Systemic Games: A Design Philosophy
Here is something that happened during my most recent play-through of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: While running through Hyrule field in the middle of a thunderstorm, I came across an enemy encampment. After sneaking in and taking out the two watchtower enemies with a bow, I crept closer to the group of enemies huddled together. I threw a boomerang, and it fell to the ground int he middle of the group. At that moment, a lightning bolt, attracted by the metallic boomerang I had just thrown, struck in the center of the group, igniting the nearby powder kegs and blowing the camp apart.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was critically praised largely in part for its emergent gameplay. Simply put, emergent gameplay can be defined as gameplay rules, elements, or mechanics that are not explicitly intended by the game designers, but arise due to the presence and interaction of less complex systems or elements. For example, in my personal anecdote, I was able to use a metal object as a makeshift lightning rod to attack the enemy. This is possible because Breath of the Wild has a simple system of rules that governs the interaction of all the games elements. Metal objects conduct electricity, fire melts ice, catches wooden objects on fire, and keep link warm, rain makes rock surfaces slick and harder to climb, etc. Each element of the game engine interacts and affects each other element, which makes the game world of Breath of the Wild feel alive and dynamic. This interconnectivity allows for extremely flexible and open-ended gameplay.
What is a Systemic Game?
Breath of the Wild is part of a genre of games called systemic games. Systemic games are games that are created such that all their individual systems can reach out and influence one another. A good example of this design philosophy is the rain mechanic in Breath of the Wild. When it rains in Breath of the Wild, the whole game world is affected. Surfaces are harder to climb, and visibility is affected, but Link’s footsteps are muffled so sneaking around is easier. Fires sizzle out, NPCs run for shelter, metallic objects attract lightning, and large rain puddles form, only to be evaporated when the sun comes out later. The weather system in the game is not just some neat visual addition, but an integral part of the game world that affects virtually everything in it. Very often, the interaction of these different systems in systemic games lead to unexpected and unintended gameplay scenarios.
For example, in the recent Far Cry series, it is entirely possible to run upon enemy encampments that are being attacked by wild animals. These are not scripted encounters, hand crafted by the developers. Rather, they are emergent encounters that are the result of the game’s wildlife system interacting with the game’s enemy system. These virtually independent systems have a set of rules that govern how they interact with each other, and that interaction can lead to surprisingly complex behavior. Some other modern games that have a systemic design include MGSV: The Phantom Pain, Watchdogs 2, Dishonored, and the Hitman series. Each one of these games presents an interconnected game world, where one system can affect and react to another system in a realistic and dynamic way. In these games, players are given a goal, then asked to manipulate the games systems in whatever way they want to achieve that goal.
Systemic games are unique because they offer a level of experimentation and player control than that of other more traditional game designs. In more traditional game design, objects and entities in the game world may only really be aware of the player, and not much else. This requires object interaction to be quite direct. In systemic games, on the other hand, objects are aware of and are able to react to a larger amount of things than just the player. This interconnectivity of the game’s different systems gives a large range of options for approaching tasks. How are you going to approach the enemy encampment in Breath of the Wild? Attack head on? Sneak into the camp undetected? Wait for a storm and use the elements to your advantage? Distract the enemies with a bomb, and steal their weapons? Systemic games allow the player to choose their own play style and contribute to the formation of unique events and gameplay experiences. This flexibility truly shines when the player is given a specific goal, then left to their own devices to figure out how to reach that goal.
Potential Drawbacks of Systemic Design
Of course, systemic games are not without weak points, and they are not necessarily superior to games with a less interactive game-world. The Uncharted series is praised for its delivery of tight pacing, great action, memorable characters, and spectacular individual set pieces, all within a relatively linear and constrained game world. One possible weakness of such a flexible and open-ended game design is that it opens up the possibility of game breaking side effects and other bugs. For example, during the development of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, one developer recalls the headaches of dealing with the new “radiant AI” system, a system designed to govern the behavior of NPCs. The radiant AI system gives each NPC a set of general goals that they each attempt to achieve. The methods they choose are dependent on certain personality values that each NPC is assigned. Sometimes the NPCs would act in unexpected ways to achieve their goals. During one quest line in Oblivion, you are required to meet with a shady skooma dealer. During play testing, developers found that quest line locked, as they would frequently encounter the skooma dealer already dead in his prison cell. It turns out that other NPC skooma addicts would need to get their fix, so they would kill the dealer and take his stash, thus preventing the player from accessing the quest line.
Other developers recall starving guards killing and stealing food from prisoners, NPC villagers robbing stores, and various other unexpected (and sometimes disturbing) behaviors. In the end, Bethesda had to actually scale back the freedom given to NPCs, as they kept engaging in destructive and gamebreaking behavior to achieve their goals. The interaction of many complex game systems can produce behavior that is extremely hard to predict, and these unexpected behaviors can compromise other parts of the game.
Other times, systemic games are so flexible that they allow exploits that make parts of the game trivially easy. Given the flexibility one has to approaching problems, one particular solution may present itself as vastly more efficient than any other solution. Players are then encouraged to not experiment with the different systems, as they have already found the most efficient way to achieve their goals. Part of the difficulty of designing a systemic game is making sure that all the different systems and elements are properly balanced, so as one system does not exert a clearly dominant influence on other systems.
Elements of Successful Systemic Games
So what kinds of features do successful systemic games have? First of all, the rules that govern the interaction of systems must be consistent. A player can only manipulate the game world successfully if the different systems behave in a more or less consistent manner. Guards should react in the same manner to a particular stimulus, NPCs should have a consistent schedule, and objects should behave the same given the same inputs. Without some level of consistency to the behavior of the different systems in the game, it is much harder for the player to make and execute plans.
Second, in the words of Mark Brown on his YouTube series Game Maker’s Toolkit, rules that govern the systems should be “universal” for the class of objects they apply to. For example, in the case of Breath of the Wild, if one wooden object can catch on fire, then all wooden objects should be able to catch on fire. The more exceptions to rules that exist in the game, the less encouragement one has to try different things. The appropriate application of these rules creates a logically consistent game world that encourages and rewards experimentation with unique outcomes and events.
Third, good systemic games have a certain generality to their systems and rules. The more general in character the rules that govern the interaction between systems are, the more potential there is for emergent game play. For example, instead of a programming a guard to react to specific objects in the environment, one can program the guard to react to extremely general types of stimuli, such as noise, light, or motion. In turn, other objects can be defined as having these general set of properties. So instead of the guard looking for specific things, the guard would look for specific types of things. This extra layer of abstraction lets the set of rules that govern interactions between systems be general, yet also allows the player to exploit unseen relationships between systems and objects that the developers did not explicitly intend.
Lastly, good systemic games give the player the means to consciously manipulate the different systems to make plans and solve problems. Breath of the Wild gives the player several runes, among other items, that can be used to manipulate the environment. One rune attracts metallic objects, another creates frozen blocks in water, and another lets you put an object in stasis and build up kinetic energy to send it flying. Each rune give the player a way of directly interact with the environment to create dynamic unique scenarios, and players can make and execute deliberate plans with the tools that they have.
In the same vein, the Bethesda game Dishonored gives the player character an arsenal of tools, weapons, and powers that they can use to reach their objective. Corvo can use his blink power to teleport short distances, use arrows to distract enemies, throw objects to distract guards, summon a swarm of plague rats to attack, and set traps for unaware guards to stumble into. Combining powers and tools to navigate the environment and deal with enemies is an essential part of the game which opens up innumerable avenues for gameplay. Without having some means of consciously manipulating the environment, players would be unable to effectively use a large amount of the functional relationships that exist between different systems. Gameplay would thus be severely limited.
In a certain sense, systemic games have a simple design. Although the individual systems themselves may be complex, the interactions between the systems do not necessarily have to be complex to produce interesting behavior. Systems can have relatively simple rules for interacting with other systems. The complexity sneaks in once these rules and systems start to combine in unexpected ways. Even a simple set of rules can result in complex emergent behavior, as evidenced by John Conway’s famous “Game of Life” cellular automaton program. Conway’s Game of life involves a two-dimensional grid, where each cell is designated as either alive or dead. Each cell interacts with its neighbors, and the state of any particular cell at some particular time is dependent on the state of its neighbors at a previous time. Even with such a simple setup and simple rules that govern the behavior of cells, complex and unpredictable behavior emerges.
Systemic design is interesting as it allows game designers to create a dynamic and changing world that feels alive and logically consistent. Such a world provides a level of flexibility and open-ended gameplay that rewards experimentation. Breath of the Wild is especially incredible on this front. Never have I played a game that made me say “Wow, that worked!” almost every time I wondered if I could do something. In one particular puzzle, you are required to manipulate electrical currents to open a particular door. The “intended” solution involves finding two electrical orbs and placing them on pedestals next to the door. Instead though, the player can just lay a trail of metal objects, such as swords, shields, and bows from one orb to the other pedestal, thus completing the circuit. I was completely floored when I figured out you could do this. This particular solution to the puzzle makes perfect logical sense, yet most players would not even think to try it as game worlds rarely have such a level of consistency and interconnectedness.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of systemic games is that they provide for a truly unique experience, tailored specifically to each player. No two players will have the exact same play through, and every player will encounter entirely unique moments. This uniqueness also adds to the replay value as the same game can be played multiple different ways. Lastly, spending hours just messing around in these highly interactive worlds is an incredible amount of fun, and after all, isn’t that what games should be going for?
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