Keep It Simple, Stupid:
A Concise Analysis of Crusader Kings 2
Crusader Kings 2 is a Grand Strategy game, also known as a "mapgame". In it, you take the role of a medieval noble - anywhere from a count to an emperor - and attempt to lead your dynasty to greatness. In truth, even that descriptor is a bit direct, as the actual game itself plays like a medieval Sims game. But there's a reason why I want to talk about Crusader Kings 2, and that reason is "emergent gameplay". I have talked about this at length in another article, but this is meant to be an easy, simple introduction to both the concept and the game itself.
The mechanics of Crusader Kings 2 are the mechanics of medieval law and economy - or, failing that, a general approximation of the concept. As a ruler, the player (like all other rulers in the game) must manage finances, relationships, and alliances through a system that exists to support "in-universe" decision-making. This is to say that in most cases the kind of decisions the player will make are likely to mirror the decisions the character would be make, and are founded in the same sort of logic. For example, marriages can provide claims to thrones or beneficial inheritances, and these provide the same incentives for arranged marriages that existed in real medieval Europe. This is a scenario lacking in ludonarrative dissonance - there is a very clear relationship between the game's mechanics and the reality it depicts.
Every character in the game has traits. These traits have their origins in the experiences and events that the character has gone through in their life - how they were raised (and by who), what random things befell them, what decisions they've made. Every character, from the lowliest courtier to the highest emperor, has a "story" to them that is generated as you play. They have desires, hopes, flaws and virtues. Every single character in the game is operating with their own agency based on the traits they have. As such, the entire world shapes itself bit by bit as the game progresses - even if you, the player, are on the other side of the world, the wheels are still turning.
Does a kingdom unite or fragment? Does an empire rise or fall? Does a dynasty flourish or crumble? While the player may be focused on answering those questions with regards to their own lands, the fact is that they're being answered in every kingdom, duchy and county. The world is not "created", but shaped by every interaction and event. Every character is potentially important because there is no such thing as a "protagonist" in Crusader Kings 2. There are people. Some of those people have titles. They all have effects on the world.
This is the heart of "emergent gameplay", or in some definitions "emergent narrative". In some games, the things you do in gameplay do not matter at all - it's just a distraction before the next cutscene. In CK2, every decision you make affects the overall scenario; even if it's something as simple as "banishing a vassal to another land" or "executing an enemy", the ongoing gameplay causes these events to spiderweb into a thousand fragmented possibilities. This is at the heart of what makes alternate history so interesting to a lot of people; the idea that any little change or twist could make the world an entirely different place. Grand Strategy games are, more than anything, about constructing a world out of those kinds of twists.
While these concepts cover the larger aspects of CK2 - arranging marriages, declaring war, conquering territory - a huge part of CK2's value, to me, comes from the way it handles interpersonal relationships. Like those other events, CK2 has relatively emergent "interaction"; characters like or dislike each other based on their personalities, and random occurrences may change the way they feel about each other. While the actual interaction is relatively abstracted, the game gives you enough clues to imagine how two given people would interact even if it can't show it in detail. But even beyond that there's something greater, and it has to do with the "world shaping" aspect of the game.
I'd like to share with you a screenshot I took during one of my games. This screenshot, by itself, provokes more emotion in me than any other game I've ever played. I smile every single time I see it. And that seems strange, being so affected by a single paragraph wedged between two portraits, and yet it does, more than a thousand impassioned cutscenes. And here's why: That's my son. That's not [child x]. That's not [vassal y]. That's my son. Rather, it's my character's son, but CK2 is a game that allows for roleplaying more than almost any other game I can name. It gives you justifications for "game actions" that match up with what a character would actually be doing in a situation. It gives you a set of traits that you can use to guide your general behavior and outlook. And, in this case, that's my son. If I've been playing this game and I've been getting into this character and doing what I think this character would do, it means so much more to me to have that sort of paternal moment where a father and son can truly bond.
And in game terms, it's just some numbers shuffled around. But what covers those numbers gives us context, and with context we can imagine. No, the game does not show us a montage of this father and son running around and getting ice cream and so on, but it gives us enough information about each of them and the relationship they share that it's just as easy to imagine it and more importantly to take this information in and have it affect the way you play the game. Do you think I'd callously marry this son off after this, or do you think I'd look for a wife he's happy with? Because of the lack of ludonarrative dissonance, I can roleplay with relatively few constraints, doing things that make sense for the character to do.
Most games are "story presentations" or "story delivery systems". Crusader Kings 2 is a "story creator". It is a string of narrative events with semi-defined characters who interact with each other in ways based on their personalities. Characters like "the princess who loved her father despite him trying to kill her" or "the strong, capable lesbian queen" stick out more because they are generated naturally as part of a system and fit into the ongoing story-construction. In this case, the fact that the interactions are so "simplified" is actually a benefit - because it's far easier to imagine a scenario where you have basic facts but not detailed reactions. In a game like Mass Effect, for example, everything would be represented directly - tone of voice, response, attitude - but in Crusader Kings you're given some basics about a character and an event for them to respond to. This allows the imagination to actually go to work, rather than shackling it down with "the way things actually are".
Obviously it wouldn't make sense for all games to be like CK2. In many genres it's simply not feasible - this kind of interaction is basically reserved for strategy & management games. But I also want people to know about it as an example of what games are capable of beyond "violence". Is it harder for games to do interaction as a major gameplay mechanic? Yes. Is it impossible? No. It just requires a different approach than the games-as-movies concept that many games seem to favor.