There's a ton of waffle out there about procedural narrative and emergent narrative, so I’m going to get straight to the point. But bear in mind that I’m not an academic. I’m a working professional who is industriously oblivious of the canon currently surrounding the terms ‘procedural’ and ‘emergent’.
I’ve defined procedural narrative in a previous article as a narrative design strategy. Basically, you create a whole bunch of little narrative bites, from tomes and flavor texts to dialogues and visual motifs. Then you scatter them across your game so the player can find them in any order.
Procedurally generated games have a randomized element to them where the game world forms in different ways with each playthrough. Darkest Dungeon is an excellent example of this. Dozens of room types, monsters, loot and nasty experiences shuffled around so that every dungeon delve offers up a different combination.
Story elements become one of the many game assets that get shuffled about. So when designing these elements I make sure that they are both self-contained, like a poem, and connected to the larger theme, like a poetry collection.
Emergent narrative is the ultimate goal of all this micro-design and shuffling about malarkey. For a single-player gamer (like me), the narrative emerges as I explore the game and encounter all of these story fragments. And naturally, my experience and understanding of that story is going to be different from another player who encounters those story fragments in a different order and under different circumstances.
It’s all about juxtaposition. For instance, “Every story has an ending.” Imagine this line in the setting of a labyrinth that you’re trying to escape. Now imagine it on a brightly lit mountain meadow after you’ve just tumbled out of that labyrinth. Now imagine it while you’re surrounded by giant spiders or an army of the undead.
How the player feels in that moment, and how that emotion informs their interpretation of the story fragment, that is emergent narrative.
Procedural narrative is the design strategy, emergent narrative is the goal, the player’s experience.
To my mind, emergent narrative goes one step further. Now that the most popular games in the world are generally multiplayer, narrative interpretation is taken into the forums and chat rooms. A player’s experience of a procedural narrative is shared and compared with others so that deeper understanding is gained of the game’s story themes. The experience is no longer singular. It becomes a discourse, and therefore ‘agreed upon interpretations’ emerge out of the games procedural narrative.
So let me recap.
Procedural Narrative = A design technique where a game’s story consists of many fragments that can be collected, experienced and interpreted in many different orders and ways.
Emergent Narrative = The result of that collection and interpretation process. It’s the individual player’s experience of a narrative alphabet soup, and it’s the gaming collective’s efforts to turn the alphabet soup into a linear narrative that can be summarized and agreed upon.
Procedural is how the game story is made.
Emergent is the story experience the gamer takes home.
If you're keen to know more about the general principles of narrative design, I have this handy little book on the subject.
Thanks for reading. :-)