We talk a lot about games using inexact language. Genre terms are some of the worst – I’ve talked about how awkward our framework is. Sometimes we describe games based on their mechanics, their country of origin, other games they remind us of, the camera position, and even a few games get named based on the creator. It’s not a good system.
That said, let’s put out some Game Studies language that may be useful, maybe.
In half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul, Dutch Games Studies academic and renowned speller-of-videogames-as-two-words describes a whole range of stuff. It’s a good book, it’s got a lot of stuff in it, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, because that’s how academic books go.
In this book, though, he describes the idea of games of progression and games of emergence. Juul describes games of progression as functionally being about games where a player moves through a sequence of events one after the other. A common metaphor for this kind of game you’ll hear is a route. The simplest version of this could be mapped as something a bit like this:
That’s not to say that they’re strictly linear. You can make a game of progression that has varied sequences of routes that meet up, or even ones that go off in different directions.
The point with a game of progression is that by design they’re structured. Players in games of Progression have every reason to expect predictable responses, and a linear flow. That’s not to say you can’t go backwards in this kind of game’s spaces or anything – it’s that the game has a sequence of expected events the player moves through.
The other kind of game is known as a game of emergence. These games are built instead around rules that react and interrelate. Games of emergence set rules, and then let the play experience put those rules in contrast with one another. A good example of this is Minecraft, where the vastness of the worlds it generates and the things within them that connect to one another are mostly made out of very small sets of rules.
There is a corollary: There’s a common thing called emergent behaviour, where players engaging with a game use things in unexpected ways. This isn’t what games of emergence are about.
A good example of this is how in Quake, levels were designed with large open high areas that you had to reach through circuitous routes, and the explosive force of a rocket was made to let you knock enemies around and to give the weapon impact. Combine the two, and the ability to shoot a rocket at your feet and throw yourself into the air becomes a way to circumvent barriers in the level, to short-cut through parts of the game.
If the Quake levels hadn’t been designed with their bigger areas and overlooks, then rocket jumping wouldn’t be a useful emergent behaviour. If the rocket hadn’t been designed with the knockback it had, it wouldn’t be useful for short-cutting around the level. These are all just parts of the game, that never were planned to work alongside one another, and once players got their hands on them, they found the interaction and created something new.
As with all game models, it’s important to remember that these two things aren’t really as simple as they look. While you can point to (for example) World End Economica and see it as a linear game of progression, and SimCity as a game of emergence, games move between these zones hazily. One might be tempted to call Bloodborne or Dark Souls games of emergence because of their nonlinear structure and extremely flexible semi-random combat system, but one can also consider most games in the Soulsborne mould as a sequence of levels. You may do them in a different order, but the progression through each area is absolutely a path from a beginning to an end.
Juul’s short-cut for identifying the games is to look for a FAQ for the game. If the FAQ describes a sequence of things to do, it’s probably a game of progression; if the FAQ describes a list of strategies, it’s probably a game of emergence.