Emergent Gameplay

Ah, emergence. By far one of my favorite topics in games. Emergence, put simply, is the process by which patterns or developments emerge from a set of agents or entities interacting with a set of rules or laws. In nature, emergence occurs regularly. When entities interact with the laws of physics, strange and unexpected things can happen.

In the real world, the most beautiful, simple example of emergent behavior I can think of is swarming. There is no captain animal that directs a swarm. No, instead each individual agent follows a set of rules and swarming behavior often follows. Rules as simple as "stay within one foot of your neighbors".

In games, emergence is the process by which agents (players or otherwise) interact with a set of rules that produces outcomes not necessarily defined in the ruleset or explicitly defined by the game. This parallels nature quite perfectly, albeit games are much less complex. But like nature, emergence can arise from a very limited set of rules given enough agents acting upon a system.

The clearest gameplay example is one of physics systems. Again, this mirrors nature's emergence. In games, real-world newtonian physics are frequently simulated. Couple these "laws of physics" with the "rules of the game", and unexpected behavior can and does emerge. Deus Ex is a fantastic example here, where players can frequently use the physics system to their advantage in conquering the game. Moving and stacking objects to reach area not typically accessible or destroying sections of a level to advance, using explosives on walls to scale to areas at that point inaccessible areas are all examples of utilizing the game's simulation system to open up new possibilities. In addition, Deus Ex offers player choice in tackling challenges, offering a variety of lethal and non-lethal approaches to sistuations. The amount of choices the player has coupled with interacting with the well-defined system of rules in Deus Ex leads to emergent gameplay possibilities where players can discover and employ creative solutions for solving the game's problems.

Emergent Gameplay is so great because it's so much fun. A player discovering new possibilities within the rules and mechanics set forth in the game is one of the most rewarding feelings a player can have. Metal Gear Solid V, released last year, was heavily praised for the creative solutions players could employ to succeed in the game world, much in thanks to the care taken to craft the rules and mechanics in such a way that new gameplay could emerge natrually. Players were allowed to experiment with the mechanics, leading them to discover new strategies and mechanics not explicitly defined by the game world.

Emergence is not always intentional by the developers, but yields from systems which rules are developed in an open-ended way to foster interaction and player choice. Many people think emergence is the future of games and a concept we must embrace, and I happen to be one of them.

Storytelling Through Gameplay: Metal Gear!?

A popular topic amongst gamers, developers and critics is one of game storytelling and where it fits within gameplay proper. The debate often veers off into whether or not to consider interactive storytelling "games". That semantic debate I'll save for another topic. This series is going to explore storytelling through traditional gameplay means, their effectiveness, and the inclination for developers to segment their storytelling and gameplay into disparate pieces they shuffle together to produce a "story-based" game. For this first post, I'll analyze an individual sequence in one of my favorite games and explain why it's so powerful.

If you know anything about what I consider my favorite games (I count Metal Gear Solid 3, Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Trigger among my favorite games of all time.), you'd think that storytelling is my primary draw to gaming. You'd be wrong. Storytelling is a great thing in many games, but to me, it's something that's complementary to the fun I have in playing. In a lot of ways, storytelling in my favorite games are thoroughly intertwined with gameplay.

Take for example my favorite gameplay-as-story moment in Metal Gear Solid 3 (spoilers follow). In the opening act, our protagonist Snake is betrayed by his mentor and confidant, The Boss. She reveals she's defecting to the Soviet Union and leaving America, her mission, and Snake behind. She fights and defeats Snake in hand-to-hand combat which ends in her throwing him off a bridge into a ravine below. An emotional and physical blow is dealt to our hero, one we literally just started getting to know an hour earlier.

We're then called up on our radio to let us know we are in grave condition and we'll need to patch ourselves up. This opens up a gameplay sequence (and tutorial!) on how the injury system works in the game. Opening up the health screen, Snake is shown with broken bones and bruises from the fight. You as a player are required to heal him up using bandage, splints, and the like. It's a simple sequence, but it completely reinforces what just happened to your character. There were immediate gameplay repercussions and you had to deal with them. And just like that, you're emotionally invested in this character. You know that you (as the player) can hurt Snake and your enemies can, too. You realize you're responsible for Snake and his survival. Snake is you. You are Snake. It hurts to survive, but it's necessary to complete the mission. What would take a film an hour in character development to get invested in the character takes this game all of five minutes.

This is theme of survival is reinforced everywhere in the game in the survival system. You must hunt for food, track your mental and physical stamina, and tend your injuries. You must rest when you are tired, take medicine when you are ill, and eat when you are hungry. You have to care about Snake. It's an excellent way of getting the player invested in the story and the main character.

And that's one of the reasons the video game medium is so special. You can do things that in film would take you an hour in half the time by putting power  in the hands of the player. One button press and they're emotionally invested. You've established a link almost immediately.

Now, you may be laughing ironically, because Metal Gear Solid is notorious for it's removal of player control during it's cutscenes. This is altogether true. But most games with a story to tell have similar problems. We're still working on that, as a medium. But we've got to give credit to Metal Gear Solid for something few other games did: experimented with storytelling in games and succeeding in making it emotionally powerful. We owe it a lot for that.