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Emergence and Progression: Strategy vs. Structure

Juul’s third chapter of Half-Real goes into detail about rules of a game. He also mentions two subtypes, emergence and progression games. After his comparison of Pong and The Hobbit – I figured I would do the same with two more recent game systems. The two games are Binding of Isaac and Alan Wake.

Binding of Isaac is an independent video game. You control Isaac, a young boy, who is essentially being chased by his mentally disturbed mother. You fight her midway through, and then beat the game by destroying her heart on the last level. Throughout the game, there are treasure rooms. Each room holds an item that helps you progress further in the game, but some are better than others. If you don’t get a good combination of items, you can pretty much call it quits. This is especially true since every time you beat the game, it becomes more difficult. Binding of Isaac is an emergent game. The system leaves you with very simple rules. Kill monsters, get items if you can, and don’t die! The sheer lack of rules leaves the player in a pickle. Well, this game sure isn’t going to get easier, so how do you deal with it? Well, by creating strategies of course! With each item, a new strategy is born. That new item or combination of items that you got could prove a better way to survive. You’ll remember that next time you play. Once you get to a certain point in the game, hell, you can even quit before you get to Mom because you know the items you have aren’t sufficient to kill her. So you start over again and hope for better items. The variations are pretty much endless. With hundreds of items to find and combine to beat Mom, it’s quite an amazing game to say the least (and pretty angering at times).

Alan Wake is a horror game. You control Alan Wake, a writer who is living out the contents of a book he doesn’t remember writing. Throughout the game, you find pages of his book that tell of events that are to come. If you choose to read them before the encounters, that is. Alan Wake is a progression game. The game almost reads like a book, and it follows a writer of horror after all. Similar to that of Stephen King (I believe there’s a reference to him in there somewhere as well). The challenges are set up to where there is only one way (as far as I know) to complete them. You follow a very linear path. In the game, you are fighting the “Dark Presence” that has consumed the heart of Cauldron Lake and turns people into “Taken” (they are shadowy people that must have a flashlight shown on them to remove the darkness and then shot). The Dark Presence uses writers to try and free itself from the… underworld essentially. Its first victim was Thomas Zane who helps you through a few tough spots in the game. There are not a few rules like that in Binding of Isaac. You must follow the rules and structure that the designer has given you. It has that pesky characteristic of progression games where there is more ways to fail than succeed (just ask the Taken, they really enjoy coming out of bushes and hacking your head off). You also pretty much read a novel while playing (there’s that progression like storytelling). And after all, who doesn’t like a little horror every now and then? Even beating it once didn’t deter me from playing it again… and again.


  1. I saw someone give a paper about Alan Wake at a conference! If I remember right, he presented it as an example of a game that was very aware of itself as art.


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