Emergent Storytelling

What kind of stories do games tell? The relationship between games and story tellings is not a clear one. Traditional storytelling mediums (like books, movies, comics, etc.) are what most people consider when thinking of the term “storytelling”. Putting aside the idea of reader response theory for a minute, these traditional mediums are static, non changing. The text in a book or the order of scenes in a movie never change.

Games also can tell stories. Some of the famous RPG titles like Chrono-trigger or Final Fantasy are famous for their world building, relatable characters and rich story. Other games are less focused on storytelling and instead focus on letting the player do cool things like shooting aliens Halo or jumping off of buildings in Assassin's Creed. But a story exists in these games too.

It gets more complicated when considering more open world games like Skyrim. Skyrim has a story: “You’re the chosen one. Go get the power, then kill the dragon and save the world”. However, this plot is interwoven in an open mess of other characters, conflicts, and stories that the player can choose to follow or not. The game provides a context or framework for a story, but it’s up to the player to write their own story. Every time someone starts a game of Skyrim, it will be different in some small way. The order of events, the characters, the side quests, the loot will all be different. The story itself will be different every time.

Games like The Sims or Minecraft fully capture this idea. There is no story, no defined goal and sometimes no “you win” screen. It’s up to the player to discover their own unique story in the game. The gameplay of Minecraft is very reminiscent of children playing make believe together. There is no one “author” of the adventure, but at the end of the day a great story has emerged of punching trees and fighting zombies. Other games like Breath of the Wild only offer the name and location of the final boss and leave the player on their own. This forces players to truly become Link and think for themselves how to prepare, or what to do in this fantastical story. The player is the main author of the story, the game designer is simply creating the boundaries and providing some inspiration.

So, we can see these two styles of storytelling. On one hand, the author writes a story for others to follow exactly (books, movies, linear plot games, etc.), but on the other hand it’s the players themselves who are writing the story. I will call this first style of story a “traditional story” and this second story an “emergent story” because it’s a story that comes about indirectly from interacting with the system. Notice I didn’t say that an emergent story is unexpected or unplanned, some games encourage certain stories to emerge. For example, with Skyrim it is encouraged that the player becomes the “hero”, but not required. They can develop your own story and role play as a thief, or get a house and settle down with a family, or simply collect every book in the world into a giant library.

Designing a game that promotes emergent storytelling is not easy because, by definition, the designer must give up control of the story to the player. There are tricks, I think Pokemon and Legend of Zelda games are good examples, and I will discuss some of these later.

But as you develop or play games in the future, pay attention to what kind of traditional story is being told. But once you get bored of that, try and see if you can make your own story emerge from the characters, settings and conflicts already present in the game. Writing your own emergent stories from other games is the best way to learn what kind of elements are required to inspire your own players.

TL;DR Games tell stories. In general, the stories that the game designer writes are called traditional stories while the stores that the players write (or discover) themselves are emergent stories. Emergent stories are unique to games insomuch that player choice can influence the story directly. A game designer should be aware of this and perhaps think of games as helping to guide the player’s creativity and imagination as they play.