Tabula Rasa: The Thrill of Emergent Storytelling in Games

By Mark Delaney, 5 months ago
With No Man's Sky landing on planet Xbox this week, I felt it was finally time I give the game a try. I was moderately excited for it when it arrived in 2016, neither feverishly expecting "the last game to ever be made" nor writing it off prematurely as snake oil. When it launched and took the hit it did critically, it was enough to turn me away from the game for a long time. I still nearly picked it up many times over the past two years, but not until this week did I head off into Hello Games' procedurally generated universe for the first time. My full review will come later, but for a hint of what's to come, I'm liking it so far. That's subject to change for a game whose full feature set is vast and I've yet to see most of it, but I'm not nearly as down on it as many seemed to be when it launched on other platforms a few years ago.

Still, it's apparent why many people don't think much of it. It demands a lot of your attention be spent on monitoring gauges and various status effects, really to a detrimental extent at least early on in the game — I expect these things will need less maintenance as I play more. The procedurally generated universe is full of all sorts of exciting possibilities, and yet that same system can often play host to slumps in the adventure when the randomized world building carves out a few boring space rocks in a row. It's not for everyone, but like several other games of late I think what it does best is it gives me a basic outline of an adventure, but it trusts me to write my own story. Like Sea of Thieves, Fortnite, and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, these games have redefined what kind of stories are possible in the medium, and they've reshaped my image of what I mean when I say I love story-driven video games.

He's not gonna talk about Sea of Thieves again, is he? Yes he is!He's not gonna talk about Sea of Thieves again, is he? Yes he is!

I've always considered myself a story-first gamer. The term is even in my staff bio at the bottom of this page you're reading. For years and years, multiplayer was something I took part in very sparingly and only with a few select people. Just recently, I wrote about how Sea of Thieves has helped me get over some social anxieties and get comfortable with playing with strangers online, but that wasn't the only reason I didn't like multiplayer. Those game modes tended not to have stories to them, and when they did, like Titanfall, they seemed like such obvious afterthoughts that it didn't amount to anything of interest for me.

I preferred my stories to be front and center in stuff like Uncharted or Alan Wake. It seemed like that was the only way stories worked well in games. Sea of Thieves was the first game that changed my perception on the subject. With little structure outside of the intent to rank up to become Pirate Legend, Thieves sets you off into a vast ocean where you're meant to island-hop without any formal tutorial and make your own fun. For many, that open-ended outline is precisely why the game doesn't grab them. But one look at the diehard Sea of Thieves community will show you how much is possible when you give players the tools to tell their own stories without showing them how they "should" use them.

Consider popular Twitch streamer TheFrostE, who hosts a game show, Loot and Lore, on the open seas several nights per week. He and his friends gather up a ton of treasure, invite other crews on board for a trivia contest, and the winners walk away with riches as though Drew Carey was on board. He and others have also hosted gladiator tournaments where players fight to be the last pirate standing atop the crow's nest. I've made it my own mission to make a stealth game out of Sea of Thieves, where I sneak onto other ships and see how long I can last unannounced, watching other players and crews, going wherever they go and seeing how they live their lives as pirates. My favorite moment came recently when a galleon crew tried to sneak on board my ship and sabotage me with a single powder keg, not knowing I was already on theirs waiting to retaliate should they decide to get violent. You can see that clip — and my exceptional grace as a balancing buccaneer — below.

Over at Polygon, one writer recounted the story of living through an Aesop's Fable. It wasn't a mission structured by the game's developers, not some HUD-heavy quest they were following one breadcrumb at a time a la Assassin's Creed. It was all born out of the laissez-faire approach and it is absolutely the rule on the sea of thieves, not the exception. Giving players the freedom to tell their own stories has worked wonders for Rare's new game. It's why it has found such a passionate audience of devotees like me and many others.

That same trend can be seen just as often in the two biggest games of the past twelve months. PUBG and Fortnite became global phenomena thanks to their stream-friendly, hands-off structure. Sure, both games quite plainly tell you to survive as long as you can, and they place great emphasis on being the sole survivor who wins it all, but every match is uniquely different in a way that is unlike other multiplayer shooters. Both games excel at telling emergent stories so much so that even when you lose, you've gained a new tale to tell.

I play battle royale games a lot with my brother, and it's always a talking point for us to pass through an area and recount tales of previous battles we raged there. They come rushing back to us with the scenery. "Oh, I remember this place," we often say. When we pass the neighborhood to the south of Mylta it's, "this is where four different teams took shots at us as we drove by, we crashed, they swarmed us, and we survived." When we go to Tilted Towers it's, "this is where we made our first ever drop and survived in the circle all the way until fourth place before we took a rocket launcher through a window and to our faces." When we do win, the last moment before victory is often not the highlight, but rather the path we took to get there. How far we were from the circle, how many skirmishes we survived, how many near-deaths we had. All of it becomes an action novella, and then we restart and it happens all over again.

Almost every building, and certainly every neighborhood at this point, have their own stories to share. They're unique to us and the coolest part is if you've played enough, you surely have your own stories too. Compare your own exciting narratives in these games to the multiplayer games of old, where players take turns shooting and running in circles for a few seconds before dying and respawning. Rinse and repeat. It's this new structure that has traditional multiplayer studios so scared, but it's not just besting the old guard of competitive online gaming. With great single player linear games, we can all recall how we felt at certain moments, like at the end of The Last of Us. Our feelings may differ but the events are identical no matter who you are. Millions of people all saw the exact same thing over the years. Just while you read this, tens of thousands of players are crafting unique stories in each of these emergent storytellers. In a game like PUBG or Fortnite, every match is a canvas on which players paint vibrant portraits of That One Time.

In games like PUBG, winning can feel like everything, but the journey is often the most memorable part.In games like PUBG, winning can feel like everything, but the journey is often the most memorable part.

Like I said, I'm early into No Man's Sky but I'm already noticing a similar appeal of making up my own story. While the vibe in battle royale games is one of drama and tension, and that in Sea of Thieves is often one of hilarity and adventure, I'd say the driving force behind NMS so far is discovery and learning. Now that I'm getting the hang of the resource management and scavenging, those systems are moving behind the true appeal of the game, which is traveling to a new planet and not knowing what I'll find there. Decoding languages of alien civilizations, building elaborate bases, communicating with intelligent lifeforms, and role-playing my astronaut the same way I do my pirate has been great so far. I recall when No Man's Sky launched in 2016 there was at least one player who was keeping an actual captain's log of his travels. Stuff like that is so refreshing to me.

In the linear story games I very much still adore, everything we know about the world, we learn from the creators putting it there. In these emergent storytellers, there's often concrete lore to discover, but the players decide what the story will be, both individually and as a community. Having just arrived at my first space station in No Man's Sky, the thrill of interacting with other living creatures and following the loosely plotted story is taking over my mind. What will I see next? Neither I nor the game truly knows what's to come, and whatever happens, it'll be my story and no one else's. This sort of serious role-playing is something even Fallout or Mass Effect have never achieved for me because ultimately I still feel compelled to chase objective markers and do whatever missions fall into my lap. My choices are always made explicit and the ways in which I've impacted the story are eventually, if not immediately, made clear. That doesn't make me a director of the narrative, it makes me a passenger. I still love being a passenger in a good story, but I'm finding sometimes it's more fun to take the wheel.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.