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Storytelling in Games

PART 4 — EMERGENT NARRATIVE

This is the last installment in a series on Storytelling in Games. ICYMI, check out Part One, Meet the Players, Part Two, Characters and Mechanics and Part Three, Environmental Storytelling.

When players immerse themselves in a game, a unique kind of story emerges. As they make choices and interact with the game, they’re creating their own unique experience, and they are the author of the story that emerges.

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This emergent narrative is outside of the written and pre-conceived story of a game. The player creates this story while playing the game and interacting with its systems. In a sense, games can be considered “story generators” that players use to produce their own unique and sometimes unpredictable stories.

This is a unique trait of games, unlike films and television, which package up stories as common, shared experiences. Although games borrow techniques from these mediums, it’s this story-making power that sets games apart.

All games can do this to some degree, though some embody it more than others. Traditional role-playing games might be the purest example of emergent narrative. Players assume the role of a character, and change over the course of adventures and choices. The rules and encounters are only in place to give the characters a world and challenges to build their stories around.

Some games throw this out the window entirely, and instead offer the players the ingredients to create their own emergent stories. Sandbox and simulation games invite the player to create a story in their heads as they play. Whether the player is building their first house in Minecraft or expanding an ancient empire, they are creating a story alongside, and it’s likely that given a chance they will share that story with other players.

Even games without an explicit storyline, like multiplayer action games, still offer these building blocks to players. Characters, cosmetic upgrades, and even dances allow players to express themselves and tell a story about themselves as that character.

Emergent stories still can have a relationship with the designed story of a game, such as the beginning, the end, and chapter breaks. It’s common for a game to use a cinematic or a cutscene to establish these important plot points in between otherwise free, creative action by the player. In this way, games can merge the familiar beats of a linear narrative with opportunities for the player to develop their own, emergent narrative.

In many of these games, the player’s choices will also change and influence the authored storyline. Games that use a “karma” system do this. For example, when a player chooses to do good or evil deeds in a game, those actions change how non-player characters react to them, and what options are available for the player to do next, leading down branching paths and to multiple endings. In the end and along the way, the player is creating their unique tale.

All games are story generators to some degree. What a game’s designer decides is how much, and how, the player is encouraged and empowered to create their own as they play. The real test of a game’s emergent narrative is after the fact — do players feel compelled to tell their story to someone else?