Emerge Remerge Demerge
Complex games yield unexpected results
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west; God's in his heaven, all's right with the world; video game designers design and video game players play. Except, that is, when the players come up with their own rules. Theorists call this "emergent play."
So when Project Gotham Racing 2 players on Xbox Live devised the unoffical game of Cat and Mouse—where "cats" (fast cars) help a "mouse" (slow car) get across the finish line before the mouse from another team does—that's an example of emergent play.
And when players of NetHack—the open-source dungeon-crawling game—perform "nurse dancing" to pump up their hit points (a tactic where the secret healing attack of the dungeon-dwelling nurse is multiplied by reading a Cursed Scroll of Genocide and engaging in nude, unarmed anti-combat with the resulting army of nurses), that's emergent play.
And when your four-year-old daughter drives her car directly off the road and into the reflecting pool so she can cruise around underwater in TrackMania Nations Forever? Why, that's emergent play, too.
Emergent play inverts the media of video gaming. It's somewhere short of actually modding your favorite game with code tweaks (like, say, the Freeze Tag mod for Quake 3), but can provide an equally transformative game experience. (When Project Gotham 3 was released, guess what new game mode was added? Yep, Cat and Mouse.)
Some games are already predicated on the idea of open-ended gameplay—Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, Second Life—but what's increasingly more common is for emergent elements to appear in games not deliberately devised to be sandboxes.
Portal is a nonviolent first-person shooter with a unique gameplay mechanic: You can fire two portals—one you will enter and one you will exit—thus creating a paradoxical wormhole through space and time. And while the puzzles thrown at you by the game are engaging and serve to introduce the twisty new way of thinking Portal requires, I found myself pausing to goof around with the implications of the wormhole. Like the kid who figures out that if you hold a mirror up to another mirror, you can get a visual representation of infinity, I stood in front of one portal and placed the other one where I could see myself looking into it. And there I was, looking at myself looking at myself looking at myself. Whoa.
Another little trick is to place your portals side-by-side in a corner. Not only can you see yourself in both portals at the edge of your vision, but you can chase your own tail, racing from portal to portal in an interdimensional circle. You can almost—but not quite—catch up to yourself. Whoa again.
Technology critic Clive Thompson, writing on Wired.com, nails this phenomenon precisely:
"Pretty much everyone who plays Portal ... immediately tries a little physics experiment. ... You put a portal on the floor in front of you, and then one on the ceiling directly above it. Step into the first hole, and you instantly fall out of the hole in the ceiling—whereupon you fall back into the hole on the ground. Woo hoo! You are now falling endlessly through the holes, over and over again, in a dreamlike, self-created infinite loop."
It's these kinds of exploratory notions that drive Portal into sublime realms of alternate-universe logic. In this world, the velocity of an object falling out of one portal keeps increasing when passing through a second portal, so when, later in the game, you have to multiply your speed beyond what is possible in the real world, you can fall through one portal, emerge from another, shoot another portal to land in, fall through that, all the while increasing acceleration until you can launch yourself sailing through space to a distant platform. It's nutty. It has no real-world equivalent, but eventually your brain starts to decode the new rules of the portalverse.
On one level with slowly moving platforms, I kept firing and leaping through portals to each platform until I suddenly snapped to the fact that I was thinking inside the box: All I had to do was fire a portal into the room beyond the platforms and step through. There was no need for all this Super Mario jumping. Duh.
On Selectparks.net, the plaudits for Audiosurf were ecstatic: "Sometimes people come up with some idea that is so fucking excellent you wonder how on Earth you survived without it." Well, I admit it's a cool concept. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez was a breakthrough in game/music integration, but it was all rigged: They made the levels and they chose the music. You played. Audiosurf, on the other hand, accepts any song as fodder for generating its "music-adapting puzzle racer" levels. The song is not just background music while you play, it becomes the level.
Audiosurf pre-analyzes any MP3 or WMA you throw at it and maps it onto a futuristic ribbon of light littered with colored puzzle blocks. Assembling clusters of like colors earns you points. Networked stats collection shows you how your performance stacks up against other Audiosurfers who chose the same song. (Hey, I'm third best on Zero 7's "Futures!") And once you've fed it one song, you are pretty much hooked, even if (like me) you find the Pac-Man-meets- Klax gameplay less than compelling. The real hook that emerges is seeing what kind of racetrack one of your favorite songs will create and riding it through to the end. The rest is just window-dressing.
Complex systems yield unexpected behaviors—objects that interact, free agents and demons. There wasn't much that could emerge from Space Invaders. And Pac-Man only offered sandbox-style play on the fabled level 256 where half the screen became a garbled mess of error codes and sprites. Portal and Audiosurf exemplify some of the new stretchiness of video games, a product of the detailed fabric of code from which they are woven.