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Example of the process used to derive the Game Design Pattern "The Three Pillars of Meaning in Emergent Narrative"

Christopher Barney

December 17, 2020

12 Min Read

The process of deriving a game design pattern can be challenging. I discuss the process in detail in the book, but it can be helpful to see some examples of the results of an Exercise and the actual process used. So this article is me showing my work for the pattern ‘The Three Pillars of Meaning in Emergent Narrative’ which I created using Exercise 11: Emergent Narrative Patterns.

This exercise requires that you understand emergent narrative — story beats that are created by player interaction with game systems, then joined into a coherent narrative in the player’s mind. By its very nature, an emergent narrative is difficult to create. Controlling the kinds of narratives that emerge is even harder. Instead of describing a set of techniques for building emergent narratives or a theory of how they work, I designed a pattern exercise that looks at this narrative form and extracts a set of techniques and theory in the form of patterns. The process asks you to look at the games that produce an emergent narrative and ask creative questions about how that narrative is constructed.

Pattern Purpose

This exercise helps you look at emergent narratives and understand the techniques that make them successful. Step 1 in this exercise is challenging. The old aphorism that there’s no such thing as a bad question is not true here. If you find that the question you asked is failing to help you generate a useful pattern, consider asking a different question. Keeping the question simple and empirically answerable will help you successfully complete the exercise the first few times.

Example work for this Exercise

Step 1: Ask yourself a question about emergent narratives.

When a game makes many choices available to allow a diverse set of narrative options, which choices are perceived by players as having narrative importance?

Step 2: Look at ten games that have an emergent narrative.

  • The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion — Open-world role-playing game (RPG)

  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — Open-world RPG

  • Moon Hunters — Procedurally generated, roguelike RPG

  • Apocalypse World — Player-driven, tabletop RPG

  • Fallen London — Choice-based, text-heavy RPG

  • Susurrus: Season of Tides — Choice-based, text-heavy massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG)

  • Anarchy Online — MMORPG

  • Anthem (freeplay mode) — Open-world shooter

  • Gloomhaven — Campaign-based board game

  • Kingdom Death: Monster — Campaign-based board game

Step 3: For each game you chose, what is the answer to your question for that specific game?

  • The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion — In this open-world RPG, the player can interact with the world in many ways, exploring the world and the available non-player character (NPC), monster, and quest interactions in almost any order. The primary plot of the game is designed and not emergent, but the actions you take outside of the primary quest are optional. The subset completed by a given player, taken together, builds an emergent narrative. The interactions that seem most meaningful are those that alter the character in some significant way.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — This game is also an open-world RPG, but the game structure is subtly different. The overall scripted narrative is much stronger, and the open-world gameplay is structured to generate more cohesive units of narrative organically. Instead of offering scripted side quests, the game allows you to either engage with or avoid open-world encounters like enemy encampments, shrines that you can explore in “any” order, and the eight “divine beasts” to fight. The narrative significance of these seems to depend on their difficulty, and the degree to which they move the player toward the larger scripted narrative goal.

  • Moon Hunters — This is a complex and strange procedural game with a short playthrough time, and is meant to be played many times. Because of the brief playthrough, most events are designed to have narrative significance. Which events seem most important becomes determined by the intent of the player. Because a player can quickly get a sense of the overall story, it’s common for players to seek out specific randomly available events in pursuit of a particular narrative outcome. The collection of events the player chooses reinforces the significance of those events.

  • Apocalypse World — Unlike most older tabletop RPGs, this game and others that use its base rule set (Powered by the Apocalypse) drive the narrative based on player choices rather than on a plotline prescribed by the game master. Systems exist that allow the game master to introduce or advance narrative elements in the world, but even those systems are driven by player actions. The world the game master creates is therefore focused on the characters’ actions and the players’ intentions. Most events that take place feel like they have narrative weight, because the player, game master, and game systems are focused on giving events significance.

  • Fallen London — In this choice-based text adventure, the player is faced with a never-ending series of choices as they advance a huge number of scripted plotlines. Some plotlines have many endings, and they follow a variety of narrative structures. The primary mechanic driving narrative advancement is the resource cost of different choices. Given that players have limited resources, the perceived importance of any choice is derived not just from the player’s understanding of the visible narrative but from the cost of the different choices. Thus, expending a large number of resources on a choice that seems insignificant invests that choice with narrative importance. Of course, the designers use this intentionally, and the payoff for those kinds of choices is carefully maintained.

  • Susurrus: Season of Tides — This was a choice-driven, massively multiplayer text adventure game that was never fully realized due to the realities of development and the limited resources of the developers. However, the design is still interesting and instructive. In this game, the narrative beats available to any given player were determined by a world state resulting from the actions of all the players. Because the players knew that their actions were altering the overall world, completing and even repeating mundane tasks had the potential to be narratively important, as it might shift and advance the story for all players. Part of the reason that the play of this game failed was that there was no feedback to the player as to which actions they made affected the world.

  • Anarchy Online — Although this MMO had a very complex setting, it didn’t have the kind of focused, progressive story found in other genre members such as World of Warcraft. Most gameplay was either exploratory, challenge-based, or procedurally generated. Because most of this gameplay did not have explicit narrative importance, ridding a dungeon of mutants did not affect the state of the world; the player defined the significance of any action. Some players didn’t assign narrative to their actions and simply used the gameplay as a means to mechanically advance their characters. However, more than in any other multiplayer game I have observed, many players constructed elaborate narratives from these explicitly insignificant events. The developers facilitated this player habit by including many locations that had no in-game use, but which acted as narrative stages for the role-play of the players.

  • Anthem (freeplay mode) — In this story-driven open-world multiplayer first-person shooter, the freeplay mode provides a space for world exploration and freeform gameplay that also offers character advancement outside of repeatable story-based missions.Events that occur in this mode have little overall narrative significance, but most of the player stories I hear about the game relate to some situation encountered by a group of players in this mode. The randomly varied enemy placement and world events that comprise this mode create an opportunity for players to generate small but meaningful emergent narrative experiences: “Do you remember that time when…?”

  • Gloomhaven — In this campaign-based board game, players progressively unlock chunks of the overall story. Although there’s little variation in the final shape of that story, a given group of players may experience it in any order. Additionally, most players will never complete the entirety of the campaign, and thus have very different narrative experiences at the point when they stop playing. The scriptedness of each unlocked narrative chunk is provided by the designers, but the act of choosing which chunk to experience increases its weight for each group of players.

  • Kingdom Death: Monster — Unlike Gloomhaven, this game does not have a tightly scripted narrative arc. Each session of this campaign-based board game generates a piece of narrative for the players that is significant, both because of how hard it is to survive in the extremely hostile world, and due to the comedic, horrific, or simply unexpected turns the game can take. Most choices the players make have significant consequences for the characters, and the overall story and high perceived likelihood of failure make each action memorable. Additionally, the overall setting is intentionally filled with unexplained elements. Some have explanations that might be uncovered at some point; others invite players to use the actions of their characters to explain the state of the world.

Step 4: List and generalize your answers from step 3.

  • The interactions that seem most meaningful are those that alter the character in some significant way.

  • The narrative significance of these seems to depend on their difficulty, and the degree to which they move the player toward the larger scripted narrative goal.

  • When many events have a narrative payload, which events seem most important becomes determined by the intent of the player.

  • When players choose to engage in events, the various events selected reinforce each other’s significance.

  • When the content of a game is cooperatively generated, most events feel like they have narrative weight because everyone is focused on giving events significance.

  • The perceived importance of any choice is derived not just from the player’s understanding of the visible narrative, but from the cost of the different choices.

  • For players to ascribe meaning to their actions, they need feedback on the effect those actions have on themselves and the world.

  • When most gameplay interactions don’t have explicit narrative importance, players may construct elaborate narratives from these explicitly insignificant events if they’re given a context in which their actions can be meaningful.

  • In multiplayer games, shared events that lack larger narrative significance may be translated into meaningful stories by the players that share the experience.

  • In games consisting of scripted narrative vignettes, and in which the player controls which subset of narrative components to engage with, the larger narrative that emerges can be perceived by the players as more meaningful due to their active participation in constructing it.

  • Players are likely to construct meaningful narratives when most choices they make have significant consequences for their characters, their actions have dramatic consequences, and the overall story and the high perceived likelihood of failure make each action memorable.

Step 5: Do these answers hold up across all of your games, or can you generalize them to do so?

These answers all seem universally true across games that have an emergent narrative. The more of these things that are present, the more meaningful the emergent narrative. These might even be a part of a higher-order interactive narrative pattern.

These qualities increase the meaningfulness of emergent narratives:

  • They alter the character in a meaningful way.

  • They alter the world in a meaningful way.

  • They are difficult.

  • They move the player toward a medium- or long-term goal.

  • They are chosen by the player.

  • They contribute to a narrative goal chosen by the player.

  • They connect with other narrative events.

  • They are intentionally constructed to have a narrative payload.*

  • *. While designers cannot construct an emergent narrative for the players, they do have control over the narrative content of the pieces that the players are building their story out of. Moon Hunters leans into this and procedurally generates a world littered with mythopoetic puzzle pieces for the player to assemble.

  • They have a cost that is proportional to their narrative consequence.

  • They make the player aware of their impact on the characters or world.

  • The world provides rich narrative hooks to relate emergent events to.

  • They are shared with other players.

Step 6: List and describe any patterns that your question and answers sound like they’re describing.

“To allow players to construct meaningful emergent narratives, developers should provide players with context, motivation, and consequence for their actions in the game.”

I think this is a good parent pattern that addresses the design problem for this exercise. The 12 bullet points from step 5 are probably each a child pattern. It’s tempting to create a single comprehensive pattern that tells designers to choose as many of the bullet points as possible when creating their game, but that would lose the flexibility and power that breaking them into independent patterns would give. Also, each of those child patterns may apply to other parent patterns outside of emergent narrative.

View the full pattern in the Pattern Library

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