Creating Worlds with Emergence

Syed Muzani
Jun 18 · 3 min read

Emergence in gaming is when game content emerges as a result of player actions.

For example, a player slays a villain and leaves, but didn’t take into account that the villain was keeping the dragons in check. On slaying the villain, dragons storm the kingdom, wiping out an ally. But another hero the villain kept in check is suddenly free and able to help the team.

What many games try to do is completely build and simulate a world. But such a world isn’t very interesting. The real world isn’t very interesting either. Most people have maybe one dramatic memorable thing every 10 years. If someone takes a dictator down, it usually results in a similar dictator later.

Dramatic algorithms

Dramatic worlds should optimize for maximum drama, not simulation.

For example, it’s common to generate a character that was abused by parents, then from that, generate that the character becomes sadistic and evil.

But for dramatic purposes, it’s easier to say you need a sadistic and evil character, then go backwards from that to generate a backstory involving abuse or extreme privilege.

The world then creates a web of characters that work together dramatically, with certain restrictions.

Audience surrogate

In Dwarf Fortress, you’ll have characters that everyone knows except the player. “The great vampire Zxcultra who has slain 312 people in their bloodlust.” A vampire that slays 312 people is going to be well known and no character needs to explain every murder in detail.

This is where an audience surrogate is needed. The player character is assumed to be one, a stranger from a foreign land, but that’s not always ideal. A narrative world needs to also generate these audience surrogates.

Sidekicks are one way, like how Batman added Robin. The hero explains the situation to the newbie sidekick, apprentice, or employees.

Character journals are popular in games. There are often middle management Captains, who have full scope of what happens but have to explain to a higher up what’s going on. Scientists and researchers have logs too.

And then there’s Captain Obvious, who provides full exposition when nobody asked.

Narrative

There’s Cherkov’s Gun, where if there is a gun in the scene, it will either be used, or it’s a red herring to distract the audience from the actual story. The narrative world should generate as little interaction as needed. Something like Fallout 4 becomes tedious because 90% of the things you interact with are junk.

There’s the MacGuffin, which is some replaceable thing that everyone is after. It can be blackmail evidence on the king, it can be a super weapon, or a kidnapped person.

There’s intro scenes, chase scenes, climax, and resolution.

Foreshadowing/tension

Both are sides of the same coin. Foreshadowing works a little like tracking a hunt. A player is hunting for the story resolution. The world itself has to drop plenty of clues.

Let’s say they’re hunting a world saving MacGuffin. Other people would be hunting it too; the player may not know who.

The first clue would be some other supporting characters bringing up that other people asked for the location. Maybe some tools are sold out. Maybe someone borrowed the same library book.

There may be a little conflict. Maybe a threat, maybe sabotage.

There can be an Establishing Character Moment. This can be built into the system, showing the strengths of the potential rival at their best. The start of Infinity War established Thanos’s strength. And in Fallout NV, one of the towns was full of crucified characters, establishing a faction’s cruelty.

Syed Muzani

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