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Siri, tell me a story....

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(Note: Despite my bold start, I will not be able to keep up a post per day, so enjoy it while it lasts. Or enjoy that it won't last)

In my last entry, long-time listener and friend of the show, Cozzie, noted that it seemed implausible for a game to ever use procedural generation (PG, or ProGen for the millenial hipster crowd) to make storyline quests that tapped into the main narrative of the game. I made a lengthy argument about how it mattered how you framed the narrative. I will now pull a Hollywood and reuse my material, in slightly updated form.

At first glance, I agree with the notion. We have all tried a game that had some really slapdash missions/quests/jobs/internships/whatever. Fetch quests are a classic: "Go to there and pick up that thing and go back here". Rinse aaaand repeat, ad nauseum. These are a good example of PG gone wrong (or really lazy writing gone really, really wrong). They involve minimal effort to make, and can be used in many different ways, with difficulty being easily managed through distance to be crossed, obstacles known on the way, number of things to get and places to get them from, and so on. It's a Swiss Army knife of quests. And like those knives, it really does a poor job of most things it's used for. It's just very accessible.

Dungeon runs, IMHO, are not much better. The dungeon may deliver some variety, but on a story level, "go through this dungeon and kill this ting", or even "fetch this in the dungeon", which makes it just another fetch quest, are not a huge drive of story structure. But since so many games are about things done in a dungeon run anyway (killing stuff, mainly), those get a kind of free pass from story structure criticism, at least if they are not done horribly bad.

But when you start to look at it this way, everything in games starts to become a target. With rare exceptions (The Last Of Us springs to mind), games have storylines mostly along the "go there, get/kill/do this" line. They need that, because they are games, not books or movies. Players need a level of freedom, to avoid Mass Effect style story collapse (I'm talking about the ending, of course). But that freedom means you can't really calculate big dramatic spectacles into it. If you want carefully crafted stories, the storyteller needs to step in and take over. Call it the "cut-scene dominion", if you will; even if there is no pre-rendered animation, the game freezes the freedom of the player for a moment, to deliver exposition.

So we have simplistic assignments, or restrictive exposition. How can PG fit into this? Here's my take: Think of Star Wars. What springs to mind? If you're an old geezer like me, or just a young whippersnapper with good, classical sci-fi roots, you probably thought of a young Luke Skywalker, leaving Tatooine and having space adventures (and de-hooding in front of Jabba the Hutt in the beginning of Return of the Jedi, because man was that a cool scene!). Maybe you think of Obiwan's wise(?) words or sacrifice against Vader. Maybe you think of Vader choking snappy officers in hilarious ways. Or maybe you just mellow at the thought of young Harrison Ford being all dashing and slick as Han Solo. What you do not think about, I am betting, is the larger political clashes going on around that galaxy far, far away. Because, let's be honest, once things became about the big picture, a lot of people tuned out. We want lightsaber fights and tricky spaceship maneuvers, not a full briefing of all those funky screens in the war rooms. Those are just there for the pretty colors.

And in that light, PG has very narrow limits. Sure, you can have PG mold stories and insert elements of a larger narrative into them (replace "powerful figure" with Luke or Vader, for example, and just roll those random encounters up, baby), but those are going to be lackluster, and they will only become storyfodder for more cookiecutter quests like fetching or dungeoning. Sure, this can make the game run (heck, World of Warcraft has made billions over the last decade or so almost entrely on that), but it can't make it fun (I stand by my comparison to WoW). So are we back to intricate stories designed by human hands and delivered mostly in cut-scenes? In my opinion.... no.

Go back to those war rooms. Go back to the bigger picture. Forget Luke, Han, Leia, Obiwan, Vader and the rest. Think world before story. If such a world / universe is properly made through good PG, there are plenty of moving pieces in it which need to be adjusted for. Those adjustments can either be a few numbers moved around by the computer in the background, or it can be actual events taking place around player characters! Faction conflicts, embargoes, unpopular (or extremely popular) leaders, crime waves, social turmoil, protection of the status quo, and many other things are ripe for use as quest sources. Maybe the overly rough police force is cracking down on a city district, and some people want their loved ones to get out safe. In a typical game, that might mean someone wrote up the tense police situation and had a few NPCs ask PCs for help. But with PG, it looks very different. The details of the conflict can be elaborate, because it is (presumably) a set of background events that are procedurally generated, based on population algorithms inherent to the game. The conflict is not designed, it emerges on its own. And in its wake follows public reactions, overall a simple faction attribute adjustment (the "Public" faction has no leaders, but it has plenty of resources and goals, not to mention attitudes). What is needed is not a PG engine that creates stories based on this, but one that translates it into stories. PG can be used to set up a basic situation (police conflict) and needs (safety for loved ones) as part of a greater system of population dynamics, no more complicated than your average physics engine. Which is to say "pretty complicated", but not "impossible". It's data reacting to data reacting to data, rinse and repeat.

The key to this is to acknowledge that games are not books or movies. Games don't tell stories. They create stories around the main characters, and let them experience whatever and how ever much the player wants. The new Doom did a fantastic job of poiting this out, with the protagonist throwing away screens that tried to tell the story, because you just want to kill demons, dammit! In that case, the real story was going through the situation (there are demons) and reacting to it (kill them). A PG story/quest/mission/dance-off engine can use the same mentality. Set up the situation, and motivate players to do something. Then maybe, just maybe, have some algorithm mash together words to form some expositional excuse. But let the situation birth the challenges, rather than adhering to a rigid story structure. And that situation, of course, then becomes the backbone narrative to keep things together. The PCs don't run the droid blockade because Luke is fighting the Emperor for control of the galaxy. They run the blockade because people on Bomatalah VII need the medicine they carry, and the droids want to confiscate those. All this just happens because of the conflict that is embodied by Luke and the Emperor clashing somewhere else.

The big problem with this kind of "situational storytelling" over the classic dramatic storytelling might well be that there is a certain kind of drama that a lot of game designers, and even authors of books, movies and especially comicbooks like to promote: The big personal drama. Want to see it in its purest form? Watch a classic soap opera. They overuse it to the point of violating it and leaving it in a ditch on the side of the road. Everything is someone's great emotional outburst, and exposition comes in a steady, nauseating flow. Script writers love this. The feel of writing a grand emotional scene can be a rush. But it's theatrics, and belongs in theater. A complex PG story engine needs to rely on the practical challenges of what might well be day-to-day life. Getting paid for a job, finding good, cheap parts for upgrades, convincing a grumpy wizard to teach you a certain spell, and so on. Game characters don't do grand drama well, at least not outside very well written cut-scenes. Don't fight that, embrace it. Let the grand epic be sewn together from dozens of smaller stories. It's less "university drama class" and more "drinking buddies swapping tall tales over a few brews". And that, that a PG story engine can do.

Today's challenge: Tell me a very short story. The trick is, it can't be a very dramatic, rock-my-world story. Tell about the time you had to find your cat in a really smelly alley, or that time when you tried to find an address in a foreign town and ended up walking around for over an hour. Tell me a small, undramatic story about you having to deal with something. It does not have to be true, or even realistic. Just tell me a small story, and leave the big drama to would-be screenwriters and Mark Hamill's possA(C).

Cheers, don't be a stranger!

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