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Guide to Games That Emphasize Emergent Narrative

Emergent Narrative

What is Emergent Gameplay?

"Emergent story is the story that is generated during play by the interaction of game mechanics and players." 1

The interactive nature of games coupled with a player’s imagination means that all games can produce an emergent narrative to some extent. However, some games are developed with a great emphasis on evoking emergent narratives. In such cases, the story is not explicitly created by the game developer but derives from the player’s interaction with the game systems/mechanics.

Game developers use procedural generation, simulation, artificial intelligence, and randomness. Typically, they provide the setting, story bits, and game mechanics from which a new story experience can occur.

Player’s playing produces new emergent narratives with each new play-through.

1 Tynan Sylvester, Designing Games (Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2013), p90.

What are the Benefits of Games That Emphasize Emergent Narrative?

The most obvious benefits of games that facilitate emergent narrative are the following:

  • New stories can emerge with each game
  • High replay-ability
  • A sense of wonder, adventure, and playfulness
  • The emergent narrative is a personal experience 2
  • The experience is authentic 2

2 Jason Grinblat, "Emergent Narratives and Story Volumes," in Procedural Generation in Game Design, ed. Tanja X. Short and Tarn Adams (Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, CRC Press, 2017) p201.

Features to Look For

How can you know if a game facilitates emergent gameplay?

How can you know if it will be a story-generator?

How can you know if the game will do things the developer could not have predicted?

I’ve put together the following list of features to look for. No game will have them all (I don’t think) but the more features a game checks off the better, if well-implemented.

NOTE: Although I chose the categories below, the reality is that the categories tend to overlap considerably.

Procedural Content Generation (PCG)

  • Procedurally-generated world map
  • Procedurally-generated world history
  • Procedurally-generated non-player characters (NPCs) and creatures
  • Procedurally-generated points-of-interest
  • Procedurally generated quests and dialog text
  • Procedurally-generated game art assets
  • Procedurally-generated music

Artificial Intelligence

  • Game entities with statistics, skills, personalities, and preferences
  • Game entities remember things
  • Game entities act intelligently according to the time of day and environment
  • Game entities interact with each other whether your character is present or not
  • An AI storyteller to modify the world as you play

Simulation

  • Simulated physics, geology, and weather
  • Simulated body parts of game entities
  • Simulated psychology of game entities
  • Simulation of significant game-world or real-world historical events

Randomness

  • Dice rolls
  • Drawing of cards
  • Randomly created world map and/or world history
  • A random assortment of game entities in dungeons, towns, or places-of-interest

Player Agency

  • The player can create new things in the world
  • The player can modify game features and environment
  • The player can influence or coerce NPCs
  • Realistic trade and marketplace economy

Open-ended Gameplay

  • The quests can be completed in multiple ways
  • The world is an open "sandbox" to explore

The Best Games For Emergent Narrative

The following is a list of games that excel at generating new stories every time you play.

I’ll cover some titles in detail and then provide a list of other games after.

Regarding the Games That Follow

There is no emergent games genre, as such. Rather, the games in this list are of different genres.

This list is created by me and is therefore inherently subjective. The list is limited to games that I am aware of, and from genres that I prefer.

This list is limited to video games; it does not cover tabletop games (e.g., board games, miniatures, role-playing) of any sort. Some tabletop games excel at producing emergent narrative, but for the purpose of brevity I chose not to include them.

Dwarf Fortress

Early screenshot of Steam version of Dwarf Fortress
Early Screenshot of the Steam Version of Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is the epitome of a game that fosters emergent narrative. The simulation of physical properties like water, alcohol, lava, and body parts make the world realistic and ready for the ramifications of cause and effect. The artificial intelligence of the dwarfs and other races and creatures that populate the procedurally-generated world produce small, curious stories and resonant, overarching sagas.

The joy of playing Dwarf Fortress derives from directing the dwarfs to build a fortress of your own design and the continuous wonder of watching what happens in your dwarven colony.

Dwarfs get bored, drink plum wine, and write poems; defend the fortress from a giant gila monster, build sculptures depicting fortress lore, and become moody and go crazy. You watch them, follow their movements, and laugh out loud when you realize what they’ve done due to the pinball-bouncing of game entities.

See the Feature page at Bay 12 Games to read the full list of features. Even if you are familiar with Dwarf Fortress, you’ll be awestruck at some point as you scan the bulleted list.

To learn more about Dwarf Fortress, read the article, Crafting a Masterwork: An Introduction to Dwarf Fortress, which contains the following:

  • Further explanation of why Dwarf Fortress is so special
  • A brief description of what it’s like to play Dwarf Fortress
  • Links to Dwarf Fortress stories
  • Resources for how to get started playing Dwarf Fortress, as it does have a bit of a learning-curve

Recommended Reading:

Where Do Dwarf-Eating Carp Come From?

Dwarf Fortress: ten hours with the most inscrutable game of all time

If you enjoy playing Dwarf Fortress, consider donating to the Bay 12 Games Patreon. Continued development for Dwarf Fortress is player supported.

Genre: Colony Simulator

Developer: Bay 12 Games

Publisher: Kitfox Games

Release State: alpha

Release Date: time is subjective

Current Price: Free at Bay 12 Games

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

Rimworld

Colonists sleeping at the end of a day of mining
Colonists Sleeping at the End of a Day of Mining

In Rimworld, you direct a few survivors of a crash landing on an alien planet. The planet is procedural generated and the player selects the starting (i.e., crash) location. The planet is populated with creatures like muffalo, thrumbo, alpaca, grizzly bears, and snakes. There are also raiders, which colonists can capture and eventually introduce into the colony.

The fun of playing Rimworld is designing the colony buildings and gardens and managing the colonists so that they survive. Colonists have their own skills and moods, and they interact with each other. You need to keep them happy and busy doing the tasks they are best suited for.

One of the features that sets Rimworld apart is a storyteller AI, which the player chooses at startup. The storyteller AI orchestrates the type of game you want to play. Do you want everything extremely random, or do you want a mellow game to focus on colony building? There are several options and sub-options, along with mods with additional storytellers.

Recommended Reading:

Rimworld’s procedural stories have me hooked

Wot I Think - RimWorld: Royalty

Genre: Colony Simulator

Developer: Ludeon Studios

Publisher: Ludeon Studios

Release State: released

Release Date: 17 October 2018

Current Price: $34.99 on Humble Bundle

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

KeeperRL

KeeperRL gameplay triptych
KeeperRL Gameplay Triptych

KeeperRL is an evil wizard simulator with roguelike elements. You build your own dungeon and fill it with minions and traps and lay waste to visiting heroes. You can also take control of minions and fight in a tactical, turn-based mode.

KeeperRL is a simpler version of Dwarf Fortress in some ways, with less simulation and a much easier learning curve. There is dungeon management and many creatures to contend with. KeeperRL has spell research and minion morale.

Recommended Reading: KeeperRL Alpha 30: Gnomes, Biomes, and Hell

Genre: Colony Simulator, RPG, Roguelike

Developer: Electric Succubi

Publisher: Electric Succubi

Release State: released

Release Date: 31 March 2015

Current Price: $14.99 on Steam, itch.io

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

An example of CDDA with tiles
CDDA with Tiles

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is an open-source, turn-based survival game set in a post-apocalyptic world. Technically, it’s very much a roguelike/RPG with a heavy emphasis on simulation. If you’re a fan of games set in post-apocalyptic settings with zombies and creatures made strange from radiation, this is a great option.

The game procedurally generates a new world each time you start, though always in an urban New England, US setting. Each game is quite random, which can vary based on what clothes you are wearing, what supplies are available nearby, and the number of zombies at your door.

You can build things in the game too. Collect parts from burned-out cars and build a working car you can drive. Put a bicycle and a wagon together so that you can scout out new areas quicker and drag back more supplies.

Official Site

Recommended Reading:

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead: A roguelike you could play for the rest of your life

If you enjoy playing Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, consider donating to the project’s Patreon.

Genre: Survival, Roguelike

Developer: community developed

Publisher: n/a

Release State: stable, O.E-2

Release Date: 26 February 2013

Current Price: free

Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS, Android

Caves of Qud

Nearing the creatures of Red Rocks in Caves of Qud
Nearing the Baboons of Red Rock

Caves of Qud is a science fantasy roguelike/RPG from Freehold Games. If you are unfamiliar with Caves of Qud, you should know that, among roguelikes, it’s a glowing gem that undulates with ever greater power with every update. Freehold Games describes the game on their Press page as follows:

Caves of Qud is a project of epic proportions that began in 2007 and launched on Steam Early Access in 2015. We wanted to weave a rich, exotic, and well-researched culture around deeply simulated physical and political systems. The result is an open-world roguelike where the gameplay is unpredictable, the plants are sentient, and the development is ongoing.

What makes Caves of Qud stand out is not just the other-worldly setting and the characters with diverse body morphologies you can create and play, it’s the procedurally-generated world history and mythic biographies for historical figures. This means that every game has different places to explore and people to learn about and meet.

Official Site

Recommended Reading:

Subverting Historical Cause & Effect: Generation of Mythic Biographies in Caves of Qud

Caves of Qud Adventure: The Horror at Red Rock

Genre: RPG, Roguelike

Developer: Freehold Games

Publisher: Freehold Games

Release State: beta

Release Date: 15 July 2015

Current Price: $14.99 on GOG, itch,io, Steam

Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac

Nethack

An example of a Nethack screen
Image from The CRPG Addict (source)

In NetHack, you retrieve the Amulet of Yendor from the procedurally-generated Mazes of Menace. Nethack is one of the classic roguelikes. It’s one of the roguelikes that defines a roguelike. It is deep, difficult, and has everything, including the kitchen sink.

One of the criticisms against Nethack is that it is quite random and unfair at times. You can play enough to gain enough meta knowledge to mitigate the difficulty spikes and surprises but the flyswatter of random events can still crush you dead. On the other hand, the sheer randomness does make each run different.

One of the features of Nethack that I think sets it apart is that objects have verbs. Anything you pull out of your backpack has a verb/action attached to it. You choose what you want to do with that object, which can lead to--strange, hilarious, deadly, surreal, and fortuitous--emergent gameplay outcomes.

Recommended Reading:

Nethack: The Greatest Game You Will Ever Play

@Play: Thou Art Early, But We'll Admit Thee

The best game ever

Nethack:

Genre: Roguelike

Developer: community

Publisher: n/a

Release State: released, v3.6.6

Release Date: July 1987

Current Price: free

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

Crusader Kings 3

Count Areindama of Pegu in Crusader Kings 3
Count Areindama of Pegu in Crusader Kings 3

Crusader Kings 3 is the most popular of the Paradox Interactive grand strategy games. That popularity is likely due to the historical, medieval time period it depicts, and the RPG-nature of playing a ruler.

Crusader Kings 3 simulates the interactions of rulers, courts, and countries, involving court intrigue, relationships, religions, and warfare. Each game, you start at a point in time, with the world matching what we know from that time period. As soon as you start playing and the clock moves forward, your actions and the interplay of simulated entities produce an alternative history.

Crusader Kings is an excellent story-generator. If you are a history buff and you find the medieval period interesting, Crusader Kings is a great choice.

Recommended Reading:

Crusader Kings Dev Diaries

Crusader Kings 3 Review: Medieval Roleplay Refined

Genre: Grand Strategy

Developer: Paradox Development Studio

Publisher: Paradox Interactive

Release State: released

Release Date: 1 September 2020

Current Price: $49.99 at Humble Bundle

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

Other Games

Improvisational, Player-Made Emergent Gameplay

Eve Online

Minecraft

Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

Roguelikes

ADOM

Brogue

Cogmind

Jupiter Hell

Tales of Maj’Eyal (TOME)

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (Crawl)

Angband

The Ground Gives Way

Unreal World

Zorbus

Strategy

Distant Worlds: Universe

Shadow Empire

Stellaris

RPGs

Divinity Original Sin 1 & 2

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Thief: The Dark Project

Ultima VII

Ultima Underworld: Stygian Abyss

Games to Keep an Eye Out For

Alliance of the Sacred Suns

Archmage Rises

Ashes of Creation

Distant Worlds 2

King Under the Mountain

Space Haven

Star Dynasties

Ultima Ratio Regum

+ more all the time...

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Ernest Scribner
Ernest Scribner

Practitioner of games. Caster of words. Shares game wisdom, stories, and shenanigans with fellow adventurers.

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