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.

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