Systemic games present game worlds filled with individual systems that are designed to influence each other. The world has been created to sustain all the systems and allow them to interact in unique ways. For example in Zelda: Breath of The Wild there is a Rain system, when this is active everything outside becomes wet and climbing is more difficult, footsteps are muffled and metal objects will attract lightning. In Far Cry 4 there is a Wildlife system, where hostile wild animals will roam around and attack humans, players and AI enemies alike. A simple way of checking if a game can be understood as systemic is if events are happening that have not been directly designed by the game studio, if the systems are just allowed to “do their thing”.
In systemic game worlds the players are allowed to create their own unique stories through the gameplay and their manipulation of the world. Often these outcomes cannot be fully predicted and allows the players to explore new ways of playing and approaching the challenges presented. In the aforementioned Rain system from Zelda, lightning will be attracted to metal and when the sparks of the strike can ignite explosives and ignite wooden objects. In The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim the player can level up in both the skill alchemy and the skill enchanting. There is a potion that can be created using alchemy that boosts enchanting and there is an enchantment that boosts alchemy. The player can exploit this by going back and forth and creating even more powerful potions and enchantments until they can create invincible gear.
Often the systemic games are open worlds as they also promote exploration. Both Skyrim and Zelda from the above examples are open worlds. It is vital that these systemic worlds interact with the player and present the player some sort of tools to manipulate the systems. This is often given steadily as the player levels up, like in Zelda where the player gets Runes to levitate objects or freeze them to imbue them with kinetic energy creating amazing results.
Balancing can be tricky, if all players should be able to beat the game all choices should be viable ways to go, and nothing is obviously exploitative. The system in the world should also be able to run without breaking the play experience. I found an example from the development of The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, where the developers had given the NPC’s their own goals and would kill each other and make the player unable to complete the game. This naturally did not end up in the final version.
One of the most important factors for creating a successful systemic world is that the systems and rules must be consistent, so the player can navigate the game world and plan their moves based on these systems. I.e. if wood can burn, all wood must be recognisable as wood and be able to burn, if metal attracts lightning all metals should attract lightning etc. The systemic worlds allow the designers to create a dynamic world that feels consistent and like it would run without the players input.
Contrary to systemic games are directed or scripted games, which try to tell a linear story and stick to that narrative. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and Last of Us shows a strong linear story that could almost just as well have been a movie/series as the player follows along on the protagonist’s storyline. Players who have played a directed game will often have had a similar experience, while the systemic games allows the player to find their own way. This exploration of the game is probably the most important aspect as it creates different stories and great replay value as the player can try all the different paths if they so desire.
To summarize; systemic game worlds provide the player the opportunity to explore the world and systems and create unique experiences. They also provide the risk of creating an unbalanced or exploitable world. If the designers and testers are not thorough the result could be a game that does not present directions equally viable for all players.
So in the end, it’s all about what kind of experience the designers want to create for their audience. Should the players create their own adventure or do you have a story to tell?