anecdote: rules of fashion

Whether we realize it or not, we live in a rule-based society.  There are social norms that everyone is expected to play by.  Video games rarely leave the realms of war or fantasy — places where we can invent our own norms — mostly due to our legacy of creators being misfits and outcasts.  If we want to create games that are meaningful (or even recognizable) to a larger audience then we need to take inspiration from areas of society that we (developers) might not be personally comfortable or even familiar with: politics, religion, science, or today’s anecdote, fashion.

The next artist meetup is tomorrow and you feel totally unprepared.  If you ever want to get your own gallery showing you’ll need to make a strong impression with the patrons.

And so you find yourself in the downtown fashion district, hunting for color and style.

The bored teenager at the register fails to acknowledge your presence as you enter the store.  Judging by her choice in music that you hear coming from her headphones she couldn’t help you anyways, unless maybe you wanted to pivot to the goth scene.

Slipping back into the endless rows of clothing racks, your heart sinks;  With a nearly infinite number of options and combinations, how will you ever decide what to wear?

Sensing your despair, another employee approaches.  “Do you need some help finding something?”

You take note of her trendy haircut, her snappy blouse, her cute shoes —
x “No thanks.”
x “What are the hot colors this season?”
–> “Yes! I’m looking for…”

mechanical meaning

No grep this week.  How about some incoherent ramblings instead?

So I’m still catching up on this whole debate re: ‘what is a game,’ as I’m trawling through these threads.

As I play more of these ‘personal games,’ where indie devs are pouring their hearts out in experimental new formats, I find myself again looking inward, asking myself what story I want to tell with my own game.

But as I’ve mentioned before I don’t want to write a story, in fact I’m not sure I would even know how to if I tried.  Instead I want to create a platform for telling stories.  As the form of this procedural storytelling sandbox continues to take shape I am confronted with questions about the nature of playing games.  What’s the point?  Why do we do it?

Or more importantly in this context, why do I want to expend so much effort creating a game with meaning?

Creating games is something that I’ve always done, for as long as I can remember.  Not just video games, but games in the way kids turn anything into a game.  I always loved creating rules that invented a space for me and my friends to play in.  And so I’ve never really questioned what was the point; creating games was just the natural order of things.

But these were all games for the sake of fun.  A worthy endeavour, sure, but now I suddenly feel like I need to create a game with meaning, something that could be considered culturally important in some way.  This leads to a very different set of problems to be solved.

While struggling with these concepts I stumbled upon this discourse between Raph Koster and others debating if games should have a definition or not, amongst other topics.  In particular this comment from Richard Bartle struck a chord with me:

“Gameplay is what games have that nothing else has: it’s here where the symbolism has to lie if you want to talk about games as art. Anywhere else, it’s basically games being co-opted as other art.” –Richard Bartle

This is the source of my internal dissonance.  I want to create a simulation with deep emergent storytelling properties, yet I have no interest in writing any one specific story.  These two ideas seem incompatible, and this incoherency has created all sorts of conflict within me.  How can I have one without the other?

I’m beginning to understand that the two concepts really are mutually exclusive.  I am a writer of game mechanics, not a writer of literature.  I speak in a language of formal systems that when combined can be greater than the sum of their parts.  If any game I create was to have meaning it would come from the mechanics.

With this new understanding I am able to move on to a new source of confusion and self doubt!  I’ve read plenty of stories, and I know a good one when I see one, but could I tell you WHY a story is good (or bad, for that matter)?  Without this level of understanding of the structure of good storytelling, can I possibly create systems that allow such stories to emerge?  Further down the rabbit hole we go…

grep ‐‐week 49

The theme this week is: building momentum.

“As developers try to tell stories beyond the theme of ‘survival’, they’re bucking up against an increasingly archaic central mechanic.” –Lucy O’Brien

Are guns in video games holding the medium back?
Another story following the themes I pointed out in grep –week 47.  Many journalists and developers seem to be on the same page about the potential (and perhaps the need) for games to evolve, but publishers have spent decades marginalizing the market to the point where you have to wonder if it’s economically feasible at this point.

Watch Dogs 2 Would Be Better Without Guns
Whoa now — two bro gamer mainstream video game press outlets penning anti-gun pieces in the same week?  Maybe there’s hope after all… until you read the comments section — did you know that if you don’t like committing simulated murder in a video game, then you are outside of the mainstream?  This doesn’t help my belief that AAA has jumped the shark and will never be able to make games for anyone other than niche bro gamers (you know, ‘mainstream’).

Don’t ignore the trolls
Why does the video game community so regularly threaten people’s lives?  Is there any other community where this happens so often?  No?  Ok then.

“I think the people of the 22nd century will mock our astonishment at pointing a cursor at a 3D representation of a human and watching them go ragdoll.” –Frank Cifaldi

No Man’s Sky cleared in false advertising investigation
I imagine this is the first sort of legal ruling involving procedural content.  Hopefully the internet can finally turn the page on this story, especially with the apparent new massive content update that just dropped, but it remains to be seen how long ‘procedural’ remains a dirty word in the press.

Do game characters need emotions?
“The commercial industry has had no immediate use for these fascinating innovations.”  Obviously a matter of perspective, and this is the accepted perspective of the publishers that define our industry.  But as I’ve been saying, I suspect that the future of games may require investment in emotional technologies, and not just violence, if we want to stay (or become) relevant.

Moon Hunters & Procedural Space
YAMHA — yet another Moon Hunters article.  Why haven’t I bought this game yet?  It looks great.  Oh right, cuz I’m playing…

Review: Starbound
Starbound!  Minecraft in space!  (ignore the tone of the article I linked, which was clearly written by a jaded early access player who should’ve waited until v1.0 was released.)  I love this game.  I’m starting to wonder how much of the content like villages, castles, etc. are canned or if they are all truly procedural.  The wildlife is procgen, which is neat.  One thing the game definitely gets right is the feel of exploring a vast procedural space.  In Minecraft you know the world is nearly infinite, but mostly in an academic sense.  In practice (at least on every server I’ve ever played on) you are mostly limited to the area around where you first spawned, and maybe sometimes someone feels frisky and tries to build a highway through hell to some other area far away.  Starbound puts a restriction on the size of each planet, which paradoxically enhances the feel of exploration.  Choosing a new planet to land on feels like opening a birthday present every time.  Maybe this will wear off eventually, but I’m 30 hours in and I’ve yet to even orbit most of the star types let alone land on all of the planet types, so I doubt it.

On the generation of procedural organs
Procedurally generated monster organs.  Yup.

The Definitive Interview With Ed Boon
Lastly I have to include this fantastic interview with Ed Boon.  Did you know Steve Ritchie was the ‘FINISH HIM!’ voice??

I remember asking him, which was kind of dumb at the time, “Do people program pinball machines?” –Ed Boon

anecdote: changing the rules

The player explores the world and makes a discovery that has profound consequences: it might challenge the beliefs of every NPC, alter the simulated course of history, or modify core rules of the game.

You wonder what the hell you’re doing out here in the outer wastelands, chuckling to yourself at the sheer improbability of the sight: the eldest son of a High Priest of Scepticism, sitting in a hole in the desert, about to make the discovery of a thousand lifetimes.

With a deep breath you reach down into the hole and pull out a rock.  It’s heavier than you thought it would be.  You blow the dust off, enough to reveal a hint of neat rows of hieroglyphics.  Clouds begin forming overhead, and you think you hear a low rolling thunder in the distance.

“It’s about time,” you hear whispered in your ear.  You turn but nobody is there.


“Of course.  Wanna learn how to fly?”

Your dad is going to be so mad at you.

grep ‐‐week 48

The theme this week is: back to normal.

The Extremely Strange World of Infinite Dungeon Video Games
The headline doesn’t really pay off in this article that turns out to mostly be about promoting some guy’s art project (which looks really cool btw).  Otherwise it kind of just briefly describes what is a roguelike game to someone who has never heard of such a thing — which is actually an interesting problem.  I found myself wondering if such a person would understand anything this person is writing about, or if it’s all gobbeldygook.

How do you plan for extraordinary moments in procedural design?
Moon Hunters expansion gameplay with running commentary with the developers.  They make a point I’ve seen a few times recently — when your generator generates some sort of odd area, you should take the effort to craft loot or fun moments or easter eggs to stick there;  these are the little touches that allow players to fall in love with your game.

Studying gameplay progression on runners
It’s kind of useful to break down procedural runners at a high level when considering your own algorithms; for instance they mention using pseudo-randomness to guarantee their pacing wasn’t sometimes broken with bad generation.

Generating the world of Sunless Skies
A breakdown of the game’s level generation design.

Sceelix Web Engine Alpha Demo
This appeared in my inbox this week, a browser-based demo of the Sceelix procedural engine.