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 email@example.com.
Actually, I think a similar version of the same thing was first done in Dungeon written in 1975. In it, the player was faced with a series of rooms with the same description (a maze of twisty passages all alike, among others) and the solution was to drop things in an effort to map them. While I was wandering around from room to room trying to find spatial awareness, a character said (something to the effect of) in the distance, “Say, what a fine looking hammer.” The game then relocated the hammer somewhere else at random. The solution was to map smaller portions of the maze, say three rooms at a time, instead of dropping your entire inventory over the group of 15 or so rooms trying to do it quickly.
You touched on the reason why emergent gameplay (and much more complex AI for that matter) aren’t present in games. There’s no compelling economic reason for developers to do so. As mentioned, games with extra degrees of freedom multiply the testing and QA time exponentially, assuming you care enough to try to assure quality. I’d be willing to bet that the developers of Spore and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (with the original A-life AI system) had the best intentions of creating an open emergent system and found some extremely thorny issues during testing. They both had a long development time and were released with substantially reduced feature sets. I think it’s far more rewarding for devs to put time into graphics and the pseudo variable world of real time physics based games.
Great post Steer. That video has been moved from drive to drive as I’ve upgraded. I giggle every time when he loots the guy mid-air. A triggered event many players only see the aftermath of, if at all, thoroughly abused. The speed of the run is even more impressive once you realize most of the seven minutes is character creation and other elements which can not be skipped.
Helmut, not only does the Q&A multiply endlessly but player enjoyment can tank even when it works. People hated Morrowind for its saying, nope can’t do the main quest right now. Go explore and come back later. They also hated it for the seemingly slow travel, despite a half dozen ways to zip around. Those had to be found and could easily be missed.
Oblivion was a big ol’ cheat. They punted with a straight shot main plot coupled with the fast map travel and auto-enemy leveling instead of solving the problem. It may be unsolvable but the game felt like an emergent world (so-so Radiant AI, woot! stand on a hill at night, fireball a deer and watch it run into the distance to flame other wildlife) with an interstate paved through the more interesting neighborhoods by eminent domain.
I hope younger players follow the link to play Adventure. It’s both important historical document and a great game. On the short list of the best of 2600. River Raid, Haunted House, Pitfall. Maybe Yar’s Revenge. Pitfall’s not aged as well as the others but I was thinking of River Raid tonight as I was checking the new offerings on Kongregate. Most Xeroxed to blurry smudges. I know exactly what would happen if someone recreated River Raid and put it there: “needs upgrades!!!” “needs achievements!!!!” “noend????”
My roguelike addiction is back in crippling full force. Dungeon Crawl is still kicking my butt and dipping into Unangband. They’ll never be mass market games because they flat out aren’t fair, but the randomness within tight parameters is an emergent ZOMG: did I just get served soba noodles w/Bacos on top? I ordered a grilled cheese!
Okay, so my troll monk w/ring of sustenance just got paralyzed by a giant eye while I was safely kiting an iron golem, the first I’d ever seen, by plinking it with reaping darts. Not bitter. Not a bit. Back to the start screen….
Damn games. Btw, I rather enjoyed Far Cry 2. Good game? not really, but I’ve never understood why it’s so bagged on.
What the fuck, ouch damn, I swear I was reading an awesome article and suddenly something that felt like a heavy rain spoiler the size of a large dog hit me in the face. SKREEE!
Whoops, sorry Jakkar. I should have mentioned that spoiler. In my defense, though, the stuff I spoiled happens in the first ten minutes of the game, and the ending I got for Ethan may well not be the ending you get.
Any reference to the old Atari VCS will cause me to appear in a puff of smoke. *poof*
I spent so much single-digit youth time on Adventure, even though my Dad and I both finished it on the first day of purchase. I always forget about the bat… until I fire up the Stella emulator and then get horrified that I’d forgotten something so obnoxious and pathological. I hate the way the bat sometimes zeroes in on you, bobbing up and down, and there is nothing you can do to escape its kleptomaniac wings. The times I tried to stab the sod with the sword.
“WHY THANK YOU I WANTED THE SWORD,” I imagined the bat chuckling. “WOULD YOU LIKE A BRIDGE?” Fuck off.
Interesting timing. I’ve finally got around to writing an article about emergent gameplay going bad I’ve had in my head for months. And then you go ahead and publish this. Thanks dude =)
I hated Far Cry; worst 9 bucks I ever spent. No grand failure of any particular thing it tried to do other than I thought it was a bad shooting game. I bought Far Cry 2 (also for 9 bucks) but never played it.
Steerpike, I don’t know if bats have very good memory (or any at all), but be wary of this bat and its kin. If they choose to wage war on your homestead I think you will not win. Bats are ferocious and diseased. And apparently emotionally distressed, in some cases.
I’ll give this Adventure game a whirl; I never had an Atari, too young obviously.
Finky, you are one droll fellow. You should have a job writing for some surrealist paper; or if none exists, you should found one. I will be your first subscriber. 🙂
Thanks for the clarification, snake shite =D As long as it’s at the beginning I’m none too bothered – besides, the way my brain works these days I focus more on the design of a game than the experience.. Which is equally pleasurable, but I do miss actually being drawn into a plot. I hear Heavy Rain is good at doing that.
Hehe, that’s a good story Steerpike! I think I would have been more freaked out than you seeing that INSIDE my house. And you guys go poking it while thinking that it could be a bee hive or wasp nest?!? You guys rock! 🙂
Adventure was totally my favorite game on the 2600. I never owned the system as a child (had the Intellivision), but I would ride my bike to a friend’s house often to play Adventure for hours.
Bunch o’ wusses. You must all have “Low D”. (If you don’t know what “Low D” is then you don’t watch enough TV.
A few years ago a bat showed up on my porch. It was summer, so I was spending a lot of time out there both day and night. He hung from one of the horizontal beams. Just hung there. I got within about 3 or 4 feet and asked him what he wanted. He said nothing. Must have been the silent type. For a few hours, off and on, we sat/hung about 5 feet from each other. This was early evening, not dark yet. I thought they only came out at night, so maybe he was sick. The next time I went out onto the porch he was gone. Either he didn’t like iced tea, or he didn’t like my choice in books. Or maybe I just never asked the right question.
What an idiot I can be. I meant “Low T”, not Low D.
* Double-click to edit doesn’t work for me.
My bat story:
I had a hippy friend who lived in a hippy house in hippy, hippy southern Oregon. She hated bats though and they kept getting into her house and flying around. One night she was sleeping peacefully when a bat got in and started flying around her bedroom. She grabbed a tennis racket and killed the unlucky bat. Then she NAILED IT BY THE WINGS it to the outside of her house. When I asked her why she had a crucified dead bat nailed to her house she said it was a warning to all the other bats.
Apparently it worked too. Or so she claimed.
That’s not a hippy. That’s just a horrible piece of shit =P
No, that was a hippy. Insane but a certifiable poop in a bucket and compost it hippy.
Wow, this must be a new kind of hippy. Crucified bats… I mean, I’ll eat a human child, and I might boil a kitten if I’m in the mood, but crucifying a bat? Lord no.
Also blocked in the UK Fink >.<
Remind me to never make the assumption that hippies are actually hippies ever again.
Since Jakkar seems to have had some illusions unfairly shattered it’s only right to put the bat slaying in context. It had somehow gotten into our hippy’s house, which was not hard to do considering that it was really a barn pretending to be a house. For the last four nights the bat had been swooping around in her bedroom. You know how when you trying to read in bed and this fly keeps buzzing you and you finally get up and hunt it down and kill it? Imagine sleeping soundly and then a bat is streaking past your face, zipping around the room like a crazed…well bat. Imagine you have a dreadful fear of bats. Imagine this is the fourth night in a row that this happened and it’s a siege, it’s war and you have brought a tennis racket to bed with you for protection. And then…squeak, squeak, it’s fucking baaaaack and peace and love can take a hike, you’re killing this thing.
I spent a few years living with various “hippies” in Northern California, and I wouldn’t put any of Mike’s comments past them. Most would likely self identify as anarchists as opposed to hippies, but when you look like one and smell like one…
I lived in a sort of group home/commune, and we allowed travelers (read hobos) to stay with us for up to a couple weeks at a time. One guy (who I think went by Tiger) came over one night to stay with us. He had been hopping trains across the states for 3 weeks, and hadn’t showered or bath once in that whole time.
You would think he’d want to take advantage of our working tub (where all the water was “recycled” into water for the large garden out back) but refused to shower, making more than half the home unapproachable due to his wild stank!
Living in Los Angeles these days seems so normal and down-to-earth by comparison.
Sorry Jakkar. It’s a clip from the sitcom Modern Family. Its studio has kept access to content from the show tight since it swept awards.
There’s a crying baby, a pigeon, singing of ave maria, and ever escalating but ineffectual attempts to kill the pigeon in the house.
Modern Family is such a great show. You all should watch it if you aren’t already. Huzzah Fink for bringing it up.
I’ll remember the name in case I get a chance to see some.
As for the bat – you’re talking to someone who spent so much of his childhood torturing insects to death, he’ll no longer even swat a cranefly buzzing his monitor. I like things alive. Dead makes me think too much. Bats are awesome little creatures – I would not take a confused and stupid bat and kill it because it was annoying me – I’d catch the damn thing if it took me all night, and release it. It would be a rather entertaining project.
Bat-related morality debates aside, I do love this website ;D
“Wow, this must be a new kind of hippy. Crucified bats… I mean, I’ll eat a human child, and I might boil a kitten if I’m in the mood, but crucifying a bat? Lord no.”
That is why you are unfit to join Caesar and his Legion.
[…] this was all there was and I continued to rattle through the game, running away from dragons and a crazy bat, until our Atari console and cartridges were sold to fund the coming Atari home […]
This article just popped up in Tap At Random and I must’ve missed it first time round: great read! “I think it’s a bee hive,” cracked me up. Also, why did you throw bottle caps at it? WHY.
Perhaps the funniest thing about the bat story is that it’s absolutely true. If someone had filmed it, it would have made a great slapstick YouTube comedy.
My reasons for throwing the bottle caps at it were twofold:
1) McShane and I had been up drinking all night and there was a mountain of beer bottle caps on the counter. Not only was I attempting to discern the identity of the brown mass from a safe distance, the angle was such that when they bounced off the wall (or the bat) they’d ricochet into the recycling bin. So I was being Earth-conscious.
2) It had occurred to me that it might be a bat, but that logic made no sense. Still, since I had a mug of hot coffee (thank you for ruining that innocuous phrase, Rockstar) in my other hand, I figured if it was a bat, and it started flapping, I might jump and scream and spill coffee on myself.
Seriously, you should have seen it. Two grown men, a Swiffer, a towel, a humidifier box, a supply of bottle cap ammunition, and a bat, all in the same room, all involved in an activity.