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Picky Geek: On the Multiplayer Narrative and Emergent Gameplay

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The bane of fanboys across the ‘verse, The Picky Geek is a column that takes the glaring faults of popular games, puts them under a magnifying glass, and leaves them there until they’ve been fried by the sun. This week, our resident Angry Australian, the one and only Damon Reece, steps in to kick ass and take names.

When I was asked to write this article, I immediately wondered to myself how many buzzwords I’d be allowed to use. One? Two? Six? In the end, I said, “Blast it,” and left all my buzzwords in. So, if you (my dear reader) are allergic to these words of buzziness, please stop reading. You’ll break out in hives and EMERGENT GAMEPLAY. HAHAHA. Some more buzzword triggers for your sensitive soul: gaming, multiplayer, narrative and buzzword.

In all seriousness, though, the lack of emergent gameplay is what is killing the gaming industry, and nobody’s noticed it yet – well, more specifically, the lack of an amazing multiplayer narrative is. Look at games like Minecraft and Journey – the former allows players to tell their own stories through roleplay and shared game time, and the latter doesn’t even tell you that you’re playing with other people until the end, which is what makes it oh-so-very special.

I’ll cite a further example of a game that I poured hundreds of hours into: Garry’s Mod. The sheer versatility of that title’s mod system, along with the boundless creativity of mod creators, allows for some fantastic “dynamic stories” – the DarkRP mod is one particularly popular way to play, with thousands of people roleplaying in settings from Half-Life 2′s Combine occupation to a Mafia-infested Italian town. Oh, the fun you can have – I remember once, playing as a weak-willed Resistance member, being solicited by a Combine officer to become a secret informant. After a few of our operations went awry due to my snitching, my gangster friends organized a hit on me, and the last thing I saw was the barrel of a .357 revolver.

It’s worth noting that I cannot think of a single commercial game, other than Minecraft, that offers this level of immersion, especially when playing with friends. The ability to tell your own story is incredibly liberating, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it is astonishingly fantastic – the endorphin rush which comes with a plot twist is staggering. Usually, anyway – I’ll admit that being mugged by a fry cook wielding nothing but sharpened spatula and a bad attitude generally isn’t very fun.

The fact that barely anybody has taken advantage of this is disgusting – whatever happened to emergent gameplay? The only upcoming game with this sort of play-it-your-own-way mentality that I can think of is Starbound, and perhaps the oft-rumoured Elder Scrolls MMO. Other games, though, will restrict you to their artificial rails, disallowing you from making the story your own. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, of course (except when it is), since there are plenty of truly great narratives out there – the issue is that there are zero truly great (or good) multiplayer narratives, and the market’s saturation (obsession?) with arcade-style games like Call of Duty and NigerianGenocideVille is only exacerbating the problem.

This issue coincides with the loss of personality-driven games in publisher catalogs – when was the last time a giant like EA or Activison released a game that had true personality? Oh wait, that’s right, never.

The gaming industry needs a swift kick up the arse to rectify the glaring issues with fun that it’s facing – I am convinced that developers, especially big ones with large budgets, should be trying very hard to find (and emulate) the sort of emergent, procedural narrative generation that multiplayer sandboxes like Minecraft have, instead of leaving it down to modders and upstart indie developers.

For the sake of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, though, don’t try to copy Minecraft. Please.

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