Sorry for the provocative title but after my last theory heavy article a friend suggested I read up on Jesper Juul’s ideas about games of emergence and games of progression. Juul defines games of emergence as games that contain a small amount of rules that give the player a lot of freedom to create emergent strategies and games of progression as ones where the player must complete predefined actions to win the game. This is sort of a better and more clear way of saying linear and non-linear.
This is all fine by me but I think where he and I part ways is when he starts evangelising about the evils of storytelling.
Progression is the historically newer structure that entered the computer game through the adventure genre…Since the designer controls the sequence of events, this is also where we find the games with cinematic or storytelling ambitions.
I have a couple of questions.
Is Army of Two a strictly authored sequence of set pieces because…
a.) The designers thought that their story was so important allowing any player choice in how it unfolds would damage the integrity of the work.
b.) The designers thought it would be a better game that way.
Is Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines known for it’s non-linear player driven experience because…
a.) The combat was so emergent.
b.) The game’s writing, it’s fiction, it’s gorram narrative takes into account the player’s choices and reacts accordingly.
Here’s what I think, historically games with a heavy story focus have tended towards the games of progression model at a very small scale while breaking away and becoming more open on the larger scale.
Take Ultima VII one of the earliest and most detailed realisations of an open world and it must be stressed a game with huge storytelling ambitions (they hired a professional writer in a time when games never hired writers). The combat, the small scale gameplay is boring as hell, you just click on someone till they die, get loot, get xps and level up. Occasionally you die. Unless you’re playing as a magic user there is basically zero emergent strategy. But as a world Ultima VII is incredibly free-form you can kill anyone you want, rob banks, explore dungeons or just chill at home and bake bread. Compared to say Doom, which has level design that encourages a single optimal pathway, Ultima VII is much more open.
We see this again and again, the more gameplay focused games delivering the more directed experience and the story heavy game delivering the more free form one. Super Mario Bros versus Kings Quest, Diablo versus Fallout. Are there story heavy games with directed experiences and gameplay focused games with open worlds? Of course there are. My point is that the games of progression model doesn’t just apply to story driven games and the games of emergence doesn’t just apply to gameplay driven ones.
To be fair to Juul the article is a few years old and he may have changed his thinking, I still need to catch up on his work. But it’s not just about Juul, this is a fairly common misconception about the way story functions in games, one I hope we can clear up.