Traditionally, games were progressive. You, the player, would start at the beginning of a scripted story, and move through environments designed to only revolve around you. When you interacted with the system, something else happened. If you didn’t act, the world would never move or change. Like the protagonist in a play, the antagonists and props are pointless without the hero.
But in recent years of game development, a new trend of emergence has surfaced.
This essay looks at the the characteristics of emergent, complex systems, and the role of the player within them.
The game Don’t Starve, by Klei Entertainment will be used as an example of a complex system, in which the world is designed in a way that nearly ignore the player’s existence entirely.
The essay then goes on to explore, what might attract players to engage with a game world such as this one.
If the game you play pays no mind to you, and if the game gives you nothing for free – if there is no reward system and goal structure – what is fun about playing it?
Don’t Starve: A complex system
Many researchers directly say, that emergence will always be a byproduct of a complex system, and these same researchers all define a complex system, as when many individual parts come together to form a much more advanced – and sometimes unpredictable – outcome. (Zimmerman and Salen, 2004, Johnson, 2002, Wright, 2003).
“A simple system such as a wooden table does have parts (four legs and a tabletop) that interrelate to form a whole, and the whole is more than the sum of the parts, since a complete table can serve functions that the isolated pieces cannot.” (Zimmerman and Salen, 2004, pp. 152)
In other words: when different components with very simple functionality, or simple rules are all combined, it becomes something more. When this happens, a complex system is formed.
With this in mind, we can transfer the theories, to a game.
Don’t Starve – a survival game first published in 2013, developed by Klei Entertainment – features a Poe-esque scientist named Wilson. Wilson is mysteriously dropped alone and hungry in a strange new world, that has complex life of it’s own.
The environment Wilson finds himself in, is structured into a year with four different seasons. Each season features multiple different kinds of weather, including thunderstorms and meteor showers. There is a day and night cycle, with a duration corresponding to the time of year. On top of this, there is a lunar cycle that manipulates both various objects and entities roaming around the wilderness.
The creatures inhabiting the world have their own behavioural systems and patterns, completely unrelated to the player, designed in a way where they care more about each other, than they do about the player (Sweetser & Wiles, 2005).
Herds of animals will react to each other’s behaviour in flocking, occasionally entering mating season, or completely switch behaviour.
Looking at the theories of complex systems introduced above, it soon becomes clear, that all of these different elements follow very simple rules, if they act in isolation. The day- and night- cycle, for instance, simply changes on fixed intervals of time, and does not care about any of the other objects found in the system. And yet, animals might be given a simple rule, stating to act differently if the sun is down. This results in a wide variety of outcomes, and gives the incentive for complexity.
It is these exact principles of creating complex systems that has been implemented into Don’t Starve, as Klei developer and programer, Kevin Forbes, directly says about the game:
“Don’t starve is a very systems driven game. Lots of very simple things are happening in the environment, lots of very easy to understand and easy to implement little loops are going on all the time. […] The idea was, that emergent gameplay would happen.” (Forbes, 2014)
As Wilson is left to his own devices, running rampant through the fields and meadows, it becomes apparent that the environment only responds to his presence if he does something to provoke the inhabitants. The animals will only turn aggressive, if he hits them first. Even naturally hostile creatures will only react, if he enters their designated turf.
Ultimately, the player has become part of a neatly designed system, with it’s own simple rules and ways of doing things.
So if nothing is going to immediately threaten Wilson’s wellbeing, what is the challenge?
Surviving the System
It is commonly understood in game development, that a game will need a goal, in order to provide a challenge for the player. The challenge simply comes from friction and hindrance from reaching said goal. (Juul, 2007)
However, Don’t Starve does not provide the player with such a challenge, and as a result, the friction comes from something else.
The true challenge of a game that is a simple open-ended system, like Don’t Starve, lies in surviving the system itself. As time passes, the main character soon finds himself hungry and scared. If it rains or snows, he starts to freeze, and eventually there is a risk of dying from exposure.
Should the player decide to do nothing at all, the game will soon end.
If the player is tenacious enough, he or she will soon discover, that by collecting objects, they can craft tools, and thus starting to progress, if not thrive.
While the player is treated exactly like any other creature or object in the game – with a risk of anything from catching on fire, to being hit by lightning – the player can start to bend the system to their own advantage, eventually establishing relative safety, as they gain greater knowledge of the world they are in.
Finding a goal to pursue, where there is none
However, the challenge, is not necessarily equal to the goal. If anything, the mere presence of friction only adds frustration, if there is nothing else providing the player with motivation to play.
In the paper, Without a Goal (2007), Jesper Juul explores games, that simply doesn’t provide the player with something official to strive towards. He talks of games that has no official goals, games that has optional goals – but doesn’t punish the player for not completing them – and games that uses an easy high-score-option to add player motivation.
The closest Don’t Starve comes to some sort of rewards-driven goal system, is indeed based on the high score system Juul mentions.
True to the original arcade-format of striving to simply stay in the game for as long as possible, the player is eventually presented with a game over screen, when their character dies. Not much unlike games like Space Invaders(Taito, 1978) or Asteroids(Atari, Inc, 1979), the screen displays how long the player survived for, and how many points this has earned them.
It will show a meter fill up with said points, and if the player fills the meter all the way to the end, it will unlock a new, playable character.
In a certain sense, this is indeed something that provides the player with a reward. However, as you play the game, there is nothing signalling that such a thing will happen. The player can spend tens of hours in the game, without ever seeing this screen, and as a result, this does surely not count as an official goal to strive towards.
Furthermore, the unlockable characters soon run out, and the only reward system thus disappears entirely, along with an official goal.
Forbes describes, how the earliest versions of Don’t Starve did contain basic tasks for the player to complete, thereby keeping them occupied with a goal at all times.
“With the people we were bringing in to play the game, they would follow all the goals, and they would learn, and they would get everything that we put out in front of them, […] They would be playing, and then the goal text would disappear […] And they would turn to us and say ‘well, what do I do now?’ And you would say, well it’s open world […] you should want to do something. And they didn’t. They had optimised for boredom.” (Forbes, 2014)
Forbes eventually tells how the design team decided to remove the feature of goals all together, as it simply killed the creativity in how players interacted with the game.
Even though the players would instantly find the optimal strategy of the game, and breeze through the challenges, the desired outcome of player feedback was all wrong.
This ties into what Juul likewise concludes in his paper:
“While goals provide a sense of direction and challenge in games, they can also limit the player: A goal means that the player should work towards the goal, rather than follow his or her personal inclinations.” (Juul, 2007)
One important thing, that drives players forward in an open-ended game, is when it is treated as a medium for expression.
Instead of simply sitting through a cinematic experience, or being forced through a series of pre-scripted events – as is the case with progressive games – many interactive experiences now provides the audience with a way to explore, and express themselves aesthetically. The Sims(Maxis, 2000) lets the player go out of their way to spend hours picking the most beautiful set of dining chairs, even though these objects does not have any direct impact on the game system. Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) lets players rearrange blocks of materials for hours on end, even though it is limited how much of a difference the structure of said blocks actually has.
In a way, these games are not much unlike tinkering with Lego (The Lego Group, 1949) or playing a musical instruments without sheet music.
As soon as the unlockable characters run out in Don’t Starve – and they do very fast – the game enters this same realm of simply being a game of expression, where the player can rearrange objects in the system as they please.
However, there is a fine line, between what makes a game a game, and what simply makes it a tool for pure expression. The fact that a game offer resistance, is what hinders true player freedom, but it is also what separates it from a simple dollhouse. (Juul, 2007).
On the other hand, offer too much resistance, and the main selling point of the experience disappears.
Despite the game not providing players with an official goal, the players themselves will set up their own, personalised goals. Explore the entire map, having the most efficient base, collect the most food before winter arrives.
There is satisfaction in overcoming the friction the game throws at the player, since these personalised goals are as valid, as any official goal the designer might have come up with.
However, if the personalised goal the player is interested in requires less friction, the designers has implemented a workaround, in terms of free access to mods.
By modifying the game, players can freely make the game harder or easier, as they please. This is a way to directly circumvent the challenges of the game, allowing for the exact amount of freedom or restriction the player might want.
Not unlike the cheat codes in a game like The Sims, where typing a simple command into the console will provide the player with a never ending cash flow, the designers neatly allow the player complete control over their own experience, once again allowing for complete player expression.
Games dealing with complex systems, and emergent gameplay, is a new trend. By designing a complex system, based on countless components with their own simple rules, the designers of Don’t Starve has created the illusion of a living, breathing world, that allows the player an experience of exploration without an official goal.
This form of gameplay allows for the player to express themselves freely. However, the game needs to still provide challenge and friction, in order to separate itself as a simple creative tool, and remain a game.
In order to appeal to many different players, with a wide variety of goals, the designers has formed a community, that implements many different ways of playing the same game.
Games that are based on complex systems is clearly an interesting new ways of developing games, despite still remaining in the gray zone of what exactly defines a game. By not having a clear cut goal, it goes against the classic idea of what components make up a game. However, looking at the pure experience Don’t Starve – and games like it – provides, this is clearly a playful experience, as valid as any other.
Forbes, Kevin (2014) Don’t Starve: Creating Community Around an Antisocial Game. [GDC Conference Talk].
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P3kFXWK07o (Accessed: 10 October 2017)
Johnson, Steven (2002) Emergence. London, Penguin.
Juul, Jesper (2002) ‘The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression’. Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings.
Available at: https://www.jesperjuul.net/text/openandtheclosed.html (Accessed: September 2017)
Juul, Jesper (2007) ‘Without a Goal’. Tanya Krzywinska and Barry Atkins (eds): Videogame/Player/Text.
Available at: https://www.jesperjuul.net/text/withoutagoal/ (Accessed: September 2017)
Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, the MIT press, pp. 151 – 171.
Sweetser, Penelope & Wiles, Janet (2005) ‘Scripting Versus Emergence: Issues for Game Developers and Players in Game Environment Design’. International Journal of Intelligent Games and Simulations, volume 4 Issue 1, pp.1-9.
Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=4DAF7F7846DD7BECD73FB0DD454833CE?doi=10.1.1.185.58&rep=rep1&type=pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2017)
Wright, Will (2003) Lessons in Game Design, lecture by Will Wright. [SD Forum conference talk]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdgQyq3hEPo&t=2972s (Accessed June 2017)
Don’t Starve Wiki (n.d.) Wilson Freezing.
Available at: http://dontstarve.wikia.com/wiki/Freezing (Downloaded: 20 November 2017)
Don’t Starve Wiki (n.d.) Wilson Torch.
Available at: http://dontstarve.wikia.com/wiki/File:Wilson_torch.png (Downloaded: 20 November 2017)
Forbes, Kevin (2014) Crafting Diagram.
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P3kFXWK07o (Accessed: 10 October 2017)
Gather your party (2013) The circles in question.
Available at: http://www.gatheryourparty.com/2013/04/26/dont-starve-review/ (Accessed: 10 October 2017)
Reddit, Gynther (2015) Compact Base (One Flinger).
Available at: https://www.reddit.com/r/dontstarve/comments/3gudpt/compact_base_one_flinger/ (Downloaded: 10 October 2017)
Super Adventures in Gaming (2013) Don’t Starve.
Available at: http://superadventuresingaming.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/dont-starve-pc.html (Downloaded: 3 December 2017)
Atari, Inc. (1979) Asteroids [Video game] Atari, Inc., Taito
Klei Entertainment (2013) Don’t Starve [Video game] 505 Games
Maxis (2000) The Sims [Video game] Electronic Arts
Mojang (2011) Minecraft [Video game] Mojang
The Lego Group (1949–present) Lego [Toy] The Lego Group
Taito (1978) Space Invaders [Video game] Taito