This article, which originally appeared on the Black Clock blog in 2011 as part of an ongoing exploration into interactive storytelling, has been revised for publication on Entropy.
It’s practically a truism that video game stories suck. It’s an unavoidable thorn in the flesh of anyone with a serious interest in interactive narrative. Since I first beheld Pitfall Harry’s death at the jaws of a lurking crocodile nigh on 30 years ago, I’ve witnessed a revolution in craft greater in scale than any 30 years of cinema history. In 30 years, cinema progressed from cheap thrills like the Lumière bros’ oncoming train to the likes of Ben Hur and The Lost World. 2013, 30 years after Super Mario Bros. rescued the industry from itself, saw the release of titles like BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, Papers, Please, and a dozen other releases, each of them pushing the limits of the medium in a different direction.
Innovative, yes. But show these games to any film scholar, and I’m absolutely certain of what she’d say: they’re no Ben Hur. The late Roger Ebert, who based his career on a relativistic view of film and genre–as explained in his 3-star review of Shaolin Soccer–could never extend this objective gaze beyond his medium of choice, carrying to his grave the absolute certainty that video games could never, ever be classified as “art.”
Video game stories suck. Yet people invest hundreds of hours of their lives, long after any apparent storytelling has concluded, on what amounts to an endless epilogue of monster-slaying and skill-point distribution. There is an emergent narrative, in double-jumps and eruptions of viscera, that gamers find so thrilling they’re more than happy to ignore the inadequacies of the scripted tale. The stauncher of the anti-gaming Luddites express bafflement when grown men, let alone teenage boys, confess to shedding tears over these juvenile melodramas with nary a trace of three-act structure. How could we be so gauche!?
Maybe because we’re asking the wrong questions. Judged against classic film theory or narratological structures, many interactive stories do indeed fall far short. Yet, if they evoke as strong or stronger an emotional/intellectual reaction, is it fair to call them inferior?
I posit that interactive stories, of which video games are a prominent subset, should be judged not by their scripted content, which is often limited. They should be judged by the potential stories they make possible, which are infinite. These potential stories are often invisible to critics because they’re so hard to nail down. They can’t be found in any trailer or script; they are only revealed–more accurately, only exist–during moments of true, invested, 1:1 personal interaction.
Story, Three Ways
Interactive stories are never as simple as they appear because any interactive story is actually three braided narratives unfolding simultaneously. Notice that I said braided, not parallel; while these stories can exert little tugs of influence on one another, they’re never quite in sync, neither fully separate nor fully interdependent.
The first, which I’m calling “lore,” encompasses all forms of traditional storytelling present in a work. When Roger Ebert is played footage from a video game at an art installation, he is likely only to witness its lore. “Cutscenes” or short cinematics are lore. Text from the game manual is lore. The visual design of the characters, the sound collage of the world, and the music score are all lore. Lore is an appropriated term; in gaming culture, it’s more often used to refer to the background elements of the story, either hidden, optional snippets of narrative like the 820 readable “books” in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or bits of backstory that can only be found outside of the game like Birdo’s gender dysmorphia. I’ve chosen to expand the definition by the simple logic that the line between plot and lore can get awfully blurry to begin with–What do you call a hidden cutscene that only plays when you’ve collected all 120 stars?–and they serve an identical purpose in relation to the other two levels of narrative.
Potential narrative can be thought of in terms of gamebooks or Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The moment the player is given a choice, a potential narrative emerges. The more plentiful the choices, the more complex and nuanced the potential narrative(s). The important distinction between potential and traditional narrative is the notion of recombination. Potential narratives are often nothing more than a tapestry of lore elements stitched together by player choice. The Stanley Parable is highly potential. Another key component of potential narratives is that they must be, on some level, planned, envisioned by the game’s designers and set out for the player to discover.
Emergent narrative is what occurs when your complex of choices and reactions becomes so complex that not even the designer knows what is going to come out. With the exception of visual novels, all video games are emergent on some level, but the gap between more scripted offerings like Stanley and sandbox-style games like No Man’s Sky is as wide as the latter’s infinite universe. Roguelikes, sims, and Grand Theft Auto (which spawned its own genre) tend to be highly emergent.
The construction of a video game itself provides an appropriate analog to these three levels of narrative. The vast majority of a video game disc contains its various assets: textures, sound effects, musics, and voice acting. These bits and pieces are not only like the narrative level of lore; for all intents and purposes, they are the lore. The rest of the game is code, a massive amount of functions, loops and if-then statements. The high-level description of these functions, how they might be represented in the design stage of the program–“The function mario_jump() describes the arc of Mario’s jump and, if he is big, tells collision detection to break bricks he smacks with his noggin–this is essentially a microcosm of potential narrative. But somewhere down the line, this entire process is translated into machine language, binary digits, 1’s and 0’s, and this level of opacity and granular complexity is where emergence happens. In many ways, glitches are the quintessential emergent narrative, from Pokémon‘s MissingNo to Red Dead Redemption‘s manimal menagerie.
To illustrate these concepts further, I’m going to talk about a game I’ve never played.
A Classic In The Making
I’ve never played Minecraft.
Which isn’t the same as saying I don’t understand it. In the years since this article’s original publication, Minecraft‘s popularity has never faltered, particularly with the younger crowd. It’s not unusual to hear confused outcries on Mommy blogs, as kids in the preteen/tween range appear to have latched onto the IP with the same fervor my generation devoted (and still does) to Pokémon. When a child really cares about something, no matter how arcane, it’s hard to get them to shut up about it, and video games are nothing if not arcane. There’s at least one specialist Mommy blog, Mine Mum, devoted entirely to the game.
I get it. Minecraft is a universal language, not unlike Tetris–or, to use an analogy Ebert might understand, Star Wars. If you’re moderately fluent in video games and are still clueless, it’s possible you’ve spent the past six years researching flightless birds at a remote base in Antarctica, dwelling at the bottom of the ocean, or pinned under rubble. Not perfect cubes of rubble, though, because if you had, you would have been playing Minecraft.
Developed by Markus Persson a.k.a. “Notch,” Minecraft is a freeform saga of creation and destruction built in Java. It began in May 2009 as what is now known as Minecraft “Classic,” or “Creative mode.” Classic resembles nothing so much as a horizonless shoebox filled to the brim with digital LEGO. Providing players with randomly generated terrain and graphically simple cubes of various design, Notch tasked them with building, collectively or alone, anything they could imagine. Experiencing this virtual architectural Toyland from the first-person perspective of a nameless fellow about three cubes tall (the default avatar has since been dubbed Steve), the players could stack limitless quantities of the block of their choice vertically or horizontally, as well as destroy any blocks currently in existence, with the click of a mouse button.
If there’s anything to be learned from Minecraft Classic, it’s that human beings can imagine a great many things, and, like chimpanzees with a typewriter, given enough time and resources, they will build them all.
It was an unmitigated success, and within a month, Notch was accepting preorders for the final version of the game. By January 10, 2011, over 1,000,000 copies had been sold. Lest we forget, this is something that was developed by one person over the span of two years, and it was still very much a work in progress–conceptually, it still is, given its blank canvas conceit. Minecraft 1.0 finally delivered in November 2011, but by that point, it had already joined the ranks of Second Life and World of Warcraft as a true phenomenon of interactive design. After selling his company, Mojang, to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, Notch now resides in a Beverly Hills mansion, a J.K. Rowling-esque success story.
While the range and complexity of sculptures produced in Classic are true testimonies to humanity’s unswerving drive to build stuff–especially keeping in mind that these full-scale reproductions or cloud-capped monuments to whimsy were put together block by pixellated block–the original Minecraft was too blatantly and open-endedly an electronic toy-set to be considered a storytelling platform. There was no goal, except to build, and no conflict beyond the internal conflicts all creators face. The most exciting narrative that could arise went something like: build a beautiful structure, make it public, have it destroyed or vandalized by somebody with malicious intent (known as griefing). Some might call this the quintessential structure of a tragedy, but it was too repetitive, and too vague, to carry any emotional oomph.
All that changed when Notch introduced “Survival mode.” In Survival mode, things function in largely the same manner but for two all-important distinctions. One, building blocks are no longer free or limitless; the player must now collect and craft every resource by hand. Two, the procedurally generated worlds are no longer uninhabited; they now contain “mobs” of sheep, cows and chicken, which yield resources as important as leather and feathers, as well as more dangerous creatures that inhabit the world’s dark spaces to emerge at night, homing in on the player with eerie precision.
Suddenly, Minecraft wasn’t about devoting weeks to building a scale model of the Tower of Babel. It was about scrambling in the daylight hours to fashion some form of shelter just to survive the night. It was about venturing into caves infested with hostile creatures in the hopes of discovering valuable ore. It was about survival in a way that camping in the woods doesn’t begin to approximate. And it was about making something out of that inkblot of a cubist world, something revelatory and meaningful.
Suddenly, Minecraft became a wellspring of potential narratives. Which is precisely why I never had to play it.
I let other people play it for me. And it became an addiction.
Luckily, people seem more than happy to make their struggles and victories public. Series of “Let’s Play” videos on video sharing sites such as Youtube (and newer, dedicated streaming platforms like Twitch.tv and Hitbox) provide narratives at least as engaging as the highest-budget television serials. If you don’t believe me, you can start your adventure here, here, or try you luck with the dozens of other LP series compiled at the Minecraft “Let’s Play” Directory.
It can be difficult to explain the draw of these videos to somebody uninitiated in the infinite drama Notch has incepted. The prospect of passively watching other people play video games seems counter-intuitive, along the lines of watching other people eat, particularly after my declamation about invested personal interaction in the introduction.
The pivot-point here is those three braided narratives I mentioned above. I’m going to touch on all three in greater detail in a minute, so you can keep your wig on. For now, let me just say that Minecraft Survival is deeply emergent. So emergent, in fact, that I couldn’t hope to navigate the subterrene sprawl of its various narratives in twenty lifetimes under my own steam. Emergent narratives derive from the back-and-forth between the simple, flexible, but elegant processes that drive the game and the distinct subconscious signatures of the players jacked into that world. As a player, I would soon fall into a rhythm in the way I react to the way Minecraft reacts to my reactions.
This is only human nature, though it affects some more than others–the same reason why sandbox games like GTA have never been able to hold my attention for long, why I spent two hours last night attempting minor variations on the same infiltration route into an enemy compound in Metal Gear Solid V when there were dozens of other points of ingress at my disposal. Playing Minecraft my way, my narratives would begin to homogenize, and the narratives of others would soon become a part of that homogenization, victims of narrative projection and overfamiliarity. It’s therefore more rewarding for me, more fascinating, to watch others trying to cope with survival. I witness narratives sprouting up out of the darkness that I would never have seen on my own.
Minecraft has become a door via which the inner minds of its players are made visible, the cherry-red door to Mario’s SubCon. With each step into the unexplored caves, players are venturing deeper toward the basal planes of their own psyches. Watching LP’ers or streamers play Minecraft Survival is like watching them build a toy-block window into their most intimate recesses. It’s like people-watching with x-ray goggles. It’s like a number of other analogies with perverted connotations.
It’s what makes Minecraft so appealing to not play.
I have expressed some of why I find the experience of watching other people play Minecraft rewarding. It speaks to my views on what makes all interactive storytelling rewarding. I’ve described the symptom in enough detail, at this point, that it’s probably time to look at the cause, to begin to unpack the three narrative types I mentioned earlier and to figure out the chemical composition of Notch’s digital distillation of the inner life.
I’ll begin with the most familiar, the one most people refer to simply as “narrative.” When anybody besmirches the video game “story,” it’s to lore that they refer. Even those who share my enthusiasm about the interactive form have a tendency to bracket off the “story,” treating it as somehow separate from the aspects of the experience with which they pretend to concern themselves. There are those who claim that From Software’s Souls series has no story (they’d have an awfully hard time responding to my massive, ongoing compilation of Demon’s Souls lore on this site).
This instinct has been reinforced from games’ earliest moments, when technical limitations forced the overt narrative into non-interactive cutscenes or pages from the manual. It’s still disturbingly common to find story used as a form of punctuation, plot-progressing cinematics following like clockwork after each boss battle. The prevalent model of games criticism has further reinforced this stereotype, eschewing holistic evaluation in favor of an arbitrary parts list: Gameplay, Graphics, Story and Sound, each scored in a sanitary vacuum. In reality, because the lines of distinction between these three narrative forms become nebulous in good interactive design, their distinct characteristics and interplay are often rendered invisible: it’s often difficult to tell where traditional notions of “story” end and where the rest of the experience begins. Games like Ecco the Dolphin and Another World, big innovators in the integration of story with gameplay, were few and far between until relatively recently.
Lore may be the most apparent form of storytelling available to a video game creator, but that doesn’t make it any more or less important, hence the choice of terminology (“lore” may be fraught, but significantly less so than “story”). Lore is too often associated with fluff, atmosphere or backstory. The recent (as of this article’s original publication) Bioware title Dragon Age: Origins, for example, carries a rich vein of lore in its virtual codex, a hypertextual compendium of terms, figures, history and beliefs of the high fantasy realm in which it is situated. Demon’s Souls uses a more minimalistic approach, employing minimal but effective dialogue, abandoned architecture, one-sentence item descriptions, and the telling placement of characters, objects, creatures and corpses to characterize its setting. Any gamer would recognize both titles as lore-heavy, but most would also characterize Dragon Age‘s hours of spoken dialogue and epic, character-focused plot as a separate kind of “story,” one that Demon’s Souls lacks. I’m divvying things up differently: when the story responds to player input, it’s potential narrative, and everything else is lore.
Minecraft’s lore is diverse and plentiful, though more deeply buried than in the previous examples. Lore can be something as simple as knowledge of where and friendly or hostile creatures “mobs” are likely to appear, how they behave, and what sorts of materials they drop when killed, especially when the results are particularly esoteric or unexpected. It’s important to note that the actual mechanics of the AI and whatnot aren’t lore but code. However, the player’s understanding of those mechanics is still a form of narrative. If the player finds or crafts a saddle, for example, it can be used to ride a pig, the default mount of Minecraft‘s world until horses were added in update 1.6.1. That’s lore. The green moss covering the walls, indicating the presence of a dungeons (small randomly-appearing chambers containing treasure chests and mob-spawning mechanisms) is lore. Recipes for refining and crafting items from raw materials are part of the lore. Alternately, lore can be as complex as The Nether: an underworld added in October 2010, accessible only via portals generated when the player constructs a 4X5 archway of pure obsidian blocks. The Nether comes attached with all sorts of delicious and evocative rules and exceptions: any distance traveled in The Nether is multiplied by eight when the player transports back to the world above, clocks and compasses fail to work, and it contains its own unique set of creatures and materials.
Lore, in the specific sense suggested by these examples, can be understood as an effort to suggest a much larger framing narrative fueling and lending interpretation to the player-character’s passage through the interactive world. World-building would be an acceptable alternative term.
I think it would be useful, though, to consider lore more broadly: not simply as the hidden details or worked surface surrounding the narrative, but as every aspect of said narrative that is fixed in place. Lore is an attempt by the game’s author to exert some control over the unfolding narrative. It includes things like the non-interactive cinematic reel that introduces virtually every video game. It includes the ending, or knowledge of potential endings. It includes every line of dialogue, every scripted gesture. By this broader definition, “The princess is in another castle” is as much the lore of the Mushroom Kingdom as are the names and personalities of Bowser’s seven children.
This is more than just a taxonomic whim. Lore, as mentioned above, suggests and interprets the actions of the player-character. Any time the protagonist acts outside the direct control of the interactor, we have to interpret it as the invisible hand of the author giving the story a nudge. We find this presence to operate in much the same whether the nudge comes from the environmental minutiae of the story-world (lore specific) or the forty-five-minute movie that precedes the climactic battle (lore general): both feed, emotionally and narratively, into how the interactor approaches and experiences that fated clash. Even previous experiences of failure or success can be lore, as they alter the interactor’s attitude toward and understanding of the task at hand. People who build a wall between “story” and “gameplay,” or any other two elements of a game’s design, forget the powerful feedback loop that exists between the two, strengthening one another’s emotive impact.
Just as a game’s interactive elements cannibalize from its lore for their emotive and narrative impact, so a game’s story must, on some level, acknowledge every interaction the player provides, regardless of its apparent lack of importance. This is the key to understanding the concept of potential narrative.
The term “potential narrative” is fairly self-explanatory. In traditional narrative media, the author writes us from A to B to C, from the exposition all the way up until the denouement. To utilize a Minecraft-appropriate analogy, writing traditional narrative is like building a rollercoaster: it might be full of surprises, twists and turns, it might speed up and slow down, it might lull you into a comfortable rhythm only to pull the ground out from under you, and it might be intricately constructed and beautiful as hell, but the tracks don’t change. It’s the same story from reading to reading, though the reader’s deepening understanding of the lore might alter the perceived experience.
In a potential narrative, the interplay between lore and player input is much more overt. The author simply lays a groundwork from which conflict and resolution may naturally develop. Again, in Minecraft terms, experiencing a potential narrative is less like riding a rollercoaster and more like traversing a dungeon: you know there will be skeletons, you know there will be traps, and you know there will be treasure, but you’ll encounter and deal with these plot points under your own steam.
Minecraft Survival endeavors to keep its scripted elements as invisible as possible; there’s no introductory reel, no set goal, and originally, no way to win, no end to the story at all except in death. (The narrative has subsequently been expanded; now, advanced players can repair a portal to the End, a parallel dimension similar to the Nether, and slay an Ender Dragon to complete the story proper.) This makes it not the best model for clarifying potential narrative.
A more concrete example can be found in Andrew Plotkin’s Hunter, in Darkness, a work of interactive fiction written in homage to seminal early computer game Hunt the Wumpus. While this suggests a more lighthearted, self-referential nostalgia piece, Hunter, in Darkness subverts these expectations, proceeding with unsettling gravitas. It’s also an experiment in potential narrative, playing with the growing gap in knowledge between the player and player character as a succession of potential narratives reach abrupt and bloody conclusions.
Hunter opens with the lines “Nearly — nearly. The animal stink is rank and close. You raise your crossbow, try to peer beyond dark, wet stone.” This is an immutable element of the story; every potential story proceeds from this node. From there, the player-character may venture forward into the darkness…to be immediately devoured by the lurking beast. Thus ends one potential narrative. In another potential narrative, the player-character investigates a side chamber to the left, where a swarm of bats necessitates a blind dive into a pit. There’s another pit to the right of the starting point: most attempts to descend this will result in protracted but inevitable death, capping their respective potential narratives. The option to fire blindly at the beast, wounding it but allowing it to escape, also exists, but all paths lead eventually to death, or to the bottom of a pit with a wounded hand and blood-hungry bats on your trail.
Ruling out death and failure (which are, rightly, potential narratives of their own), the wounded hand joins the opening as one of the narrative’s anchor elements. These milestones, present in all successful narratives, create the illusion of a unified narrative and are what most people refer to when they talk about the “story” of a video game or other interactive work. But in reality, each experience with an interactive story is its own potential narrative. Actions such as shooting the beast, which may have unforeseen repercussions on the narrative, or making closer investigations of the pit and other elements of the cave system, which simply return chunks of lore or emotional flavor, are far from trivial additions to be judged separately from the fixed “plot.”
To provide some literary context: in 1960, author Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais joined forces to create the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Oulipo, with the goal not of creating works of literature themselves, but of discovering new metaphorical machines for generating works of potential literature. Noted authors as different in aesthetic orientation as Georges Perec and Italo Calvino have employed Oulipian constraints and algorithmic processes to produce literary works that they regard less as books than as models of potential literary processes. What many people fail to consider, however, is that every interactive story, from the most linear shooting game to open-ended playgrounds for self-expression like Minecraft, is its own potential narrative machine. The Oulipian authors would have cautioned you that their algorithms cannot predict or assure the literary quality of the works produced, and the same holds true here.
I’m not interested in Minecraft as a game. If I were, I would have played it by now. No, in my addiction I see it not as a game at all, but as a generator of potential narratives.
Which, it turns out, has only a little bit to do with narrative as we would normally conceive it, as even the Oulipo conceived it. It has everything, on the other hand, to do with emergence.
Emergence arises (ignore the seeming redundancy) when many small interactions governed by a simple set of rules layer into something significantly more complex. Outside of the interactive arts, emergence theory describes such diverse, transcendental phenomena as the formation of snowflakes, the evolution of complex traits, and the behavior of fish in schools. While you could view it as a question of degrees–emergent narrative is one notch up from potential narrative–they’re actually complementary concepts. The simplest distinction is that potential narratives are knowable, but emergence is, by definition, unknowable. The author of a Twine text might boast that there are 1,020 paths through his story, but this metric counts only the potential stories; it doesn’t (cannot) include emergent narratives. Emergence in narrative is an entirely psychic phenomenon and can afflict, without warning, any person attuned to receive it.
It’s important enough to repeat: everything that unfolds within the interactive story, regardless of its apparent significance, contributes to its narrative. That means that, in Minecraft, placing a block in the middle of the field, then immediately reducing it to rubble, must still be recounted in the annals of emergent narrative. It should have no repercussions beyond that moment, but it’s always possible that the single point of wear you added to your pickaxe by breaking that block will cause the tool to snap at a crucial moment, such as when you’re using it to defend yourself against a volatile Creeper. Emergent narratives thrive on this kind of Chekhovian irony. Taking a step forward then back, or standing in one place, likewise contribute: after all, in the absence of other signifiers of character, how are we to tell if Minecraft Steve is decisive or vacillatory, adventurous or lazy? (Video game-themed webcomics like Awkward Zombie derive most of their humor from the dissonance that frequently arises between the emergent characterization of the player avatar and that character’s portrayal in the lore.)
Generally, emergent narratives are most likely to occur when the input from the interactor and the feedback from the interactive story approach a 1:1 ratio. In most potential narratives, the player-character’s actions are predicated on the lore provided by the author. In emergent narratives, the player-character’s actions are built instead from the prior actions of the player-character and the game-system’s reactions to those actions. The best emergent narratives resemble dreams or hallucinations because they arise via the same process.
Japanese game designer Keita Takahashi has spent his career edging closer and closer to true emergence. His breakout game, Katamari Damacy, shows the inception of this interest. Each level in Katamari Damacy is a carefully laid-out field of stuff, a series of lore elements in surrealistic tableaux, but the process of playing the game deconstructs these potential narratives, recycling them as fuel for an emergent struggle of physics and momentum. The player’s job is to roll over objects with her katamari, a sticky ball that will absorb any object with a smaller mass; as you roll over more and more stuff, the katamari grows, and previously inaccessible objects can be collected. Any Katamari player will tell you that this journey from thumbtacks to elephants is the true narrative, and an important element of it is the ungainliness of your katamari as it grows, as trees and flagpoles jut out at odd angles, inhibiting your turns.
Takahashi’s follow-up effort, Noby Noby Boy, collected a smaller following, but it’s an even better example of emergence with its procedural environments and literally elastic controls–the player navigates Boy, a stretchy, colorful worm-thing, by controlling his front and back legs separately. As Boy grows, he becomes harder and harder to control, becoming knotted up with the environment and his own bulk; most of the time, his front and back half aren’t even present on the screen simultaneously. Boy’s actions are completely dependent on the player’s inputs, but he seldom does precisely what the player intended. Presciently, Takahashi integrated the ability to record and share gameplay footage into the game itself, knowing that the game’s true value would emerge in weird, unforeseen, unrepeatable moments.
If potential narrative is like a dungeon full of monsters and treasure, emergent narrative is like Survival mode itself. A dungeon is a construction of lore elements, carefully crafted to lead adventurers down certain narrative paths. Trick floor panels and pitfalls can be installed. Ancient scrolls detailing the terrible, ancient, and prophesied evils that dwell in the deepest locked room can be scattered about, usually next to the key to that very room. Minecraft’s Survival mode, on the other hand, procedurally generates entire worlds, complete with forests, oceans, islands, mountains, and cave systems. Algorithms are put into use to ensure that bits of lava aren’t floating around in midair above an ice floe, but that’s as far as the authorial hand extends. Procedural generation is, as a matter of fact, another form of emergence, a functionally random construction that provides the illusion of intelligent design.
Which means that caves in Minecraft aren’t guaranteed to contain treasure or skeletons, although the chances of the latter are fairly high. They certainly won’t contain ancient scrolls and mysterious keys. They don’t contain, in short, anything remotely resembling a plot. What they do contain is the unknown in its purest form. Every block you uncover in Minecraft is another cubic meter of uncharted wilderness.
Emergence is why the minutiae and tedium of potential narratives–that 1000th skeleton vanquished, those hours spent mining wood from trees–remain vital. Emergent narratives are unpredictable, and can therefore reliably be expected to arise from the least expected moments. In an emergent system, subtle changes, such as those introduced in Survival mode–tool-crafting, circadian cycles, predators and prey–can engender profound, lepidoptero-tempestuous effects.
Video game advertising tends to make a big fuss about the impact of the players’ choices, which themselves tend to reflect banal moral dichotomies: “Will you be a hero? Or a villain? Will you save the world? Or destroy it?” These games inevitably disappoint (see: Lionhead Studios’ Fable) because they fail to react sufficiently to the player’s responses and because the questions aren’t that interesting to begin with.
An emergent narrative, on the other hand, doesn’t ask such questions. It doesn’t offer choices. It simply offers a space in which the player is free to act as he or she sees fit, and while the game’s response may be more understated than potential narratives’ grand passion plays, some form of response. Potential narratives are multiple choice tests. Emergent narratives are Rorschach tests.
Let’s Play Minecraft videos illustrate one of the most exciting benefits of creating emergent or potential narratives: thanks to their provenance, these narratives reveal at least as much, if not more, about the interactor as they do about the author. Of course, this comes with a steep trade-off: the more emergent the narrative is, the more tongue-tied it leaves the author, an issue closely related to the interactive author’s dilemma in Alexander Ocias’s critically acclaimed independent work Loved. (Loved is “an interactive short story” that interrogates the troubled relationship between player and narrative of an interactive work.) Notch isn’t making a statement with Minecraft. He is building an increasingly rich and varied environment in which his players can express themselves, or in which they find themselves expressed, for the emergent narrative is often as much of a surprise to the interactor as it is to the original author.
Simply put, if you have more answers than questions, you’d be a fool to try to express them emergently. It’s no place for political commentary. It is, however, an effective and diverting social experiment, especially when the interactors’ individual narratives can be crystallized in digital recording.
Of course, even in something as unpredictable and open-ended as Minecraft, there’s no guarantee a narrative will emerge, and if it does, its form will be entirely unpredictable. There’s only a small chance that anything meaningful will arise at all; it depends partially on the interactor and partially on divine providence. In short, one does not write an emergent narrative; to do so would go against the very nature of the thing.
Which isn’t the same thing as saying there’s no such thing as an emergent text. As much as video games take advantage of the interactive form, emergent or potential narratives can exist, and even thrive, outside of electronic media. Interactivity is an element of the way a work is conceived and received; it isn’t tied to medium. Go read a poem: symbolism, slippage, sensually supercharged abstraction: these are all fertile ground for emergent meaning. Sure, you aren’t likely to read the novelization of Minecraft any time soon. Any books emergent on the same level as Minecraft would have to…I don’t even know what that would look like, although Planet 13’s How to Host a Dungeon probably comes close. If potential narratives are about choice, emergent narratives require a choice to view the page as something more than a self-contained box of text, as a mere staging ground for an as-yet-unwritten drama. I’m thinking of collaboration, of revision, of adaptation and appropriation.
A good narrative can be very reassuring. There’s an existential anguish in casting about in a wilderness, finding nothing but random patterns and a meaningless wash of your own inputs. Salvatore Pane’s perfectly reasonable criticisms of No Man’s Sky demonstrate this anguish perfectly. It takes a great deal of dedication to press on into that world of darkness and of your own reflections, in the hope that you will discover something of meaning, something beyond solipsism. If the Minecraft novel existed, I don’t know if I could read it. But it would still excite the hell out of me.
As I said above, unpredictable narratives emerge when a simple set of rules yields something more complex. What could be more simple, and more complex, than written language?