Tag Archives: infinity game

Opinion – Resolving the procedurally generated story problem

It’s the little things that count.

A few articles ago I talked about the infinity game and the difficulty in generating compelling story content using an algorithm.  Stories require elements that are difficult to render down into discrete blocks and therefore require much more care and planning to combine than procedurally generated staples like loot or maps.  In this article, I’d like to discuss an existing stepping stone that can help take the load off of story writers seeking procedurally generated content.  Specifically, I’m talking about story infused elements.

Stories develop organically in games outside of the narrative written by the developers.  Even a story barren game like chess inspires amazing tales of clever strategies and narrow defeats.  Terrible games can similarly create developer separated stories, though usually not for any reason developers want them to.  The point is that games create stories outside of the strict confines of the narrative established by the developers.  They do this by providing game elements that players may use to craft tales of interest from.  Players imbue these elements with meaning which they often share with their peers.  This is the entry point through which developers may turn their procedurally generated elements into procedurally generated story elements.  All they need to do is make it easy.

I played a round of Crusader Kings 2 as a cantankerous, militant duke who succeeded in uniting England after a series of bloody battles and rebellions.  At the end of my character’s long reign, I looked to the next generation only to discover that my next in line was a blood thirsty psychopath with zero talent and a number of failed murder attempts on her record.  Under her, the kingdom would surely fragment.  The next in line after the demon child was a brilliant, charming, and incredibly capable woman who was beloved by all.  Should I have my king murder his eldest daughter to let her sister inherit and thereby preserve the kingdom?  Should I step back from killing a child and let her develop unhindered but with the understanding that England would probably fall apart once more?  Such are the stories of Shakespeare and it was mostly generated procedurally.

One of the great things about Crusader Kings 2 is how it imbues gameplay elements with a real sense of narrative and meaning.  Much of what I described (my character’s martial ability, his daughter’s psychopathic nature, her sister’s saintly disposition, etc.) are all numerical elements of the game combined via an algorithm to produce a variety of scenarios.  Crusader Kings 2’s genius is describing these elements in such a way that they may combine to form an intricate story without the developer having to write one.  CK2 describes its procedural generation mechanics in such a way as to create a structure which the player can fill out with their own narrative.  CK2 never told me that the king in my game was contemplating murder, but it gave me all the elements upon which I could hang that tale.

The ultimate goal of procedurally generated stories is to make it possible for games to invent complex narratives without the player’s inputs.  Understanding that developers aren’t there yet, the infusion of gameplay elements with meaning brings in the player and helps reduce the load on the procedural content in crafting interesting tales.

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No Man’s Sky and the Infinity Game

The beginning of the end

Imagine a game to end all games.  The only game you’ll ever need.  Each press of the “new game” button leads to a wildly different adventure with worlds, stories, and characters created anew.  Each world acting as infinitely expansive with a brilliant experience around every corner and, again, all in a single game.  It sounds fanciful, yes?  It is now, but No Man’s Sky represents a real step forward towards the creation of a true infinity game.

Plenty of games promise “a whole new game” every time a new round begins and, to a certain degree, they’re right.  Turn based strategy games, such as Civilization 5 or Master of Orion, have long delivered on creating new experiences by messing with computation heavy aspects of game design.  Many of these games create maps using a random number generator and build on the ever changing set of map creation variables to force new and interesting interactions.  This is an old template, but it shows the power of randomization in developing replayability in games.  It is, unfortunately, also very limited.  These games generate maps that are composed of contained variables.  A mountain in Civilization 5 always has the same characteristics regardless of the game.  Developer Firaxis may add additional requirements to the mountain tile placement (not near deserts, limiting the number that may be contiguous, etc), but each of these modifications are still fixed changes.  These kinds of map making algorithms are still limited by the simplistic variables they rely on.

No Man’s Sky appears to overcome that limitation.  Rather than rely on combining a selection of predefined traits, No Man’s Sky creates entire planets off of a formula that accounts for a far wider variety than the randomly generate maps of old.  In No Man’s Sky, a mountain can take on any number of traits and is different in key ways from every other mountain around it.  This removes random map generation strictly from simplistic turn based strategy maps and expands it into the far more complex world of 3D map generation.  Open world games can auto generate their maps rather than meticulously craft each piece.  To be sure, games like Minecraft already do this to a certain degree, but never to level that we’re seeing in No Man’s Sky.  This is a major step beyond.

Of course, world generation is only a part of the puzzle.  An infinity game would also need procedurally generated content to truly provide continuous unique experiences.  We’ve already seen some advances along these lines such as item generation in many loot based games.  Again, these are comparatively easy as they rely on a discreet set of variables that can be mixed and matched to provide new items.  The difficult part of procedurally generated content is always those parts of a game that don’t provide that set of variables.  No element is less well defined and more important than the narrative.  Unlike an item, good narratives rely on fuzzy variables such as complex characters, well written dialogue, and an interesting plot.  While elements of the narrative can be broadly categorized, they are never so well defined as to make for easy combining.  They exist in a subjective space that relies on personal preference as much as any ironclad rules of creation.  Even if we could come up with those ironclad rules, their repetition would make them boring and, therefore, no longer suitable.  Success in this area means reliably creating and mixing a host of elements that defy the consistent rules that most procedurally generated content relies on.

The next great challenge is to overcome those hurdles.  We’ve already seen a few hesitant steps.  Skyrim and Fallout 4 create auto generated quests to augment existing stories.  These quests fail in the areas we’d expect them to.  Where creativity, characters and plot are required, these quests fall flat.  Still, the rewards are substantial for whomever can resolve these problems.  With both randomly generated maps and stories, developers can create an infinite number of games within a game.  That sounds like a goal worth pursuing.

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