In Search of Emergence and Player-Created Narrative

War. War never changes.

An odd sort of ennui has come over me lately. I have, quite literally, more than a hundred games I could be playing at any given moment – some of them MMOs, and some of them singleplayer ones. But none of them appear to match or fulfill this restless craving desire that has woken within me.

I’m normally quite good at matching specific games to specific needs. I had a strategic and mild tactical urge a couple days back, so several hundred turns of Civilization V and some dickering around with Total War: Shogun 2 it was. I went through a bout or two of casual games when I just needed a short gaming spurt. But recently, I have developed a growingly insatiable desire for a game that can inspire a story to be written about what happens while playing it.

Moreover, I’m hoping for something more than a developer-created narrative, the same old linear things that every player of the game sees, be it in the same or different order. Writing about how Vault Dweller X pops out of their vault and saves/nukes Megaton and ignores/saves Dad and massacres post-apocalyptic wildlife of every shape and size is… well, been there, done that. Obviously there has to be some developer input, even Dwarf Fortress establishes setting and what you’ll be dealing with (dwarves!), but I guess I’m grasping for emergence. Something that surprises the player, and perhaps even surprises the developer. Something that doesn’t happen in every other player’s game.

I’m looking for a Boatmurdered. An epic diary of Neptune’s Pride, preferably with roleplaying. I don’t need a multiplayer setting/world where every player has this sort of experience, thankfully, else my choices end up boiling down to Eve Online, I think.

And I want it in a different game from the above examples.

Oh, I tried Dwarf Fortress. It’s certainly intricate and complex, but it takes way too much time to learn and play. My one serious attempt ended up with one and a half seasons of uneventful thriving, before another season of flooding and drowning because my enthusiastic approach to irrigation sent a dwarf digging an open tunnel into the side of a river, which, judging by the volume of water which emerged, was about the size of the Thames. One year later, of endlessly digging deep deep reservoirs just ahead of the rising waters to stave off inevitable fate, I gave up.

I’m not especially keen on multiplayer competition, which rather rules out things like Neptune’s Pride, Solium Infernum, Eve Online and the like. I don’t really need the additional complication of real people and their emotional needs/drives messing up any storylines. Imaginary characters, be they computer-controlled or me-controlled, do just fine.

I was looking at roguelikes as a potential source of story fodder, but as much as I like Angband for its simplicity and games like TOME and ADOM (they might be going under different names like JADE and what not by now), they have the dungeon crawl structure. Have town, have dungeon, dive deep, kill stuff, level up, sell stuff, eat food, try not to die by all manner of different things, fail at that goal, admire gravestone, try again.

I’m rather tired of the survival theme. I don’t own Arma II, I think it’s too expensive at the moment, they’re relentlessly cashing in on DayZ and I’ve no real interest in trying it out as yet. Survival + other people. It’s no doubt interesting, but it doesn’t match the current desire. Minecraft is okay, but it’s missing the element of surprise/story/other NPC interaction. It boils down to a lone survivor story again, eking out an existence, Robinson-Crusoe-like, building an immense fortification of creativity out of what is present in nature. Terraria was more of a gear grind. Unreal World is way too lethal, unless you know certain loopholes for trading useless bits of wood to villagers, I tend to starve to death before managing to hunt or trap anything. And the story again is survival-based, don’t starve, don’t die of thirst, build a fancy house, profit, till you die.

I had an almost got-the-feeling-I-wanted moment while playing Civilization V, as I marched four units of mechanized infantry and a giant death robot down the continent wiping up the last holdout Korean civilization.

The German military machine. Panzers (ok, a gifted tank from Budapest I hadn’t the heart to get rid of) lead the way , infantry follow in futuristic APCs, supporting the titanic mech stomping across the sands. Korean workers look on wordlessly.

I was playing Bismarck and the German Empire, espousing the social policies of Liberty, Honor, Order, Rationalism and Commerce. I envisioned this as a expansionist, liberal (in terms of whatever other races or cultures were annexed into the Empire) civ, but focused on science/technology and merchantilism as a means of maintaining power and autarky, having both a very militaristic and honor-based tradition and a nationalistic pride. In other words, join our Empire and prosper. Work hard and see, you will reap the rewards of our science, our art and culture and great people. If you are foolish enough not to want to join the Great German Empire, then we will not hesitate to move in our advanced troops and -make- you join, by removing your foolish, rude, leaders.

The Korean leader had been previously both insulting and kept denouncing me at every opportunity, despite my obvious dominance of that particular game, and so, after I finished a Tech victory, then a Diplomatic one (by virtue of saving and reloading just before winning), I decided it was time for a military Dominance victory, declared war and moved in the troops. For the heck of it, since I had the tech, and since I was convinced there must be a Steam achievement for it, I made a nuke or two and dropped it on top of the capital, Seoul, and the southern Korean city of Pyongyang – it wasn’t easy finding a safe place I could bomb without nuking my own troops in the vicinity.

Nuclear devastation chars the landscape, as mechanized land troops march down implacably from the north, and battleships form a naval blockade around the coastal Korean cities.

And as I moved the umpteen bomber in from neighboring cities and aircraft carriers, softening up the Korean cities for my infantry to march in and annex, fragments of an almost Harry Turtledove Worldwar scenario came to my mind.

A stealth bomber rains its bombs down upon Seoul, its air superiority unchallenged.

I envisioned a Korean girl, writing by candlelight in the darkness, to the distant sounds of bombs shelling other city districts, wondering to her diary about why these strange German invaders had come. Of her telling her diary about the massive mech she saw on the horizon, and the tiny APCs around its feet, dwarfed by the giant, grim uniformed men with sophisticated rifles moving like ants in a long disciplined line.

The nuked Pyongyang offers barely any resistance as the conquerors crack it open with high explosive shells.

I imagined a young German soldier, wrapped in protective gear and breathing mask, looking about him in dismay at the wreckage of Pyongyang, the irradiated fallout having destroyed practically any resistance or indeed, any semblance of hope, in the starved shambles of the city.

From the inside, Pyongyang is a guttered out mess. A measly 2 citizens (in Civ terms) remain. The farm and fields are devastated by nuclear fallout and the citizens are scraping out a meagre existence on tundra and mines that escaped the radiation. There is barely any food.

He tells himself that in a few years, maybe five, not more than ten, certainly, the city, having come under the Great German Empire, will be better for it. It will be richer, more prosperous, linked to trade routes, it will have all the benefits of science and technology, it will have happy hardworking workers, “Arbeit macht frei.”

After all, centuries later, the Polynesian peoples and the ancient Germanic peoples have long intermixed on the mother continent, and the pointless warring between the Chinese and the Americans on this continent have finally ceased by virtue of both coming under the banner of the German republic, two, three decades later, all the cities are happy, productive contributers to greater society.

See how the Americans and Chinese thrive under Germanic rule!

But a theoretical better future is hard to believe in, when you are afraid to walk now, in the fields glowing with ash and the Geiger counters crackling crazily, and thin skeletal Koreans with dirty or burned faces eye you warily, or even hostilely. He wants to help, but he doesn’t know how.

And a decade or so later, perhaps the same Korean girl, or another, writes about how the strange alien Germans, having occupied Pyongyang and brought it under the rule, move in a fleet of workers in just as orderly a fashion as the army marched in. Equipped with uncomprehensible technology in trucks and suits, they clean out every trace of the fallout that they themselves inflicted.

Years later, the south begins to thrive and look green once more. Workers throng the fields of Pyongyang, assiduously removing every last speck of radioactive soil.
Ominously, almost beyond the view, is the ring of land and sea troops along the last Korean border.

In fact, they run the risk of contaminating themselves with radiation sickness, but they shrug it off as their duty to the Fatherland, which Pyongyang is now part of.  With typical German efficiency, they install modern farms and roads, and motor off, leaving the city on its way to recovery. Perhaps the Germans are not so bad after all…

…Meanwhile, the ring around Seoul tightens. The naval blockade has been there for years. No news gets out from the capital.

Something like that, anyhow.

Vanilla Civilization V unfortunately seems to have very little AI sophistication. Everyone is cheerfully friendly all the time, unless you decide to move in on them. Then again, remembering previous Civ games past, I don’t think having aggressive cheating AI swamp my spearmen with knights running from an endless faucet is terribly fun or interesting either, you end up militarizing to defend against the zerg and either you die or you win and annex their city and now that you have such a massive army anyway…

There’s not much room for a narrative to go after that. All hail the king of the world, or Ozymandias.

Problem is, I’m also moderately tired of combat as conflict resolution. (Or rather, relentless slaughter masquerading as combat as conflict resolution.)

This knocks out an immense number of games. Every MMO that has quests and combat, well, kill that to solve this problem. Kill 5 or 10 or 15 or 500 of that to solve that other problem. Sorry, kill is such a vulgar word. Let’s call it, “defeat.” *coughs*

Doesn’t change much, alas.

I dabbled a bit with Hunters 2 on the iPad. It’s a pretty slick-looking game, somewhat reminiscent of X-COM. I could also play X-COM, which I have on Steam, but turn-based tactics is not feeding the exact need. So a Blood Bowl league story format and such are right out too. For now, anyway.

What’s left? I don’t know. Fallen London’s random resolution and grindy style isn’t cutting it either. It just feels like I’m clicking on a button and waiting for a result to show up. Repeat x 10 to get anywhere.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve moved away from computer gaming and gone back to idly browsing through tabletop RPGs from RPGnow, and combing through solo roleplaying blogs, wondering if I need to go back to the Mythic Game Master Emulator to get what I’m looking for. I’ve found a few intriguing ideas, but am still trying to put things together in my head. If it gets to a form that can actually be articulated, I’ll be certain to share.