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.
I think, conversely, this is why I feel so helpless with most modern “beautifully crafted world” in games.
I usually blame the structure, not liking the open world tropes, but I think equally important is the feel of a split between a scripted storyline, and my avatar’s actions which are more often than not totally absurd — even worse when the game actually forces them upon her, like LA Noire’s dreadful “action” (probably should be called “murder spree”) sequences. I feel that split in almost all recent RPGs I tried, where I feel like my
femshep character is a schizoid caught between kicking and petting the dog at every turn of her fictional life.
The simplest solution is to provide the player with a narrating character clearly distinct from him, I am guessing, like in SOMA. A recent example of that to me in an RPG was Divinity Original Sin 2, but from discussing very occasionnally online it seems that its writing is quite divisive.
Don’t mind my ranting. I like to type.
Starflight is a very beautiful example of a perfect mix between a minimalist game and an intricate manual helping the player give birth to her own fantasy, thanks for bringing it up as I would have never considered it that way. I see now why I loved it so much, after being engrossed by Pirates! for many years.
Works best on a white background thanks to my editing skills but it had to be done, heh.
Or at the very least a thread arguing about whether a catch-all top ten thread is sufficient or if they each really need their own threads.
Dark Souls doesn’t have emergent storytelling. It has a set story that it tells (well, with a couple possible paths), it just tells it like David Lynch or Gene Wolfe. What it has, and what absolutely no one in the business does as well as From, is environmental storytelling. I’ve always felt that the item descriptions were a cheat, though. Is my character a psychometric or something? Does every item come with a little card explaining its history like some kind of Olde Darke Curiosity Shoppe?
Oh it so does. I’m not talking about the evertalked lore, but the game’s dramatic itself, and its world, with which the player can choose to interact, or not.
The story ark I experienced in Dark Souls and the motivation of its main character totally changed during it, to a 180 degree pivotal twist that the game actually acknowledge in providing an actual very rewarding ending to what began as something that didn’t seem to have much destination. Not once did I break the game while trying to break it.
No other game ever came close to what Dark Souls accomplished on that front, in my opinion.
Dark Souls is so good that if you want it to be a stupid game about murdering zombies in the back over and over, it can be that too, and the game has probably that somewhat simplistic narrative covered too. You want it to be a multiplayer fighting game? it can be that too. In my case it was a tale of loss and anger, and it was very moving until the protagonist lost her mind.
Or maybe I lost my mind. Glad I did as that was worth it!
I think you just have a good imagination.
But see, even if that’s only a case of a player’s imagination, almost every games will “break” it, by providing disappointing narrative elements, or by simply ignoring you having this imagination, leaving you with a void to fill.
It’s why I think Dark Souls is a masterpiece on that front.
Yes, it certainly gives a lot of space for the player’s imagination to roam…much like Lynch.
I do wonder if my somewhat slavish obeisance to The Author + desire for videogames to be a consumptive leisure activity I do to relax and experience joy rather than something I should put work or effort into are combining to rob me of experiences like this and what some others describe (@tomchick, I’m looking forward to reading the Planetfall and Massive Chalice stories you linked earlier while I eat today).
I have a very firmly fixed opinion that The Author Is Very Much Alive, Thank You Very Much. Basically keeps me from finding any joy whatsoever in fanfic, fan theories, etc., despite being constantly surrounded by that portion of fandom by the friends I largely associate with IRL. I don’t have any interest in imagining what Luke might have done between raucous teddybear party in Return of the Jedi and crankily milking space cows in The Last Jedi. I rely on George Lucas and now Kathleen Kennedy and her stable of uncooperative wannabe auteurs to tell me what he did. I might well think what they tell me is dumb and could plausibly imagine something better, but that isn’t what I’m supposed to do. What he did is fixed, in canon, by his puppetmasters. That might well bother me a lot or satisfy me greatly or somewhere precisely in-between, but whatever my reaction, the story provided is the only thing I’m especially interested in reacting to.
(As the first of two minor asides, I suspect my inclination not to view fictional characters as people but rather tools of the narrative also comes into play here. Luke isn’t a real person with motivations and dreams and desires that I might divine and use to predict different courses of action than he takes onscreen. He is and does precisely what the filmmaker tells me, and nothing more, a useful icon to hang the threads of narrative upon en route to the conclusion of one or more Hero’s Journeys)
If a videogame elects not to really present a constructed narrative – or even a responsive one – but merely has systems that react to me as a player and produce semi-unscripted actions on the part of the AI within the structure of its rules and mechancis, on some level, I think I treat that choice as canonical, bizarre as that might be. There’s no greater meaning at play here being handed down; this is just a set of (perhaps interesting, entertaining, enjoyable) gameplay systems interlocking and interweaving. Of course the current leader of Spain conspired against me and of course his spurned heir worked with me; my Plot for the Throne was uncovered by Spies in Turn 192, and I’ve been sending Envoys to the Heir’s prison cell for 4 years to increase our Trust stat to the maximum for non-married characters.
I could weave more meaning into than that, and heck, if someone asked me to recount the experience to them, I think my storyteller inclinations would likely step in to provide some narrative glue to the rote recitation of mechanical gears turning in their infinite majesty. But generally speaking, moment-to-moment in the experience of playing the game, that part of my brain doesn’t want to work. I came here for someone else to dump easy-to-consume entertainment on my lap, and I’ll do no more than sit down to create such a lap, thank-you-very-much.
And again, sometimes, this can lead to disappointment. Open-world games wherein the next quest is whatever challenge you give yourself to overcome, grand strategy titles that encourage you to forge your own path carving through the normal order of set history, blocky C64 space sims where my crew roster of auto-generated redshirts are slowly whittled away by the long campaign against the Vaxian menace – I frequently have a hard time connecting with these games. The systems are often a little obtuse, or have a high skill barrier, or both, so without that drive to generate a narrative to accompany my journey through them, motivation quickly bleeds away and I find that I’ve wasted $50 again, oops.
(As a minor addendum that I personally think is interesting but really diverges substantially from the ongoing conversation, I think TTRPGs short-circuit my slavish devotion to “canon” because I’ve come to see them as shared authorship experiences, not a case of a singular Word of G(od)M coming down from on high to dictate the truth of the fiction. Like a good sitcom writer’s room or improv troupe collaboratively working on a slowly forming concept, joyfully discovering unexpected connective threads between their disparate ideas, and cobbling together – sometimes awkwardly and haltingly, sometimes with great speed and fervor – a narrative from what they have found, a TTRPG table is all about the experience of making something new and unforeseen together.
I certainly can play in a heavily on-rails GM-crafted game session with but only one ending to arrive at by means decided upon before the fact, but when I do so, my engagement drops and I, basically, treat what I’m in the midst of like a videogame. An entertainment experiences being handed to me that, sigh, I must occasionally do work for with some kind of math and sigh handwriting of statistics onto paper to get to the end of. At least there are usually friends nearby to joke around with in the interim)
Oh yes, I played that one: Master of Q-rianon.
I was trying to be concise because dive^3 had been flippant the last time I used too many words, and I didn’t like that!
The early point you make is quite interesting to me, because in probably the same way you fail to connect to your C64 pixelcrew, I can’t connect to most movies or series narrative anymore, especially blockbuster stuff like Star Wars, as I find them litterally boring me to sleep — I can’t stop yawning!
This used to not be the case, but for the past few years it has been. I also noticed it in my readings, whereas I used to enjoy books which were either discussing real world events, or had a very strong narrative, I now only delight myself in novels where hardly anything is happening, books that are more “places” than anything.
That was the case of most of my experiences with bad GMs, with a very important caveat: no “together” in this, the new and unforeseen thing was not agreed upon and was happening despite all of us!
Boy, you must love Wheel of Time!
Writing name down…
So I’m sending in Jewal Gruvich, one of the characters I’ve leveled up in previous games (I’m only picking from Planetfall’s pre-made characters; custom characters are non-canonical!).
(from the Planetfall tale)
Video game designers like to rip off movies for their stories and general feeling, making games “cinematic”, but the narrative in a video game has a different function to that of a movie (or book, TV show, play, etc). A good story in a game is there to give context and purpose to player’s actions, and in that sense emergent stories can have a stronger effect than scripted ones. A XCOM soldier panicking as a comrade dies, shooting uncontrollably and taking out the enemy that killed his buddy is a better story than an NPC doing the same in a cut-scene.
Good emergent stories don’t need the elaborate descriptions or specific voiced dialog that authored game stories provide, they just need events that are connected through cause and effect in the game systems.
Death of the Author isn’t about canon or fanfiction, it’s about interpretation and meaning. Of course, you can have your own ideas about it, even if they are not what Barthes intended when he came up with it.
Death of the Author isn’t "After Return of the Jedi, Luke got a magic unicorn and rode to Las Vegas for a space-party!!! :D :D "
Death of the Author is “The original Star Wars trilogy is about the fraught relationships between parents and their children.”
Yes but I want to sound academic and cool when I dismissively sniff at my friends’ Archive of Our Own accounts :P
Per usual great list regardless of my feelings towards a game. It’s the writing and reasoning behind Tom’s choices that make this list so readable…and re-readable. But I would like to know how much more fun Old World is than A-Train, so are the scores going to be given in a different article?
Regarding emergent storytelling. I see stories built even with my wargames. And often I don’t do the ‘smart’ move, but do the ‘interesting’ or ‘best storyline’ move. Maybe it comes from playing GEV by myself as a kid and the various chits were characters as much as they were GEV mk IIIs? Now, if I’m playing against someone I’m much less likely to go rogue into storytelling land. But solo, the game is a much a toy for creating stories as it is a game for testing tactics.