About Procedural Story-Telling

First of all, this topic ultimately ties into my blog entry about new concepts for video game systems, but unlike the concept mentioned in the other article, this here actually would be achievable, if someone did put the necessary effort into development. This is about procedural story-telling.

Unlike (unfortunately) a lot of gamers, i don´t like the emphasis on story that many nowadays games follow. Some more, some less, but when i read how gamers list story as an equal category to something like gameplay, i feel a little sad inside. BUT: It´s not really game stories that i dislike, it´s the way how they´re handled. You know, always following a tight script, basically playing a movie. Games that i like are no exception, even if you take a low-story game like Zelda, in the end you run from cutscene to cutscene. Shigeru Miyamoto once said in an interview that he doesn´t want to make games where cutscenes are used as a prize for getting so far, but that the active gaming experience itself is the prize. His games certainly feature that philosophy, just look at Mario64 or Mario Galaxy, playing was what brought fun, not reaching some cutscenes. In my opinion, it´s these premade cutscenes that ruin an active gaming experience. That is why i want to talk about something i made up myself, at least i never heard that term before:

Procedural Story-Telling

So what is that acutally? For me, i first heard the term “procedural” in context with Spore. Will Wright talked about how every creature that the player creates will adapt a natural, realistic kind of physical movement. He called the “Procedural Physics” or “Procedural Animations”. Procedural simply meant that whatever the player does, the game reacts accordingly. In Spore that was limited to the creature editor.

Now simply replace physics/animations with story, and most of you will already have got what i´m talking about. Simpley put, procedural story-telling is an organic story, a story that is not set in stone. Depending on what i do, the future story will change, reacting accordingly to my ingame-actions.

There already are games that do a little of that, for example Mass Effect. Though here, the pool of options is very limited. It´s still a preset story, just branched off into multiple alternatives. What i´d like to have is that those branches try to go towards infinity. Just whatever i do will have a smaller or bigger effect to the overall story. I know that this would be very ambitious and i´ll say it here that i would be content with at least more games trying to create multiple branches. For example, make the next Zelda so that you can do any dungeon in whatever order you like, but depending on the chosen order, the story will differ.

Procedural Story-Telling is the story-telling of the world of games. It takes the story-element and puts interactivity into it. That´s why i love the pure thought of it so much. People often say how games are just a combination of older entertainment media, but reality is that we simply haven´t done everything we can to put the one single most important part of games, interaction, into every part of a game. We have interactive gameplay, interactive visuals and interactive music. Now we´re ready for interactive stories. Well…i am.


2 Responses to About Procedural Story-Telling

  1. Tom P says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :). You can get 2 free games here: http://2freegames.netne.net?games=free

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for years now! Basically ever since I was a kid and I once imagined a sword and shield adventure game, where instead of the story being given to you first and then you reacting to it, you basically *wrote* the story through your actions, such that when you completed the game, as a reward you literally got a written story of your heroic quest dynamically tailored to whatever you did, authored by the game itself.

    I don’t think that’s actually viable any time in the near future. Computers don’t write stories very well, which basically requires them to construct an image of themselves (Which they can’t actually do…otherwise, well, ‘hello Dave’) but the idea that you could create a program that procedurally emulates – on the fly – the basic story concepts that most developers use…that is definitely within reach.

    But I wouldn’t use Mass Effect or anything like that as an example. Those sort of branching-storyline games essentially amount to ‘choose your own adventure’ stories, which require lots and lots of hand-made content creation on the developer’s part – which is not only inefficient (regardless of quality), but it goes against the principles of procedural generation as well, wherein the computer is doing all the heavy lifting, and you’re just tweaking parameters. Not that those games aren’t good; they just don’t apply here.

    Honestly, I don’t think there are any real examples of this. Dwarf Fortress is there in spirit, perhaps, but it’s built from the bottom up: basically procedurally generating the world, and then waiting for the player to make the intuitive leaps necessary to interpret a story out of the things that happen. But what you and I are thinking about is a top-down approach, where the narrative is what everything revolves around. All the parameters are geared toward conceiving a dynamic beginning, middle, and end, rather than a dynamic history of the world that the player is left to identify with him/herself.

    I think a good place to start in looking for attempts at this would be interactive fiction (modern text adventures). Some are really complex, and have some pretty unique approaches to dealing with dynamic in-game conversation, allotting for multiple outcomes, etc. I still doubt there are any that really try to address this issue explicitly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few come close to addressing it implicitly, or even accidentally.

    I can already see how the concept of procedural storytelling can be put to use. Tom P above me, for instance, could have really used that sort of algorithm. Instead of doing a copy/paste spam of a generic broad-application message only to random gamer blogs, his storytelling program could have connected key-word context clues from your post to invent a valid, on-topic (though probably shallow) response which *also* happened to include a link to [pseudo-gamer phishing site]. With that sort of program, he wouldn’t even have to worry about the blog’s subject matter, as the algorithm’s response would be equally valid in any context without looking generic to a casual glance, which would greatly expand his operation to the whole spectrum of blogging sites.

    Okay, maybe that’s actually a horrible use for it, but you can’t deny it’s a great example. :p

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