Design Dive #7

Emergent Narrative

Thank you all for attending. Here are the unstructured notes for those who couldn’t make it. I’ve bolded the key points.


Paul Stephanouk - Design Director of Candy Crush. Previously EA, Zynga, Bossfight, Schell Games, Big Huge Games. 20 years experience building and running creative teams.

Kelly Tran - Game Design Professor researching games and players. PhD in learning and tech. Personal Twitch - Group Twitch - Website

Jon Radoff - CEO Beamable. Previously Disruptor Beam. Entrepreneur, game designer, metaverse builder. Founder of Game Industry Club on Clubhouse.

Jody McLain - Developer and Designer Math Facts. Previously Published and Exec Produced branded videogames and books for PBS Kids, Bob The Builder, Top Chef, Diner Dash, World of Goo and many more.

Xelnath - Game Designer World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Snackpass Tochi. Founder Game Design Skill.

Kristina Drzaic - Narrative Director and Game Designer. Previously Halo, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Galak-Z, Twitch, Amazon Game Studios.

Dave Neale - Designer of several Sherlock Holmes boardgames and 5 Minute Chase from Board & Dice. PhD Researcher and consultant in the psychology of play.

Charlie Cleveland - CEO Unknown Worlds. Creator Subnautica, Natural Selection, Vampire The Maquerade Vendetta.

Brooks Brown - Tribeca, Lumiere winning VR Director. James Cameron’s Avatar, Star Wars, Indiana Jones Alumnus. Founder of the DGQC.

Mohamed Abdel Khalik - Co-Founder Karnak Studios, Creators of The Daily Tut webcomic and Game Director on Tut Trials, an upcoming high action 3D platformer. Currently fundraising.


  • Different Definitions for Emergent Narrative: Narrative that appears once the player becomes part of the equation.

  • Emergent narrative should come from designing experiences that intimately interact with the player.

  • Narrative the designer didn’t intend.

  • When the pieces of the puzzle come together in a way that is not something the designer had in mind.

  • Narrative arises in many different ways. Designers have to make sure that the emergent narrative does not break the consistency, coherence and realism of the world.

  • Designers must build as much possibility for player stories to take place and have the game react to those stories.

  • Players don’t have agency or variation when it comes to player narrative in mobile games and this is due to the input.

  • Emergent narrative should come from designing experiences that intimately interact with the player.

  • There are design techniques one can do through clever design that makes emergence possible.

  • An example are auction house. It is a system of buy and sell but players can monopolize the resource and hire other players to attack other players farming that resources to stop them.

  • There is a debate on when designers should step in to shut down those stories.

  • CRPGs are great examples of interaction of players which creates character narrative that affects stats.

  • It’s designed and you can see the spreadsheet clearly but the intent is there for players to have their own story and the player doesn’t see the behind the scenes.

  • Designers should focus on setting people up to have an interesting conversation in the player’s constructive narrative. Even if they cause the same outcome, building a narrative of a binary choice can still be emergent.

  • Subnautica is a player story whereas the sequel is very narrative driven - player story vs. games story.

  • Variance is high because the sequencing is very deep and there is access to a variety of verbs that allow exploration of 3D space (high variance environments) or step off the golden path and mess around.

  • Emergent narrative is prevalent in Dwarf Fortress due to the weight of the spreadsheet.

  • Sequencing is not a replacement for emergent narrative except when the player gets to express their agency orthogonal to the golden path.

  • Narratives are memorable, they’re not just unique. They’re not repeatable.

  • It doesn’t need to be a Hollywood narrative as long as the player has a cool player story around the experience. That’s all it takes for it the narrative to emerge.

  • Story and narrative are not interchangeable words.

  • Story means something happened.

  • Narrative is an accounting of a sequence of events that happened.

  • Designers place story moments in a specific order to create a larger narrative.

  • Ludo Narrative = explaining gameplay over the story the designer is trying to tell.

  • Designers should ask “Am I building tools to help players build their own stories?” and “Are they telling narratives after the fact by stitching those specific story moments together?”

  • That’s why Rogue-likes are fun. They focus on story bits, players can then create patterns in their minds to create narrative.

  • Variance in systems creates story fuel to create narratives.

  • Player initiated courses of action needs to be possible. This creates agency and maximizes utility

  • Cohesive signification. A moment is cohesive with everything else happening in the game.

  • Less resonance when removing theme and dramatic tension and economic balance. Essentially removing scaffolding.

  • Physics introduces variance.

  • Maximize interactions as much as possible.

Thank you for reading the notes, hope you found them useful. The upcoming Design Dive will tackle Boss Battles on Wednesday April 28th 3pm EDT.

Mohamed Abdel Khalik

Co-Host Design Dive