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There’s been a lot of talk about emergence in the last few years, but it always seems to be about FPS similar to Deus Ex and Bioshock. Emergence isn’t limited to immersive shooters; it can deepen the experience of many games.
An emergent system is one in which complex behaviors emerge from a set of simple rules. They exist everywhere, not just in games. For example, individual ants are very unintelligent creatures that follow very simple instincts. Yet, when you look at an ant’s nest, the million ants in it act in a remarkably organized way. That’s because the simple instincts the ants follow interact together in very complex ways that make the nest behave in a much smarter way than any individual.
Emergent games are those that use a limited number of rules that interact together to create very deep gameplay. Chess has only a few different pieces and very simple rules, yet you can play your whole life and still find new strategies. It shows the advantages of making emergent games:
- Depth: Chess gains a lot of depth from very simple rules.
- Consistency: You can anticipate what’s going to happen at all time in chess, everything behave in a consistent way. Most video games aren’t that predictable: you throw a fireball at a tree and it doesn’t catch fire, the boss fights play very differently from the rest of the game, etc.
- Empowerment: Chess doesn’t have one solution, players have the power to choose their own approach. Most games are created with only one solution for each obstacle and players can’t figure out their own approach.
The best way to make a game emergent is to make everything in it apply to the whole game rather than just some situations. Take the hook shot in Legend of Zelda: you can attach it to specific locations to climb up, but it doesn’t work anywhere else. On the opposite, Thief: the Dark Project gives you rope arrows that you can shoot at anything wooden to climb the attached rope. The rope arrows are much more interesting than the hook shot because they’re useful anywhere there’s wood in sight; they allow you to find paths to your objective that even the game’s designers had never thought of.
Your approach should be to create problematic situations and to give players a variety of tools to solve those problems rather than creating puzzles that have only one specific solution. Players will find themselves really clever if they find their own solutions. One of the pleasures of Bioshock was combining powers together: you throw a fireball at an enemy who jumps in water to extinguish the fire, then throw lightning in the water to electrocute the enemy. This only works because Bioshock’s rules apply to the whole game in a consistent way.
One of the big fears I hear about emergence — especially from producers worried about their budget — is that it increases the number of things to test. If players can devise their own solutions to problems, you’ve got to make sure none of them make the game crash. It’s much easier if there’s only one solution.
That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. One advantage of emergent gameplay is that the game behaves more consistently too, which simplifies debugging. Moreover, if a solution to a puzzle causes a bug, you can remove that solution without breaking the puzzle itself since many solutions exist. So while emergence is probably not going to reduce your QA needs, it’s not as bad as it may seem at first.
The number one reason to make games more emergent is to make them more interactive and believable. It’s a lot more fun to play when the limit to what you can do is your imagination, rather than the artificial restrictions put in place by the game developers.