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  • Writer's pictureGrant Campbell

Emergent vs. Controlled Gameplay

Updated: May 30, 2021

I've been heavily thinking about this over the last couple weeks, and how it applies to the current project I'm working on, Cyrah's Ascent.

Between emergent and controlled gameplay, there is no correct choice, which is why many games try to find a good middle ground in this spectrum.

(It is worth noting, this doesn't necessarily apply to arcade-style games)


When I talk about controlled gameplay, I mainly mean somewhat-linear experiences where there are few differences between different players playthroughs'. Which could mean how someone builds their character, which branching paths they take, etc. In the end, the outcome is generally the same and the minute differences may or may not encourage players to experience the game more than once.

The titles/franchises I would organize into the controlled end of this spectrum would be Tomb Raider, Last of Us series, Uncharted series, and most other cinematic experiences.

The benefits to this approach:

  • They provide every player with the same crafted experience.

  • Players are less likely to not know what to do next.

The downsides to this approach:

  • Few ways to replay through them besides increasing difficulty and/or prioritizing playing in a specifically different way.

  • Dull moments and any issues that players may have with the game are more noticeable.


On the opposite end, there's Emergent gameplay, often incorporated into sandboxes and open-world games. Emergent gameplay exists when the player is given the tools to play the game how they want, and the game does it's best to provide as many different ways to approach a given scenario as the developer can create without overwhelming the player.

The titles/franchises I would organize into the emergent end of this spectrum would be Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Teardown, Cyberpunk 2077, Dishonored series, and games where non-linearity is a huge part of gameplay.

The benefits to this approach:

  • Huge amount of replayability.

  • Feels like the game reacts to the player's decisions.

The downsides to this approach:

  • Can feel like it has large breadth but minimal depth.

  • Harder to guide players, as it is nearly impossible to predict what they'll do.


I believe that the best games flourish when they find the placement on this range that fits them specifically, and it is very case-by-case. It all depends on target audience, the type of title it is meant to be (the genre it will reside in), and the development team behind it all.(as well as a multitude of other potential reasons)

Games like the Last of Us series appropriately fit in the Controlled end of the spectrum because it makes sense for the type of game they wish to make (narrative-focused, powerful experience), as well as the development team being able to handle the volume of cinematics, and strong attention to detail.

I have heard arguments that Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn't feel like a "Zelda game" due to it's sandbox nature. That doesn't mean that the decision to make the game an open-world sandbox of emergent gameplay, was a bad one, it merely means that it may have shifted in audience appeal. Yet perhaps more appropriately fitting with the original vision of the creator of the franchise, and it may have been more reasonable to pull off for the development team, rather than a more cinematic experience.

"Metroidvania"-style games combine some of the freedom of open-world games with the structure of linear/controlled titles. They utilize the abilities of the player in order to guide the player to discover the unexplored. (Jedi: Fallen Order, Hollow Knight)

Open-world titles that provide narrative with agency typically have less emergent gameplay and exist as branching trees of gameplay where the player controls where things go, but the rest of the experience is mostly controlled. (Arkham games, Far Cry series)

I do think that where a game will fit on this spectrum is important to try and figure out early in the development process, to better understand the scope of the project.


My experience (what led me to writing this post)

During the Winter Break between my Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, I was pondering where my team's game: Cyrah's Ascent, would fit on this spectrum.

As it stood, our game was headed towards a more linear/controlled direction, but I had my reservations about that. And I had been wanting to diversify the gameplay a bit more, by making the sections of traversal more interesting.

So I wanted to provide a boost to both player movement mechanics and environment mechanics, but I also wanted to minimize the scope impact of the mechanics whilst maximizing fun/engagement.

I did some research on many other games, familiar and unfamiliar, looking for references to movement and/or environment mechanics.

The two environment mechanics that I decided upon were:

  • A rope that can hold objects, and when shot by the player's laser attack, it would drop the object it is holding.

  • Breakable rocks and blocks, and when hit by the player's grenade attack, they would break.

And I chose to experiment with changes to the player's Ethereal Form ability as it was not particularly useful or engaging for traversal. So I opted to change it so that it could allow for moving along surfaces, jumping between surfaces and bouncing off of the heads of enemies to damage them.

The main reason I went with these mechanics was because I thought that they could be combined in interesting ways while also being low scope.

  • Both environment mechanics are pretty easy to teach via level design.

  • We already had functionality for destructible meshes.

  • In an afternoon, I was able to whip up a rope system utilizing cables and physics constraints.

  • The sticking to surfaces functionality is only really challenging in making it feel good/right. And depending on how we wanted it visualized, the art scope would be low.

In essence, I added a bit of emergent mechanics to the game to lessen the amount of linearity, which will hopefully provide more engaging gameplay and allow for more replayability. This ended up pushing our game from the linear side of the spectrum towards the emergent side, and I'd say it is still a bit more on the linear end. But I am confident that the experience will be better off because of this change.


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I plan to upload posts here on occasion, with topics ranging from analysis to personal passion projects that connect to system, ux, level and tech design. Expect a variety of different content!

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