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GDC Diary Day Two: Submergent Narrative

Sun in the funshine

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(This is about Tuesday, but you know, time travel, internet access, etc.) Today is Clandestine Day. Today Nathan and I are meeting with SECRET DEVELOPER to look at SECRET GAME. I’m also going to SECRET MEETING at lunchtime. And playing SECRET LEGO MMO THAT’S NOT ACTUALLY A SECRET this morning. I’m like the world’s greatest spy.

Right now I’m sat at some public tables within the convention, spying on a chap from Microsoft sneaking up to unsuspecting developers to ask them about their analytics of player in-game behaviour, and getting them to do surveys. These developers don’t speak much English, and I’m not convinced it’s going very well. Microsoft: you’ve been SPIED. Oh ew! He just gave them a Starbucks card to “thank them”. CORPORATE CORRUPTION!

He just tried to get me! Fail there. But then… Guy at the next table.

“Hi, I’m [person] from Microsoft.”

“Hi, I’m [person] from Sony!”

“FIGHT!” I cry, banging my hand on the table. “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!”

They didn’t fight.

After a SECRET BREAKFAST MEETING my first proper thing today is a session called Stories, Meaning & Emergent Narrative, by Jeremy Bernstein. So, off to that now.

ROVE

In that session now. Berstein begins with a somewhat misleading statement. “I hate emergent narrative.” He likes his precious words. A former chemist, perhaps best known for writing Dead Space 2, what is he to do with that, and why does he contradict himself in his own tastes?

He breaks narrative into two, paraphrasing a Professor Jenkins. There’s “embedded narrative”, that’s pre-generated content. And “emergent narrative”, that which emerges in real-time by the process of playing. Acknowledging there’s a scale from one side to the other, on which games exist, he admits he finds himself more drawn toward the emergent narrative.

Interestingly, he argues that the embedded narrative is actually the newer, more unusual form. Ancient storytelling was influenced by the reactions of the audience. Stories changed and were tweaked to match the response. Gaming narratives, he says, are contrary to this. This thing he finds so precious, it’s not the ancient form he thought. In fact, he goes further, and points out that saying there’s emergent narrative in The Sims is like seeing faces in shapes. It’s our imaginations filling in the gaps in a fixed system.

There’s a lovely story he tells, about how New Line’s tech for The Lord Of The Rings, where they set up code to have Humans fight Orcs. When they ran it, they saw that some of the Humans saw they were outnumbered and turned and ran. But they’d not programmed any ability to flee into this AI. It looked, at first, like something extraordinary. Except, when they looked into the code they discovered that Humans were programmed to, when they’d killed an Orc, to look for a new enemy to fight and charge at them. But sometimes they’d get turned around in a fight, with their back to the fight, and not seeing an enemy they’d run forward to try to find one. Rather than the AI developing new skills it wasn’t given, it was in fact too stupid to find a fight that was right behind it.

Quoting Turing’s question about whether people can’t tell the difference between a machine and a thinking man, does the difference matter? Will there be a D&D machine that can pass the Turing test, and is it important? Is there any genuinely emergent narrative in single-player gaming, and is it necessary? He ends asking not for questions, but for answers.

I’ve not done this talk justice, and lost a lot of nuance that addresses the larger issues in how I’ve told it. But it’s a great example of a GDC session, raising issues, asking questions, and putting metaphysics into gaming chat.

ROVE

So then an awful lot of secretive things happened, which were just so cool, and I’m so cool for knowing what they are when you don’t, and that basically makes me way cooler than you. Then the afternoon finished with visiting Dungeon Of Dredmor creators Gaslamp Games to have a look at Clockwork Empires. I’ll have a LOT to say about that on Thursday, but it couldn’t have better reflected that talk from this morning. That notion that the emergent is an illusion created by us, as we connect the dots of the scripted events that chain together, is illuminated and advanced here. By drawing those dots so much closer together, Gaslamp are both proving the point, and better highlighting Turing’s belief that who cares if the computer can think, if it looks like it can.

Too many SECRET things today, to be able to flesh this out properly. Hopefully tomorrow shall be more shareable.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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