Understanding Game Stories: Storytelling, Interaction and Emergence in Video Games

A look at how stories can emerge from play, the important effects this can have, and how we can harness this to make the most of out interactive experiences.

Reposted from my blog.

The Importance of Stories

“Man … is the storytelling animal.He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. Even in his last moments, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall--or when he's about to drown--he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.”
- Graham Swift, Waterland


Stories are important to us – they’re how we remember things, and they’re essentially how we experience our lives.  There’s something natural about them that is hardwired into how we think.  Its hard to deny that stories exist everywhere we look in life - including in games.  Hopefully I can show you how games and stories co-exist in a way you might not expect.

In my previous studies, I asked people for stories about games they played, and what I found was that almost nobody told me about the actual “plot” of a story-driven game – they almost exclusively spoke about what they actually DID in the game.  When it comes to games, people often debate the issue as gameplay vs story – but when we talk about games, we’re sharing stories about playing games.  Think of it yourself - how many stories have you told, or heard, about playing Halo 3?  How many of them were about toppling the covenant, and how many of them were about landing a lucky hit with a plasma grenade, or flipping a Warthog thirty times in the air?  The truth is we want to tell OUR stories about games.

The Importance of Emergent Gaming

“When we’re at our best [as game designers] we can even create systems that allow [users] to set in motion events that we don’t control, can’t anticipate, and didn’t plan for … and that’s when things get really interesting!”
- Warren Spector


A lot has been said about emergent games – they’re essentially the most “pure” of gaming experiences.  Some of the biggest games of today are almost completely emergent.  But all too often they are viewed as having “no story” – possibly by the same people who think that you can only have story OR game. 

It's an understandable viewpoint.  Story is, by its nature, linear.  It relates events that have already happened.  Any interweaving of traditional story content and interactivity means constraining the output of that interactivity to match the predicted story.

What games can do, however, is provide us with stories to tell.  In other words, we're not so much talking about how we tell stories through emergent games, as much as we're talking about turning emergent games into story engines - tools that we play with, and come away with stories to tell.

Defining Our Terms

To understand how these things work, and how this system can be exploited for the benefit of games players, we'll have to understand what the individual elements are.  A lot of discussion on story and games becomes confusing, because so many of the terms can be used in different ways.  So lets set some definitions down to make this easier:  


This one's simple - a story is a sequence of events.  They don't have to be completely related, or in any order.  It helps if there is some kind of structure, or if the events of a story are compelling in their nature, but it isn't necessary.  "A man walks down the street.  A dog poops in the road."  Is a story.  (Interestingly, how many of you are picturing the dog and man being in the vicinity of one another?  Where do you think that idea came from?) 

Narrative is a little trickier to explain, because it is more of a catch-all  term for everything relating to how the story is conveyed.

IamLegend OmegaMan IAmLegendMovie  IAmOmegaMovie

"The last man alive battles a bunch of mutant vampire-zombie things" could be the story of "I Am Legend", the novel by Richard Matheson, the film "Omega Man" with Charlton Heston, the film "I Am Legend" with Will Smith, or even the wonderfully terrible "I Am Omega" from Asylum films.  The differences lie in the narrative structure (how the story is laid out), the narrative devices (the viewpoints from which the story is told) and various other narrative elements like setting and characters.

Plot is a rather confusing word, often mixed in with narrative, but generally speaking it represents the chain of causality that links events together and makes a story more compelling.  Think of the more easily understood use of the term as a verb: "to plot" is to arrange something surreptitously, to create a series of causal events to a singular goal.

EM Forster summed this description of plot up perfectly when he said:

Emergent Systems as a Narrative Device 

"The King died, then the Queen died is a story.  The King died, then the Queen died of grief is a plot."

Finding the Story

So now we know what we're looking to create from our emergent systems.  We've also got some idea that these stories are already being formed in what people talk about from their experiences in games.  What we need now is something specific to look for.

Jean Luc Goddard famously once said:

"A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end ... but not necessarily in that order."

Of course, a lot of people have disputed this idea.  The anonymous quote often used in response to that (ocassionally attributed to one of Goddard's film students) is:

"My weiner dog has a beginning, a middle and an end, but he's not a story."


You might be able to argue this point back and forth - but I, given the descriptions laid out above, would say that yes, even the lowly, proud weiner dog can be a story, albeit a rather avante-garde one.  You can't deny that the "beginning - middle - end" structure holds true for most video games.

Emergent Systems as a Narrative Device 1a

In this way, most video games follow a standard formula - there's a beginning, in which we're given a great task to undertake.  There's a middle, where that task is carried out, and an end when we complete this task.

Emergent Systems as a Narrative Device 1b 

We've made plenty of attempts over the years to break away from this format, but for the most part we've just been layering stories on top of one another.  We might have multiple endings, but were still telling a stiff, linear story.

Emergent Systems as a Narrative Device 2a

There's more attempts to break out from this formula present in games like the recent next-gen Fallout series: a strong linear story, supported by a number of smaller stories that vary in the strength of their connection to the main story.  Some are connected directly, others completely unconnected.

Interestingly, this is the structure of a lot of dramatic cinema, where you'll see a single central story arc supported by a number of allegorical or metaphorical arcs that follow secondary characters - but at its heart, this is still a linear structure.  We're closer to the structure of an emergent game, but not quite there.

Emergent Systems as a Narrative Device 2b

In emergent games, there's still a beginning of some kind, but the end can fluctuate so much as to make the middle indistinct.  This leaves us with a question of where the stories we tell people after playing an emergent game come from.

Chap03_09_jpgWhat is happening here is that the player is creating the story themselves based on the events they experience when they play the game.  They aren't given a beginning, middle and an end - but when they experience something they want to talk about, they find it themselves.

It turns out something like this exists in other media as well.  The panels in a comic book, for example, are just a series of images on a page.  It takes a reader to scan over them and put them in order for them to become a story.  In cinema, we see a character walk down a hallway, then enter a room, and we assume the two are connected - but in truth, they could have been shot on two different locations, in other parts of the world.  If you want to get really particular, film itself is a series of still images shown so fast that our brain processes the information as a moving image.

 Scott McCloud discusses this in "Understanding Comics" - a book we'll come back to later in the discussion.  It's a phenomenon called "implied narrative", and if we want to understand how to harness the power of emergent games to use it, we'll have to know what it looks like.

Visualising The Story

The Visual Story - Bruce Block - Focal Press - 2001 - Diagram 1

The above diagram might look familiar.  In this case, it comes from Bruce Block's "The Visual Story", but it could come from any number of writing textbooks - its the standard Aristotelian diagram of the intensity of a good story over the time its told.  We can see the structure we saw earlier - there's a beginning (EX), a middle (CO) where the tension rises to a climax (CX) and an end (R).  So we know that were looking for something like this in an emergent gaming experience.

If you've read a few academic game design blogs and websites, you might find that the above diagram looks familiar for another reason.


There's a striking resemblance between the Aristotelian diagram of rising tension, and Jenova Chen's adaptation of the "Flow" concept.  Chen posited that players require a balance of rising challenge as their abilities in a game increase.  Since we learn to play games (and thus increase our abilities) over time, and an increase in challenge is likely to result in an increase in tension, we can see a correlation form between the structure of the "Flow" diagram and the aristotelian diagram.


The first thing is to find that pattern of rising tension.  Interestingly enough, if we map the tension of a standard experience in Minecraft, we see something quite interesting appear.

Emergent Systems 3


The desperate mining for coal to stay safe overnight is a very typical story for any players of Minecraft.  The darkness of night brings not only a lack of visibility, but a horde of deadly monsters, and finding coal can sometimes take a little more time than it takes for the sun to set.  It isn't uncommon that a player finds themselves sealed in a cave, waiting for the sun to come up, hearing the scraping of the monsters trying to get in ... its hard to imagine a more tense environment.

This sense of rising tension that Minecraft creates in its players is the kind of thing we're looking for.  So where does it lie?

Emergent Systems 4

One thing that Minecraft does exceedingly well is create a tight-knit loop within the network of emergent elements that make up the game.  In this case, the day/night cycle brings on darkness.  The darkness brings in danger.  To stave off that danger, you need coal to build torches - but finding that coal means digging, which takes up time, which is the primary element of the day/night cycle ... and so the player is trapped in a loop of causality.

And There's that word again - causality.  That's something that we mentioned earlier, in the description of Plot.


In 2004, Randy and Harvey Smith presented this diagram as part of their GDC talk on implementing emergence within games.  To maximise emergence, they said, you had to maximise causality by creating as many connections as possible within the map of interactions between the elements of your game.  What Minecraft has done in the above example is create a completely closed-off network, ensuring that the knock-on effects of any action in the game world are almost never-ending.  More importantly, everything that happens in the game world has a sense of this causality - not only do we know where it has come from, we know it'll feed back into the game world as well.

If plot is described as the causality between events in a story, then what we're seeing here is that maximising the emergence of a game also maximises the plot.  You could say, then, that saying emergent games have NO story couldn't be further from the truth - in fact, what makes a game emergent is the presence of the same thing that makes a story compelling!

Presenting The Story

So we have our basic elements.  We can create a sense of rising tension and plot.  What we need now is for the player to take that final leap from seeing a series of experiences to feeling that they have a story of their own.


For this, we return to Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", and its description of Implied Narrative.  In this, Scott refers to the concept of finding things that are not there (such as the story in the "gutter" - the space between panels in a comic book) based on the things that are "Closure".

Now there's plenty of literature out there that debates just how the phenomenon of closure works, but the basic principle is generally upheld as being that all the brain needs is a few clues and it automatically puts things together.  Giving the reader of a comic book just a circle, two dots and a line is enough for them to see a face - and giving them two panels on a page is enough for them to perceive the passage of time, the alteration of perspective within a fixed space, or even a sense of a journey from one place to another.  The same principle applies whether we're implying a face through a series of shapes, or a story through a series of events.

The trick to creating a sense of closure is to give the brain enough clues to actually make the leap.  We all have a point at which we cannot go from an abstract representation of something to the original intended concept, but without any frame of reference at all, its hard to expect anyone to understand.

Tetris-GameBoyTetris, for example, offers a great sense of rising tension as it fills the game space with blocks.  By letting the player see the top of the game space (assuming the player knows the rules of the game upon starting), Tetris even foreshadows the player's eventual failure.  Then, by linking the blocks (that are the cause of the tension) to the player's score (the main aim for playing) and by making the blocks get rid of themselves (the only way to continue the game), Tetris essentially locks the player into a cycle of causality in the same way Minecraft does: the blocks spell the player's doom, but the player needs more of them to succeed.  In many ways, Tetris is, in fact, a great tragedy: a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom; an interactive Romeo & Juliet.

Yet we're not exactly snowed under with people sharing stories about Tetris, or using it to create machinima classics.  So what makes Minecraft different?

BlocksThe difference lies in the elements themselves.  Where Tetris is a game about faceless coloured blocks that fall from the sky and delete themselves when they create a row, Minecraft is a game about grass, water, sand, monsters, darkness, construction, destruction and security - concepts that we're likely to incorporate into a story anyway.  This gives our brains the kick it needs - for most of us, anyway - to forge some sense of story out of the events that take place in the game.

Similarly, Chess is not a game that we, today, would consider to be narrative-driven.  But in the middle ages, when people were pawns whose lives were ruled by ever-battling aristocracies, its not hard to imagine that Chess's popularity might have had something to do with people's ability to see analogies between the chess board and their own lives.


Stripping down an image

Where this gets really interesting is when, going back once more to Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", we look at why closure is used in other media, and why it is considered important.  When an image has every detail filled in, it becomes a very complete representation of what it portrays.  It says exactly what is there, nothing more, nothing less, and leaves no room for interpretation.  Its not impossible for a literal and well-defined image to have meaning, but since the meaning of a piece is generally seen as personal and subject to interpretation, artists often find that simplifying or abstracting their imagery can help them portray meaning in their work.

In many ways, the debate of linear vs emergent games, and the search for narrative content within them, is very similar to the debate between realistic and abstract imagery in art.  There is a place and a use for both, but hopefully I've now shown you that to say that emergent games have no story is like saying that abstract imagery cannot convey a sense of character, purpose or meaning.

We can create a sense of rising tension by closing the mesh of emergent elements and locking players into chains of causality - and by maximising the interactivity of these elements, we also add a sense of plot.  We can then create a greater sense of closure by ensuring these elements are presented in a fashion that is familiar enough to the player that they can grasp onto an idea of story.

Through all this, we allow the player not only play the game, but come away with a sense of story.  Not only that, but if abstract imagery and art can convey more meaning - perhaps emergent storytelling can allow us to feel more, and engage more with our gaming experiences.

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