Sexy title, right? What the hell is emergent gameplay?
The best way to describe it, is to look at games like a battle royale, and see how basically, no one game is ever the same. Each round is a totally new experience.
This is becuase whilst the game is built and there are rules to adhere to (physics, loot etc), everything else is built purely from your interaction within that sandbox.
These massive scenarios that the players themselves create. Not scripted events, no NPCs acting according to their programming. Moment-to-moment events, constantly adjusting, never the same. Just like real life.
Now, of course this happens in other non-battle royale games, but I think my first true experience of it was in PUBG, and I think that’s what makes the game so damn addictive.
Plus, I’ve briefly touched-upon this before over at ninjarefinery.com. So it seems like a good place to start.
PUBG as the example of emergent gameplay
To best understand emergent gameplay, you need to be able to reside in a space that allows for it, and allows for it with ease. So whilst you might experience it in, say, Hitman or Metal Gear Solid V, that’s built out of tighter constraints, and is lead by AI and how it interacts with the world.
What you want it a space in which only the players have control. And that control only extends to themselves and how they interact with the world around them. PUBG is perfect for this.
You’re dropped onto an island. The island is littered with loot (weapons, armor, healing items and vehicles), and then you have to be the last one standing.
That’s it. There’s no story-driven adventure, no quests for non-player characters. Nothing. Drop. Loot. Survive.
The narrative comes from each round and your interaction with other players. It’s cutthroat. You only win by being the last alive, so you’re surviving.
Every match is a story, but it’s your story and it makes it addictive.
Sure, sometimes you have a terrible game (I know I do!), and you get illed early doors. But that may have been exhilarating in itself.
Dropping into a busy spot, seeing all those parachutes unfurl and swirl around the place you intend to land. Straight away, this isn’t going as intended. You have to react, and adjust your plans on-the-fly.
I think that’s the key, you’re never able to predict the outcomes. Loot might be useless, players may not drop anywhere near you. You might not be able to travel quickly enough to get to safety. It’s plan, change, plan, change, all the time.
Sometimes those plans work out, and you create a whole new story based on that quick decision making and slick response to a situation. You’re you, you’re working to survive, and so is everyone else.
Put simply, the gameplay and the stories emerge from the situations at hand. They aren’t pre-determined.
Where else can you get this experience?
Luckily, we live in a world of these online experiences now, with sandboxes to play in.
Look at Sea of Thieves. You get to sail, fight Krakens and Megalodons. None of it is scripted though. Set out on your own adventures, and just work with what the game has to offer.
Everything else is based on your interaction with the world and other players. Sure, they’ve added some story content and there are tasks to do, should you choose. But you can just set sail, find a message in a bottle and go on the hunt for treasure.
All the while, you could end up in an alliance with other players, or worse, you could end up battling other ships and fighting for your life. Fighiting to keep that hard-earned treasure.
Sea of Thieves isn’t the exception to the Battle Royale rule, either. Sure, Apex Legends, Fortnite, PUBG etc. give the most immediate version of emergent gameplay, but look at Hitman.
Hitman is a game with very tight rules in play, and specific AI routines. But you get to tug at the puppet strings and see people react, and in doing so react to them. Again, plan, change, plan, change.
No massive set-pieces that you have to get to. You just crack on, do your own thing and play within the sandbox you’re in.
Another wonderful example is one of my all-time favourites, Breath of the Wild. A massive world with loads and loads of systems in play. Physics, cooking, horse riding, combat, climbing, weather etc. Everything happens to you. You can be just wandering around, and because the game doesn’t hold your hand throughout, you’re left to your own devices.
Granted, the world and the AI are what create the experience, because there aren’t other players. But every action causes some kind of reaction, and you need to adjust your plans as you go.
Climbing mountians with limited stamina is one thing. But what if it starts to rain? Are you in metal armor? Lightning is going to be attracted to you. You gotta keep adjusting those plans to mitigate whatever the world around you is throwing your way.
The future of gaming?
I don’t know that we can declare emergent gameplay as the future of gaming, when we have so much else coming our way, and so much still to get out of more classic genres of game.
What I hope to see, is that bigger titles start to better develop their worlds, and allow for players to create their own adventures. Whether that’s just a journey between to points, or each round in a life or death scenario.
The key to all of these are the systems and world building. You can have the best looking game in the world (let’s be fair, PUBG needs some work in that department). But without the mechanics working perfectly together, and the opportunity for things to go awry, you’re not going to get that.
There’s plenty of room for on-the-rails shooters, RPGs, platformers, VR etc. But having the opportunity to create our own stories is incredibly appealing.
It might not always match-up to the likes of The Witcher 3, and give us those truly memorable stories. But it gives us different kinds of memorable moments and stories. That’s where the joy of it is, that’s what makes me drop into Miramar or Erangel over and over and over.
It’s why I have hundreds of hours in Breath of the Wild.
When everything allows you to do anything. That’s a special experience in itself. But when you’re constantly adjusting your plans on the fly, reacting to a world and making your own way in it, well…that’s the good stuff.
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