procedural metaphor

I was cleaning up my dev archive and looking through some old idea files today, and I found a note labeled ‘procgen.txt’ from a few years ago.  It had some provocative quotes from a talk that Brian Eno (who I mostly know tangentially through his association with Underworld) gave in the mid-90s, exploring the merits of procedurally generated music.

Like a good theory in physics or a profound piece of art, roguelikes can offer a powerful simulation for safely exploring radical new ideas.  But generally these metaphors point inwards, revealing deeper insight into roguelikes themselves.  Can they be turned outward?

“I think what artists do, and what people who make culture do, is somehow produce simulators where new ideas can be explored.  If you start to accept the idea [of procedurally generated music] you start to change your concept about how things can be organized.  What you’ve done is moved into a new kind of metaphor.”


“Evolving metaphors, in my opinion, is what artists do.  They produce work that gives you the chance to experience in a safe environment … what might be quite dangerous and radical new ideas.  They give you a chance to step out of real life into simulator life.”


After Dark, Stained Glass 2
“We’re saddled with a whole set of [old] metaphors … about how the world works, how things organize themselves, how things are controlled, what possibilities there are.  Generative art in general is a way of not throwing those out; we don’t get rid of old metaphors, we expand them to include more.  These things still have value, but we want to include [new] things as well.”


“My feeling about artists is that we are metaphor explorers of some kind.  An object of culture does all of the following: it innovates, it recycles, it clearly and explicitly rejects, and it ignores.  Any artist’s work is doing all those four things and is doing all those four things through the metaphors that dominate our thinking.”


— Brian Eno

A talk delivered in San Francisco, June 8, 1996

why roguelike?

I grew up with video games.  My dad sold pinball machines and arcade games in the 80s and 90s, and I was regularly exposed to game developers who’s names are now legendary.  As such, I was spoiled with video games as a child.  I don’t know why any of that is important to this story, but this is my story so I have to start somewhere.

Looking back now, I’m trying to find a common thread that led me down the path towards roguelikes.  All I can draw upon are the strongest impressions that video games made upon me during my childhood.  The furthest back I can go is to the Apple //C, and a game called Hard Hat Mack (which I am now learning via Wiki was EA’s ‘first game’).  I don’t think the game itself is what was interesting though, but rather the Apple hardware that lent itself to fantasies of hidden power and dark realms.  You could switch it off and on real quick and get it to boot into a broken screen of garbled flashing ASCII characters, a secret that I discovered and kept to myself like it was some kind of arcane knowledge that had to be protected.www.willegal.netThere was also Intellivision, which a friend of mine owned, where we spent hours in his basement mostly playing Burger Time and SNAFU (which was like a precursor to TRON Light Cycles).  And of course the Atari 2600, with games like Moon Patrol, Pitfall, Frogger, and The Empire Strikes Back.  All of these were fun games, but largely forgettable in terms of life-changing impact.  For that you need a proper adventure.  For me, this came in the form of The Legend of Zelda.  (Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure shares this pedestal, but we’ll discuss the impact of that game another day.)

I always recall my dad setting up my NES and popping in the golden Zelda cartridge, working his way into a new game, and then… getting totally lost on the first screen.  Maybe you needed a kid’s imagination, but obviously you were standing in some sort of a canyon and that black square was a doorway.  He handed me the controller and off I went, immediately wandering down the steps and equipping the sword.  And that was it for me.  I was forever after a digital adventurer.

Even as a kid, even before knowing what a roguelike was, I played Legend of Zelda in permadeath mode.  Dying was simply unacceptable, and meant immediately restarting the game.  This might have started as some form of OCD, as every death meant that counter by your saved game would increment, and who could allow such a thing?

Thinking back, maybe it was more about continuity.  Death had consequences.  Death meant the end of your journey.  An adventurer doesn’t run blindly into danger, leaning on a respawn like a crutch.  You had to assess the danger, weigh your options, plan your actions.  And if you made a mistake then you learned from it, cataloged it in your mind, assured yourself you would do better next time.

But you were dead.  That imposter standing back in that canyon with your old-self’s gear was a thief or a ghost.  Who knows where he came from or what he had experienced?  What was the purpose of this clone’s journey?  Were his interests aligned with my own?  Rather than get bogged down with the weight of this existential crisis, it was much better to start over.  Besides, hitting the reset button meant you got to experience the opening theme again.

(I once decided that in the future when we can implant music players in our brains, wired to our nervous systems, and program soundtracks to play in our minds triggered by the rate of our heartbeat, the Legend of Zelda theme would be permanently programmed to my ‘determined walking/light jogging’ setting.)

But why roguelike?  Why now?