Emergent Narrative and Imposed Narrative in Game Design

When I design a strategy game, my primary goal is to create emergent complexity. That is, a game easy to learn, but soon branches into multiple options, deep tactics, and long-term replay value. That's great for a strategy game, especially an abstract strategy game. If your game has a strong theme, your mind starts filling in that abstraction with aesthetic details.

This topic came up in a conversation with Sage LaTorra about For the Fleet. He looked over the alpha draft and had the following comments: "I feel like the game I was hoping for had more narrative than FtF currently does. FtF is pretty much a pushing your luck game with some extra cool dimensions of how and where you push that luck, which I dig. I just like the Zap Brannigan feel so much that I wanted more."

Eventually this settled into the notion of a Mission for each ship. Essentially, each ship gets a mission with three thematically related objectives. Each objective offers additional glory for your ship. Accomplishing the entire mission earns an upgrade for all ships in the fleet. For example:

Objective 1: Start at Sector 1, RAID one Target in each Sector. / 2 Glory
Objective 2: Be the first to WARP to the Imperial Capital. / 5 Glory
Objective 3: RAID the Imperial Capital twice. / 10 Glory
Mission Accomplished: All ships in the Fleet gain Experienced Crew.
Experienced Crew: You may declare three standard actions instead of two.

That is an imposed narrative. It presses a narrative structure on a system that doesn't naturally create one on its own. This is a valid solution, and one with many possibilities for play scenarios. I can see prison breakouts where you're ferrying POWs from the Imperial Capital back to Sector 1. I can see missions that call for you to pillage key Memes from specific Targets, bring them to another Target, so the Fleet can upgrade to faster engines.

Contrast this with Sandy Petersen recounting his first test of Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system 30 years ago: "My players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like "I’m covering my eyes." "Turning my back." "Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster." ... I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behavior. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D."

That's classic emergent narrative. The rules didn't directly say "Play your characters like neurotic cowards." They simply provided a structure where that was the most natural course of action.

Sage offers some more references: "My points of comparison here are primarily Lord of the Rings card game and Death Angel. I can kind of sum up my gameplay in those games as a story with a distinct ending. My reading of FtF sounds like the narrative summary would always be "We went and raided some planets, then made it back home." (Or "ran our of fuel" or "got stuck")."

Imposed narrative isn't a bad thing, nor is it necessarily preferable to emergent narrative. They're just two very different solutions to the same task. Emergent narrative is simply a more difficult butterfly to capture.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.