I arrived in Miami last night and, after a fairly tortuous two and a half hours getting through passport control, I made my way into town to the apartment of my gracious hosts, Clay and Lien. Now, after a good night of sleep I thought I should make another blog post to get my thoughts in order before the working week begins tomorrow.
In the last blog post, i talked about the idea that narrative in a game can 'emerge' from the actions of players and this concept of EMERGENCE is one of the central concerns of Salen and Zimmerman's book 'Rules of Play'. S&Z argue that good games are 'complex' systems that either contain a large number of interconneced elements or a small number of elements that relate to each other in many intricate ways. 'Complexity' ensures that there is a large 'space of possibility' within the game system, enabling meaningful play for participants. 'Emergence' occurs when a game generates unpredictible patterns of complex activity. Essentially, this means that players have enough freedom to do unexpected things within the rules of the game to create patterns of play that could not be predicted.
Tied into this concept of 'emergence' is the notion of 'uncertainty'. It may sound obvious but uncertainty is a vital aspect of what makes games compelling. If the outcome of a game is pre-determined the actions of players cannot constitute 'meaningful play'. The uncertainty of the outcome means that players actions have a decisive impact on what happens next. If a good game has 'emergent uncertainty' how can game designers work to design emergent behaviour in players? The truth is that they can't! S&Z argue that Designers can only indirectly design player experience. They create a system of inter-related parts, a set of rules and goals to pursue but they can't predict how people will engage with this system. However, they do say that good design involves trying to anticipate how the formal system of a game can function as an experiential system. A big part of this involves thinking about 'core mechanics'.The core mechanic is the thing which players DO to exert influence on the game. Essentially, game mechanics are the 'levers' which players can pull to make things happen (like the racket in a game of tennis). Game mechanics don't have to be singular though. Players can combine more than one 'lever' of influence to make things happen (like a cricket captain who puts on his fastest bowler AND puts a fielder right next to the batsman to create additional terror). By providing a range of game mechanics that allow players a number of ways to affect the game, the chances of creating emergent complexity are increased.
Continuing with the 'lever' metaphor, forms of leverage always involve conflicting forces. A lever that pulls an object off the ground is always working against gravity and a tennis racket lever is always working against the racket that is being wielded on the other side of the net. So we're talking about 'conflict'. Again it may seem obvious to talk about conflict as a fundamental aspect of games, but Rules of Play is a book about game design fundamentals so...its worth stating that conflict either with the system of the game (beat the computer) or other players within it is an essential component of what makes a game a game.
Anyhow, its becoming traditional at around this point in these blog posts for me to relate some of these game design concepts back to dramatic concepts. Conflict is an easy one to start with. In dramatic narratives a protagonist is always in conflict with something or someone. The climber scaling Everest is in conflict with nature (like the game system) while the two lovers trying to score points against each other are conflicting players in the game of love. Uncertainty is also and important aspect of most dramatic stories: we're compelled to follow the action to find out what happens next. Unlike the uncertainty of a game, however, most dramatic narratives have pre-determined outcomes that only appear uncertain as the are unfolding. The challenge for bringing narrative into a game system that has 'emergent uncertainty' is how to create a good story that has some structure without having so much structure that the 'space of possibility' is reduced and meaningful play is limited.
Salen and Zimmermen draw a distinction between two forms of narrative in games: 'embedded' narrative and 'emergent' narrative. Embedded narrative is pre-determined storytelling while emergent narrative is the story that emerges from player actions. I have thought quite a bit about these two types of narrative and how to combine the two - so here are some initial musings on how this might be conceived.
Emergent narrative is formed by the moment by moment decisions that players make within the game. There are so many possible actions that this cannot be pre-determined or pre-scripted. This could also be described as 'micro-narrative'.
Embedded narrative provides a story context for the game and as players move through the game, further installments of embedded narrative are needed to keep players aware of the larger story world within which they are playing. This could also be described as 'macro-narrative'.
Think for a moment about 'Big Brother' - the TV show not Orwell's novel. Big Brother is a game in which players compete for a cash prize by pursuing public support and avoiding being disliked by their housemates. Emergent 'micro-narratives' evolve in this game system through the day-to-day interactions of players. The designers of the game have very little control of this. However, embedded 'macro-narratives' are also implanted by the designers at various points (ie - half the house-mates are forced to live in a separate house, or one house-mate is chosen to spy on others).
Leaving aside subjective views on how good or bad Big Brother is, this combination of emergent micro narrative and embedded macro narrative seems interesting to me. As a dramatist, i'm interested in stories that have some degree of structure but as a fledgling game designer I want to facilitate emergent play. By figuring out a way for emergent micro-narratives to have an integrated impact on embedded macro-narratives, there is scope for achieving a happy medium.
Thanks for reading!