Thursday, March 18, 2010

Emergent Narrative and the Problem with MMOs

So, whenever players start to argue over which RPG is better, invariably someone claims whichever game is more "Fun" is the better game, and then someone demands to know what "Fun" means, and invariably, people claim that fun is too nebulous to define.

I think that's bollocks.  Raph Koster, in his "A Theory of Fun" defines fun as "a learning experience."  Sid Meier describes games (which are presumably fun) as a "Series of Interesting Choices."  I like both, but I'll go further and put both together: Fun is the interactive study of emergence.

Humans like complexity.  We like it in our music, our art, our poetry and our humor.  When something is too simple, we quickly grow bored of it (a stick figure), when it's too complex, many of us can't comprehend it, and it becomes gibberish (Picasso, who often did things like attempting to convey 4 dimensions on a 2 dimensional surface).  The ideal varies from person to person, but we want to see as much complexity as we can comprehend unfold before this. This is the core of what Raph Koster was trying to say in his book, and "a series of interesting (interactions)" is precisely what creates emergence.

All good games have good "mechanical" emergence.  Consider Weapons of the Gods.  In every turn, you have many variables to contend with.  Your martial arts interacts with your opponents martial arts.  Your chi values vary, forcing you to change which style you favor.  Your river rises and falls, forcing you to make new choices.  The patterns constantly change, forcing you to adapt.  You don't know for certain what will happen next turn, but being able to predict it is the key to winning, so you struggle to understand.  That is, you have fun.  The same is true of D&D, GURPS, Yomi, Chess, Go, and so on.  It's not true of World of Darkness, as you can generally predict what will happen during any extended roll (for example, combat), so it stops being interesting and becomes the mechanical equivalent of a stick figure.

So why would people play WoD?  Or, worse, Risus, Wushu or others?  Partially, some of these players are very simple.  They take delight in simplistic games, like Tic-tac-toe and Hangman.  Large books filled with rules and complex interactions scare them, the way Picasso scares most of us.  But others, the majority I'd say, would argue that "mechanics get in the way of a good story!" which is certainly a sentiment I disagree with, but actually the point of this post.  RPGs provide another form of emergence: Narrative emergence.  In addition to having fascinating mechanics, most RPGs have fascinating, complex stories.  Through a series of simple choices, the players find themselves lost in a world of intrigue.  The princess in love with the hero cannot marry him because she is betrothed to a wicked man that the hero cannot (should not) kill because he is the key to defeating the dire Necromancer who is, in turn, a life-long friend of the hero, and interested in supplying the hero with power and aforementioned princess!  What's a hero to do?  We struggle through the interesting patterns of the narrative which, because it stems from the players themselves, seldom becomes too complex or too simple for a group's enjoyment.

From this, we have "roll-play vs role-play," the enjoyment of tactical emergence vs the enjoyment of narrative emergence.  D&D encourages a great deal of the former and little of the latter, while WoD is the reverse.  I personally don't see why both can't coincide, and thus I enjoy WotG.  Many indie games follow suit.

MMOs and CRPGs generally excel at tactical emergence. They offer us complex systems and encourage us to unravel them.  City of Heroes and Dragon Age have hundreds of possible builds.  Most MMOs rely on an interesting mix of characters, and limits the number you have going in, requiring group and tactical (in a more classic sense of small-unit combat) management.  They tend to fall down on narrative emergence, though.  Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft has the same story every time you play through it.  Mass Effect and Dragon Age have some flexibility, but I'd be hard pressed to call  it true emergence.  The closest we see to true narrative emergence in a computer game tends to come from simulation games, like the Sims, which often have unsatisfactory narratives as they fail to follow "dramatic" conventions (which matter just like artistic conventions matter.  People enjoy particular tropes.  Simply randomly dropping lines and shapes on a canvas does not generally create beautiful art, and randomly generating events does not create interesting stories.  Stories follow rules, just like art does).  A few RPGs try to get around this by being more simulationist: most of the Ultima games and Eschalon try to do this, but in the end, their stories are the same each play-through as well, and the simulation just leads to funky tactical emergence.

Thus, this is my goal: to find a way to create narrative emergence in a computer game.  It must be different every play through.  It must have a series of interactions that result in ongoing fascinating complexities for the player, and they must have a general shape that is appealing to the player (the Heroic Journey, for example, and romance should feel like romance).  I can see now that I've been trying to create this for a long time in my previous games, and, in an epiphany, I finally have a name for what it is I'm trying to do.
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