Emergent Stories

Comparing the story structures described in An Unfortunate Sequence of Events with Adrian Hon’s six story types – story as reward, story as experience, branching narrative, pseudo AI, sandbox games, dungeon master games – we see that Hon is actually more interested ways of negotiating the role of stories in games in terms of how the players act, react and engage in the development of the story, and the way the games develop at a narrative level, rather than mapping them out in an abstract structural sense.

Designing a story that suits a linear narrative structure is relatively straightforward. Everything about the story, and the pathway through it, is known at the outset.

Designing a branching tree story is time consuming and unlikely to be very rewarding: the number of possible branching pathways means that it is likely that many of them will not be explored (so why go to the trouble of plotting, designing and developing those elements at all?)

Foldback narratives often a reasonable balance in terms of ease of construction and a fictive world that provides opportunities to surprise the player even on repeated plays of the game.

However, wouldn’t it be even more rewarding if the story could be created as it is played, providing opportunities for the layer to surprise the designer with the story the game tells as it is played out, as well as the player, whilst still remaining coherent? That is, can interactivity extend as far as allow the player to interact with the creation of the storyline of the game, as well as interacting in some way within a particular story line created by the designer of the game?

A distinction that has proved fruitful in considering this possibility identifies two sorts of narrative within a game since it was first introduced by Marc Leblanc in a presentation at the 1999 Game Developers’ conference (Formal Design Tools: Feedback Systems and the Dramatic Structure of Competition): embedded narrative vs. emergent narrative.

In his 2007 lecture course on Foundations of Interactive Game Design, Professor Jim Whitehead of the University of California, Santa Cruz, (following Salen and Zimmerman in “Rules of Play“), clarifies the distinction in a lecture on “Narrative elements of games” (listen here: (Winamp or iTunes) Narrative elements of games (audio/ipod audiobook format)):

Embedded narrative
‣ Pre-generated narrative content that exists prior to a player’s interaction with the game
‣ Cut scenes, back story
‣ Are often used to provide the fictional background for the game, motivation for actions in the game, and development of story arc
Emergent narrative
‣ Arises from the player’s interaction with the gameworld, designed levels, rule structure
‣ Moment-by-moment play in the game creates this emergent narrative
‣ Varies from play session to play session, depending on user’s actions
• Game design involves employing and balancing the use of these two elements

That is to say, in an embedded narrative, the story exists to a certain extent even without the interaction of the player. In the case of games designed according to a foldback structure, with cut scenes advancing the story at each inevitable point in the game, the cut scenes could almost be placed back to back to reveal the plotline of the whole game.

In an emergent narrative the players interaction with the game is such that a storyline unknown to even the game designer may be the result. Taking a game such as The Sims as a prime example, the player manages and develops various goals and desires amongst some of the Sims characters, and a story of everyday life in the suburbs emerges as a consequence of player choices and random events and interactions programmed into the game.

(For a further, short article on the differences between embedded and emergent narrative, see Emergent Narrative: What is the specific quality of interactive stories?.)

Whilst at first it might seem as if this suggests that emergent narrative creation would correspond to a ludologists’ view of how stories are told by games, and embedded narratives correspond naturally to a narratological view, I think the relationship is a more subtle one. If pushed, I would probably suggest that they can both be accommodated by the ludologist and narratologist positions. For example, in the case of an emergent narrative, the player may interact with the rules to create the story (ludologist position) or interact with the story to create the story (narratologist position).

PS I recently came across a wonderful set of visualisations about the different pathways through several “Create your own adventure” style books: One Book, Many Readings.

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2 Responses to “Emergent Stories”


  1. 1 Heather October 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Professor Jim Whitehead – “Narrative elements of games” actual lecture starts at 32:20 and slide 15


  1. 1 Creating a Game Soundtrack: Interactive and Adaptive Audio « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on April 15, 2008 at 4:23 pm

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