Thursday, November 8, 2012

Scripted & Emergent Narrative

There are essentially two overarching ways of delivering narrative in a game: scripted narrative and emergent narrative. Scripted narrative includes all the stuff like dialogue and cutscenes, and also scripted action sequences like many of the setpieces in the Uncharted series. Emergent narrative is the stuff that emerges directly from the gameplay, like how you took out a truck in Far Cry 2 by ramming a boat into it, or that time your Sim missed his carpool because he wouldn't stop throwing a tantrum about being bored, or that time a Creeper killed you in Mincraft and made you drop a bunch of diamonds in lava.

In reality you can't escape emergent narrative in games. Even during the most tightly scripted setpiece, there will be some room for player-driven narrative, whether you plan for it or not. Maybe the player doesn't notice the boulder hurtling towards them, and casually walks into it instead. I guess you could make a visual novel, which may or may not count as a “game,” but this is getting a little off track.

I was recently watching Mission Impossible 4 and got to the totally awesome Dubai scene where Tom Cruise climbs the exterior of the Burj Khalifa (which he apparently did for real because... Tom Cruise). In the film he's using special spy gloves that adhere to the wall but, in the middle of his climb, one of them malfunctions! Can our hero make it the rest of the way with only one glove? (spoilers: yes)

**{I dearly wanted to find the clip, but to no avail. Paramount evidently does not want me advertising their film.}**

Anyway it got me thinking, since in my view there are basically two approaches for doing something like this in a game.

Approach #1: you script a sequence where the player has to climb a tower, but then have their glove malfunction (after they pass the halfway point or something).

Approach #2: you present the player the goal of reaching the top of a tower and you give them a bunch of spy equipment which has, among its characteristics, some probability of malfunctioning.

Both of these approaches have various advantages and drawbacks. The main advantage of the first approach is that you can ensure that everything plays out roughly how you intend it, every time. You set up all the dominoes and choose when and where they fall. The main disadvantage of the scripted approach is that, similar to the Hollywood movie, your player most likely understands that this is a scripted event, and knows that if they play properly, they will escape.

Approach #2 is likely harder to pull off well, design-wise (if the equipment failure is too sudden and extreme, it could just be really annoying), but I wish to argue that it not only provides a potentially richer experience, but is also less development-heavy in the long run.

Take a similar situation in Minecraft. Let's say you're low on health and are trying to dig your way to the surface, but just before you make it out, your pickaxe breaks. Now you realize you have to get back to your chest to pick up some wood so that you can craft a new pickaxe, all while avoiding spiders and deadly lava.

In another game this could work as a scripted sequence, certainly. But wouldn't it feel like arbitrary backtracking if the game told you your pickaxe broke and now you had to go back and make another in order to move on?

There is tendency right now for game developers to want to make things “cinematic.” If a AAA studio were designing the above sequence, they might add some musical cues, some shaky-cam effects, and maybe hire Ron Perlman to go “Just my luck!” And it might be totally awesome.

But Notch didn't have the budget to hire Ron Perlman, so instead he built a world with some voxels and some basic ground rules, and he figured out which ground rules made that world interesting to inhabit. Notch may or may not have intended the above scenario, and it might never happen to you, but then there are a million other scenarios that just might.

Scripted sequences can be a powerful tool, but at the end of the day, what you tell your friends about are those moments when you took out like four guys with a single sniper bullet, or when you flew off your motorbike and landed in a kiddy pool, or when your spy glove gave out but you still managed to reach the top.

I'm not arguing that all games should be “sandbox games,” whatever that term means exactly. I think there is lots of happy middle-ground between experiences entirely crafted by the designer, and experiences entirely invented by the player. What I am saying is that it's wrongheaded and inefficient to try and craft every part of a gameplay experience because ultimately, no matter how “cinematic” you make them, those moments will never be significantly better than their film equivalents. Whereas when you give up some control, and design in a way that allow for things to happen organically, a game can be so much more than the sum of its parts.

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