Questioning the “emergent narrative” claim in games

I have some problems with Salen and Zimmerman’s view that games are an emergent narrative, outlined is their book “Rules of Play”. Firstly, emergent narratives are not created by games, but by players. This important difference draws a clear division between some types of games compared to others. Personally, I’m not at all interested in trying to catagorise games or to shoe horn this or that game into a niche from which to discuss it in a more convenient manner.

I argue that games are simply remediation of two long established themes in literature itself, which brings me to the much quoted Salen and Zimmerman idea of games having emergent narratives.

The idea of emergent narratives is that as you wander though the game, the story emerges to the player though their interaction with other players and game-upheld rules which can release elements of the story to the player(s). Some games, such as Minecraft and Second Life, have emergent narratives (but not because a player clicks on an NPC for a sound-bite. These games are almost entirely autotelic in nature). However Minecraft and Second Life are also realist games in the tradition of realist literature., rather than Romantic. I believe kids love Minecraft because its a realist game, and one where by the narrative is often added later – for example, kids explaining a build on YouTube. Kids find it really useful because they are learning how to manipulate a fantasy in order to make sense of it, and explain it. Sadly, some teachers don’t get this and insist on bolting on their own narration (look at how my kids do math in Minecraft) and miss the point of WHY kids want to play it completely.

Realist games (like novels) tend to focus on a few actual characters, in relatively small locations where they symbolism of the world around is intended to be realistic. Within that, the player can explore their own identity, create a world of their imagination and so on. But, as a realist game, which incidentally I might place ‘educational games’, this functions more like Pac-Man or Street Fighter, not a TRUE game such as Skyrim or Tombraider Reboot.

And here is the crux of my problem with Salen/Zimmerman’s ‘emergent’ idea. These games are predominantly Romantic in nature. I’m going to talk about these types of games as TRUE games, as these are the kind of game which specialise in alternative worlds where players engage in episodic romance. This is because bringing a willingness and joy of these themes to play sets them apart from realist games. For example, Skyrim is a True game as it is a romantic, whereas Street Fighter is a realist game. If you like, Lord Of The Rings is a romantic movie, whereas Breaking Bad is a realist TV show.

The key criteria of a TRUE game is that it revolves around a grand episodic plot as a central feature. It’s also easy to get lost in these games (mentally and actually) as you wander vast open worlds in which the environment changes, but limits movement, and the hero (you) is often beset by problems and characters both flat (NPCs) and round (NPCs who hold some story). I can see why Salen/Zimmerman would say the story emerges from interaction with these NPCs (together with narration from the camera view and overlays) but the romantic theme (the heroes journey) cannot be broken by the player refusing to engage with it. Games which set out to allow players to skip parts, pay their way to success should be excluded from TRUE games, however some TRUE games (The Secret World, World or Warcraft and so on) offer players the choice of buying objects and weapons as part of their over all economy. This is similar to the idea of the Romantic novel using Realist situations and characters from time to time, to engage the reader.

So to me, having a new classification – the emergent narrative – isn’t required in order to discuss games or rules – when approaching games as cultural literature, rather than attempting to divide them in to narratology or ludology. My preference is to take the viewpoint that games are simply a remediation of literature, and better understood from that point, rather than making cases for them to be seen as a new sensation, and therefore useful for those with that belief to dream up new terms for them. To me, true games are based in romantic traditions and simply being remediated, like many other forms of media.

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One thought on “Questioning the “emergent narrative” claim in games

  1. Good read, I haven’t read Zimmerman’s book, but I’m glad I read your post. I’ve been playing Terraria, and definitely felt along the lines you describe Minecraft. At first, I was at a loss in the game, no clear goals, didn’t know what to do. Actually, watching a Let’s Play gave me direction, and even if it wasn’t entirely my own, I felt the emergent narrative happen (build houses, NPCs move in, fight a boss, etc).

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