Something from Nothing: Authored Emergence in Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive 3

A lot of what makes games spe­cial is their abil­i­ty to pro­duce spon­ta­neous and sin­cere moments of nar­ra­tive power. Games only move when a play­er does some­thing, so it’s pow­er­ful when some­thing unplanned and beau­ti­ful results from a player’s mun­dane but­ton tap­ping. Even now videogame apol­o­gists are quick to use the medium’s youth to excuse videogames for being gen­er­al­ly ter­ri­ble at car­ry­ing mean­ing­ful com­men­tary. Often enough, spon­ta­neous, “emer­gent” sto­ries pro­vide qual­i­ta­tive evi­dence that games aren’t entire­ly silly and juve­nile. The think­ing seems to be that, soon­er or later, games will age into sophis­ti­ca­tion, and the abil­i­ty to inter­act in a sys­tem will trans­late into bet­ter art. Some fabled day, games will fil­ter out other media influ­ences and will be able to com­mu­ni­cate more pure­ly through their sys­tems. Lately, this line of think­ing has propped up emer­gent nar­ra­tives: sto­ries that pop out to the play­er cir­cum­stan­tial­ly, and often with­out the aid of cin­e­mat­ic or lit­er­ary cues.

Interacting sys­tems cre­ate nar­ra­tives on their own by let­ting play­ers thread their own sto­ries togeth­er from the semi-random events of a per­son­al playthrough. And while no one should out­right dis­miss the value of authored expe­ri­ences—often praise for one design phi­los­o­phy trans­lates into an attack against all oth­ers, which I don’t want this to be read as—games can be incred­i­bly pow­er­ful when they open them­selves to a player’s read­ing. When games are cred­it­ed as emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful or nar­ra­tive­ly well-crafted, it usu­al­ly comes across as a blunt applause of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty.  The play­er cre­at­ing any nar­ra­tive at all is impres­sive, even with­out think­ing about the kinds of nar­ra­tives that can emerge or what they mean. An emer­gent nar­ra­tive, as Nick Dinicola has writ­ten, can often be pared down to a cool moment that an obser­vant play­er has imbued with mean­ing. The play­er con­nects their feel­ings to an unusu­al moment in the game and threads it all togeth­er with a plot that may or may not be con­nect­ed to the game’s actu­al story.

The cel­e­bra­tion of emer­gence and the ensu­ing defense of author­ship cre­ates an irrec­on­cil­able dichoto­my. A game is bril­liant­ly open to play/woefully undi­rect­ed or mas­ter­ful­ly writ­ten fiction/bloated writ­ing unfit for game inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. But—as is often the case—players are only harm­ing them­selves by play­ing favourites: not only can both exist to vary­ing extremes, but they can co-exist in the same game. It is entire­ly pos­si­ble (and, in fact, is a sign of good design) for organ­ic moments to be care­ful­ly scat­tered through­out a game, for spon­ta­neous emer­gent nar­ra­tives to spring out at planned inter­vals.

A game that does emer­gent sto­ries incred­i­bly well is Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, a 2001 real-time tac­tics game by Spellbound Studios recent­ly re-released on var­i­ous dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion sites. Desperados fol­lows six straight­for­ward and kinda racist west­ern genre arche­types on their hunt for a crime lord. But Desperados breaks from many games in that most of a player’s time play­ing the game will be spent in obser­va­tion. The game is very dif­fi­cult. Controlling six dis­tinct char­ac­ters at once in real-time is men­tal­ly tax­ing, and the game is unfor­giv­ing to play­ers that do not plan well.

As a result, act­ing in the game is delib­er­ate and slow. Most of the time in a given level will be spent study­ing ter­rain and enemy patrol routes before a flur­ry of clicks sets a care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed plan into fren­zied motion. The game has lit­tle for­give­ness for risks so, the play­er will spend most of his or her time star­ing at the screen wait­ing for pat­terns to emerge and cracks to exploit. In doing this, small micro-fictions emerge to breathe life into the world. For exam­ple, early in the game, Cooper and Sam, the player’s only two char­ac­ters to that point, seek to save their part­ner Doc from a small town’s hang­man. To do so, Sam must cre­ate a diver­sion to lead the guards away from the town cen­tre while Coop cuts Doc loose and rides off with him. The game sug­gests (but not demands) that Sam dis­tract the town’s guards by blow­ing up a car­riage, which is heav­i­ly guard­ed by sev­er­al gun­men.

After sneak­ing through most of the patrol­men, Sam will encounter one par­tic­u­lar guard watch­ing the car­riage espe­cial­ly close­ly. This guard seems quite vig­i­lant at first: his vision cone is locked on the car­riage and only moves to scan the one path lead­ing to it. Sam’s objec­tive and the path to it are cov­ered with no way to sneak by. Sam has no way of killing the guard silent­ly, his gun would alert the whole town to his pres­ence. The game asks the play­er to do some­thing that seems impos­si­ble. However, after some time, our guard’s vision cone splits away from the car­riage and nar­rows onto a near­by house.  It lingers for a moment, returns to the car­riage, then splits back to the house. An obser­vant play­er will notice that a woman steps out­side of the house and wan­ders along the back patio. When she does, the car­riage guard steals a glance at her. When the patio woman’s vision cone meets the guard’s glance, the guard imme­di­ate­ly snaps back to the car­riage while the woman focus­es in on him. He only turns back to look at her when she turns her own glance away from him. Their fields of vision dance back and forth thus­ly until anoth­er man is seen exit­ing the house onto the patio. Both break from look­ing at one anoth­er, the woman retreats back inside and the guard returns to his duty in earnest.

Who is this guard? Why is he drawn to this woman and why does he look away when she meets his gaze? Why does this woman stare back at him when he’s not look­ing? Who is this last man and why do both of our orig­i­nal cast rush to seem dis­in­ter­est­ed when he makes his appear­ance? All these ques­tions are mean­ing­less from a mechan­i­cal point of view: the break in vision gives Sam a small win­dow to run in and blow shit up. But still, in study­ing pat­terns, events cre­ate a tiny plot, and this plot is open to wild­ly enter­tain­ing spec­u­la­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter if these two NPCs are star-crossed lovers dri­ven apart by anoth­er man’s greed or if they’re bit­ter ene­mies equal­ly sus­pi­cious about their influ­ence over a mutu­al friend. The game allows either inter­pre­ta­tion and encour­ages the play­er to come up with their own plot based on the play of their vision. Desperados cre­ates sev­er­al of these tiny rela­tion­ships in NPCs in every level and opens them up to the player’s read­ing. The point, though, is that these tiny sto­ries can only be observed by a patient play­er who is play­ing the game prop­er­ly: remem­ber, suc­cess in Desperados comes to play­ers who spend most of their time reserv­ing action, so these sto­ries can only emerge for those behav­ing accord­ing to the developer’s intend­ed design. An invin­ci­bil­i­ty cheat means Sam can skip the guard, the patio woman and their story entire­ly.

The power of emer­gence is in how it fills a game with nouns and descrip­tors and lets the play­er place in their own verbs. What if Sam lured away the guard and killed him? It would be an incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult chal­lenge given the kind of game Desperados, is but there’s no mechan­i­cal rea­son why he can’t. How would that affect the rela­tion­ship with the patio woman? Would she mourn the guard when the player-characters ride away with their fugi­tive in tow? Again, it doesn’t change any­thing in the game, but it has a poten­tial­ly deep effect on the play­er. These tiny influ­ences mean some­thing. Desperados accom­plish­es a unique com­pro­mise between emer­gence and author­ship. That bit with the vision cones was clear­ly designed by some­body; it’s a moment that must be observed by a play­er who has learned to be patient with the game. It also stands between the play­er and their goal so clear­ly it was meant to be seen. However, it isn’t entire­ly authored because it is never resolved, it’s never expand­ed upon in any way more than bits of infor­ma­tion scat­tered indif­fer­ent­ly into the level: the task of con­nect­ing the infor­ma­tion togeth­er in a log­i­cal plot is entire­ly up to the play­er.

Seemingly mun­dane stuff­ing in the game sud­den­ly jumps into the game’s spot­light (emer­gence) but only when the play­er is guid­ed along a cer­tain path (author­ship). Most of the joy in Desperados is in how wel­com­ing it is to the player’s read­ing of the world (emer­gence) but these moments are paced and man­u­fac­tured to encour­age these kinds of read­ings (author­ship).

Very often, games like Desperados end up ridiculed for their surface-level silli­ness, but beneath its plot, Desperados demon­strates very ele­gant com­po­si­tion. It splits the dif­fer­ence between a story told and a story found. Players very eas­i­ly adapt to the sub-surface lan­guage of games: a new enemy type that swats down an avatar con­veys power, a power-up or level-up that makes that same enemy eas­i­ly dis­pensed of con­veys progress or growth. The player’s rela­tion­ship to the game’s sys­tems com­mu­ni­cates cer­tain mes­sages and it isn’t unusu­al for design­ers to com­mu­ni­cate through the sub­text of their sys­tems, but gen­er­al­ly, play­ers either focus on a game’s emer­gent qual­i­ties or its authored ones. Games with sim­ple or shal­low plots and struc­tures often ide­al­ly facil­i­tate the for­ma­tion of emer­gent sto­ries while pro­vid­ing just enough jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to guide a play­er from one emer­gent story to the next.

It’s prob­a­bly accu­rate to say that all games are at least par­tial­ly emer­gent—even the see-saw of a score­board holds nar­ra­tive impact—but there is a strong case to be made for the more involved devel­op­er. However, it’s unfair to reduce emer­gence to an either-or bina­ry when it can be so effec­tive­ly woven in as an author’s expres­sion.

Mark Filipowich

About Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich is a writer living in Canada. Most of his writing in the last few years has focused on videogame criticism, which can be found regularly on PopMatters and The Border House. He has also been featured in Medium Difficulty, Game Church, Unwinnable, Nightmare Mode and Joystick Division. He also maintains a personal blog at If you enjoy his work you can buy him a coffee this month through his Patreon.

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