Procedural Content and Emergent Narrative

Hi, my name is Erdem Günay, and I’m a game designer here at RSP Games. My background is in programming, and  procedurally generated content has always fascinated me, both from a developer and a player perspective.

One of my favourite game series is XCOM. I have spent more than 250 hours on the rebooted series. I think XCOM games have incredible replay value and, after all that time, I still get attached to my soldiers. Losing a soldier hurts, not just because the soldiers are a resource in the game, but also because I’m emotionally invested in their well being.

Why do I get attached to my XCOM soldiers? I spend time with them. Losing a rookie in their first mission still hurts but If I lose a soldier I’ve spent multiple missions with, succeeding and failing together, I form a bond with them. XCOM is a tense game. There are so many things that can go wrong every single turn. If no plan survives first contact with the enemy, as the old army adage goes, then XCOM is a game about broken plans and how to come back from them. Still, when I lose a soldier, it usually comes with guilt, I feel like I have failed that soldier in my capacity as commander.

Many features in the game support this bond players form with their soldiers. These characters are randomly generated, but the players can customize them freely. Once an individual character becomes uniquely recognizable, the player can develop a connection with them. However, visual uniqueness and different names are not enough. The game should support this connection with gameplay mechanics. Having different stats, skills, traits helps immensely. If these traits are personality traits that also affect gameplay, even better.

Many people enjoy sharing their emergent narratives on Reddit and other platforms

Just like most similar games of the genre, XCOM and XCOM 2 have memorials that the players can visit and see a list of soldiers that fell under their command, and how they died. The developers acknowledge this bond that forms organically and support it. In XCOM 2, soldiers can retreat, carrying their unconscious comrades. If one of your soldiers becomes ‘Missing in Action,’ the game provides you missions where you can break them out of captivity. With all these tools the game offers, the players go through their own story, not knowing who will die and who will survive, not even knowing if their campaign will be a successful one or not.

This is what I love about emergent narratives. The game provides the rules and the dice rolls, and the bulk of the story is shaped by the player decisions. The narrative grows out of the collaboration between the game’s systems and the player. I love the agency this approach gives me as the player over the narrative.

These emergent narratives are highly personal. They are incredibly meaningful to the person that experienced them, because they emerged from their own decisions. And a good portion of the narrative happens in their mind. We have a tendency to seek patterns in information we receive. Once the game provides us with emergent events, we connect the dots and write the story ourselves. When you know the story is being written in real time and is not predetermined, the stakes are real. As I get attached to a certain adventurer in Darkest Dungeon, I have no way of knowing if she will survive the next dungeon. 

From a design standpoint, I can also see the disadvantages of an emergent narrative structure. They may never be as impactful as a story hand crafted by an author, and it requires an extra amount of work from the developers, as there is so much more that can go wrong when the subsystems interact with each other in an unexpected manner. A good amount of variety in these subsystems is required to keep the repetition to a minimum. These subsystems also need to be designed around player decision, because an event that emerges from an interaction between two NPCs (or one that is called just with random number generation) is way less interesting than an event caused by the player action. This also means that, in order for these emergent events to be interesting, the gameplay consequences need to be meaningful. 

However, it’s also hard for these types of games to break the niche barrier. They usually require a certain type of player. They rely on the player’s engagement with the game’s systems, which in turn depends on the smooth functioning of these systems in order to maintain the immersion. The moment the game feels arbitrarily unfair, or bugs out, the pattern won’t make sense anymore and the narrative is no more.

Emergent narrative, when it fits the game, can create amazing experiences and add replayability to a game. There have been many games that use it successfully, and I believe we will see even more innovative examples of it in the future.

Enhancing Gameplay and Narrative through Diegetics

Greetings everyone! My name is Neil Hansen and I’m the Executive Producer here at RSP Games. I want to talk to you about some of my favourite uses of diegetics in games. “Diegetics” refer to an approach to UI design where the interface that the player experiences actually exists for the characters in the world of the game, as opposed to being an abstract overlay that the player sees but the characters can’t. Used effectively, diegetics elevate the gameplay experience to a whole new level.

I guess I should start with a bit of an origin story. I come from a programming and design background, and since I started my quest to become a game dev about 5 years ago, I have been lucky enough to dip my toes in pretty much all aspects of game development. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for games that incorporate diegetics into their design to further a narrative and enhance gameplay elements. I’m going to have to call upon some of my favorite games for examples of this.

Dead Space

Dead Space gave me my first real run in with diegetics as a player, and I fell in love. It serves as a great example of a game that almost entirely uses diegetic UI and does a fantastic job of using it to further gameplay while also fitting the narrative of the world. In Dead Space, you play as an engineer with a high tech suit. The suit has special gauges incorporated into your back to display things like the player’s health and stamina, allowing for quick reference during combat. Your weapon’s active ammo count displays as a projection from the weapon, and even the player’s inventory is projected from the mask. Accessing the UI doesn’t stop the game while it’s being used. The combination of these elements really drives home the power of this suit and underscores that it is really the only thing standing between you and what surely is instant death.

Outlast

The Outlast franchise absolutely terrifies me, and part of the credit has to be given to the diegetic nature of the game’s UI. In both entries, you play as an investigative journalist who has gotten himself caught among a group crazy homicidal maniacs with nothing to help but your video camera. Oh man! Yeah, the diegetic UI of the camera does an amazing job at tying the experience together. At its core, Outlast plays as a survival game with very sparse resources, and it emphasizes this with the camera. It challenges the player to manage the camera’s battery and light emission in order to progress through the game. The camera furthers narrative through the rewatching of recorded footage, while its use as the player’s main light source (with an agonizingly short battery life) really adds to the distressing atmosphere of the game.

Firewatch

Firewatch is a gorgeous game and also contains my favourite example of diegesis. Yes, I know, I could talk all day about the walkie talkie, but that’s just not me. The map and compass, on the other hand, offer the perfect examples to me of gameplay elements that not only fit in so beautifully with the world of the game (and is also just really fun to use), but provide essential tools for navigation and judging your progression. As you explore, you will fill in you map with trails and notes found in stash boxes on maps written by other lookouts. The feeling of walking through the forest with a half-filled-out map and a compass trying to get your bearings, all while talking on a walkie-talkie about strange happenings around you to a coworker you’ve never met– well, it really puts you inside the mystery of the game’s story and definitely compelled me to get to the bottom of it.

These are just a few examples I’ll spout off for you that display my point. Diegetics provide a great tool that can be used to both drive narrative and further immerse players in the experience. When used effectively, diegetics allow simple and otherwise mundane tasks to hugely impact a game’s atmosphere and really enhance gameplay. Now believe me, if the guys here at RSP let me I could go for a forever talking about great games that do just this, but sadly I think my time is up for now. Hopefully you’ve picked up on what I’m getting at here and if you’ve gotten this far I’d like to thank you so much for tuning in. Until next time!

The Boy and the Boat: Marrying Narrative and Level Design

Hello to everyone tuning in. My name is Will Mohr, level design lead here at RSPGames, and today I wanted to talk a bit about what I’ve learned as a designer from the latest God of War. GoW is a great example of how the disciplines of narrative, gameplay, and level design combine to create an impactful experience. Some of the topics I’ll be bringing up today are narrative vehicles, memorable side characters and dynamic level design. *Spoilers ahead, ye be warned!*

I’ve always been fascinated with how a game can weave a narrative into the fabric of its gameplay and subsequently build levels to surround them. Thinking about this concept conjures images of Edith Finch and Shadow of the Colossus, and now the newest GoW is part of that list. One of the ways the game has blended the three disciplines is using a simple canoe as a vehicle to further the narrative. The idea works in a multitude of different ways, the first (and maybe most obvious) being how it fits with the setting. The re-imagining of GoW opened up the Viking pantheon to Kratos’ wrath, and in doing so, introduced Viking culture to the GoW universe. A large part of Viking life was spent on boats, either surviving, pillaging or, more importantly, exploring. Those three aspects can be felt in-game, with the player using the boat as the vehicle to engage in all of these activities.

Another great part of the boat approach is the pacing provided by this slower mode of transportation. This pacing creates opportunities for character development through dialogue. Kratos obviously has not fully settled into his new role as a father, and getting some well deserved bonding time with his son, Atreus, is one of the main pillars of the game. These father-son moments are baked in the boat sections. The slower pace provides enough time to learn about this unlikely duo. You feel a sense of wonder as you enjoy a slow trip down a winding flooded cave with Atreus and, later, Mimir. Your companions give input on the current situation, location, or general lore of the area. I often found myself excited to hop in the boat once my main quest had been settled, and found new nuggets of information from my companions, as well as being treated to jaw droppingly gorgeous environments. I never felt that these interactions were ham-fisted or forced, à la the yearly CoD release. God of War doesn’t need to resort to having fast cars or flying planes to show of its environment; it has a small canoe, and that’s all it needs.

Lastly, I wanted to bring up the dynamic level design on display. By dynamic level design, I mean that a given area that changes its flow based on player actions. Early on in the game, players will make their way to the Lake of Nine. Unbeknownst to them, they have just rowed themselves into an open love letter to level designers everywhere (I keep that letter under my pillow). Here, the World Serpent is revealed from the depths of the Lake, sending shivers down your spine as you bask in the enormity of its size and the roar of its voice. The waves crash around the canoe and the water level lowers as the Serpent’s body lifts out of the Lake, allowing access to previously unknown areas as well as the hub, Tyr’s Bridge. Then you sit back and say, “Hmm, alright, that was a pretty creative use of space,” and you kind of put it out of your mind as you explore more of what the game has to offer. And then it happens again! What’s even more amazing is that everything is still accessible as the water level drops, so there is no fear of missing out on the optional side quests peppered around the Lake. As a fellow designer, I can’t imagine the amount of meetings that must have taken place while figuring out how all the areas connect. And again, the Lake of the Nine is traversed using the boat. There are a lot of great parts in the game, but this was my favorite. It all ties back with the narrative. If you’re up to date on your Norse mythology and what  the Serpent represents, you start to get the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold, aka Ragnarök.

The station’s signal seems to be getting fuzzy, so I’ll leave you all with some thoughts to stew on. While designing your levels, what affordances are you leaving for the narrative? What is your boat? Is there a way to make your design more dynamic? In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for wha-*static noises*…