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
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