What Works And Why: Emergence

Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider

What Works And Why is a new monthly column where Gunpoint and Heat Signature designer Tom Francis digs into the design of a game and analyses what makes it good.

I love Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and Dishonored 2, and the name for these games is dumb: they’re ‘immersive sims’. If you asked me what I liked about them, my answer would be a phrase almost as dumb: ’emergent gameplay!’

I always used to think of these as virtually the same thing, but of course they’re not. Immersive sims usually have a whole list of traits, things like:

  • Multiple solutions: you can overcome most problems in more than one way – the minimum is usually defeating enemies or finding a way around them. The best alternate name for the genre I’ve heard is Vent Crawlers.
  • Emergent gameplay: (faint cheering from the back of the room) problems and solutions can ’emerge’ from the interaction of the game’s rules in ways that were not scripted and maybe not even foreseen by the developers. I’ll get more into this later.
  • A wide toolset: you have more tools than just a gun or a sword, and the tools have more interestingly different effects than various amounts of damage.
  • Ability progression: your suite of abilities is usually something you expand and upgrade as the game goes along, often choosing what to specialise in.
  • Story-driven, goal-driven: immersive sims are generally not sandboxes, you know who you are in this world, what the story is, what you’re trying to do and why.
  • A detailed and extensively interactive world: Deus Ex might not seem this way now, but it was at the time. Ability to interact with bathroom apparatus is considered especially important.
  • Non-linear levels: it’s less of an immersive sim if each level is a path from start to destination.
  • Exploring a story: not only is it possible to explore the world of an immersive sim more than necessary, it’s usually rewarded with snippets of story – both through environmental storytelling and written or voiced notes.

I enjoy all these elements, but a lot of them have nothing to do with each other. You could make two games inspired by immersive sims with almost no overlap between them. In fact, I think that’s pretty much what my team and Fullbright have spent the last few years doing. Fullbright are the former BioShock 2 devs behind Gone Home and Tacoma, and my studio Suspicious Developments made Gunpoint and Heat Signature. I basically make games inspired by the first three items on that list, and I’d say Fullbright double down on the last three.

So if you want to make an emergent game, but don’t especially need it to be an immersive sim, how do you do it?

If you want a picture of the immersive sim, imagine a cyborg, turning on a tap, forever.

I call a problem or solution emergent if it happened as a result of the game’s general rules, not because a developer specifically intended it to happen. If you put a sufficiently big crate in front of a turret in Deus Ex (any Deus Ex), the turret won’t shoot you. That’s emergent because the rules involved are:

  • You can move crates.
  • Crates block vision.
  • Turrets only attack targets they can see.

It wasn’t necessary for the developer to write a line of code that says ‘if the player moves this crate to location x, don’t let the turret fire’. If it was, putting some other object in that spot might not work when logically it should. In a good emergent game, the developer doesn’t need to predict your strategy to make it work, they just write the rules, make sure you know them, and let you play.

So that’s rule 1 for emergence: the game must be mainly governed by consistent rules that are clear to the player.

Spelunky tribesman

That one’s an emergent solution, but problems can be emergent too. Once in Spelunky, I watched an enemy tribesman wander into a shop. He’d already thrown and lost his boomerang. The shop had a boomerang for sale. Tribesmen pick up boomerangs automatically. Shopkeepers go ballistic if anyone takes something out of their shop without paying. And so I ran, in absolute terror, from the sight of a man walking into a shop.

I knew the tribesman would take the boomerang. I knew he’d walk out with it. And I knew the shopkeeper would flip out. The place absolutely exploded with shotgun fire a moment later.

So rule 2: things get more interesting when non-player elements can interact with each other.

You could call this the emergence equivalent of the Bechdel test: an emergent game needs to include:
a) at least two non-player elements, that
b) interact with each other, in a way that is
c) not just murder.
The shopkeeper absolutely did murder the tribesman, and another shopkeeper, and a dog, and ultimately himself – but it was the boomerang that made things interesting.

Can I tell you one from Heat Signature? It’s not my story so I hope it gets a pass. Dan’s objective was in a locked room. He didn’t have the keycard. A nearby guard did, but they were in a room full of other guards.

Dan had two different teleporters: a Sidewinder and a Swapper. A Sidewinder can take you anywhere you have a clear path to – around a corner, but not through a locked door. A Swapper lets you switch places with someone, but there’s no-one inside the objective room. Do you see a solution?

Dan stands right next to the locked door, touching it. He uses the Swapper on the keycard guard. Now the guard’s next to the door, so it opens – but Dan is in a room full of guards and about to die. But now he does have a clear route to the objective, because for this one second the door is open. So he just clicks a button on his Sidewinder and he’s in the room with his objective.

Rule 3: you get more interesting emergent solutions if you can do things to enemies other than kill them.

ftl vs engi

Then there was that fight in FTL. I’m up against an Engi ship, and they’re wrecking me with heavy lasers and an EMP cannon. One more hit and I’m dead. My shields are up, but when their EMP weapon fires next it’ll disable them, leaving me exposed to the heavy laser shots I cannot take. So… I turn off my shields.

An EMP shot disables your shield generator if it hits your shield. If your shields are down, it goes straight through and disables whatever system they’ve targeted. They might have targeted the shield generator, in which case I’m boned either way. But if there’s any chance they didn’t, if they’re aiming for anything else, I want them to hit. Because then I can just turn my shields back on and block the laser hit.

I turn my shields off. The EMP shot comes. And hits… life support. Perfect! We only need that if we’re gonna live more than a minute. Shields up, laser hits blocked, rip them to shreds with my finally-charged halberd beam.

Rule 4: players find more interesting solutions when they’re desperate.

That one wasn’t even a good idea. There was every chance it would achieve nothing. I only tried it because every other option was certain death. And when I did, something wonderful happened. Keeping the player on the brink of failure without frustrating them is a whole other article, of course.

Obviously these are not the only rules for emergence, they’re just some of the ones I’ve learned so far. My hope for this column is to bridge the gap between the kind of surface-scratching analysis I used to squeeze into a review, and the deeper but more technical and jargon-heavy analysis aimed at developers. I love delving into why good games work, and I hope I can share my theories in a way that isn’t impenetrable.

Tom Francis is the designer of Gunpoint and Heat Signature and a former games journalist. You can find more of his thoughts on making games on his blog.


  1. Kefren says:

    Excellent: I liked your analysis, and the examples. It reminds me of how, when things like that sneak into games that aren’t even immersive sims, it can add a lot of fun and make you feel like a god. I vaguely remember a HoMM3 game once where I was getting panned by a magic user. Then I found an item that blocks all magic. So I hired a weak hero with it and taunted him into attacking. Obviously the magic user won. He took the items off the loser – and suddenly couldn’t use magic spells. I built up a super-warrior army, and after weakening him with lots of short battles from expendable troops, I finally took him on in magic-free combat and won. Then I made a point of spending all my money on hiring and firing heroes until he eventually turned up in the roster and I hired him. Now I had that almost-undefeatable magic user in my army, and went on to wipe the map clean. The rules of “winner takes loot off loser” and “items affect the carrier” led me to a tactic that weakened him enough to defeat him. When you expand such interacting systems through a whole game, you have real magic.

    I just checked and Heat Signature was already on my Steam wishlist (though if it turns up on GOG I’ll buy it there instead). :-)

  2. DeadCanDance says:

    Nice column. This makes me remember Prey a lot.

    • napoleonic says:

      I was just thinking, “I should replay Prey…” when I read your comment!

      On similar lines, I would add that an immersive sim needs to be locked to first-person view, I think. Otherwise it’s not immersive.

      • Alien says:

        I have a different opinion: My favorite immersive-sim is the original X-Com (and TFTD); SS2 is close second…

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    More Tom Francis writing, woo!

    For more lovely Tom Frances I recommend the http://www.crateandcrowbar.com – Crate and Crowbar podcast. The recent D&D special was a delight… *hides beak in wing*

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      Lexx87 says:

      Oh lord I spelt Tom Francis wrong the second time – sorry :( and can’t edit it!

    • Lacero says:

      Getting Tom Francis as a writer is a big coup in the never-ending war between pc gamer and rps for the souls of the crateandcrowbar.

      • Premium User Badge

        The Almighty Moo says:

        Souls for the Soul God! Crowbars for the Crowbar throne!
        Make them pay for what they did to us during the Horace Heresy!

  4. AndreasBM says:

    A nice read. Can’t wait to hear more from you!

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    distantlurker says:

    This column makes me wonder what our Mr Walker would have had to do if he’d lost the bet!

  6. KingFunk says:

    Well done Tom – you finally made it from the cheery fanzine to the real thing!

    Also I like the aims stated in your final paragraph, so keep ’em coming!

  7. Zorgulon says:

    Great article – the linked FTL article in paticular has really made me want to play FTL again, despite my being dreadful at it. Looking forward to more!

    • haldolium says:

      I think it took me 40h or so to get through the campaign on easy. I never played FTL on other difficulties (well I think I did try normal once) and currently have over 200h in it now getting through it more or less frequently.

      This situation once again reminded me why FTL is such an outstanding great game. It truly is immersive.

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    Drib says:

    I enjoyed the tone and general style of this article. Nice work, and the stories were fun times.

    Emergent gameplay like this is almost actively avoided by a lot of super-huge companies, see EA etc. But the smaller games, like most of the ones you’ve mentioned here, can still have it in spades.

    I only wish I was clever enough to think stuff like this up. I tend to just blunder around with a shotgun or something, direct damage only.

  9. AshRolls says:

    Just getting into ‘Dying Light’ and I’m finding the emergent gameplay one of the most fun parts. Couldn’t agree more with your insightful analysis, more of this please RPS :)

  10. Stevostin says:

    It’s nicely put but it’s not good analysis to me.

    Your first 3 rules are very vague. To a point, even the 1st Mario respect them. You can deal with opposition by jumping at it, dodging it, using bonuses, take an alternative route through pipelines. And all of it works bc interactions rules, not script etc.

    Immersive sims are born with Ultima Underworld and the premise IMO is very clear: it’s a game designed to give you an experience as close as if you were living the thing for real in term of options. Sure it’s not reality 1:1 but the games are designed to introduce you to a believable environment wherein every idea you may have shall be available to explore.

    I like Gunpoint, but it’s not “new gameplay”. It’s just interesting gameplay, and it’s already great. But that’s not a new trend with new approach. More mature, maybe.

    And Immersive Sims aren’t their for their gameplay value, at least not first. There here for the experience they provide. That being said, good gameplay is always a plus and to that regard Dishonored 2 is a masterpiece while Prey is only half way (sorry, right in the middle of Prey ATM…)

    • Fachewachewa says:

      “So if you want to make an emergent game, but don’t especially need it to be an immersive sim, how do you do it?”
      This column is not about immersive sims, it’s about emergence. And it’s even less about how “new” the gameplay in Gunpoint (or any of those game) is ???

      • ciber2k says:

        Not to mention that limiting the definition of a genre only makes that future games are similar to the originals, a problem that the Immersive Sim has.

    • KenTWOu says:

      To a point, even the 1st Mario respect them. You can deal with opposition by jumping at it, dodging it, using bonuses, take an alternative route through pipelines.

      That’s certainly not enough. Jumps, dodges is not a tool set, it’s a very basic skill set. Bonuses are more like instantly activated consumables, which you can use one at the time. You can’t put them in your inventory, equip them later, combine them with one another to achieve different effects. In terms of player agency they are very, very limited.
      That’s why even Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t respect Tom’s ‘a wide toolset’ rule, while Zelda: Breath of the Wild does.

  11. poliovaccine says:

    As a huge fan of Gunpoint and a fledgling acolyte of Heat Signature, I gotta say, Mr. Francis, I kinda think you’re my smart money pick for reviving the “immersive/emergent gameplay-sim” once and for all… and all you’ll have to do is make a game like Gunpoint or Heat Signature but in 3D. Just snap those fingers and presto, then, c’mon!

    But really though, if you and your team ever made something like Heat Signature but in 3D space, I’d be playing it til the proverbial cows come home.

    • Nevard says:

      Reviving it? Didn’t Prey and a big expansion for Dishonoured 2 come out just last year? :P
      And, as another poster posits further down, maybe also Breath of the Wild. I can see that one.

      • poliovaccine says:

        Yeah they totally did, but they also didn’t create the splash that Deus Ex or System Shock 2 or Thief I/II, they did reasonably well commercially but given the budget behind them I feel like they were expected to do much better. Right now the genre seems to be struggling to break through a veil cast by time… We’ve had some noble attempts but nothing has grabbed the public imagination by its balls in quite the same way.

        • KenTWOu says:

          I’m not sure about other games you mentioned, my guess, Deus Ex 1 and Thief 1 did well, but in terms of initial sales System Shock 2 didn’t create the splash either. In this irrational podcast (Irrational Interviews Episode 3: Kieron Gillen) Ken Levine said (27:03), that they sold only 130 000 copies which wasn’t enough to stay afloat, so it certainly was a commercial failure.

  12. dethtoll says:

    nice article, and lays out how emergence works pretty well.

    i wrote up an attempt to describe what immersive sims actually are a while back. i’ll cop to some light editorializing re: immersive sim fans but the gist of it is that, similar to how emergence is not bound to a single kind of game, “immersive sim” is more a design philosophy rather than a genre in and of itself, and therefore is not bound to one particular perspective or gameplay style.

  13. gabrielonuris says:

    Another quality I usually notice in immersive sims are the environments themselves.

    You know when playing games like Doom, for instance, and you take a lift to nowhere? Sometimes it just get high enough so you can reach a shotgun in a platform, or make a jump to reach a key on the top of a pillar? Now stop and give it some thought: who the hell in the right mind would design a military base/laboratory/whatever with such impossible working conditions? They’re just there because they’re fun to reach and overcome from a gameplay perspective.

    Now take System Shock 2 as another example: you can actually navigate through the environment as a real person/employee, you can imagine people walking through corridors, climbing ladders and taking elevators during their working hours; the environment is immersive enough for that. You know when, on that same game, you enter those chemical storages to get materials for crafting? Sometimes you only need 1 or 2 materials, but the storage has dozens of items which the sole purpose is to compose the setting. You can take them and store into your inventory if you want, but you’ll never use them. You have chemical components, circuit boards, flasks, batteries and whatnot, just to immerse yourself like it was a true storage.

    Now a personal opinion: the blink ability from Dishonored toss everything I said through the window. That’s one of the reasons I think Dishonored will never click for me.

    • napoleonic says:

      You’ll be pleased to hear you can play Dishonored without using any of the Outsider’s abilities. Same for Prey, you can do a “human-only” run.

      • ThricebornPhoenix says:

        Indeed, I’ve done a ‘no powers’ run of Dishonored. Levels were clearly designed to be ~99.9% navigable without Blink. I actually managed to reach some places without Blink that I had failed to reach before *with* it, mostly because I was more familiar with the controls and world.

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    phuzz says:

    Hooray! Tom’s writing for RPS!

    “Emergent gameplay” is what I always enjoy about games with a certain amount of stealth. The recent Far Cry games even manage some of this. You’ll find an outpost, carefull sneak around marking all the enemies, and then start trying to take them out, without the other’s noticing.
    Sooner or later I mess something up, and the whole situation goes loud and suddenly instead of the game being me, the silent hunter, vs a bunch of brainless goons, it’s me, the panicking dumb-arse vs a bunch of angry killers.
    Great fun :)

  15. ulix says:

    After growing up on Deus Ex and System Shock 2, and still considering them two of my favorite games of all time, I have recently bought a Switch with Zelda – Breath of the Wild.

    I now consider it the best game in the subgenre of Immersive Sims. It obviously also has a lot of other things going on, being an open world and a survival game at the same time.

    It also gives you almost all of your tools to manipulate the world in the first 2 hours. After the tutorial area you’re set and can go everywhere and do almost anything.

    The amount of systems interacting is incredibly impressive. You have wind, heat, fire, cold, ice, sound, wetness, electricity, and “ordinary” physics, all interacting seamlessly, and without any of the bugs and glitches every other developer would have in a game of this size and ambition.

    The creativity that is encouraged by the game, and expected from the player in using these systems is quite big.

    I’ll give an example:
    I was trying to get up a mountain. I didn’t have enough stamina yet to climb that mountain (you can climb almost any surface in the gameand getting more health and stamina are the only two real ways of gameplay-progression). Now I could have solved this problem several different ways. I could have cooked some stamina replenishing dishes. I could have run around the mountain to look for places I could rest between climbing.
    What I first tried instead was to drop some flints in the grass. My plan was to hit these flints with my metal sword, so a fire would start in the grass. This fire would then create an updraft that I could use to get up a few meters with my glider.

    It didn‘t work. When I hit the flints with my sword it also cut the grass. There was nothing to burn left. So I dropped a few hot peppers next to the flints. See, you can‘t just use these hot peppers to cook dishes that make you warm in freezing climate, according to the very intuitive cartoon logic of the game you can also create an updraft with them if they‘re roasted.

    I could have also build a catapult to launch me in the air. Using my Magnesis rune I could have found some metal crates and metal plank and with these I could have launched myself in the air.

    Or I could have used the Stasis rune to freeze some boulder in place, then whack it with a weapon to load it up with energy, hold on to it quickly before Stasis wears off, and let myself be shot at the montain while holding on to that boulder. Could have also used a tree I cut myself for this, just like you can use felled trees to get over ravines.

    There‘s so much creative stuff you can try. You can attach an octo-balloon to a bomb (or anything, really), then use a giant tree leaf to blow the hovering bomb to an enemy encampment, then make the momb go off. You could also do this with a red chu chu jelly to create a fire, or with a white jelly to freeze the enemies.

    Etc. Etc.

    Even the shrine puzzles usually offer several differnet solutions, as many of them are basically physics puzzles.

  16. criskywalker says:

    This is the reason why we urgently need better A.I. in games. Imagine a small neighborhood where everyone goes around following their routines, interests and needs, something like The Sims.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      It wasn’t amazing or anything but the Elder Scrolls games that make an effort to give characters routines really made the world click with me. I know they were very rudimentary, but it was really cool to see a caravan being attacked by monsters that were fleeing from a patrol. I happened upon that kind of scene a bunch of times, and it gave my game both a mini narrative punch and a momentarily interesting decision (who am I gonna ‘help’?).

  17. cpt_freakout says:

    Great stuff, and pretty accessible for non-developers like me, too. Already looking forward to the next one!

  18. Wednesday says:

    Tom Francis, yay! Tom Francis, yay! Tom Francis, yay! Tom Francis, yay!

  19. dontnormally says:

    Please make a 4x game with emergent elements!

    • Jac says:

      Please make a Bullfrog like game about managing emergency services with emergent elements and call it Emergency: Emergence – the Emergencing.

  20. Fungaroo says:

    I always think of Dwarf Fortress when I think of emergent gameplay. There are so many different systems in that beautiful beast of a game at this point and they never cease to surprise or amaze in the ways in which they interact.

    I recently had a dorf, my woodcutter, get in a fight with a snapping turtle. He managed to fend off the snapping turtle, but during the time it took him to fight the turtle, the tree he had been chopping down fell on him and maimed him. Literally my dorf lived an episode of Ax-Men lol.

    As far as emergence elsewhere, we’re starting to see emergent behavior from AI’s, and that’s… both fascinating and frightening. Anyways.

  21. Mouse_of_Dunwall says:

    Great article! I really enjoyed this column on the author’s blog and am looking forward to reading more of it here.

  22. Gomer_Pyle says:

    Great article! I’m definitely looking forward to more of these.

  23. Alex says:

    “The shopkeeper absolutely did murder the tribesman, and another shopkeeper, and a dog, and ultimately himself – but it was the boomerang that made things interesting.”

    you are a true gem Tom

  24. Faxmachinen says:

    I don’t think “Vent Crawlers” is a great name for the genre, what with the Citizen Kane of vent crawling being a rather well-known and very linear FPS.

  25. bill says:

    I haven’t even read this yet, but I’m very excited to find out that Tom is writing here.

    It’s just a shame that he didn’t overlap with Pip, given their tastes in games are like oil and water – opposites.