Emergent storytelling


You know the vague foreboding that that brilliant thought (ok, Descartes-wannabe, let’s not kid ourselves, more like bad pun or meme-in-the-making) you just had is already somewhere out there on the internet. Similarly, you know the sense when people tell you that what you’re going on about as if though you were the first to think of it has a name and people have been working on it for decades.

No, what games are good at is suggesting stories. The thing that games have above all other media is interaction, which is to say that games have systems. Systems that dictate the rules of a fictional world. Systems that allow the audience to prod the world and feel it push back. Systems are what make games into games, rather than movies with joypads.

Systems vs. Stories,  Dan Whitehead, EuroGamer, 22 June 2013

It’s called emergent storytelling and I’ve been thinking about it ever since obsessively playing the original Crusader Kings back in the mid 2000s.

Crusader Kings didn’t tell you a story. It told you thousands of stories and made you the editor. And protagonist of your own story but your story wasn’t technically any different that that of any NPC character. You had goals; so did they. You had options; so did they. You chose what and whom to pay attention to and what to act on, and in doing so you wove an intricate narrative tapestry out of the innumerable story strands with your character’s rise and fall and rise in the center, needless to say. Crusader Kings had a system for suggesting stories.

Dan Whitehead’s point of departure is asking the question, what is it that games can do, that other narrative art forms can’t. The answer is to allow the player to take control of the narrative, impacting on it with every single gameplay decision, rather than observing a preplanned, linear story arc. The following sums up the dichotomy pretty neatly, I think.

It’s more reassuring to lay it all out, to say “here’s the story, right here, come and see” than to willingly vanish and step back into the role of facilitator rather than narrator. Yet that’s where gaming’s strength lies, not as storyteller but as story generator.

The counterpoint is delivered by Nick Dinicola at PopMatters:

A story is more than a sequence of events. It’s also a commentary on those events. Through that commentary the story expresses its meaning, its themes, its morals. It becomes something greater than us. This is the key part of any good story because this is what makes it interesting to more than one person. A good story is about some universal human experience. That’s what keeps me interested even if the specific sequence of events depicted don’t relate to me personally. This is where emergent stories fail. An emergent story is just a sequence of events devoid of context and commentary that is only relevant to one person. Interactivity gives it the illusion of importance, and that illusion allows games to tell cheap stories without us noticing until they’re long over.

The problem with emergent stories in video games, Nick Dinicola, PopMatters, 30 July 2013

I’ll be honest: Reading those lines is painful to me. Because it implies that something I have ascribed meaning to is meaningless. I have been deluding myself into thinking that these cheap pseudostories are really stories, rather than a sequence of events with the illusion of importance. Here I was prepared to think about narrative and suddenly we’re immersed in an existential quandary.

Let us break up the argument, Dinicola is making, into components so that we can get a better look at it. He is setting up a number of criteria for the category a proper ‘story’ (as opposed to the ‘cheap story’ category):

  1.  A story must have events.
  2. A story must have some commentary or context to make those events have meaning.
  3. That meaning must be interpersonal. Otherwise you’re just muttering to yourself.

Dinicola then proceeds to find fault with a number of games praised for their emergent gameplay, XCOM in particular, noting how they fail one or more of these criteria. There is the possibility of redemption, however.

Emergent stories only become meaningful when they’re given context by an author’s voice.

I could not agree more. A series of events, dictated partly by stochastics, partly by player choice do not a story make. It requires a conscious effort. It requires storytelling.

Dinicola’s argument is coherent and well thought out. However, to my mind it misrepresents the act of playing a game. In Dinicola’s telling, the player is ‘a witness’ to what unfolds on the screen. If that player happens to be an author, that person can then transform the events witnessed into a story. If.

I think that is factually wrong and elitist because it underestimates video game players and what playing a game is. This is nothing new, of course. Portraying players of video games as mindless is – I’m going out on a limb here – a tradition as old as the medium itself. Gaming inevitably involves the player telling stories about what he or she is doing. It is an active role, not a passive one. It only takes a few Let’s Plays on YouTube to assure yourself of that. Here’s Gopher, a quite popular YouTuber, getting into character playing Skyrim:

Any kid – regardless of whether that kid grows up to be an author or not – tells himself or herself stories about what they’re doing when they’re playing. When they’re playing with others they are forced to communicate those stories to others in a common language if they want others to engage. Saying that, in adulthood, this ability is the prerogative of an elite few is baffling to me.

When playing Skyrim I would always have to find some way ingame to create a lull – an evening at an inn, a rest on a tree stump – where the events of the ‘day’ could be processed and given context and meaning. That is part of the roleplaying experience but I think that this is common to all kinds of gaming experiences that involves story, to a greater or lesser extent. You hold yourself to a higher, more explicit standard when you need to communicate what you’ve done to others but the act is essentialy the same.

Dinicola’s answer to this is that he’s talking about art, not play time. Any fool can create a ‘cheap story’ as a playtime exercise for him or herself; it requires talent to make it a proper story that satisfies his criteria.

I have first hand experience of being both a storyteller and a story facilitator. The first role is an exciting creative experience that can challenge the listener’s view of the world and generate exciting new ideas for the storyteller. But the second can challenge the listeners’ perception of themselves and what they are capable of. At it’s best, the first can be thrallbinding for the listener but the second can be a magical, transformative experience. I have seen kids sit in silent and intent listening when they were the audience to a story of my creation. But I have seen those same kids physically leaping for joy when they witnessed their own creations weaved into the narrative tapestry. Suddenly they themselves were storytellers! Is it art? I honestly don’t give a fig.

Back to computer games. Nothing I have ever invented as a cover story for the events unfolding on screen comes close to the story of Gone Home (which despite it’s interactivity is decidedly not emergent storytelling). My Crusader Kings stories were wonderfully trashy, epic soap operas. And I might remember Gone Home’s story for longer than any of those. But why should my attempts at storytelling be poopooed just because there are better storytellers out there? If we have the power to make everybody a storyteller isn’t that something new and worthwhile and frankly, more valueable than telling a good story that might as well have used some other format? Dan Whitehead’s question “Could this story only be told in the form of a game?” is, I believe a more worthwhile one, than Nick Dinicola’s criteria for proper stories.

When gaming presents to us two options, one of which is new, magic and empowering and the other has an officially sanctioned label of art, I know which one I will choose any day of the week.

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