Monday, June 17, 2013

Emergent Storytelling -- Viking: Battle for Asgard

Because video games are an experiential art form, it's really hard to share stories about any specific game with people who haven't played it.  And, e-sports excepted, they're not even much fun to watch -- the peaks of any game experience are what we remember as players, but we do spend a lot of time muddling about trying to figure out where to go and what to do, or re-playing from a checkpoint when things go badly.

What games can do, though, is provide for spontaneous bits of emergent story-telling that can be appreciated without benefit of shared experience.  I've recently been playing SEGA's Viking: Battle for Asgard, a sort of open-world fantasy adventure set in the world of Norse mythology, with routine fighting/collecting missions punctuated by moments of stealth and impressive large-scale battles.  It's not a great game by any means, or even a particularly good one -- but I picked it up cheap on Steam after it finally came to the PC, years after it's 2008 console release, and I've been working my way through it.  Anyway, here's what happened during one of my recent play sessions...

I was working to liberate a Distillery from the enemy forces of Legion -- basically a bunch of generic blue orc/ogre-like creatures that appear in various armor/weapon/attack style combinations.  In order to liberate a location, the player has to ensure that all of the Legion soldiers are killed, and open the cage holding fellow Vikings prisoner.  Usually, the best approach for me is to sneak around the outskirts of an area, taking out small groups of Legion soldiers before fighting the tougher enemies near the cage, and then freeing my friends after the biggest baddies are defeated.

This mission offered another option, though -- the location of the cage was such that, after I had taken out a few archers and Legion patrols, it was left unguarded long enough that I could dash in and open the cage by furiously tapping the B button, thus gaining the assistance of additional Vikings to take down the remaining orcs Legion forces.  This I did, and the battle ensued -- everything seemed to go smoothly, but the Distillery remained in Legion hands according the world map, and victory stubbornly refused to arrive.

What was happening?  Well, I noticed that if I ran near some machinery, my hero pulled out his sword and readied himself for combat -- even though nobody was around to fight.  I also noticed that my Vikings were all facing toward this machine, quiet but looking vaguely threatening.  So this was most likely a bug -- somehow one of the Legion soldiers got stuck under the surface of the world's geometry, so we couldn't get to him to kill him, nor would the game consider the victory conditions satisfied.  I left the area and came back, to find the entire mission reset; fortunately, I succeeded in finishing it successfully on the retry.

However, the story that formed unbidden in my head about the first attempt was this -- during the battle, one particularly tough Legion soldier got knocked into a well below the machinery by a concerted effort of my Viking cohorts, while I was focused on dispatching another enemy combatant.  Nobody wanted to go in after him, but nobody would abandon his post, lest the creature re-emerge in full fighting trim.  And so a stalemate was established -- my horde of Viking soldiers were committed to vigilance; having turned the tables on their Legion oppressors, they were loath to let even one survive.  Perhaps, I thought, they had lost the Distillery after being invaded during a heavy bout of after-hours drinking, and so they would not let their guard down again, refusing to get back to work until every last Legionnaire was verified dead.   (Less charitably, I thought that perhaps some of them just didn't want to get back to work.)

Yes, it was just a bug.  But the interface of computer engineering and human imagination is sometimes most interesting when it produces unpredictable results.  Even an unintended bit of behavior in the game world can provide for an interesting and fresh experience, and that's one of the reasons I love video games.



  1. "I can't kill him! He's stuck inside a tree, and Evade-bugs every time my auto-attack goes off!"

    COMING NEXT EXPANSION IN WORLD OF WARCRAFT: The Legend of Lunk the Unkillable!

    P.S. -- I hate to come across as a spelling Nazi, but loath != loathe. The former is an adjective meaning reluctant, the latter is a verb meaning hate.

  2. D'oh! I knew that... I think. Thanks, Roger, usage corrected!