Reality or Illusion: Emergent–True Form of Narration in Games

reality vs illusion Reality or Illusion: Emergent  True Form of Narration in Games

[An exploration of the popular opinion of an issue — long-time or currently trending that examines it from various angles to determine exactly how much truth there is in it. By removing the layers of superficiality and bias and examining it from different perspectives, this feature aims at determining what exactly is the “Truth” and what is “Illusion]

Video-games have often been derided by experts of other mediums for suffering from a “younger brother” complex where the elements of the medium have evolved primarily through the tools of other well-established artistic mediums.

Defending our beloved passion might be the first thought that comes into our mind, but if you look at such criticism strictly from a narrative point of view – something which has often been the chief driving force of so many video games, then the medium in general has always been reliant on tools from other mediums – either through walls of text from literature or perhaps the most popular device for narration – cutscenes from films. It perhaps does speak volumes for our medium on exactly how reliant we have been on elements that had been “inspired” from older mediums and appropriately adapted for our own purpose.

Ebert Reality or Illusion: Emergent  True Form of Narration in Games

“Stay in line, young brother”: Ebert looks down at game’s narratives

We don’t hear of movies incorporating text as a chief narrative device nor do we see books attaching a visual interpretation of its words. However, it isn’t unusual to hear a game having an ambition of behaving like a “movie” or even seeking to achieve the sort of literary depth and detail which books possess. Entire genres have been born out of such ambitions and it is perhaps in vain that we try defending our stance on this matter.

However, there exists one form of narration in video-games which is perhaps in a true sense, completely borne out of the medium. Emergent is the word we have been hearing a lot of late and frankly they have seen a revival of sorts in terms of popularity over recent years. Games that incorporate an emergent narrative have less necessity to utilize the traditional storytelling tools borrowed from other mediums –be it walls of text or cutscenes. They avoid many of the pitfalls that games with long cutscenes and blatant text-based exposition face. In addition, they have an edge on many aspects over games that traditionally rely on cutscenes and text to do their storytelling for them. Here’s why I believe emergent might very well have a significant future in our medium:

1)      Freedom of Story Structure

Providing freedom to players has become something of a holy grail to developers of late particularly in the role-playing genre which traditionally prides itself in the freedom of choice. However, the traditional storytelling mechanic is still reliant on cutscenes like in Mass Effect and The Witcher which makes it blatantly obvious where the choice factor plays in and the branching of story occurs.

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EVE Online’s dynamic and emergent structure makes all the decisions you make in the game less obvious

With emergent storytelling, it isn’t that obvious. Every action you do in the game can be leading you to a different path in the story. That doesn’t mean every game with emergent narration is “open-ended” but if a developer had such ambitions then it’d be a lot easier to implement such a structure. Primarily because it is narrated through the player’s actions on the game’s own mechanics and not through static, scripted cutscenes .


2)      No need of placeholder gameplay mechanics

 Reality or Illusion: Emergent  True Form of Narration in Games

With emergent narratives, the central focus of a game becomes its gameplay. Makes perfect sense,doesn’t it?

When storytelling is the major focus of a video-game, the game is under risk of getting too cutscene-heavy. In such cases, developers often need a gameplay system that keeps the player entertained all while the urge to watch the next cutscene drives the players forward. Sometimes, the gameplay turns out to be complementary to the story but quite often when it isn’t good enough, the gameplay then seems like it exists just for the sake of existing.

Just like a placeholder that’s filling in the time between cutscenes with barely engaging mechanics.With emergent narration, developers would no longer have to worry about that. They can devote their entire focus on the mechanics because among many things it is how their game’s story is going to be told. A game’s worth is decided by its mechanics – as it logically should.



3)      Less Exposition, More Implication = No Immersion Broken

As story-heavy games gained popularity, developers began having ambitions of narrating more complex stories – which unfortunately required more exposition and that meant longer cutscenes or more text-based dialogues.For many gamers, there’s no bigger bummer than playing an hour of game bubbling at mid-tempo intensity and just when the action seems to be intensifying, a cutscene springs up and all the heavy-action takes place in it .

Over-exposition also leads to longer cutscenes and that acts as a test of patience for many gamers. But with emergent narration, where much of the story is always implied and is always in-game – told through ambient dialogue, through environmental change or through the mechanics themselves – the sense of immersion can always be maintained which is after all a critical requirement if games need to get their players invested in the story. Dark Souls and Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne did this admirably by laying down their complex narrative by rarely using the conventional forms of dialogue or cutscenes.

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Games like Nocturne shunned hour-long cutscenes in favour of less exposition and more immersion


4)      Personalization

RPG developers like BioWare pride themselves in how they provide stories where each player can script their own adventures. It is obviously an illusion which takes the form of the truth during cutscenes and conversations where often key decisions have to be made. The result being that players are placed under the impression that they are personalizing their own adventure.

Now, imagine this same level of personalization which occurs even outside cutscenes. Imagine if player’s actions themselves defined their own story. Emergent narration makes such level of personalization possible through actions of players themselves.


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Emergent narratives includes dynamic tidbits of story in the game’s own mechanics — giving a greater sense you’re *creating* your own story

Cutscenes often take up the majority of game’s budget and are often the issues of concern for designers as they need to consider it a vital factor. But if designers could think more of developing their traditional design towards a structure that incorporates such emergent narrative elements, then such issues cease to be problems.

With a singular focus on gameplay mechanics alone, developers can achieve both player engagement and storytelling without breaking the immersion . It may not work for all the genres but it has for Dark Souls, Crusader Kings II and to a lesser extent even in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Even conventional narratives can implement small sections where story is told through the environment much like what Dishonored did during its hub missions.

The recent trend shows exactly that the developers are beginning to understand what “emergent narratives” are capable of and perhaps they realize that it can be implemented properly for certain genres.

  • Reality is emergent narration is an exciting concept that needs to be explored by more developers
  • Illusion is that a good story can only be told through text and cutscenes
  • Reality is with players demanding more freedom & personalization from their stories, the trend of emergent can only rise from here
  • Illusion is that it is the “true form” of narration. Any form is valid  for a game as long as it successfully communicates the story’s message while keeping the players’ immersed in its world.

One comment

  1. Good opinion piece, kudos to you author.

    I hope people get one day that Exposition=/=better story, Nocturne proves that much.

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