Follow TV Tropes

Emergent Narrative

Go To

Video games whose stories are not pre-scripted by the developers but instead emerge out of the interaction between the player and the game systems.

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
Koveras on May 12th 2018 at 2:46:22 AM
Last Edited By:
Koveras on Feb 11th 2019 at 2:04:39 PM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

"By 'emergent narrative', we mean ... digital, fundamentally interactive systems whose narratives emerge bottom-up, typically from the richness of underlying simulations that feature autonomous characters."

An "emergent narrative" or "procedural narrative" is any Video Game storyline that is not written ("embedded"note ) into the game by its developers, but emerges from the player's interactions with various gameplay subsystems. More specifically, the player recognizes and interprets events that occur within the game space as part of an ongoing narrativenote  and projects their own emotions onto the in-game character constructs. Because emergent narratives are thus player-driven, rather than developer-driven, and because computers generally cannot recognize narratives as easily as humans do, they tend to be a lot messier than the carefully curated embedded narratives, and it is hard to ensure that every player will experience one, in the first place. On the other hand, because our brains are so well-adapted to telling stories, the inherent messiness of emergent narratives tends to get curated and to diminish in subsequent retellings.

As usually defined, emergent narratives specifically concern plots that arise from repeated player-game interactions (player-environment, player-NPC, NPC-NPC, etc.), but not from player-player interactions in multiplayer modes. This therefore excludes collaborative story-telling and role-playing of every kind (tabletop, LARP, online, as well as "story games"), even though these feature emergent narratives trivially, because it's their main goal. Also excluded are non-interactive narrative generators, from the 1977 Tale-Spin, to This Very Wiki's Story Generator. Video games designed to facilitate emergent narratives often have following featuresnote :

  • Procedural Individuals. As players, we tend to look for "main characters" in every narrative (although they are technically not required) and to develop an emotional attachment to them. Games with emergent narratives typically use Procedural Generation to create characters that are human(-like) or, at least, uniquely recognizable in a way that allows us to project our emotions onto them. But the less characterization they are front-loaded with, the easier said projection becomes, so making a character just enough of an individual is a fine balancing act.note 
  • Persistence. For a narrative to emerge, both the characters and the game world they inhabit must persist and evolve throughout the game. For characters, this means that they should a) be able to survive for longer than a single deployment, and b) accrue individuating traitsnote  and carry them over from level to level. For the game world at large, this typically requires some kind of Choice-and-Consequence System, unless it is fully simulated.
  • Interlocking Systems. Emergent narrative, just like Emergent Gameplay, cannot occur unless the simulation contains a large number of consistent and interacting subsystems, resulting in a combinatorial explosion of possible game states and thus ensuring that every playthrough is different from the last.
  • Intentionality. The thing that sets games apart from full simulations is the power that the player has to direct them. For the player to develop a sense of responsibility for and co-authorship of the emergent narrative, they must be able to envision their intended narratives and to work towards them with the mechanics they have access to.
  • Uncertainty. Because narrative tension comes from not knowing what happens next, the player's complete control has to be moderated by either plain randomness (of events or outcomes) or artificial intelligence, which allows the characters to pursue their own agendas in opposition to the player (or at to least appear as if they do).

Note that academic game studies further subdivide emergent narratives into "player-driven" and "procedural", with the former consisting only of immediate player actions and the player's interpretation of them; the latter, meanwhile, is comprised of the in-game events that have been built in by the devs but occur at runtime according to procedural logic, rather than to a writer's direction. The distinction is very fluid, however, so this trope basically blends them together. Lastly, there is also an ongoing research field of "computational narratives", where Video Game AI actually tries to parse and to direct in-game events and player actions as a dramatic narrative thread.

Compare Emergent Gameplay, which has similar requirements but concerns the act of play, rather than the act of storytelling (most Immersive Sims, for instance, feature a lot of emergent gameplay, but have embedded, if branching narratives). Contrast Story Branching; see also Sliding Scale of Gameplay and Story Integration and other Interactive Storytelling Tropes.


Examples (no Troper Tales, please!):

    open/close all folders 

    Action Game 
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor features the Nemesis System, which dynamically populates and shuffles the enemy orc social hierarchy based on Talion's actions. Each orc is procedurally generated with random personality and appearance traits, remembers and references previous encounters with Talion (if he survive them), and gains further abilities and individuation (like nicknames) as he climbs the ladder, especially if he manages to kill Talion. Later in the game, Talion learns to brainwash orcs and then subtly orchestrate their rise to power from the shadows, producing highly memorable From Nobody to Nightmare narratives.

    Roguelike 
  • FTL: Faster Than Light's story follows you, a starship captain, with valuable information for your allies who are on the losing side of a rebellion, while the Rebels pursue you. During your journey, you accumulate currency, crew, equipment, and ship upgrades from various "beacons", or waypoints. Sectors are randomly generated, and what occurs at each beacon is usually a Random Event. Each event and even an empty beacon will describe some occurrence, the outcome of which you usually have a hand in. Seen all together, the events form a narrative of how you went from a basic ship and skeleton crew to ready-to-face-the-Rebel-flagship. (Or how you failed to.) Your journey can go one way in one playthrough and be significantly different in the next. The only story elements that definitely occur are those at the very beginning and at the very end (assuming you make it that far).

    Simulation Game 
  • The Sims runs on this: the player is able to create characters (with appearances and personalities which are determined differently depending on the game), and then design a house, and everything from then on is up to them. They could try and make their sims rich and successful by doing the 'right' things and advancing in their careers, could set up a number of families and play out a soap opera situation, or could just try and kill them in various imaginative ways - the player themselves creates the story.

    Strategy Game 
  • Both Crusader Kings games simulate hundreds of artificially intelligent characters (mostly nobles and royals) across many generations, with heirs being procedurally generated based on which dynastic marriages occurred, with or without the player's intervention. They also simulate a vast number of environment factors, from geography to religion, ensuring that every playthrough has literal centuries of fresh dynastic drama.
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown is unusual in that its procedurally generated individuals (your alien-busting squad) are not artificially intelligent. However, they are just individuated enough (through appearance, names, nationalities, and, eventually, classes, call signs, and Psychic Powers) and their battles are sufficiently random that most players become emotionally invested in their advancement and survival, and have at least one story to tell about that one soldier who survived against all odds again and again to save the day in the final mission.
  • Rebuild uses random character generation and little bits of characterization (survivors give feedback one what they found, congratulate each other on getting better at scouting/killing/leading/etc.) to make it that much harder when one of them dies.

Will go under Interactive Storytelling Tropes.

Feedback: 14 replies

May 12th 2018 at 7:24:19 AM

This happens when there is no preplaned story. Ala VideoGame.Minecraft, VideoGame.Terraria.

VideoGame.Crusader Kings and others seem to have bits of story already, with the set up of being a preexisting ruler. Terraria and Minecraft have no explanation for why you're there.

May 12th 2018 at 7:48:32 AM

  • Rebuild uses random character generation and little bits of characterization (survivors give feedback one what they found, congratulate each other on getting better at scouting/killing/leading/etc.) to make it that much harder when one of them dies.
  • Twitch Plays Pokemon: The story in the original game is still present in NPC conversations, but the actual narrative is constructed by fans interpreting moves and mechanics (the PC is possessed by a mob of spirits all giving him contradictory directions, he pulls out the Helix Fossil all the time because he worships it as a god, etc.), with further playthroughs built on the previously established mythos.

May 12th 2018 at 10:04:59 AM

^^CK can start with a predefined ruler (don't know about the first game, but the second one has a Ruler Designer DLC), but history inevitably takes off and does its own thing the moment you unpause. (To paraphrase something I said on the Paradox forum once, there was no "fate" that Charlemagne would become the first Holy Roman Emperor, he could've just been some random king who broke his neck falling down the stairs one fine morning.)

I would disagree with these being restricted to single-player games, though: CK itself is multiplayer-enabled, as are the other games in its series.

May 12th 2018 at 1:22:54 PM

^ - It has its own narrative though, it explicitly says: "This guy broke his neck", "this guy commited adultery". There's story beyond what you do.

In Minecraft and Terraria, IIRC, there is no plot, no story, beyond what you make up?

Or is this one of the the rare sliding scale tropes??

May 12th 2018 at 2:22:04 PM

^Yeah, but there's no predefined narrative, is my point, it's mostly carried out by random events, especially in CK2 (the first game is more scripted). I brought up Charlemagne for a reason: as an NPC or a PC Karl of West Francia gets scripted events to try to become Holy Roman Emperor as he did historically, but he really sucks at it: without player intervention he frequently dies before he can pull it off. Ditto William the Conqueror: there's an achievement for beating him to the punch as either Harald Hardrada of Norway or Svend II Estridsen of Denmark, and it's also entirely possible to defeat William as Harold. CK is also well-known for After Action Reports about various playthroughs.

Basically this trope describes a Wide Open Sandbox game with at most a bare minimum of campaign-style scripting.

May 14th 2018 at 5:26:35 AM

@Malady: Yes, having little pre-scripted plot is necessary, but not sufficient for emergent narratives to occur. Case in point: Chess has no predefined plot, but very few players project emotional narratives onto their chess games. Also, you'll have to give me full example write-ups on Minecraft and Terraria before I can add them...

@Chabal 2: TPP is a tricky case for me, because so many in-game events (like pulling out the Helix Fossil) are triggered not by the game's simulation, but by other players, who, on the whole, act more like a randomness generator than a storyteller. If I were writing a scientific article, I would be fascinated to examine it further, but since I am working on a definition of the most common usage of the established term here, I fear including this example will not make it clearer...

@Star Sword: To clarify, having a multiplayer mode does not prevent a game from facilitating emergent narratives. Technically, all player-driven narratives can be considered emergent, but in multiplayer games, those based on player-player interactions (as opposed to player-game, e.g. player-NPC or NPC-NPC) usually aren't. I will reword the paragraph to make it clearer...

@Malady: I wouldn't want to incur the wrath of the mods by calling it a sliding scale. While there is definitely a continuum between wholly embedded and wholly emergent narratives in games, I would, at first, prefer for this entry to focus on the emergent end, covering different levels of emergence under the Tropes Are Flexible rule.

@Star Sword: I think that "a Wide Open Sandbox with minimum embedded narrative" is putting the carriage before the horse. Those are requirements for emergent narratives to occur, but this trope is about "games with emergent narratives", not "games with open worlds, sandbox mechanics, and little embedded plot".

May 14th 2018 at 1:26:34 PM

So, Emergent Narrative is how a player reacts, and therefore, YMMV, maybe?

May 14th 2018 at 2:39:41 PM

^^"To clarify, having a multiplayer mode does not prevent a game from facilitating emergent narratives. Technically, all player-driven narratives can be considered emergent, but in multiplayer games, those based on player-player interactions (as opposed to player-game, e.g. player-NPC or NPC-NPC) usually aren't. I will reword the paragraph to make it clearer..."

Yeah, I'm just saying, CK2 because of its format has an emergent narrative whether you play it multiplayer or not (there's literally thousands of characters in any given game at any given time and only landholding characters ranked count and above are playable, so it's impossible to have everyone be a Player Character). I would also extend that example to cover its sister titles.

"I think that "a Wide Open Sandbox with minimum embedded narrative" is putting the carriage before the horse. Those are requirements for emergent narratives to occur, but this trope is about "games with emergent narratives", not "games with open worlds, sandbox mechanics, and little embedded plot"."

It's a rough description at best, I agree.

^I would argue not, because I think it's usually an intentional part of the game design to encourage the player to mentally create their own story.

May 14th 2018 at 11:45:44 PM

@Malady: As Star Sword said, this trope is about games that facilitate emergent narratives by design. An Audience Reaction would be something like Troper Tales about a freak sequence of events that randomly made narrative sense in a game that is otherwise not designed for it. For instance, I have had some funny stories with the procedurally generated Rebels in Half Life 2, but the whole game is clearly not designed with those narratives in mind.

Jun 12th 2018 at 8:25:36 AM

Bump again. I am starting to wonder whether this topic is too academic or even esoteric to gain traction as a trope. :(

Feb 5th 2019 at 10:26:37 AM

This concept is definitely present in enough games to populate a trope list, but I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this so I don't want to add examples. I've played FTL Faster Than Light and Terraria, so can I give a small summary of each?

FTL: Faster Than Light's story follows you, a starship captain, with valuable information for your allies who are on the losing side of a rebellion, while the Rebels pursue you. During your journey, you accumulate currency, crew, equipment, and ship upgrades from various "beacons", or waypoints. Sectors are randomly generated, and what occurs at each beacon is usually a Random Event. Each event and even an empty beacon will describe some occurrence, the outcome of which you usually have a hand in. Seen all together, the events form a narrative of how you went from a basic ship and skeleton crew to ready-to-face-the-Rebel-flagship. (Or how you failed to.) Your journey can go one way in one playthrough and be significantly different in the next. The only story elements that definitely occur are those at the very beginning and at the very end (assuming you make it that far).

Compared to FTL, Terraria's plot is looser ... ? It's a sandbox game featuring crafting and building, though one where you have to explore and fight enemies to get all available gear and materials. Certain events and bosses have to be encountered and defeated in a specific order. You permanently change the world by killing the Wall of Flesh. Killing the final boss rewards end-game loot. However, all of these events are much less plot points than Event Flags for advancing. Every boss can be fought more than once. The aforementioned Wall of Flesh is the closest narrative thing I can think of, but that also can be fought any number of times. Perhaps the real narrative is that the player character goes From Nobody To Nightmare? Unlike FTL, at any point of the game, you can ignore the "plot" and just build your massive skyscraper or roller coaster or what-have-you.

Feb 5th 2019 at 3:06:21 PM

No, I think this is an interesting and important trope. I'll think of some more examples after this because I really enjoy playing games this way:

  • The Sims runs on this: the player is able to create characters (with appearances and personalities which are determined differently depending on the game), and then design a house, and everything from then on is up to them. They could try and make their sims rich and successful by doing the 'right' things and advancing in their careers, could set up a number of families and play out a soap opera situation, or could just try and kill them in various imaginative ways - the player themselves creates the story.

One thing that hits me is that a lot of games can be played this way without it being a main function? Like, I've had some Pokemon games where I really thought about the personalities of my mons and how they'd interact, and that impacted on the gameplay - it felt really satisfying when my long-term friend, a Dunsparce which wasn't nearly so powerful by endgame anymore, made the final blow on the Champion's last Pokemon with Return (a move that raises in power the more a Pokemon is happy). This is also a major feature of Nuzlocke runs, where any Pokemon who faints is deemed to have died, so the bones between pokemon and trainer tend to be a major component. I don't know whether Pokemon would typically be thought to come under this, though? I might be wrong though - not super sure of the limits of this trope atm.

Feb 6th 2019 at 2:27:59 AM

@Tabs: Thank you. Based on you descriptions, I'd say that FTL definitely fits, while Terraria is more like what Clock Stopping has described with Pokemon: a general sandbox that allows for emergent narrative play, but does not explicitly support it.

@ClockStopping: You raise a valid point about many games allowing for emergent narrative. I, for instance, have felt a profound attachment to the randomly generated NPC companions in Half Life 2's "Follow the Freeman" level. As I mention in my write-up, we humans tend to narrativize everything we experience, since narratives is how we make sense of the world. I do feel, however, that there is a difference — or rather, a spectrum — between allowing for emergent narrative and deliberately supporting it.

Top