Why games are in­creas­ingly putting play­ers at the mercy of pow­er­ful emer­gent sys­tems

How emer­gent sys­tems are build­ing a new or­der of nar­ra­tive com­plex­ity in games


As Nathan Drake lurks in the fo­liage, two guards on pa­trol sep­a­rate to cover more ground. One leaps across to a nearby pil­lar of green­ery-cov­ered rock, while the other walks straight to­wards Drake’s po­si­tion. A rus­tle, a star­tled cry cut short, and that guard is down. Drake wastes lit­tle time in jump­ing af­ter the sec­ond guard, who grows sus­pi­cious when his chat­ter isn’t re­turned by his com­rade. Only by shim­my­ing around a ledge does Drake avoid de­tec­tion, the grunt’s boots whistling past the dan­gling trea­sure hunter as their owner re­turns to in­ves­ti­gate, obliv­i­ous to the ten­sion he’s caus­ing. While mild next to rope-swing­ing sucker punches, it’s an un­con­ven­tional mo­ment for an Un­charted game. It’s not a scripted set-piece placed in an un­avoid­able bot­tle­neck, but the in­ter­sec­tion of sys­tems, its drama born of com­plex­ity, not lin­ear­ity.

In the past, the Un­charted se­ries has set the bar for or­ches­trated set-pieces, and enemies are of­ten lit­tle more than gun-tot­ing ob­sta­cles to the next ex­plo­sive crescendo. Un­charted 4 aims to break that pat­tern, show­ing off player-driven im­pro­vi­sa­tion, un­pre­dictable in­ter­ac­tions and dy­namic ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence along­side ex­am­ples of the cine­matog­ra­pher’s art. The change is re­mark­able, yet it is not quite as un­ex­pected as it might seem. Around the turn of this gen­er­a­tion, there seems to be re­newed in­ter­est in more mean­ing­ful ways for play­ers to in­ter­act with game worlds and the char­ac­ters within them.

“It’s re­ally ex­cit­ing,” says Alis­tair Hope, cre­ative lead on last year’s Alien: Iso­la­tion. “We’re get­ting away from hand­hold­ing. That’s bril­liant, be­cause that’s us re­ally trust­ing and re­spect­ing the player.” Hope was in­stru­men­tal in putting play­ers in the claus­tro­pho­bic cor­ri­dors of the space sta­tion Sev­astopol along with an ad­vanced AI-con­trolled alien. “Sur­vival hor­ror would typ­i­cally be tightly choreographed, but that wouldn’t have re­ally de­liv­ered the ex­pe­ri­ence of con­fronting the alien,” he says. “We were just try­ing to cre­ate a cer­tain kind of ex­pe­ri­ence and the way to do that was to make it emer­gent.”

Emer­gence is the idea that a set of in­ter­lock­ing sys­tems can pro­duce dy­namic mo­ments, com­plex in­ter­ac­tions re­sult­ing from com­par­a­tively sim­ple me­chan­ics. Alien: Iso­la­tion’s noise­maker serves to demon­strate this per­fectly. Its pri­mary use is to dis­tract the alien and draw it to the de­vice, but that logic can also be used to ma­nip­u­late the crea­ture. You might bait the alien into a group of hu­man enemies that are block­ing an exit, for ex­am­ple, let­ting the night­mar­ish crea­ture clear your path even as it hounds it. In this kind of emer­gent game de­sign, play­ers are of­fered a whole lan­guage of in­ter­ac­tions that can be used to freely tackle the sit­u­a­tion at hand, rather than be­ing pre­sented with sin­gle-so­lu­tion puzzles.

Hope be­lieves that this ap­proach can be a pow­er­ful tool in defin­ing games as an art­form. “For a long time, it felt like games were try­ing to re­flect them­selves in the mir­ror of cinema, but games can do so much more. It’s about in­for­ma­tion and dis­cov­ery, and the ten­sion be­tween the game and the player.” This “power strug­gle”, as Hope calls it, lies at the cen­tre of

Alien: Iso­la­tion’s game de­sign. Hope’s alien has a level of agency more akin to the player than a dig­i­tal pup­pet. It is able to move around the

Il­lus­tra­tion Daniel Pearce

Drake’s for­tunes have long been tied to his an­i­ma­tors’ whims, but early looks at Un­charted4 show a game where loose hand­holds are han­dled by sys­tems, not sim­ply trig­gered scripts Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s Alis­tair Hope, cre­ative lead on Alien:Iso­la­tion

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