Emergent Gameplay Versus the Linear Narrative

Most often, videogames can be understood in terms of a combination of tools or abilities and rules that define the way those tools and abilities function and interact, both with each other and the rest of the game world. In the original Super Mario Brothers, for instance, you only had the abilities to run, jump, shoot fireballs in certain situations, and use the star man to run through enemies from time to time. Perhaps what made the original Super Mario Brothers so enjoyable was the satisfying way the physics of the game world made those actions feel. When running, you started off slow, then sped up, building up a momentum that made it so the faster you ran, the harder it was to slow down. When jumping, the faster you ran, the higher and farther you could leap. As Mario games progressed, they tended to incrementally add a few new abilities at a time to the previous set. In the Japanese SMB 2 there was wind, and in SMB 3 there were the various suits allowing Mario to fly, swim, throw hammers, etc.

In the original Final Fantasy, on the other hand, the rules of the world were not rules controlling complex movement as in SMB. The characters and their actions were representative, rather than direct. You moved your party all at once, indicated by a single iconic character figure, and the details of their progression over the terrain were of no consequence to the game. The rules of the game were instead limited to what terrain was passable, basic interaction with NPCs, including speech, trade, etc., and the complex mechanics governing combat. Each character class had its own path of development, endowing the character with the ability to cast new spells, perform new attacks, or deal greater damage.

Both of these examples, despite being drastically different styles of gameplay, are similar in that they are both directed narratives. In SMB, you move from left to right, with the only opportunities from deviation occurring when warp-zones are found. In Final Fantasy, the game state is advanced by talking to the right character, learning the next step, undertaking that specific step, and so on, repeated until the final boss is defeated. The path that the developer has created is the path to game completion. In Final Fantasy, you may have decided to create a party of all mages, but the overall story, who you speak to, and what you must do to progress, will essentially remain the same.

There is, however, a separate class of gameplay that has become increasingly popular more recently. That is, the sandbox game type, which depends largely on the player to direct the narrative. The basic rules and elements are provided, as before, but the actual progression is an undirected emergence from the player’s usage of those elements within the gameworld. In The Sims, for instance, the player is loosely directed by economic factors; you find work and earn money to purchase new goods. However, the majority of short-term goals, conflicts, and enjoyable gameplay sequences occur as a result of the player’s actions. Whether players were interested in actually building the house, or the interpersonal relationships that their characters developed, the majority of goals and actions were not directly scripted by the game designer. It is an act of trust on the part of the game designer that the rules they have created and the tools they have given the player will be suitable to allow the player to craft their own satisfying gameplay experience.


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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