Storytelling – Emergent Narrative Essay

For storytelling, we had to write a paper on non-traditional narrative. I chose to write about X-Com’s emergent narrative:

Paul Korolenko – Storytelling – Section 01
Case Study 02 – Non-Traditional Narrative

X-Com: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of, what many consider, a classic strategy game. The game’s main narrative revolves around an alien invasion on Earth. The world’s governments unite to form and fund a task force charged with dealing with this threat. The task force is known as X-Com. The player assumes the role of the commander of X-Com. Throughout the game, the narrative pops up intermittently, but for the most part, the game gives the player freedom to build their own stories. This isn’t just in regards to the narrative, but also characters. As X-Com producer, Garth DeAngelis (2012), puts it “…the external story is very important to the internal stuff. It’s the framework for the player to conceive their own story elsewhere.” (para. 12). The external narrative that DeAngelis refers to serves primarily to teach the player how to play or to show the player what the aliens are doing.

Leaving so much of the narrative open allows players to create their own world and experience. This creation occurs through the intricate interactions of the game’s mechanics. The game can be broken up into two gameplay categories: in combat and out of combat. Out of combat, the player must build a secret facility. This is done by first selecting a continent on which the facility is built. The very first decision in the game guides the rest of the emergent narrative. Depending on which continent the player picks, a bonus is granted. This bonus can be extra funding, cheaper research as well as many other perks. Additionally, the home continent is granted an air force immediately. This is important as an air force protects from invasions and lowers panic. After a continent is selected the player is provided with an extremely bare bones base. The player can build facilities such as workshops, labs, alien containment units as well as several other options. From workshops, new technology can be built to give soldiers a leg up in battle. In labs, the player can research new advancements that provide new technology and buffs. Alien containment units are used to imprison live specimens. All of these things cost money. Money is only attained through the budget allotted by the X-Com council. It becomes vital that the player decides how to best spend their money. This customization and choice lays the groundwork for the rest of the emergent gameplay. Each player’s facility will be different and greatly affect the course of the game. When the player is ready to fight, they must go to the command center. From here, the player must use satellites to scan airspace. Three abduction sites are presented to the player, but only one can be chosen to go to. The sites that aren’t chosen gain panic. If a region gains too much panic, they will leave the X-Com and take their funding with them.

Obviously to fight a war, the player will need soldiers. This is one of the more interesting aspects of X-Com’s emergent narrative elements. When recruited, soldiers are assigned a nationality, a name and aesthetic traits randomly. However, the player has the ability to change all of these stats to whatever they want. In addition to these cosmetic changes, the player must treat the soldiers’ wounds, customize their abilities as they rank up and equip their gear. All of these design elements have been somewhat superficial thus far. It isn’t until the player actually takes on the alien threat that these design points are really given life.

In combat, the player views the battlefield from an isometric view. The battlefield is obscured by the “fog of war.” That means the player can only see portions of the battlefield that the soldiers have seen. From the start, this adds an element of tension, especially given that the maps are procedural and different each playthrough. Gameplay is turn-based. The player must choose actions for each of the soldiers. These actions can be move, attack, reload, defend, overwatch or use a special ability. Each soldier’s actions and movements are governed by individual statistics. Once the player has used all action points, the AI moves the enemy. This loop continues until the threat or the soldiers are defeated. If the battle is won, the player gains a reward such as more scientists or cash. If the player loses, the region gains panic.

If a particular soldier does well in battle, that soldier ranks up. This means that the soldier is awarded a skill as well as provides more options for the player in terms of customization. Depending on soldier performance, the soldier is given a nickname. Patrick Lum (2012) writes about the impact of the nickname system “They don’t just get better abilities as they survive, they gain nicknames, too, and stories. We call him Lockdown – he got off the ramp and didn’t move for two minutes, a sniper shot every three seconds, dead Mutons at our feet” (para. 6). This is a story that is specific to Patrick’s game. It is not something that is hard coded into the game. I can play 100 times and never get a character nicknamed Lockdown. This, along with the abilities and the actual experience of combat builds the character. This random soldier now has a story that the player is a part of. It not only gives the soldier tactical value through the accruement of skills and abilities, but also sentimental value through these stories. This is enhanced even further if the player customized the soldiers to resemble people they actually know. As soldiers grow and rank, that soldier’s own personal narrative grows as well. So, what happens when a soldier isn’t fortunate enough to make it back to base after a battle?

They die. It’s as simple as that. The character dies and is gone forever. Since the player controls each soldier’s actions in battle, when a soldier dies, it falls on the shoulders of the player. The nicknames, the stories, the skills, they are all gone. The soldier’s name, nickname and rank are displayed on a memorial located in the X-Com base. This death mechanic places a weight on every move the player makes with each soldier. It also makes nicknames, rank ups and victories all the sweeter.

Permanent death also serves to affect player choice going forward. If a soldier dies from a close range blast, a player may decide that instead of funding research it may be better to invest in heavier armor. This in itself is an emergent story. A soldier died due to a bad command leading the commander to take the death hard. This further led to the commander equipping soldiers with heavier armor to make sure no one has to die like the aforementioned soldier. My story lacks dramatic nuance but for the player that actually has something like that happen, it is as good as any traditional narrative. I have friends that save after every turn so that they can quit and reload if the narrative doesn’t turn out the way they want. On the other hand, there are purists that play through without trying to alter outcomes because it makes for a better story. The very fact that this debate exists serves to prove the effectiveness of the narrative.

One negative side to this method is that stories may not play out all that well for less skilled players. Many of these attachments are based upon some of the soldiers having success. However, success is not written in stone. If a player continually loses large amounts of soldiers, X-Com’s biggest narrative trick becomes absent. There are no nicknames, no battle stories, only the framework narrative. Additionally, in terms of relating to the traditional hero cycle, the game falters. Oddly enough, the only character that can potentially be transposed into the hero cycle is the player. Since most of the story is about the player’s choice and actions, the player becomes a character in the story. The issue here is that this concept may be too meta for players wanting narrative to pick up on.

Another downfall to emergent storytelling is the debate of the value of the stories. Nick Dinicola (2013) writes “Emergent stories are not complete stories, they’re just outlines of a story. They’re living outlines that can be rearranged on the fly, but they’re still just outlines—nothing more than a sequence of vaguely related events” (para. 9) By this he means that emergent stories are only given context by the player. He goes on to progress this point “Why should you care about that time my best Assault Soldier ran too far ahead and got flanked by two Mutons?.. I care because I’m invested in my soldiers’ well-being. They’re important cogs in my battlefield machine, but they’re not characters…” (para. 14). Since soldiers in X-Com have no background or preprogrammed personality, it all exists within the player’s mind.

To that end, is it that different than tabletop RPGs? Each player must come up with a background for their own character (unless the DM wants to take control of that aspect). Does this mean that stories that emerge from tabletop RPGs are less valuable than those that are more tailored? Dinicola (2013) also says “Emergent stories only become meaningful when they’re given context by an author’s voice… people writing about their personal experience, but adding commentary to it to make it relevant to a wider audience” (para. 11). X-Com provides the tools for the player to experience a story. This story is completely created and given context within the player. Since X-Com is meant to be played single player is this a bad thing? Looking at the technique from the narrow perspective of traditional narrative can make it seem as if X-Com lacks substance. However, to the player, there is an abundance of substance and context. Does it really matter that the player becomes the primary storyteller?

An alarm is going off in the barracks. Figures, it’s just before lights out. I guess it was foolish of me to think that I’d get a decent night’s sleep. The Mutons tried to invade Sydney but got shot down by our interceptors. The strange thing is that the ship is still intact. Dr. Vahlen says that this is our chance to get our hands on some alien tech. They replaced my grenade loadout with something called an Arc Thrower. It’s a little handgun that’s supposed to knock an alien out cold so that we can detain it for study. You have to laugh at that. They want me to get up close to one of those green-blooded creeps to test out experimental tech. As stupid of an idea that it seems, how can I say no? The world is at stake. Apparently all that construction that’s been going on in sub-level 2 is some kind of prison for these things. Anyone who’s fought against them knows that it’s a bad idea to keep living ones around. On the other hand, they could give us the edge in battle. At least they’re sending the best of the best with me.

I’d be taking point with Sgt. Chris “Mustang” Long. He got the name Mustang because of the way he charges into battle. The guy is insane, but I’m damn glad to have him on our side. At our backs we have Corporal Sarah Aziz and Sgt. Maria “Richter” Popova. Aziz is no nonsense hence the lack of a nickname. If there’s anyone I want behind the scope of a sniper rifle it’s someone like her. Popova, on the other hand… Well, you don’t earn the nickname Richter without causing some tremors. The four of us load onto the transport to be whisked away to the beautiful down under. As usual, the trip was mostly silent. Everyone had to put on their game faces. Mustang pops in his headphones. I can hear what he’s listening to clear as day. It’s a wonder that he can still hear. Come to think of it, maybe he charges in the way he does because he can’t hear the enemy. Richter disassembles and reassembles her beloved LMG, making sure everything is in prime shape. Aziz is a rock, she just stares ahead as if we weren’t being sent to our potential deaths. How does she stay so cool? I close my eyes and hope that I get to see home again. I don’t want to end up a name scrawled on a memorial. The deployment doors open to a foggy battlefield. No aliens in sight. Here goes nothing…

That is a story derived from part of one mission during my X-Com experience. In the game, it’s not nearly that deep and descriptive, but the game allows me to build these stories in my head. They don’t tell me who each soldier really is, but they also don’t stop me from making my own assumptions and drawing my own conclusions. This allows me to build these characters however I see fit. To me, this narrative is as valuable as any traditional narrative. I can see how someone can find fault in this method. However, a story being given context by the player is not a bad thing. In fact, it is something that is unique to video games. As previously stated, the design intent was to let the player create an internal narrative.

Regardless of these tiny flaws, when all of these systems work in conjunction, each playthrough provides a different narrative for each player. Even if the player names the characters the same names as previous playthroughs, the stories and outcomes will be completely different. Aliens will successfully invade different countries, different continents will panic and leave the X-Com program, different soldiers will rise to prominence and others will perish in the glory of battle. X-Com’s narrative predominantly emerges from the gameplay. The world’s state is always directly affected by player action and choice. The beauty in all of it is the subtlety in the application. These systems seem fairly simple on their own; player builds a base, player hires soldiers, player uses soldiers to fight aliens, repeat. However, when looked at as a whole, these systems come together to create something wholly unique. The game allows players to create their own stories without them even realizing they’re creating something. That’s not only non-traditional narrative but also something that should be lauded for its execution and ambition.