Emergent Storytelling and Loss in Video Games

Portraits of deceased soldiers line the wall of the memorial room in XCOM 2… which is also a bar.

The first time I lost a soldier in XCOM was a powerful moment. I had sent this man on so many missions, I felt like I knew him. The game had randomly decided on his name, appearance, and Japanese descent. Through customization options, I gave him black armor and a face mask, since he was my front-line sword-wielding future-ninja. Kenji was my man.

In XCOM, you have to play in “Ironman” mode to unlock achievements, so naturally, I was doing so. Ironman means you get one save slot, and the game auto-saves after every action. Kind of like real life — you can’t just reload the save from before you do something regrettable, as much as you might want to. So when Kenji died, I knew it was forever.

I’d been too confident, moving him too far forward and exposed, and he paid the ultimate price for my mistake as he was overwhelmed by the alien forces. I felt so many emotions: shame, disbelief, anger, sadness… a miniature model of grief. In my head, the rest of my squad began to question my authority. While they grieved for their fallen ally, they had to continue the fight under my orders, trying not to think about the fact that the same fate might befall them. This may have been just a projection of my fear of losing more of my soldiers, but in the space of the game, felt as true as if they had delivered dialogue to inform me of it. The atmosphere was tense.

Over the course of the next few missions, I would lose more experienced soldiers, and they would be replaced with rookies, whose lack of the abilities gained by experience made them unwanted by me and my veteran soldiers. Over time, this told one of the most compelling — and personal — stories I had ever taken away from a video game.

XCOM and XCOM 2 remain some of my favorite games I’ve ever played for this reason. And more recently, some designers and developers are catching on to the incredible value in setting up a foundation of randomly-generated character development, and letting the pieces fall where they may for the player.

One of my now-deceased XCOM 2 soldiers. RIP.

Heat Signature, in a fashion similar to XCOM, offers you a selection of a few playable characters, with pseudo-random backstories in the form of driving “personal missions.” Building up those characters, only to have them die on their mission to “assassinate the officer who tortured my wife” is heartbreaking. Additionally, your characters can get captured by the enemy, and new characters can appear with a personal mission to rescue them.

The game is built on a foundation of emergent gameplay: (Just look at some of the stories in the Steam reviews!) I particularly enjoyed a moment where I missed a shot at my assassination target, breaking a window and throwing us both into space, where he eventually suffocated, and I was able to remotely fly my ship to pick myself up before I ran out of oxygen. These stories all attach themselves to the characters you experience them with, and losing them adds deeper meaning to the memory of those stories.

My current Heat Signature characters. Probably all soon to be dead. I am not particularly good at this game.

The most thorough and detailed execution of this format for character development comes from the “Nemesis System” in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. There are a lot of orcs in Shadow of War, each with a randomly generated appearance and specified class. As the player, you slaughter them by the dozens, (and later, recruit them to your personal army) but at any unlucky moment, one of them might kill you… and if that happens, the one that lands the killing blow will celebrate their victory and be promoted from anonymous underling to titled captain, complete with a full voice-over and unique personality and attributes. You, the immortal player, revive anew, and have one more orc captain to hunt… but this time, it’s personal.

That’s only a taste of the variety of ways the randomly-generated stories play out in Shadow of War. I’ve had an orc I thought I’d killed come back for vengeance, but with a prosthetic claw in lieu of the arm I chopped off during his apparent execution. I had another orc, whom I had shamed (to reduce his level in order to recruit him) betray me at a critical moment in battle. These moments both caused me to literally drop my jaw in surprise, and I remember them vividly. There is so much detail in how the player and the orcs react and interact, it seems like the possibilities for emergent storytelling in this game are nearly endless.

And of course, the orcs you acquire for your army can be killed by other orc captains, inspiring a desire for vengeance and driving you as a player forward through your own story, separate but arguably more compelling than the main story missions.

The orc that betrayed me, still bearing a hand-shaped scar on his face from his shaming.

These are just a few prominent examples, ones with which I personally have the strongest feelings and memories. These games are not without their problems, you can’t count on propping up a thin or boring story with a little randomly-generated flavor, for example. But this new form of developing characters with a focus on emergent storytelling and gameplay helps to bring meaning to games, helps players feel like their choices matter, and creates long-lasting memories and stories to share. I’m looking forward to this type of storytelling mechanic appearing in more games, and grateful for the memories I already have.

Captured, but there is still hope.