the sandbox small enough that they don’t feel lost and then just stand back and watch them make sandcastles. Occasionally dice may be involved (but generally only about once per session because otherwise I’d have to remember the rules for what the dice are supposed to mean and… well I’m lazy, we covered this already).

    The best example of this (or the one that got the most rave reviews at any rate) was when I ran Conspiracy X, which is a game based on the premise that all conspiracy theories are true, all of them, even the ones the GM just made up (actually probably especially the ones the GM just made up, but whatever). The first thing I did was tell them that they could play anything they liked as long as their character was being blackmailed and would turn up at this country mansion in the middle of nowhere at the invitation of their blackmailer (this is an old standby of mine incidentally, instead of spending a session or so trying to get the party all in one place and introduced to each other I tell my players where and when the game will begin and that it’s their job to figure out why their character is there at that time and place, again it’s lazy, and again it works beautifully because the players ironically feel less railroaded than if I did the meet up thing the hard way), I think I ended up a couple of spies and a psychic with a split personality and a chemist of some kind and possibly some kind of crime boss, I know at least one of them was being blackmailed over their relationship with a hooker who was also the daughter of a Russian Mafia boss because I ended up making her into an npc, I don’t remember exactly because it was all about to become more or less irrelevant, I’d made my players create morally dubious characters and got them all in one place, oh and set up some expectations about what would happen next, which is always helpful.
    So then I proceeded to do… well nothing basically, the blackmailer didn’t show up, neither did anyone else, well there was the aforementioned hooker/mafia princess who was my handy just in case of emergencies npc but she was in basically the same boat as them (ie being blackmailed), after a while the player characters started to argue amongst themselves and eventually one of them got narked enough that they got in their car and left… no make that ‘tried to leave’ because as soon as they got past the (now-abandoned) security check-point they found themselves driving into a desert filled with giant stripy sandworms (yes I stole that directly from Beetlejuice… do I need to mention my laziness again?) The moment when the player (who I’d taken out of the room to explain that to) went back in and returned in character and explained what they’d found was awesome, just sitting watching a bunch of characters decide that it didn’t matter if they liked or trusted one another they were going to have to work together because otherwise they were screwed. From that moment on I did practically no storytelling at all, I chucked in a couple of random set pieces when things got slow, and one session when a player didn’t or couldn’t make it I had their character possessed by an alien being and just repeating the phrase ‘Would you like wine?’ in a monotone whenever anyone spoke to them (which totally freaked the other players out, even though it was once again me basically being too lazy to play that character properly) but mostly it was just the player characters running around, desperately trying to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it. They came up with some awesome stuff, like powering a crashed space ship with fuel fermented from bags of sugar they found in the larder and building a tower so they could use psychic powers to steal a time machine from said crashed space ship before it crashed and all sorts of other crazy antics which I suspect a lot of GMs would have pointed out shouldn’t have worked by the system rules or indeed the internal logic of the situation they were in, but so what? they were having fun, and I didn’t have to come up with more material for the session it was a win win situation.

    Anyway, I think what I’m trying to say is that what I’ve found is that there’s some kind of sweet spot where there’s just enough restrictions to encourage creativity by posing the question of how you deal with those restrictions, in the game I’ve just described the restrictions were ‘you can’t leave the grounds of this mansion and you only have yourselves to do things’ in minecraft you’re restricted in that there’s only a relatively small number of different blocks which only behave in certain ways (although I swear at some point I’m going to recreate Orgrimmar in minecraft complete with a replica of Ragefire Chasm built in the nether… yes I’m that sad) and on the other hand you need to avoid the kind of restrictions that stifle creativity, which in terms of roleplay games I tend to regard as being almost anything written in the rulebook.

    Ummm… I was going somewhere with this but I’ve forgotten where so I’ll just stop now and come back if I remember.

  • Man, did that picture ever bring back fond memories.

    Arnold J Rimmer records his Risk campaigns in a diary to enjoy again and again. Then he can recite them from memory and not notice that he’s boring everybody to tears. Oh joy! I just used AD&D and friends to get the hang of role-playing before becoming an author and slamming YOU upside the head with MY narratives. Take that!

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