On Emergent Storytelling in videogames


I’m often confused by people who champion emergent stories in games, but that’s largely because the stories they cite are rubbish. That said, I’ve been playing Crusader Kings 2 an awful lot, and that’s throwing stories at me left right and centre, and all of them are great.

At least until I tell people about them.

Usually, stories are a thing that should be shared. That’s the whole point of writing a book, to share a story with the world. To that end, you have to structure it in such a way that you ease the reader into it, or grab them so hard they dare not pull away. This, I think, is why I get that sense of confusion with emergent stories.

The ones I experience, like in games like Crusader Kings 2, are built around my experience with the game, the thousands of things that one can’t easily articulate that shape your game. When the story forms, it already has that bedrock of interest. When others tell me their stories, this bedrock is omitted – because it is not something easily transmitted – and so I don’t tend to connect with their stories.

This sounds like a criticism, but in truth it isn’t meant as one. If anything it is praise. True, maybe the stories aren’t easy to share with conviction, but at least they are powerful enough that you remember them.

And besides, any game that lets you create an alternate history where Abyssinia conquered Spain is fine by me.

(It’s totally research, not procrastination. Honest.)   

On Research and the Secret History of Concrete

Paved Roman Road

Doing research for a novel is weird. It feels a bit like cheating, seeing as it’s a perfectly legitimate way to not be actually writing your book.

Here’s an example. I’m writing a book at the moment – a shock, I know – set in Victorian England. As such, in the name of research, every time I mention anything at all I have to go and type it into google to see if it even existed at the time.

It’s amazingly enlightening to find out just how much you don’t know about the things that are around us every day. The history of things as simple as concrete, for instance. I actually had to sit down and research when we started using the stuff, only to find that it was basically invented during ancient Rome and then forgotten about for something like one thousand years.

A thousand years! It gets you thinking about the secret history of other mundane nonsense, reminds you that there are stories everywhere if you care to look for them.

Sometimes, when I’m subjecting a group of people to a long and pretentious conversation about the art of book-writery, I’ll get asked “where do you get your ideas from?”

Things like this, that’s where.