Tell Your Own Damn Stories! Games, Overreading and Emergent Narrative

In a move that is somewhat unusual for a videogame column, I would like to ask you to consider not a game or a development in the gaming industry but a film… and not just any film, but an obscure art house film.

Poster for Las Horas del DiaJaime Rosales’ The Hours of the Day (2003) (a.k.a. Las Horas Del Dia) tells the story of Abel.  Abel lives with his mother and operates a decidedly unglamorous clothing shop in a run-down part of town.  He has a low-intensity relationship with his girlfriend who wants them to move in together, he has a passive-aggressive relationship with his shop assistant who wants more severance pay than Abel can afford and he has a rather tense friendship with another man who wants him to invest in a marketing project.

Though these relationships dominate Abel’s life, he is distant from all of them; he bickers with his mother, he sabotages his girlfriend’s attempts to find them a flat and he ruins his best friend’s wedding day by casually revealing that the bride once made a pass at him.  In all of his dealings, Abel comes across as weirdly detached and disconnected, as though the human world is somehow beyond his comprehension.  This disconnection from every-day social reality makes Abel almost impossible to understand.  We do not understand why he sabotages his relationships and we certainly do not understand the savage murders that Abel carries out seemingly at random throughout the film.  Because Abel’s motivations are so completely impenetrable, it is remarkably difficult to extract anything resembling a human drama from the events depicted in The Hours of the Day.  The film does not appear to be a comment upon unhealthy relationships or the absurdity of existence or even a portrait of one man’s descent into madness.  It is simply a series of events presented in chronological order.  Stuff happens.

The film critic Mark Kermode said of The Hours of the Day that it is :

“A quietly poisonous portrait of everyday madness, shocking in its clinical execution and all the more disturbing for its unflinching dramatic understatement.”

I would argue that the film appears understated because it is not making any statement whatsoever.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that any commentary upon “everyday madness” detected by Kermode in the film is entirely of his own invention.  This is not an uncommon phenomenon.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the Russian filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov carried out a series of experiments in film-editing.  In these experiments, Kuleshov filmed an actor pulling a somewhat ambiguous facial expression.  This footage was then spliced in with footage of a bowl of soul, a dead child and a semi-naked woman.  The assembled footage was then shown to audiences who projected three entirely different sets of emotions onto the same facial expressions based upon whether that expression was juxtaposed with the bowl of soup, the dead child or the semi-naked woman.

Kuleshov’s experiments went on to inform many of the montage techniques used to produce films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1926) but, for our purposes, they demonstrate the human propensity for weaving narratives around naked facts.  When we see two images side by side, we cannot experience them as simple images, we have to place them in a cause and effect relationship.  We have to tell stories.

This, I would argue, is what lies behind Kermode’s belief that The Hours of the Day constitutes some kind of commentary upon domestic reality.  Kermode was confronted by images of a dreary life and images of bloody murder and he inferred a causal link between the two sets of images despite the fact that the film itself makes no explicit claims about Abel’s motivations.  This phenomenon is what narrative theorists call ‘Overreading’.  As H. Porter Abbott puts it :

“Overreading is a phenomenon that is frequently cued by the masterplots in which our fears and and desires are most engaged.  It is what allows some people to flesh out an incident involving inexplicable lights in the night sky with a chain of events involving extraterrestrial beings.  It is what allows others to load up a stranger with an unflattering moral character, cued only by the color of his skin.  Our minds seem to abhor narrative vacuums.  We try to fill them in.” The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008), pp89

One way of engaging with this psychological quirk is by talking about the existence of Emergent Narrative.  These would be stories that emerge from raw facticity despite the absence of an author; stories that emerge when we try to describe a series of unconnected events, prompting our poor brains to scramble to fill in the gaps and smooth out the awkward edges; stories that can transform mere happenstance into amusing anecdotes and the brutal meaninglessness of existence into the neatly manicured Grand Plans of organised religion.

So how does all of this relate to videogames? Simple. One of the most disastrous things to ever happen to videogames was the emergence of the belief that being a game designer is a bit like being a film director and that it is the job of a game’s designers to create a story.

Consider the following games :

  • Space Invaders (1978)
  • Breakout (1976)
  • Tetris (1984)
  • Pac-Man (1980)
  • Civilization (1991)

All of these classic games share a lack of anything so much as approaching an imposed narrative.  Their designers presented them to us in their naked form: there were no love interests, there were no societies to rescue, there were no themes, sub-plots, meta-narratives or references to other games in the same series.  These were games at their most raw and powerful.

Now consider games such as Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series and Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy series.  Both contain some genuinely brilliant and jaw-dropping moments in gaming, but both also include hour upon hour of excruciatingly written, acted and directed cut-scenes that desperately ape old films and manga, only to produce stories that are not only incoherent and dull but also terrifyingly formulaic.  Indeed, I recently played my way through the suggestively-titled Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004) and was struck by how pointless and distracting all of Kojima’s plotting really was.  Not only did the cut-scenes fail to engage my emotions, they actively spoiled my enjoyment of the game by jolting me out of the deliciously fun sneaking-and-murdering that makes up the bulk of the title’s gameplay.

I think the time has come for game designers to realise that the best way of ensuring that their games tell good stories is for them to refrain from telling a story at all.  Just give us the facts; our narrative junkie brains will do the rest.  You’re programmers, not Scorsese.  Give it a rest.

What The Hours of the Day demonstrates is that a skilled director can use a set of narrative techniques to stimulate his audience’s brains into generating a narrative of their own.  This is also evident in films such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), where a lack of dialogue combines with suggestive imagery to force the audience to project motives and themes onto the film in order to fill in the gaps.  In fact, these techniques are so well established in art house cinema that some directors are even able to deconstruct them by deploying them inside a narrative that actually makes no sense whatsoever.  Indeed, watching Emmanuel Carrere’s La Moustache (2005) is a fantastic experience in cognitive dissonance, as one is aware that – on one level – that the film doesn’tt make sense, but that awareness does not stop one from trying – on another level – to make sense of it all anyway.

The human urge to weave events into a narrative shape is something that has always underpinned the table-top roleplaying hobby.  From the earliest days of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs were little more than combat systems allowing your character to navigate his or her way through a series of tactical challenges.  However, even though early D&D published adventures were frequently little more than floor-plans and combat stats, great human stories would emerge organically from play: perhaps two players would fall into a degree of rivalry and this rivalry would result in their characters betraying each other; perhaps a player might have his character snap at someone in the local tavern, resulting in the character being stabbed and the entire session drifting off into an extended side-bar in which the characters wage war on the local community [You evidently played D&D with far more interesting people than I did, J. – Ed.].

Indeed, this tendency of tabletop RPG sessions to spiral off away from the story the GM had planned to tell is what provides many RPG-related comics – such as Jolly Blackburn’s Knights of the Dinner Table, John Kovalic’s Dork Tower and Mehdi Sammi’s Les Irrecuperables – with their principle thematic drives.

Lair of the Gazebo - Knights Of the Dinner Table (click for embiggenation)The idea of Emergent Narrative is quite closely related to the concept of Emergent Gameplay, wherein complex situations emerge from the interactions between simple game mechanics.  My favourite example of emergent gameplay is apocryphal (or soI suspect, given that the game in question did not actually contain any inheritance mechanics) but, according to the relevant Wikipedia page, the game-designer Peter Molyneux once told a story about a piece of emergent gameplay that turned up during the play-testing of his game Fable (2004) :

“He says he watched a 15-year old playtester chat up a woman in town who happened to be the mayor’s daughter. He brought her gifts and flowers, talked to her all the time, started hugging and kissing her… and eventually they married and moved in together. Molyneux says he was delighted that a player was exploring this part of the game. Then the playtester talked to the Mayor and asked him to follow him. He took the mayor out to the woods, got him behind a tree … and killed him! “Why did you do that!?” Molyneux asked. “I figured the mayor was rich, and he’d give all his money to his only daughter,” answered the tester. Of course, now the daughter had lots of money, but didn’t want to share any of it. So the playtester killed her, too. (Then he moved into the mayor’s house!)”

This is a relatively simple example of what can happen if you design a game and then leave the players to create their own stories, but Molyneux’s tale of greed, jealousy, murder and social climbing – while  eerily reminiscent of the plot of Stendhal’s classic novel The Red and The Black (1830) – is incredibly basic when compared to some of the narratives to emerge from Bay 12 Games’ indie freeware darling Dwarf Fortress.

Sitting down to play Dwarf Fortress is an intimidating experience.  Before you even start to play properly you are asked to set up your expedition and select the area in which you will establish your base-camp; the plethora of options and the myriad factors determining how those options will affect play is so overwhelming that it is easy to find oneself not only paralysed by indecision but actively locked out of the game.  Dwarf Fortress does not give you an easy tutorial level or anything approaching an explanatory narrative, it just tells you to get on with it.

Aside from the fact that many people do manage to play their way through Dwarf Fortress, what is most exciting about the game is the quality of the stories that it seems to generate.  Consider for example, this thread, or this website, or this website. Or this one, or maybe this one.  All of these contain stories that have emerged entirely organically from the Dwarf Fortress experience: stories that exist without cut-scenes, without stilted dialogue developed by third-rate voice actors and without code monkeys pretending to be Fellini.  Not only do these narratives emerge naturally from play, they emerge beautifully formed and filled with tragedy, comedy and the sparkle of verisimilitude that systematically seems to evade the likes of Hideo Kojima.  Nor is Dwarf Fortress alone in its capacity for generating Emergent Narratives.  How about Football Manager?  or The Sims? or Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast?

What is most extraordinary about the human brain’s capacity for generating narratives is that pretty much all of the above stories are streets ahead of the type of narrative you find in your average over-produced AAA title.  In fact, the disparity is such that one is almost tempted to speculate as to whether some Darwinian or ergonomic force is at work here, guaranteeing that the people best suited to manage teams of programmers are also those with the least developed narrative centres of the brain… or whether perhaps working in teams under intense pressure kills humans’ natural capacity for story-telling.  Either way, I suggest a change of tack.

Instead of trying to be Martin Scorsese, video game designers should follow the examples set by Jaime Rosales and Emmanuel Carrere in focusing their efforts, not on telling stories, but on mastering the cues that provoke their audience into telling stories for themselves.  Video games are supposed to be an interactive medium, and their narratives should reflect this by flowing from a combination of good design and engaged audience brains, and not from the minds of the design team.  Anything to save us from yet another diabolical cut-scene…


Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

10 thoughts on “Tell Your Own Damn Stories! Games, Overreading and Emergent Narrative”

  1. While this was one fine write-up on stories that emerge out of video games, I must confess that the focus (or lack thereof) on D&D, and RPGs in particular bothered me. Tabletop RPGs have certainly been the fertile soil on which many great games have grown up – and story-driven RPG games exclusively concentrate upon telling a story (rather obviously) rather than letting the player JohnRambo it through the entire game (although most story-driven RPGs allow for that too).
    Consider one of my favourites – Planescape: Torment. The story, that starts off with one of the commonest tropes – the player character has forgotten who he is – builds up into one of the greatest stories in the history of RPG gaming. The focus on fighting is minimal (indeed, combat was one of the weak points of this game) and there were one of those long magic spell animations that took forever to end, but the concept and execution of this game was unforgettable. It also made use of the Emergent Narrative that you spoke of – many of the story’s finer details (and one rather large chunk of it) has been purposefully left up to the reader to munch upon, leading to what (to me and a few hundred others’) perfect amalgamation of narrative and player imagination.

    At the other end of the spectrum is the relatively newer The Witcher. The Polish video game had the polish (I had to use this, sorry) of a third-person hack-n-slash with the guile and subterfuge of a Black Isle narrative combined with the artwork that rivalled Blizzard’s colour. It also had something else in the way of an RPG narrative – the consequence of a choice was palpable after quite a few hours of gameplay from whence you chose. This completely eliminated the gamer-redundancy of saving right before a choice and playing through the x number of choices (something that happens frequently in the Jedi Knight series). While the first reaction is openly shown to the player (with a convenient popup that asks you that if you had known that this would’ve happened, would you have chosen differently?) the rest are left to the player to understand. Thereafter the choices that you make rest on your mind heavily and make for a richer gaming experience. Experiences like these would not have been possible without scripted gameplay and the ever-annoying cutscenes – both firmly in the hands of the game designer.

    RPGs these days have a terrible habit of harping on the free-roaming experience and the join-any-faction-it’s-pretty-rad tagline. However, fun as they might be (Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood quests come to mind), if the main story is just a bunch of paragraphs loosely bound together with pages of intermittently interesting quests, it can hardly pass off as a Role Playing Game, at least for me.

    It works once or twice, and it works in games where there is not much of a “main story” (such as Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft or any rogue-like) and it also works in games where about eighty percent of the “story” is filled in by the player himself/herself (such as the TaleOfTales’ The Path).

    Emergent gameplay is definitely brilliant and is the basis of long time loyalty with games, but if it comes at the price of an amazing story that could’ve been cooked up by the creators I would not be very happy about that game.

  2. Hi Kaushik 🙂

    I agree… I was overly focused upon RPGs. This is because when you move away from RPGs then I tend to struggle even more to see the point of imposed narratives. Maybe this is an age thing, but I can remember when games simply did not have them and so I can’t detect much added value for their sudden omnipresence.

    The Witcher (which I seem to remember you recommending before… or at least someone did) seems to take a rather labour-intensive approach to narrative which is to plot out all possible eventualities. While I’m sure that that CAN work, I am reminded of the fact that most games which have this type of structure tend to have very simplistic forks. Look at the way most games handle morality : Kitten-stompers or living saints. This is hardly a compelling reflection of the complexities of real life 🙂

    The only game to get that type of thing right, which I have played (I haven’t played the Witcher as I don’t game on PC) is Dragon Age and even then the game was much much stronger on relationships than it was on morality.

    I think that emergent narrative — which is not quite the same thing as emergent gameplay, though I recognise that that is the usual way of talking about the phenomenon I am talking about — is simply a more efficient way of generating good stories than imposed narratives. Players tell better stories than video game writers.

    Maybe this would change if more money was put into game narratives.

    Maybe this would change if talented writers actually found their way into the game industry.

    But right here and right now? The best thing that video game writers can do to ensure the quality of game storytelling is to do nothing.

  3. Like it or not, you *are* shaping the narrative.

    It’s pretentious to think you are “allowing” an audience to tell their own story. They don’t need your game to do that. They have their own life – or any other number of games to choose from.

    You shape narrative (emergent narrative) by deciding what you want the player to be doing. Then you focus their available options within that. The players, in fact, *want* to be doing what you want them to. They want you to surprise them. That’s why they chose your WW2 strategy / city-building / train simulation / SWAT FPS game… because you’ve given them an activity set they want to do and explore doing.

  4. Hello again Jonathan,

    I thought I’d drop by and take up a point that I meant to before posting my semi-response to this over at our blog. Essentially: I’m surprised that you’ve chosen to draw attention to what you’re talking about via the concept of ‘overreading’. You obviously come from a film background, as do I. Don’t you think overreading is more than slightly unhelpful for looking at this? Isn’t all reading just reading? I thought narrative theorists had long left this type of thinking behind, though I may well be missing something – which is why I thought I’d raise it here with you!

  5. A very interesting point Daniel.

    I think the term ‘overreading’ displays a subconscious auteurist bias, as though it is the critic’s job to read the author’s mind but if you over-stretch then you’re overreading. I tend to think that once a work is out the door it is no longer any business of the author’s what that work actually means and so it follows that you can never OVER read… you just read.

    You may well be right that narrative theorists have moved past that kind of issue, I am quite thinly read when it comes to narrative theory I admit, but I think this is an issue that cannot really be called settled as it ultimately relies upon the ontological status of imaginary worlds.

    What are Abel’s motivations?

    Does Holmes sell the honey he makes with his bees?

    These are questions that cannot be answered one way or another because the text does not allow those questions truth conditions. There is only speculation. You can speculate one way and you can speculate another way and you can debate as to which theory is most likely to be the correct one but there is no truth and falsity there is only the human brain’s automatic tendency to fill in the dots.

  6. Jonathan,
    That was a very interesting essay, and I found myself nodding in agreement while reading the first part, but when you put yourself on a high seat and declared “You’re programmers, not Scorsese. Give it a rest.”, you’re just being an arrogant prick.

    Who are you to decide what is Right for video games? Would you also set in stone what books should look like or films, or paintings? You may dislike some or most of what has been done in game narrative (even here you contradict yourself when mentioning Dragon Age) or say that you find the stories your own actions describe to be more compelling, but to say that emergent story is the only worthwhile kind? That’s a load of nonsense.
    Fahrenheit, Mass Effect, Gabriel Knight, The Longest Journey, Planescape all had stories I found fascinating to some degree. I find it infuriating for you to call for their non-existence in favor of games like Space Invaders or Pac Man, or even Team Fortress 2, to give a modern equivalent.

    You’ve also managed to completely ignore the fact that most modern tabletop RPGs are much more than a series of combat encounters, D&D included, and that “story RPGs” have been evolving in very interesting ways over the last two decades.

    There is a massive logical leap from the first part of this article, regarding over-reading and the tendency of our brains to look for, or invent, narratives, to the claim that these narratives are somehow better than the intended ones in works of art.

  7. Hi Zipdrive 🙂

    Firstly, I think you over-estimate the power I have over the video games industry. Nobody cares what I think… I could call for a moratorium on all video games that aren’t football management sims and have about as much effect as I do on this column. so, as I see it, I can call for any old shit for the sake of an argument.

    Secondly, I think you’re presuming me to be making a much stronger case than I am. What I would *like* is for game designers to wrench their attentions from Hollywood knock-offs and attempt to focus upon games that function as games and not as interactive films. If you look at the games I’ve spoken about in this column over the years, you’ll see that I enjoy cinematic games. It’s just that I think that there should be more AAA titles that are NOT cinematic games. So my call is not “You! Stop doing that!” so much as it is “Hey… why not trying doing this for a bit?”.

    Thirdly, I’m not ignoring the fact that most tabletop RPGs are more than a series of encounters. What I am saying is that even when they were nothing more than combat encounters, stories tended to emerge naturally from the stuff that happened at the table. DMs prepped dungeons, playing produced stories.

    Thanks for the feedback, but I think you’re reading me as making a much stronger set of claims than I actually did 🙂

  8. Sounds like you’re saying that stories shouldn’t be written because people have access to words and could just as easily write their own stories (gross oversimplification, I know). I think it’s valuable to continue to have both types of games. And it may be unfair to assume that games with emergent gameplay necessarily inspire emergent narrative. Many people lack the imagination or drive to craft their own stories but still enjoy playing games of all types, which is why both types of games flourish. I, and many others, can enjoy a game with a trite story, even while recognizing that it’s trite. It’s the same reason I can watch mindless TV or a Michael Bay explosionfest. Sometimes I don’t want to have to do the work. Sometimes I want someone to read to me while I relax.

    Still, fair points throughout and was an interesting read. Kudos.

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