A while ago a friend crashed on my sofa after a night of drinking and Mount & Blade. I woke up the next morning, puttered into the kitchen, and put the coffee on. Then I glanced up at my blinds, drawn against the morning, and saw a strange shape atop one. It was brown, and looked like… well, not like anything I could quite make out. I just knew it wasn’t supposed to be there.
My buddy found me standing in the kitchen, in my pajamas, a mug of coffee in one hand and several bottle caps in the other. One by one I was gobbing the caps at the object on my blind, which took no notice at all.
“What is that?” he said.
“I think it’s a bee hive,” I replied, tossing another cap, “but it wasn’t there last night.”
“A bee hive?” He picked up my Swiffer and prodded the mass.
Which animated, turning around and glaring at us.
“Skreeeee,” it said. Then it put its head back under its wing.
“It’s a bat!” I said.
“It’s a bat!” McShane said.
My cat Ozzie said nothing. She was sunning herself in the other room and had no interest in the bat.
I whipped another cap at it. Once again it turned around, opened its little eyes and said, “SKREEEEE,” its pink mouth displaying an impressive array of needle-like cutlery.
“Jesus!” I said. I threw another cap.
“Skreeee!” it said again, glaring at me.
“Dude, that’s like… the most indignant bat ever,” said McShane.
It was true. I don’t speak Bat, but let me tell you, I can translate those three remarks:
- “Skreeeee:” What? I’m sleeping.
- “SKREEEEE:” What the fuck dude? Quit it!
- “Skreeee:” Stop throwing shit at me! I’m trying to sleep! I don’t throw shit at you when you sleep!
By the time McShane and I gathered the necessary tools (and courage) to eject Mr. Bat from my home, it was so pissed off at us that it couldn’t even vocalize. It wasn’t scared. Oh no. It was just a sleepy bat and we were the obnoxious assholes who kept bugging it to get up, like the college friends who draw on your face in magic marker when you pass out at a frat party. I’ve never seen this level of emotion in an animal. It was furious. Once we got it outside and opened the lid of the empty humidifier box we’d used to imprison it, we expected it to fly off immediately. But no. It was too angry. Never fly angry, it was telling itself. That bat stayed in the box, sulking, for almost twenty minutes before taking to the skies.
The presence of the bat was an emergent event: an explicit result that could not be forecast based only on its predicative, or antecedent, causes. No earlier action on my or McShane’s part could be predicted to lead to the arrival of a Very Grumpy bat in my house.
I’ve never been afraid of bats, though like most gamers in their thirties I hate them. I often roll my eyes at younger gamers when the subject of game bats come up, because their tender little gamer hearts and soft little gamer minds know not of what I speak. But for those of us reared on the Atari 2600, the bat is among our most hated foe.
That’s right. That motherfucker right there. That speedy, unkillable little vermin who’d take your best-laid plans and shatter them, then spread them across an 8-color landscape.
The Adventure bat has long been hailed as the first example of an emergent mechanism in game design. Some go so far as to call it the only perfect example of emergence, because it is completely unpredictable and can completely change the game… without ever breaking it.
For those uninitiated, Adventure is a 1979 game in which your objective is to find a holy chalice and return it to the yellow castle. Many things attempt to thwart you in this, but not the bat. While the three Dragons attack mercilessly and the three castle gates mock you with their closedness, while the sword could be anywhere and the bridge seems stuck in a wall, the bat just is.
It flies around. And if it sees something laying there – the sword, maybe, or the chalice, or a key, or even a dragon – it might pick it up and fly off with it, setting it down somewhere else. You can only carry one thing at a time, and because of the way Adventure plays in the higher difficulty levels, you often need to drop one object to pick another up, like that block puzzle where you try to move the pyramid across three pegs. But that bat. It can, and often does, move something you left behind fully intending to return to.
It’s been claimed that the bat can prevent you from winning the game. This is untrue. If the bat carries off some object you require to some place that’s inaccessible, all you need to do is wait for the bat to bring it back… or at least, bring it to someplace you can get to.
The bat does as it pleases. It ignores objects as often as it grabs them. It drops things at random and without rhyme or reason. It’ll snatch the sword as a massive dragon approaches you just as often as it’ll drop the chalice at your feet. Hell, the bat can actually slay a dragon if it happens to fly by one while carrying the sword. The bat can go anywhere, even places that might take you hours to reach; it can grab anything – even you, if you’re in a dragon’s belly, taking you on a fascinating high-speed bat’s-eye tour of Adventure’s landscape. THE BAT CHANGES EVERYTHING, and for a creature occupying a game alloted only 4096 bytes for code and 128 for variables, that’s pretty damned amazing. Who knew an arch-foe created in 1979 would become such a brilliant mechanism of game design?
(Play Adventure here if you want; don’t worry, creator Warren Robinett is doing just fine. The bat only appears in difficulty levels 2 and 3)
Expensive Free Will
Adventure was also one of the first games that really ignited the imagination. It was far better than most 2600 games, and enjoyed by many a lunkhead, but from the box art to the game world, you had to be a dreamer to truly appreciate what it offered. In reality it was blocks. It was graphics that flashed because too many objects moved onscreen at once. It was… well, it was 4224 bytes.
But you look at that box, and you see the magical kingdom, full of topiary mazes and savage dragons, full of adventure and sorcery, of course you can believe it. Back then you had to believe it because the technology couldn’t show it to you, and back then the bat’s emergent nature was part of what you had to imagine.
The opposite of emergence is affordance; in which reactions can be pretty clearly predicted based on previous actions. Games are rife with these – if I beat that boss, I can advance. If I head down this hall, I’ll reach the end.
For a long time there was a big movement toward highly emergent gaming, because it allowed greater player license – a sense of freedom to try many solutions to problems. For example if you encounter a locked door: the affordant designer would hard code it so you need a key. No other power on earth would open the door.
A locked door in a more emergent situation could still be opened with the key, but other choices could also be available: it might be break-downable, or you might be able to enter the room it protects by crawling through air ducts. Or, more relevantly still, a player might get that door open using a method that the designers of the game never thought of.
The dual challenge with emergence is that many gamers are so used to the limitations of earlier game worlds that it doesn’t occur to them to try new things, and then of course that since emergent outcomes can’t be predicted, it’s possible for the player to break your game and wreck the immersion. A classic example of this is the dude who completed Morrowind in seven and a half minutes: he didn’t cheat, but he definitely didn’t play the game as the designers would have predicted. So emergent design gives players a lot of leeway, but comes with risks.
Funnily enough, as technology leaps forward and it becomes ever more possible to affect game worlds in new ways, good emergence becomes harder and harder to do. Adventure was a really simple game. There was only so much chaos the bat could cause. And, of course, the bat was not player-controlled. What might be interesting as a design challenge is to create a version of Adventure where the player is the bat, and the AI controls the hero questing for the chalice.
Heavy Rain, with its 2,000 page script and multiple endings, allowed plenty of emergent license. While some things were predetermined (you couldn’t save Jason at the beginning, for example), much of the rest was entirely your doing, and created an emotional investiture that was often based on regret.
Ethan and Jason’s idyllic swordfight in the back yard was father and son bonding at the time, but the player’s knowledge that the boy had only hours to live lent it more gravity. Which outcomes far down the line would be affected if Ethan won the swordfight, or if he let his son win? In my game, Ethan won, and years later wound up committing suicide. Maybe the two were more connected than immediately apparent. Despite all of Ethan’s other failures, and all the intervening years, maybe he’d have stayed his hand if he’d just let Jason win that fight.
Personally, I only like emergence to a point. While I definitely applaud multiple solution paths to the same problem, there’s nothing more frustrating than trying a solution that should work, only to be stymied by the game logic or the limitations of the game world. And one thing developers must always be cognizant of is never to eschew gameplay in favor of hoity-toity gameplay mechanisms. Emergence and affordance, and perceived affordance, and risk/reward construction; all these things are tools of the trade, but the fact is most gamers don’t care about them. Titles like Assassin’s Creed focused on openness while eliminating player liberty. Spore was to be this wondrous emergent sandbox, but turned out instead to be nothing more than diluted examples of better-defined genres. Far Cry 2, also, was supposed to have a tremendously player-driven social ecology, and none of it worked at all. There’s nothing more depressing than a game that touts its flexibility when the best way to win is the most obvious.
The bat in my kitchen was emergent on two levels. First, how the fuck did it get there.
Second, how the hell do we get it out? This was an opportunity for emergent problem solving. Our solution involved pelting it with beer bottle caps, then me slowly maneuvering it off the blind with a Swiffer while McShane stood underneath with the humidifier box. My task was to knock it into the box and then throw a towel over it so it couldn’t get out, until McShane could close the thing and run outside. Of course, we didn’t know that the bat had no intention of flying anywhere, because it was too angry with us, so the towel wasn’t really necessary.
But we solved that quest. Perhaps in a more Rube-Goldbergian way than was strictly necessary, but hey. Mr. Bat is safe in the wild again. I could have solved the problem just as easily with a shotgun, or by letting the damn bat live in my house. Instead I chose the path I chose.
Too many anti-gaming advocates complain that too many games demand The Path of the Shotgun and eschew any alternatives. But you know what? I, at least, don’t play games so I can come up with mundane solutions to mundane problems. That’s my daily life. If I’d faced that bat in a video game, I’d have probably taken the Path of the Shotgun.
Because I’ve wanted revenge on bats ever since that god damned monster in Adventure.
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.