What’s the difference between regressive narrative and emergent narrative?

There’s an RPG Codex thread about Emergent Narrative that I recently replied to but unfortunately I just don’t belong in the community and I already made my leave. Add that and the fact that I haven’t tweeted or blogged in a while, it just made me want to write this comment but as usual, this isn’t really intended for any audience or to be a specific reply and more of my own thoughts shared to anyone who cares for it. (I’m especially most fearful that a poster from Rpg Codex would come here only to interpret this as an unorthodox way of trolling but whatever, I like this subject and the reply that came from this subject that it almost disappoints me that I have to limit it to regressive narrative. For those curious as to why I would leave, this link contains a direct link to my goodbye post and the entire thread has all the social drama that comes with it.)

Anyway, back to regressive narratives. What is it?

On the surface level, I feel like I’m trying to explain the obvious but one poster even goes so far as to write this:

Also, use obscure terms like “regressive narrative” sparingly unless you can give a little parentheses () description next to it and people will understand you even better.

On the surface level, regressive narrative is but the opposite of emergent narratives…but what are emergent narratives exactly?

I think there in lies the interesting issue because, as much as my native language not being English is correct, this case is more like talking about your hobbies to someone who isn’t interested. Only this time around, the person I was replying to had more possible experience but it was their experience that continues to elude them from understanding such a basic application of the obscure wording they themselves threw up.

I don’t want to come off like a poster just attacking the messenger though so forgive me if I don’t do many more direct quotes. I don’t want to impose upon you the idea that you need to click the link to get a context with the subject. Let’s just treat this like any random article.

Before this: Why is the discussion notable?

In the age of more sandbox games that defy what it means to be a sandbox game both regressively and progressively (especially with regards to role playing), the question of how someone (on a conceptual level) creates a narrative is almost central to saving the last remnant of a quality rpg that’s not totally a movie or too hardcore to the point of it being a game.

At heart, what the question really asks is how can anyone produce a single player (or single player-ish like co-ops) videogame world that’s organic and chaotic yet possesses within itself a narrative.

Where did the best mainstream games got it as correctly as the best classic games and where did they get it wrong?

I’m not claiming I hold a solution to making mainstream games both profitable yet still about quality and challenges and plot lines but at the same time I think even a non-programmer & zero experience w/ PnP person like me can spot that even mainstream games are not as good as the past mainstream games.

When people clung to Final Fantasy VII for example, they still wanted a game. The elements that made FF VII a game helped mold it into a wonderful epic movie-like experience more than the modern movie-type games.

If you flip this around, it holds true too for why something like Final Fantasy VII is more well received than a classic CRPG.

This even holds true down to the bone deep level. There’s classic games like Final Fantasy Tactics that people prefer over better narratives such as Tactics Ogre despite them being in the same class of perceived as low graphic (for their time of release) iso SRPGs. (Of course there’s more to the story for why Tactics Ogre took longer to be received but that’s not the subject of this topic.)

Dig deeper and it holds true for the most often mentioned CRPGs like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. There’s always some element of narrative that makes certain people flock to certain games even within the circle of rare gem players.

This isn’t about the general gaming populace though:

I’m just focusing on those who prefer narratives (though not necessarily as bad as a storyfag would prefer them) and how certain narratives may affect these people to the point that it would make it easier to understand what the difference between something that’s emerging and regressing is especially when both are convenient actions that can switch around depending on the bias of the writer.

Take for example this statement:

Tabletop RPGs have emergent narrative as in say: The group has been doing some favors for a kingdom and the kingdom is going to have a ceremony to award them medals or something like that. During the ceremony one of he players (who is pretty good at unarmed combat) decides to punch the king’s head in and kills him. The story of the game then revovles around dealing with the aftermath of that. Them being outlaws or perhaps a resulting civil war. 

If we simply take this as referring to the emergent narrative within a Tabletop game, this sounds good.

The person who wrote this though wanted to impart this aspect in a more videogame form but with less of the GM influence. That is to say, they simply wanted to stretch the branches of choices possible in your typical quality rpg.

How does this suddenly become regressive?

More importantly, how does it suddenly turn the tabletop comment into an attempt to create a regressive narrative rather than an emergent one?

First things first. There’s no true answer to these. Even the poster above and others revisioned their concepts (in their follow up replies) beyond their original comment because there’s no true standard for the middle ground. Emerging simply means narratives that feel like they grow as you play them (esp. the choices) and if you hold this view, regressive in turn almost becomes hard to understand because if a game is regressing wouldn’t that just mean that it sucks and continues to suck so much that it’s just bad?

That’s why it’s easier to define emergent narrative not as a term but in the context of what the makers or the player wants to push.

This is especially tricky in videogames because PnP does not have “preset quests” and where there are available quests, there is the GM to modify such quests.

In this pure context, emergent narrative simply means “if you want to do something and did the things to enable them then the narrative emerges in the sense that you can string your companions and your GM for the ride or vice versa”.

In videogames, however, this simply means you added a new branch or a new quest. As long as the quests “align” with your wants and you don’t overly demand a videogame to be something you want, it will always come off like an emerging narrative even if nothing really emerges.

To make this clearer, imagine a book. Now a book can feel exciting especially if you haven’t read the sequel and your expectations follow that line of being surprised or engaged by each plot twist.

No matter how good the book is though, it’s still a regressive narrative. A book is still basically a scroll. If you skim that scroll, you may enjoy the book less or know less about the details but all the surprises are already pre-configured. The only thing that emerges is your wisdom of the book’s contents which creates the illusion of an emergent narrative.

PnP and videogames have the extra dilemma of being an interactive medium:

In an interactive medium, the line between when something emerges is blurred because the interactive aspect pretty much mean “something” will always emerge.

It may not always be narrative but narrative is still built on gameplay and graphics just as much as plot.

Example: A mystery game gives you the choice to solve who the criminal is. Yet upon discovering the entire plot, you disagree. There was nothing with the narrative. You just disagreed. The narrative suddenly emerges in a different manner.

In a book, you need to switch the details to change the narrative. In a videogame, you can fix this “effect of wrongness” by simply “tweaking” the graphics, the mechanics, the controls and it’s not a guaranteed fix but it may still fix something.

That’s what makes interactive mediums unique …BUT!

Videogames and tabletop games are both interactive mediums but they are not the same.

Even more mind breaking is the element of “what games have already done”.

For example: In Fallout 2’s time, it’s flexible looking narrative may seem emergent except for the rare few like a storyfag.

With even less knowledge, KOTOR could give the impression that it’s full of emergent narratives rather than linear choices.

Each time, only group knowledge and acceptance of what has happened pushes the idea that something else could be more “emergent” and that becomes the contents for arguing for more emergent narrative.

But players and makers are notoriously flawed creators:

How PnP and videogame rpg makers’ flaws are the key that determines how easy or hard to understand regressive narrative is.

Regressive narratives for GMs can be stereotyped as simply under-reacting to a player’s decision to mold the narrative in a grander direction from the original plot. That’s not quite regressive narrative so for most GMs or pro-PnP narrative players, Tabletop gives the impression that it’s closer if not flat out superior in providing an emergent narrative if only for the fact that you can introduce change in-between with more ease.

Videogames have a different and more subtle distinction.

The programming step itself almost demands a preset sets of code. Even tabletops rule books have this. The only illusion that it’s not fleshed out is that the introducer of the final product may not have fleshed out the elements. Think children’s fairy tale adaptation of the classics. It’s still a complete book that gives the appearance of being fleshed out but unless you know that there’s a bigger form, it won’t seem regressive and depending on your original standard for the more in-depth version – even that version could be seen as regressive in comparison to say… the true history behind the elements inserted in the book. To that aspect, videogames and books have more things in common in that they are infinitely more limited to emerging forth a truly interactive option.

That’s just the aesthetic though. Emergent narratives are almost often times about mechanics that feel like dynamics. A simple possession of a castle in a videogame that mechanically just traps the player towards one box could be interpreted as a greater dynamic than multiple quests across a wide span sandbox world if it’s not only rare enough for a videogame to have it but it took the narrative to a deeper level by including more event-like choices and consequences that are all wrapped in much more modern and expansive package. For plotshowing, it’s almost like the 3d equivalent of writing. Well done 3d can give the illusion of a richer more interactive experience in the movies if simply for the fact that certain things may make you dodge them or draw your eyes to them. It’s similar for the mechanics when combined with modern aesthetics in videogames. A regressive or on-par narrative may seem emergent if only because one introduce more options in a videogame. This is where videogames separate from both Tabletop and book narratives.

But videogames introduce more than one option!

To make it sound less boring basically a person’s basis for emergent narrative is linked towards what they know and a person’s basis for regressive narrative (without falling towards the “this sucks impression) is based on how much they are pushing the idea of emergent narratives based on what they know.

This helps in Tabletop because the insertion of a new branch is almost like an editor giving suggestions to a book writer to change one branch. Their only worry is that the change would make the rest of the world inconsistent and break the quality of narrative if it doesn’t improve it.

A videogame especially an rpg has concerns that fall more towards holding back. Introduce too many things and you introduce bugs. Even if you were to introduce these things in more bug-free manner, it may be barely acknowledge as “innovations” by your audience and they may complain about something else. The emergent narrative of videogames then rely on “viewer as idiots” mentality. To sort of “remind” your audience (even the hardcore ones) that the game is introducing them to an emergent narrative – the  makers tend to bonk it over the gamers’ heads like a TV actor stating the obvious.

Where TV and videogames differ is that developers more often use the gameplay to hit you over the head over and over. This is true not just in the interactive elements alone but in things like character creation, VA dialogues, choices (even ones with predetermined outcomes) and so on and so forth.

These combination does not only make videogames regressive but they make videogames extra-regressive in all aspects (though we’re not dealing specifically with regressive narratives yet). Grinding and crafting and dungeon crawling are some of the top examples. In almost no other medium including interactive mediums like PnP can these actions make sense except for videogames and videogames with a particular genre and sub-genre.

For rpgs in particular, you could even come up with the idea that rpgs make regresses role playing so badly that it’s an entirely different creature with it’s own different quirks. The RPG codex considers the bad ones to be a pop a mole which is just clicking and attacking and refinding new quests.

Yet because of videogame regressing, RPGs became somewhat known as an emergent outlier in that it gave more occurence of buy and sell screens, level-ups, etc. Basically random acts of interface changes to create the illusion of progress. Today, however, these same mechanics are what introduces many of the emergent features in many other successful games.

Narrative wise though few things have changed except for one or two games. Why?

Here in lies the importance of regressive narrative. By arguing from those words, you get people to think of what they truly want. If a person simply wants the option to overthrow a regime, they’re not exactly asking for emergent narratives. What they want is simply that. Maybe they have other wants. But what they want is simply veiled behind the usage of a more obscure sounding word.

This isn’t enough though and it shouldn’t be. Testing people’s biases is one thing to discover the lies that they built but more importantly the concept of regressive narrative allows potential game developers who want to raise the emergent narrative aspects of their plots to a more sensible level for unlike a GM, you have to patch or mod to get a reactive opportunity to switch the narrative and by then your audience may have played the original version.

By looking at it from the term regressive narrative, even if you don’t understand it or it makes no sense, it develops in each of us the desire to create a process of reduction and elimination that we often reserve for gameplay or graphics but now we connect to narratives and most importantly gameplay and graphics that go alongside those narratives.

This thread is about explaining the difference though so I’ll leave you with the expanded version of why regressive narrative is the opposite of emergent narratives and why regressive narrative can apply to failed emergent narratives so well.

Every narrative we live in has some form of pre-made design. Before there were videogames with knights fighting dragons, there was a book. Before there was a book, there was an oral tradition. All these basically means is that emergent narratives tries to push the simulation aspect of those mythologies so that we can experience them in greater and more interactive manner while combining it with the newer modern branch of a tried and true narrative. As conceptual musers, it’s no fun to see our polishing of ideas as regressions. When we ask about the Death Penalty implementation in rpgs for example, we’re kind of hoping that the replies and our ideas introduces and repackages something “new” and innovative even if deep down we know we’re talking about an age old concept.

Combine with the fact that we may not necessarily have played all the videogames ever made, many of our emergent ideas for games have actually been done before or are too risky/long/complicated to make unless we ourselves make them. Narratives especially because the best and most addicting narratives are often times the most basic. Superman, an underwear cape wearing guy for example, is more appealing to a grander set of audience than Capt. Marvel without the underwear.

As we try to push the concepts of how games can make narratives emerge for example, we’re trying to drill back upon a regressive part of our brain. If you’ve been a GM for example, you’re trying to conceptualize ideas of videogames where it is almost inevitable that you will never leave it behind. Like, at first it’s just the option to overthrew regimes, next it’s the option to make the option to make the option of the concept seem more and more open to create more and more branches and take into account the general reaction of a set of people but in reality those people remain simply receiving new branches and these branches kept growing and growing but few things emerges. Thus we’re back to the illusion that there’s an emergent narrative when there is only a spread out or rarely taken narrative but we’re flawed, if we find something new, we’re inclined to make it innovative. The list goes on and on. The definition continues to skip around to our convenience.

In contrast, regressive narrative puts a stop to this. That’s why it’s the opposite and that’s why it’s important. Once a society for example grows up to the idea that the rpg knights are not only unrealistic but hollow then the romance disappears. Once the romance disappears, the emerging narrative for that starts to appear because now we’re looking at the fallibility of the narrative. Now as concept wanters, even powerful heroes would be “stupid in another way and smart in another way”.

I’m not saying fantasy would die but fantasy would be re-examined. Not just in making it more realistic but in making it more fantastic. It’s like polishing. The definition of regressive narrative is ultimately defined by how much a person has reviewed and analyzed his emergent narrative.

For specific examples: 

Two games that I brought up were Depths of Peril and 7th Saga. The poster who made the thread agrees with my choice of Depths of Peril despite not understanding what I mean by regressive narrative.

Now Depths of Peril barely scratches the emergent narrative but what it has in emergent narrative is actually produced by some form of regressive narrative. 7th Saga would help too.

For those who don’t know the two games. 7th Saga is a SNES rpg and Depths of Peril is a PC ARPG (often compared to Diablo type games)

You would think Depths of Peril being the more advanced game is more powerful and that would be true only in the levels of exploring the complexity of the dynamics that both games introduced which is this idea that the AI grows with you almost akin to an arch-rival except in a truly vast rpg world.

Yet as dynamics goes, Depths of Peril is actually more regressive than 7th Saga which in turn makes 7th Saga to have a more emergent narrative than Depths of Peril.

Here’s the thing though: Depths of Peril is seen as innovative while 7th Saga is mostly unknown if not seen as a hard dungeon crawler.

Why is that?

The difference between the PC and SNES is one major factor but the bigger factor is that 7th Saga has more emergent narrative. One may even say it’s ambitious except people don’t acknowledge that so we’re not going to bring that up.

Instead let’s look purely at two of the similar major dynamics that causes both to have emerging dynamics: The concept of the AI growing with you as characters.

7th Saga executed this by having this fact from you the player initially. Even better, you wouldn’t realize that the character select screen is actually a choice of which person you will possess in the story and the rest would be your opponents/allies.

Because of this, 7th saga can’t introduce much new plot except for what the plot already contained as far as how the different warriors interacted.

Because of this, 7th Saga regressed narrative-wise because it tried to have an emergent narrative but couldn’t fully embrace it because what it introduces makes it harder to introduce something else. The end result? I bring it up in an emergent narrative thread for a hardcore rpg gaming forum and the TS have not even heard of it.

In turn the narrative dies because it tried to emerge a new narrative and few people (even those that played the game) could accept the narrative for what it is. Conceptually it just blew their mind so they end up rationalizing it as being a simple gimmick especially because it failed.

In contrast, Depths of Peril may not be very well known but the few people who know it is impressed by it’s innovation. Even those who hate the game acknowledges it as innovative. How come?

Because Depths of Peril regresses the narrative:

Suddenly everything is all in one town. Suddenly the gameplay keeps smashing it to your head that the other AIs will hurt you and they will directly hurt you in the same way with few to no narrative at all. Plus as an engine, even if a narrative is possible (which it can really do if the devs wanted to make a Depths of Peril 2), the initial regressive design allows Depths of Peril to have more emergent narrative possibilities.

If this still all confuses you, think of a budget movie set or a pro-wrestling ring. They are cheaper and should hold less potential for emergent narratives but their regressive simplicity is what gives them power to create character developments that far outweigh the potential a great movie setting can. This doesn’t mean the great movies can’t overcome these problems and create something that far surpasses these cheap sets but 90% of Hollywood movies when given the option of having a great setting would be more inclined to think the direction they are taking is great rather than emergent even the ones who think they are creating something with more emergent narrative where as the lesser expectation behind a wrestler allows it to take advantage of a regressive narrative to piggyback some emergent narratives upon it. In order to separate the two then, it’s imperative that reductionism must be established.


If you took FF VII as an emerging rpg, you end up with more movie-type rpgs that are less successful and less critically panned but seemingly more successful than a hardcore game.

If you reduced FF VII to a regressive rpg, you end up seeing a classic JRPG who pushed the boundaries of storytelling while also introducing real choices (though inconsequential ones) to the genre in ways that were unseen of or unimplemented in that exact manner before.

This doesn’t mean that FF VII is the perfect storm but look at it this way: even now, including the FF VII side stories/sequels, can’t hold the classic feel of FF VII. Even today where many criticize FF VII’s graphics, people know of Cloud or Tifa at least. They are classics much as Rambo or the Terminator or Bruce Lee for the movies even though depth wise and narrative wise those stories are neither that good and are rarely compared to Citizen Kane, they still possess an intangible that both the classics or the hardcore can replicate.

If the above sounds too mainstream, look at something like Alpha Centauri or Live-A-Live or Super Robot Wars. Ideally they can be cloned but even the indy gamers haven’t quite replicated them because the ones who even try to create an unofficial sequel or an open source equivalent don’t regress these games to what makes their narrative emerge and are too focused on look or feel of the games. (Although for these games, I’m not sure they can be financially viable but still even for FF VII, how many truly remember the narrative of Legends of Dragoon or Shadow Madness. Both decent games in their own way w/ Dragoon having the graphics aspect and somewhat original transformation aspect and Shadow Madness having the narrative aspect while falling below the standards for good graphics but still regardless of their strengths and weakness both are unable to hold up much to FF VII and when some Square RPG finally did whether it’s intentional or unintentional, it suddenly gets remembered as a classic too as proven with Xenogears where the graphics are so spritey compared to FF VII and the designs are so distant from anything that’s been seen but people loved it’s narrative because once Cloud regresses, he and Fei go back to being characters that work and then you can go back and expand on this regression to create truer emergent narratives. This is just the reality behind how emergent narratives earn recognition or live up as true emergent narratives. It’s rarely the innovative idea or the unique branch, it’s how much those ideas handle being polished and criticized and how much you can still unwrap it without repeating your own narrative.)


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by DraQ on February 7, 2012 at 3:19 am

    A new message is waiting for you on the RPGCodex (may clear up some misconceptions).

    (Do comments even work here?)


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