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.