When it rains in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, everything changes.
Rocks become slick, which makes them difficult to climb.
But Link’s footsteps are hushed, making it easier to sneak about.
It dramatically boosts the damage of electrical attacks, but it turns fire and bomb arrows
into regular arrows.
Certain plants and creatures, like the electric darner, only appear when it’s raining.
Human characters run for nearby cover.
Campfires sizzle out.
And you’ll even find massive great puddles in certain areas - which then evaporate when
the sun comes out.
The rolling weather system in Breath of the Wild is not just a nifty visual trick, but
something that can reach out and influence almost everything else in the world.
And this is the definition of a systemic game.
As Aleissia Laidacker, a former lead programmer at Ubisoft puts it:
ALEISSIA LAIDACKER: Systemic means there’s a link between all the systems in your game.
They’ve been developed and designed with the intention that one can influence the other.
And in the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of games that have this sort of
interconnectivity - from Japanese titles like Metal Gear Solid V and Zelda, to ambitious
European games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, to smaller indie titles like Mark of the Ninja,
to pretty much everything Ubisoft’s making at the moment.
Take Far Cry, for example, where much of the joy comes from the fact that not only do you
fight enemies, and not only do you fight wild animals - but enemies can fight animals.
And vice versa.
This is not a scripted encounter, hand crafted by the developer.
It’s just the enemy system and the wildlife system interacting… as a tiger mauls a guard’s
face clean off.
This works thanks to “awareness” and “rules”.
In super simplified terms, every entity in the game has inputs, which are things it can “listen” for.
In the case of the Far Cry tiger, that might be the player, bait, fire, and enemies.
And entities also have outputs, which is when they broadcast their existence out into the
If the input and the output match, and the entities can see or touch each other, a connection
And that’s when a rule is followed.
In the case of the tiger and the enemy, that rule is face mauling.
But for other games, it could be that if a flame touches a wooden arrow, it sets on fire.
Or if an orange tree frog explodes near a floor tile, it’s destroyed.
Or if it rains on a camp fire, it sizzles out.
So systemic games work by having all sorts of objects, characters, bits of the environment,
and game systems be aware of each other, and have rules for how to interact.
But why should we care?
What makes this style of design more interesting than games where the systems aren’t so connected?
Well, one huge advantage is that the player can make interesting plans.
In a lot of traditional games, entities are only really aware of the player and not much else.
Meaning the only way to interact with an enemy is through very direct means.
A.K.A shooting them.
But because entities in systemic games are aware of so many more things, we can get to
enemies through indirect means.
Like, releasing a caged animal to have it attack nearby guards.
So a defining trait of systemic games is that you can exploit those relationships between
different entities and systems, as part of plans - which make you feel rather smart when
they come together.
Here’s a good one from Watch Dogs 2.
I was getting chased by the cops, so I lead the police into gang territory, hid on a rooftop
and watched those opposing factions fight it out, and then used the distraction to high
tail it out of there and lose my wanted level.
That felt great, and a lot more interesting than just shooting a bunch of cops.
Another massive advantage of systemic design is that these games can create moments of
drama and surprise.
Such as a wild three-way tussle between the royal army, the golden path, and an angry
Again - this wasn’t scripted, but something that occurred organically from a bunch of
different entities that are all aware of each other, have rules for dealing with each other,
and have found themselves in the same place.
And I think these anecdotes are cool for two reasons.
For one, they often follow a really interesting story structure as you devise a plan and try
to execute it, but a surprising chain reaction of events scuppers your plan and you must
react and adapt.
And because these anecdotes are completely unique to your experience, I think that often
makes them more special and memorable than the ultra epic moment that every single player
is going to see happen.
No one’s tweeting about that, are they?
So systemic games allow the player to come up with interesting plans.
And they lead to surprising anecdotes.
And we call this stuff “emergent gameplay” - things that weren’t intentionally designed
by the game’s makers, but solutions and situations that emerge thanks to the meeting
of multiple systems.
That doesn’t let game makers off the hook, though.
They’ve got to set all this stuff up, to create the possibility of emergence.
So to make this work, we need to create awareness between lots of different entities in the
The more things that are aware of each other, the better.
Having characters be able to fight amongst themselves is one thing, but we can also have
enemies be able to damage the environment, have entities be aware of systems like the
day and night cycle, or - in the case of Zelda - invent a whole chemistry engine with wind,
fire, ice, and so on.
Next, we need rules that are consistent.
Because - as I talked about in the AI episode - you can only make good plans if you have
a pretty strong idea of how the system will react when you push on it.
But that means we also need rules that are universal.
Like, if some wooden objects catch on fire, then all wooden objects should catch on fire.
Any time a rule like that is broken, the believability of the world is reduced and the player is
bit less likely to experiment in future.
So to make this sort of universal connectivity easier, perhaps take this advice from Dishonored’s
co-directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio.
They say that instead of having entities be able to listen for specific objects and characters
in the world, they let entities output general stimuli - like fire damage, piercing damage,
or explosive damage - and then have other things in the game be aware of those.
This layer of abstraction makes it easier to add and modify entities, and even allows
players to find connections that the designers never even thought of.
Like in Harvey Smith’s most famous game, Deus Ex, where you can exploit the fact that
MIB enemies explode upon death to blow your way through doors.
This is also why you can lay metal objects on the floor in Zelda to conduct electricity
and solve some of the shrines in your own way.
It might feel a bit like cheating, but that’s what makes systemic games fun.
Instead of finding the single, authored solution to a puzzle, you can use the inherent behaviours
of the game’s systems to find your own way to overcome the problem at hand.
And then, if you want surprising events to happen on the regular, it’s important for
the system to be somewhat unstable.
To not be in perfect equilibrium until the player comes along and pushes on it, but capable
of moving and shifting all by itself.
This can be achieved with automated systems like how the rolling weather in Breath of
the Wild can create unpredictable thunderstorms.
Or by giving AI their own goals and needs which will push them to move about and, hopefully,
into conflict with other entities.
Okay. So you’ve made a systemic game.
You’ve created connections between all the entities in your game, and they follow consistent
and universal rules of interaction.
But there’s still work to do, because it’s easy to screw these sorts of games up.
Many fail to truly encourage players to find these emergent solutions.
Because, despite all of the exciting opportunities afforded by a game like Metal Gear Solid V,
I ended up finishing a lot of missions by abusing the silenced tranquilliser gun.
Why risk some ridiculous plan if there’s a much more reliable solution to the game’s
Hitman pushes you to be imaginative by making Agent 47 weak in a straight up firefight.
And Zelda, controversially, makes your weapon turn to dust in the hopes of pushing you to
try more creative solutions.
It’s also important to give the player a whole range of ways to interact with the world,
that go beyond just killing everything.
Killing enemies essentially removes an entity from the space, which most often reduces the
possibility for systemic fun.
You want to give the player tools that let them change, or even add entities - not just
That might mean hacking a security system to change its allegiance, or creating an inflatable
decoy to distract enemies.
Other games screw up by constraining the player’s options in really linear missions.
Grand Theft Auto is a right pain for this.
Those games are filled with good systems, to ensure that the cities feel alive and realistic.
And the police wanted level is an absolute stroke of genius.
Without it, killing a civilian in GTA would have no interesting impact on the world.
But because your murder feeds into this wanted system, which sends cop cars after you, your
action actually has consequences that ripple out into the different systems in the game.
But the game’s main missions are often incredibly linear with scripted sequences and have all
sorts of fail states for not perfectly following the commands on screen.
Far Cry has this problem too, where the main missions are often nowhere near as much fun
as the camps - which are just open-ended testbeds for the different systems.
Making levels for systemic games is more about giving the player a goal, and not caring how
they achieve it.
They require open areas, and lots of entities that are aware of each other to create the
opportunities for good plans and memorable anecdotes.
Also, some systemic games fail to create a unique experience.
Ubisoft, bless their hearts, are trying to fill all of their games with the ingredients
for emergent thrills but the camps in Assassin’s Creed Origins feel remarkably similar to those
in Far Cry 4.
So it’s important to set the systems up so they deliver their own experience.
Look at the rather different Far Cry 2, where it feels like the systems - such as fire propagation
and roving bad guys - are designed primarily to whip up moments of peril and danger for
Whereas assassination simulator Hitman goes completely in the other direction, with the
focus being more on having a perfectly choreographed system, where the player becomes the spanner
in the works.
You can even imbue systems with a message, like in Mafia 3 where the police react to
crime less quickly in a black neighbourhood than a white neighbourhood.
That’s a game speaking through its systems.
Now, this sort of systemic design is really nothing new.
For decades, simulation games have been using this sort of interconnectivity to mimic real
They just happened to be games where you play as some sort of omnipotent being, looking
down on things.
And we’re still seeing this sort of stuff today with games like Rimworld, and the absurdly
interconnected Dwarf Fortress.
In that game, you can have an emergent situation where cats wind up dying - because dwarves
splash wine onto them while drinking, the cats drink the wine while cleaning themselves,
and then end up dying of alcohol poisoning.
Watch this episode of Eurogamer’s Here’s A Thing for more on that.
But then there was the immersive sim - the genre of games like Thief and Deus Ex - where
the whole point was that they took that simulation design and put it into an immersive, first-person
game where you control a single character.
Hence, the name.
And this is a big reason why I was stoked for the comeback of the immersive sim - with
great games like Prey and Dishonored 2 - but pretty bummed out when it seemed like those
games weren’t connecting with a lot of people.
But now it’s starting to become clear that this sort of design is popular, it just doesn’t
have to be limited to that very specific legacy of games that stretches back to Ultima Underworld
and System Shock.
Whether it’s big budget experiences.
Or janky European games.
Or indie titles, made by immersive sim fans.
Or - absolutely weirdest of all - the latest Legend of Zelda game, we’re seeing systemic
design and emergent gameplay rise up and appear in all sorts of games.
And as someone who loves this sort of stuff - for the opportunity to make plans, and then
see them go horribly wrong - I’m very excited to see where this trend goes next.
Thank you for watching!
Systemic game design is a super complicated topic so I’m only scratching the surface
in this video.
But check out the description below for links to loads of resources from experts in the field.