Emergent Gameplay, Cosmic Zephyr on sale

Cosmic Zephyr on Sale

My game Cosmic Zephyr is on sale on itch.io for the next week! Help support a starving artist! http://dylanfranks.itch.io/cosmic-zephyr

Procedural Generation

No Man’s Sky, which is still in development, was the show stealer at last year’s E3. It boasts the procedural generation of 18 quintillion possible planets. This may be a pretty staggering number now, but I expect more games will soon become centered around generated variety like this.

I have had a long history of playing with procedural generation, going back to when I first discovered Game Maker in 2004, and the destructible terrain code that floated around on the GMC forums. The idea of a code that unfolds a world with infinite variety has existed with me for a long time.

My interest with emergent gameplay as a way to randomly generate story narratives began in 2012 or so, when I was getting frustrated with linear, story driven games. As much as I love JRPGs, I have mixed feelings about high quality games with little replay value. My attention has drifted more toward open world games along with the rest of the Western gamer culture. Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, Skyrim, these are the games that become popular in Western gaming, because they allow the freedom to explore and take on challenges at your own pace.

Games like these, along with Animal Crossing, The Sims and many open world games like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, have driven my desire to design a complex single player open world game that you can get lost in like any MMORPG.

Deepening Realism

Most games currently run on pre written dialogue – you will eventually read all there is to read in the game. In the future, games will begin to incorporate more advanced code for NPCs like chatbot AI, which can open a whole new world to how games are played. If you deepen NPC interaction to a certain point, characters could be very fluid and changing, self-sustaining their own world without the players input.

Dynamic voice synthesis will bring in innovations of its own. With dynamic voice synthesis, NPCs could have individualized voices to further increase realism. This, combined with chatbot AI, could open up a world of possibilities with artificial character interaction. Until then, we’ll have to settle with reading dialogue off the screen, or listening to voice actors. I really don’t expect dynamic voice synthesis to become common for at least 10 years.

Gestures and emotions could be an alternative to generated dialogue. The Chao Garden in Sonic Adventure 2 is very good example of this, I’ve spent at least 100 hours playing it. The Chao will interact with you differently through stages of life, and express a variety of emotions without any dialogue. They can be very attached, indifferent, or even scared of the player depending on how you treat them.

The only downside is interaction between Chao is limited. They are never actively drawn to one another, unless one Chao is playing music and others join to listen or play. Of course, it is a 15 year old game. Like Animal Crossing villagers, they have few goals outside simply existing.

This prophetic article by David Braben, the co-creator of Exile, was written on New Years Eve 2005, four years before Minecraft would begin building its cult status of freedom and open-endedness.


In the 1920s, films were almost pure spectacle, and that spectacle became ever more extreme to keep the audiences coming back – cars skidded around towns, people dangled and fell from buildings, cars were forever being smashed to pieces on railway crossings.

The stories were light-weight justifications for linking the dramatic moments together. The advent of synchronised speech, the Talkies, didn’t change this right away.

But it opened the door for the golden age of film, where Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd gave way to Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles in the 1930s.

The Holy Grail we are looking for in fifth generation gaming is the ability to have freedom, and to have truly open ended stories.

Games that have even hinted at that freedom in the past like Elite and Grand Theft Auto have been hugely successful. This Holy Grail is what will herald the new era for gaming.

Emergent Gameplay

I believe simulation is the keyword here. No brain or computer can create a perfect model of reality – that is why they are called models. In that sense, everyone’s models of reality are equally true. Even those of a schizophrenic person, or strange computer program. Games like The Sims already prove that emergent narratives can be successful, if they replicate the world we know well enough. The simulation’s model of reality only needs to resemble your mind’s model of reality for your mind to begin filling in the blanks.

Emergent narratives should be considered separate from traditional stories. The latter are planned by authors in the past, while the former are experienced by players in the present.

Emergent experiences from gameplay can not really be compared to pre written stories. This goes back to my initial frustration with linear storytelling in video games – because the story is separate from gameplay, it adds very little replayability. Games are caught in a cycle of gameplay, cutscene, gameplay etc.

Why is replayability so important? Here is the prime issue I have with linear story driven games. When I pick up Silent Hill, Kingdom Hearts, or an old point and click game, I am trapped at that point in the story unless I have other saves. I don’t have the ability to flip through pages, or even fast forward and rewind in a video game. Games are unique in this regard. They should take this into consideration if they want to be the vehicle of serious stories. As much as I love the stories in the aforementioned games, they have little bearing on the gameplay itself. And it’s difficult to enjoy a story through subsequent playthroughs if you don’t like the gameplay.

The question here is whether stories can have an actual impact on gameplay and vice versa, or will they always be mutually exclusive?

additional literature:

Narrative Theory and Emergent Interactive Narrative

Emergent Narrative As A Novel Framework For Massively Collaborative Authoring

An Emergent Framework For Realistic Psychosocial Behaviour In Non Player Characters

AI-Based Game Design: Enabling New Playable Experiences

Scripting Versus Emergence: Issues for Game Developers and Players in Game Environment Design

other links:

The Big List Of Indie Game Development Forums


About Dylan Franks

My name is Dylan Franks, and I'm a game designer and musician. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. View all posts by Dylan Franks

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