essay, video games

The Impossible Garden: Emergent Play

[A little while back, I wrote this for a special reason. I was in a bit of a mood that day. It gets a bit Walden-esque in places but has some good ideas. At least, I think it does.]

You will never have an experience with a video game that was completely planned by the developers. Sure, they can block your path, slow your growth or restrict your options. They can completely remove your agency and even end your experience outright for making the wrong choices. But they can never completely predict your actions. In this, every participation is organic and new.

I like to jump in games. If you give me the option to jump, I will probably exercise that right as frequently as possible. I will have my character hop around haphazardly. Like some crazed rabbit, I will spring, leap and bound my way through any story that a game might present to me. I will mock any serious situation with my absurd and energetic antics. I will skip through every dark and dreary forest.  Though expressing the joy of the moment, I overlook the story. It is an abrupt beauty that fades quickly in the overall narrative of the game. In essence, every experience I have is a flower, a quick flourish of bloomed deliberation.

Maybe flowering is not your thing. Maybe vines are. Thick and strong, they wrap around every tree trunk of game mechanics. They squeeze the rules with a strong will and, given time, find ways to bend them to their needs. Creeping with time, they find every nook and cranny, every secret place. They explore every crack and crevice. In pursuit of their goals, the vines crawl under, around and through every area. They are ever expanding but frequently suffocating. Although they have knowledge of the entire domain, they often miss the artistry of the moment. Direct that growth though and it will pattern and branch out.

A bush is a modeled thing, a planned structure. Even wild growth will have some type of serendipitous symmetry. Bushes start with a plan and branch out. They might explore some option but retreat if does not reach their goal. A bush shapes the journey to the goal. Secured in twisting tributaries, growth happens only as it pertains to the mission but possibilities are ever-present. A bloom of frivolity might be allowed from time to time but always on the outside, the part easily dropped off and dismissed. A bush stands tall and its growth is massive but it all happens in small steps, in premeditated actions. Bushes stand aloof from the other growth, alone in multitudes of sameness.

A blade of grass is a strange thing in that it stands straight up. It has no branching, no crawling about and no flowering. It is a monolith of one mission, one goal. It strives for the golden while ignoring the moment, a plan or even the area. It wants one thing and despite everything else will grow and grow under it fails under its own weight of purpose. It can be easily cut down because it has little support structure. Though another blade of grass is near or far, all stand alone.

What I have described here in flowery language are different emergent play styles, the organic conglomeration of two different aspects: who you are and how you play.

The way you approach a game is a unique experience. You have some level of your past that controls your present, some part of who you are physically and mentally that was influenced and does influence your experiences. Your life experiences will inevitably bleed over into your play style. Be it for pain or pleasure, your reactions in a game will try to elicit some response in yourself.

Though it overlaps who you are, how you play a game can be complimentary or even in conflict with who you are to others. Maybe you like to role-play in a game, really become a character. Given the chance to be absorbed in the narrative, you immerse yourself. Maybe whomever you play is always you. Your character will always act as if you were in that situation. Regardless, you have a style of play that is common to your many adventures.

When you mix the cultivation of style with the innate pattern of the player, you get a seed of possibility. Every action chosen adds to the path of growth. Knowledge of the past and the goals of the present add to the structure. Time and energy are pored over and sink into the roots. Eventually, a sprout of purpose emerges. It reaches toward the goal in totally new ways. A developer might plan and try to predict the future movements of all players but each session is new, unique and utterly organic, the collection an impossibly complex conservatory of existences.