Beauty is in…
Either of these issues is problematic to reconcile with the two ways I’ve described emergence (which are entirely my own devices, and probably leave much to be desired). Fortunately, a third source of emergent play and storytelling–one even more important than the other two–can reconcile these issues and narrative dissonance in games:
The player. If a player is invested in an experience and their expectations are exceeded or sideswiped, emergence happens. When the player connects with a game in some way outside of its mechanics or space, emergence happens. Interesting mechanics, captivating artwork, a substantial environment, and a well-crafted story can provoke the player, but most important is that they want to interact with a game and that they have an ability to do so. If that happens, their journey will be personal, because they’ll care about it. They’ll create mental space for that experience, and no two people will do this in quite the same way.
This is why a dungeon master’s adventure never plays out quite as anticipated. This is why we like making tough choices in games, and why we enjoy talking to others about what choices they made. Those choices may have nothing to do with getting a better ending or changing mechanics, but we still like making them. It’s also the reason we enjoy throwing books at guards. If a game has us engaged, we will try to probe its boundaries. Games give us a place where we can express ourselves and try identities different from our own. This last point alone should make the case for explicit storytelling in games.
Minecraft can can coax the player into investing in their own narrative, but so can Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable II, Fallout: New Vegas, and every other game ever made.
Every game can be an emergent experience. Even the ones I hate; even GTA V.
When you notice a blue bar going up and down as you do/don’t get shot by aliens, then think to yourself “That’s my shield,” without a tutorial, you’ve had an emergent experience. Your brain has extrapolated a simple mechanic into a complicated concept. When you invent your own rules about what stealth really means, you’ve both added your own mechanics to a game and created a new sort of role playing experience. Emergence is about thinking “Hang on, I could probably play this whole game without killing anyone.” Emergence is feeling genuinely pained and shocked when a crew member who has been with you for almost two whole games is killed, because some part of you had thought of her as important. A game can encourage you to think these things, but you have to make that leap.
There’s no single type of player. Anthony Burch recently started keeping a Tumblr about the unique ways people play games, and it’s awesome. Most of the posts are examples of emergent play. Emergence is also making an XCOM team named after your friends, knowing they’re probably going to be dismembered and fried by plasma. Or doing permanent death runs in games no sane person would do that in. Or realizing that the path to victory doesn’t hinge on just playing predicting your opponents’ moves, but predicting whether or not they’ve predicted your predictions (along with basically the entire concept of “metagaming”).
Or when a friend of mine created a whole party of characters in Neverwinter Nights 2, then thought of them as having distinct personalities and acted that out in dialog choices, depending on who was speaking to the NPC. Or when my brother played through Fallout: New Vegas and acted acted out his choices as though he were a young Joseph Stalin. Or when I found myself in the shoes of a female commander Sheppard, debating which alien I wanted to become romantically involved with, not based on looks or their character or the story, but because I found myself facing a value judgment that begs a question humans actually struggle with.
Games don’t ask us to do these things; we do that on our own. Anytime a game makes you ask yourself a moral question, experience an emotion, or create your own rules, you’ve had an emergent experience. You’re taking in something and creating your own meaning from that. There are robots who play Quake really well; we could teach them to play The Walking Dead, but they would gleam little from the experience. Not so for you, if you have a heart. Sorry, robots.
To further muddy the waters, Gone Home is a game with tons of narrative and very few mechanics. You run around reading notes your family has left around the house. There’s only one ending, and you never have any real experiences with your family. The narrative is very prescriptive, and the player can either make choices that further the written story, or not. In short, it is wrought with the supposedly poor design choices some critics claim to hate.
Anyone who plays Gone Home will have some kind of reaction to it. Even if the player doesn’t see themselves reflected in the game’s characters, an engaged viewer will phrase those differences in a way that is emergent. Most reviewers compare themselves to different characters in the game–all of whom are distinctly absent. Gone Home is about growing up and not fitting in, and it’s executed painfully well. Most humans will find it easy to empathize with the game’s characters and draw a direct line from their own past to how a character is portrayed at some point.
In Gone Home, you never make any real gameplay choices. As the only embodied character, you can either learn more about your family or quit, and there is a very specific story. The player embodies a woman who speaks at the beginning of the game, then remains silent. Even though you are told who you are and what is going on, the quiet house and cryptic notes let the player build their own ideas and feelings. That’s why silent characters work–we fill in the blanks with bits of ourselves.
If games respect the player’s presence, they don’t have to give the player control. If player control over the narrative, replayability, and endless adventure are the pinnacle of game design, we arrived in 1974, so video games never stood a chance. All you need is some friends, a few books, and some dice. But no, no one actually thinks that.
When a player is having a good time, they don’t care about ludonarrative dissonance or fridge logic. Anyone who plays games regularly can point out contrivances left and right. There’s a locked door, and no, your rocket launcher can’t open it. You shoot and run just as effectively with one arbitrary unit of health as you do with 100. Faster than light? Sure. I have saved the world more than once and no one knows who the hell I am.
That doesn’t mean ludonarrative crimes are good or aren’t real, and they should be discouraged where possible. But interesting stories should still be told, even if they can’t fit a critical ideal precisely. The Portal games would still be fun without GLaDOS or turrets that try to balm your conscience whenever you topple them over. They would be fun puzzle games without all of their humor or narration. But combining these things with amazing writing, level design, and mechanics resulted in games that are praised as surprising the player with incredible consistency.
Portal and Portal 2 don’t hinge on any one instant of gameplay; they don’t hinge on any one aspect at all. They are absolutely elevated by some of the best games writing ever. If a critic fails to mention such in their assessment, they are being dodgy. If you felt giddy when you strapped GLaDOS onto your portal device or if you giggled when Portal 2‘s true villain was revealed, you were experiencing ludonarrative dissonance, and you loved it. Chell is trying to get the hell out of here, but that’s not precisely what the player wants, is it? Nope. We want to be fooled, and we want it to be earned. We want plot twists that are absurd, yet compelling–or that at least make us snicker. We want to be in the middle of a mess and having stupid fun.
The real story isn’t that we need to cut writing out of games (though you can, if it suits your game). What we need to figure out is how to write games well, because it is seriously difficult.
But you know what? Easy work is usually not work doing.