Monday, March 5, 2012

Emergent Storytelling

There is a lot of argument in the gaming world about the place for "story" in RPGs. My very first post on this blog concerned plots in RPGs. Lately, I've been thinking about emergent storytelling.

Emergent storytelling, as I see it, is where stories develop over time, with no clear end in sight. Rather than being like a joke that is a setup to a punchline, it is instead a serendipitous rambling, that only in hindsight seems to have some sort of story structure.

I am not a big fan of this type of storytelling. My annoyance with it is not limited to RPGs, but rather tends to be focused on television shows that start out well, only to fall apart after a season or six. I think one of the biggest offenders of this was LOST. One of the biggest mysteries of all was introduced in the pilot... the Smoke Monster. Come to find out, no one on the creative team had any idea what it actually was. The final explanation for it turned out to be less than thrilling.

In television, emergent storytelling happens as a result of real life interfering with the creative process. A pilot is written and filmed, but no one knows if the show will be picked up, or how long it will last. In this day and age, any single episode can wind up being the last, as a show is pre-emptively cancelled. I recently watched The Event on Hulu.. the whole first and only season of it... only to find out that whatever The Event was, we never got to see it.

I am currently in the middle of the 4th season of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix. The episode I just watched was written just prior to the writers strike of 2007/8. The show has been awesome thus far, but I have the feeling that some parts of the story are going to be majorly screwed by the time this is all over. I was reading a bit about the writing of the show, and the notion of the "final five" didn't even occur to the creator until the third season. I ask myself... how rewarding is this payoff going to actually be?

Maybe it is a hopeless dream that a show would be conceived all the way through, start to finish, before the first scene is ever filmed. I realize television series aren't movies. But I do like events in a story to mean something. I am currently hoping there is a reason two planets share the same observable constellations.
But sometimes, in TV and RPGs, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.


  1. I think many players like the idea that the end is not predetermined, and that they can have an impact on the story, rather than having the ending predetermined by the referee. In that way, RPGs are not like books and movies (which exist to communicate the author's ideas).

    I am personally not opposed to plot, but I don't like to determine the outcome beforehand. More like, these three factions are struggling, which do you want to support? Or maybe ignore them all? Such a situation is not random and and it is not plotted either. I really like the idea of setting up future timelines (subject to change of course) but I've never really been able to do such prep in a way that I was in the end able to use.

    And there is something to be said for a campaign that ends naturally because the motivating problems have been solved or circumvented. This is hard to do with an entirely freeform campaign. To be honest, I've never actually seen this happen in practice though.

  2. I think the challenge to achieving something approaching a "plot" is having a dynamic core to a story that can withstand taking damage.

    One way to think of it is like a fleet of drones. They players are individual drones, but the swarm has a trajectory that can withstand individuals acting out of synch. Players can choose their own destiny, but the general story arc will survive.

  3. 'Lost' was a joke from beginning to end. Never made sense to me why the most overweight person would be put in charge of the food?
    As for BSG, started out so well, then I felt betrayed by the cop-out finale. But sadly, I feel the US tv companies have become overly reliant on shows the have that initial 'wow!' effect. Then they ride it out until the legs collapse from underneath it, leaving the viewing public feeling cheated, disgruntled or 'meh, whatever!' about it. Which is a crying shame, sometimes.

    Here in the UK, some of the best dramas, comedies and thrillers have run no more than three seasons max, which works out so well, as things are left on a high. But slowly and surely, the US trend is starting to reveal itself in British television production runs.

  4. Hi Mark,

    I had a lot of faith in LOST for the first few seasons. Unfortunately, the creators made a huge ass fool out of me. Oh well.

    And BSG could have ended so much better. Other than their "collective unconscious" (characterized by All Along the Watchtower), there is zero explanation for the Colonials having the same mythology as ancient Rome. (Surely they aren't suggesting that the myths lasted some 145,000 years, when they become wildly popular for a few centures before they died out?)

    Sorry we're polluting your TV. I've always been fond of programming from the UK!