Tom Chick's top ten games of 2021

The stories in my head are always much better than what happens to be on screen, in games or theaters - that almost always ends up being disappointing. I guess it is why I’m so partial to those emergent, as they are called, games, like the first Dark Souls, or obtuse movies.
To me they just trust the viewer. It’s not anything really new.

I think there’s a huge difference between telling authored stories through implication, nuance, and contextual information, and having a bunch of elements that mash against each other and occasionally spontaneously combine into something that a given player might choose to tell their friends about or be filled out into something resembling a real story in a player’s mind.

I think there’s probably a distinction to be made between an emergent story and an extremely responsive scripted story system. A lot of folks have wanted to build the latter in the past and been overwhelmed with the complexity and the amount of content required. And then Wildermyth said, “Let me try” and did it.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews compare Wildermyth to playing D&D with a really good DM–or at least being the closest a video game has yet gotten to that. You wouldn’t call TTRPGs “emergent story.” They’re intentionally designed, but highly responsive. That’s what Wildermyth’s stories do too, as far as I can tell.

I would go as far as saying I’ve never encountered emergent narrative in a game that could compete with a bad fully scripted one.

You obviously had much better DMs amongst your friends than i did, then!
Maybe those bad DMs are the reason why I think it befalls to a player to make up for what is missing, and to enjoy exploiting those missing parts.

The TTRPG comparison might make me finally dive in. Mostly because I’m very confident it can’t be right in a way that’s probably a little snooty and possibly a little fearful :-)

Here are three examples of the kind of emergent storytelling I’m talking about:

These are all highly personal, of course, which is partly the point. But they’re also more memorable than 90% of the scripted storytelling I’ve read/played/seen in videogames.

-Tom

Oh, golly, not at all! My only issue was the framerate on the Switch, and you guys resolved that like within a few days of the release, if I recall correctly.

I mean, that’s on you guys for designing it that way! It is a real delight to make that transition from “WTF, how am I supposed to beat this kind of monster!” to “Let’s see, how should I try to whip one of these monsters this time?” Like Midnight Protocol, you guys do a great job of pushing players to create their own toolsets and then seeing how well they can use the toolset for any given challenge.

-Tom

I enjoy the stories I experienced myself from Massive Chalice and State of Decay because they mix moments of glory achievements with tragic misshapes. I like stories that go badly, and most games either avoid those - usually in their very mechanics, preventing failure or recovery from failure, ie “reload” -, or fondle in them with such pathos they become often insufferable.

Give me an open RPG or strategy game where interesting emergent things can happen over the usual scripted linear dreck any day of the week. Games are terrible at telling linear, authorial narratives. It’s an interactive medium, let me tell my own story or, at least, get out of the damn way.

I confess I was always surprised you were so fond of Wildermyth, given the relative simplicity of its systems and your love for complex ones, and how, to me, the game was story driven, but now it makes perfect sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish the systems were a wee bit more complex, but I will say that there’s a lot of elegance in the simplicity of the combat mechanics - I’ve gotten more mileage out of it than I’d have expected.

I heartily endorse this post and @Malkael ’s writings on the game.

I’m okay with the relatively simple systems in Wildermyth, especially since their take on magic is so weird and different. Wildermyth’s elegance is about the perfect compromise between a boardgame and a videogame for me. It helps keep the campaigns moving at a snappier pace and it frees more of the focus for the overarching narrative. I suspect the designers felt a more intricate battle system would detract too much from the other two layers (overworld and story).

-Tom

So for me there are things that are emergent stories that absolutely are memorable. The time in Medieval 2: Total War that I had a secretly female priest that I was able to maneuver, plot, scheme, and murder into becoming the pope who had a special ‘choir boy’. Or the stories created by something like CK II, EU IV, or Dwarf Fortress. They aren’t traditional narrative, but can be extremely memorable. Using marriage and murder to pull your way into the leader of Spain starting as a one province duchy is certainly something rife with potential.

So they aren’t capital N Narrative, but you can certainly form memorable narratives around them. Certain types of strategy games excel at this.

I wouldn’t go as far as @vinraith , but I am certainly more on that side than the one you and @malkav11 posit.

Seems like If a game is on this list it ought to have a thread

I had a couple of friends who were great GMs in that way. I’m afraid when I was GMing they felt like you did!

I think it’s an apt comparison, but that doesn’t mean that the experiences are the same. Don’t get your hopes/fears up too high!

Kobyashi → Kobayashi

I agree, once a talented writer like yourself has taken those bare bones assemblages of random gameplay elements and written a narrative around them, they’re quite entertaining and memorable. As just those gameplay elements, with me as the one who’s got to turn that into a story, not at all.

I’m certainly not arguing that point, I’ve had fun with more emergent gameplay myself. I just don’t find them to match up with some of the experiences I’ve had with more scripted games, personally. But I’ve certainly become attached to my little faceless, personality-free pixel characters going way back. I made up backstories for my crew members on the ship I crewed in Starflight, and all I knew about them was their basic skill levels and their species. They didn’t even get icons. Probably (still) one of my favorite RPGs was a game called The Magic Candle, it was basically an Ultima clone. Probably nothing special. But I got really stuck on and in it, and I got really attached to my little group of adventurers.

I remember them all - a human ranger named Lukas, an elf named Nehor, a halfling named Min, a dwarf named Sakar, and two wizards, Ziyx and Eflun. They were a really interesting bundle of attributes and skills, but they had something else - a career. Min, the halfling, was no great shakes as a warrior. He barely held his own. But swinging a sword at orcs wasn’t really his primary job; he was a tailor. As such, if I ever got low on money, I could split him off from the group and let him apprentice with a tailor in town and make extra money on the side while my main group did whatever. Nehor, the elf, was a skilled hunter - he could forage food for us on the side. Sakar was a blacksmith, and could likewise apprentice with a smithy in a town for extra money. It gave the characters an extra facet, a little bit of personality that those old C64 pixels weren’t really capable of presenting. I mean hell, that’s thirty or so years ago, and I remember their names still.

And yet … I still don’t think my experience with these kinds of emergent storytelling can quite stand up against an encroaching reaper menace, a ‘would you kindly’, a rapid narrowing of the Old West and its outlaw lifestyle. And I have a hard time imagining how they could. But that doesn’t mean I think they’re without worth or without trying, and I’m hopeful that I’ll find the game that will change my mind about things. I am open to being convinced otherwise.