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Trebz
12:18 AM on 08.23.2009

This post is inspired by walkyourpath's blog http://www.destructoid.com/it-s-more-complicated-than-just-escapism-143461.phtml#ext. If you haven't read it yet, it's thought-provoking and definitely worth the short time spent reading it.

Anyway, the idea that we play video games because we know what will happen if we perform a series of actions and that we enjoy the idea of set outcomes had me thinking--What if video games didn't always have a set outcome?
What if, when you were about to save the world, something awful happened to make the reverse true? That happens all the time in video games. Sometimes it's an example of the player accidentally triggering the "ancient evil's" ressurection, as in Kirby's Adventure, where it turns out the main enemy was actually trying to protect the world and by defeating him, you actually helped bring about the apocalypse. Sometimes it's just the antagonist deciding it's time to destroy everything and summoning the ancient evil. But whenever it happens and however it happens, it's scripted. The developers wanted that moment, where the player didn't expect that they were going to be trapped by their own actions. And it had to happen then, because the developers put that moment into the story and made sure that after you did a certain thing, this bit of story development would happen.
Sometimes, there's an illusion of choice and it's becoming a lot more prevelant in video games this generation. Would you help kill this character or would you save him? Would you talk your way out of being involved? There's still set outcomes. If I said I was going to kill a man on the street, he'll die because I took a certain path that the developers had lay out for me. If I decided to go neutral, I'm making a choice but I'm still following a fork in the road. And that road was built long before I decided which path to take. Sometimes there are even more choices, (lawful good, chaotic good) but there are always set paths that I will have to take if I said I'd loot the criminal's pockets and then turn him in to the police. The Witcher does a great job of portraying shades of gray. Early in the game, there is a band of elven bandits that are illegally buying goods from a villager. Geralt is given the option, when he discovers this, to defend the goods and have the bandits leave the site or to let them take what they want. Once that happens, the consequences don't become apparent until the next act of the game. I decided to let them take the goods and in the next act, I found that they had killed a character important to the plot with one of the arrows they had bought from the villager. Something that I had not expected at all had taken place in relation to my actions, but there were still set outcomes. If I had read a walkthrough, I would find out that something was going to happen and I would know the outcome of my actions way before I even performed them.


What I'm interested in are consequences that nobody could have predicted because they weren't directly programmed into the game. Events that are triggered by the player's actions but that aren't set in place by the developer. Characters who's actions and development revolves around the player's decisions, but aren't decided completely by the developer. Basically, I'm imagining a video game where there are no set outcomes and we've actually reached true procedural generation.
Now, I don't know much about procedurally generated narratives being used currently, but I know we're getting there. The A.I. Director in Left 4 Dead is a good example of A.I. basing the entire game's environment around the players' input. No game is exactly the same, because ever game's circumstances are a little bit different. Say all the characters are healthy except for one. Zoe is on her last leg. She's also running out of ammo. So the A.I. director focuses on Zoe. Her music grows tense, the party starts telling her to heal up, and the zombies start heading for her. Even when not focusing on one character, the A.I. Director still relies on the party's location to help with the zombie apocalypse. If the group is outside, in the middle of a clearing, the zombies will come from every nook and cranny to kill. If they're in a small corridor, the Director will build up the tension by sending in sparse waves of zombies. In the end, everything comes together to form the first real procedural narrative. The A.I. has complete control of the game and it bases everything off the players and their various statistics. I'm imagining this, but at a greater scope.


Imagine, a player is given the age-old choice to kill or not to kill. He's being forced by his friends to kill a man and they're standing over him, watching him from behind. He is in a dark basement. The player can make any choice he wants, as he is given full control of the character and needs to draw a weapon and kill the victim to complete his mission. His friends are all given personalities based on how the player has treated them before and his own connections in the game. Each weapon will elicit different responses from the group if used to execute the victim. However, the player can choose not to the man. He can convince any of the group members that they're wrong and each one will have its own response. Any conversation had with any of the characters will be remembered by the A.I. and will have it's consequences within the plot, with various severities based on other conversations. Basically, every word will have some impact on the player's game. He can also try to convince one of his friends to make the kill instead. The character may be outraged at the idea of having to kill, she may be entirely willing and will do it instead, but at the same time will respect the player less for chickening out. In a nutshell, the character will all respond differently depending on their personalities and how the player has treated them in the past. Every moment that the player-character and the NPC interact may be brought up again at some point in the course of the plot. The player can also run off if he chooses. He can run out of the basement, possibly injuring or even killing a friend on the way. There are so many choices, as many as you could ever imagine possible in that scenario.

This would lead up to scenes that the developer had never taken into account. It's almost like real-life except for that it takes place in a fictional setting and no feeling is inflicted on the player. And thus, a true example of procedurally generated content, miles ahead of Spore's Creature Creator and the Director A.I. I hyped earlier. It isn't easy to imagine video games reaching a point where they can craft their own realities, almost parallel to the real world's laws and logic.
Now, I would be fascinated by the possibilities if someone were to tout this at an E3 sometime in the future. And I think it would be amazingly entertaining to play a game with true unlimited replay value. But with that also comes one (possibly literally) fatal drawback: Depression.
People already find that they're emotionally affected by characters in video games today. An important character dying. Romantic relationships being expanded upon. Having to perform a horrible action against your own will. Scripted sequences that will always have the same outcome still tug people's heartstrings. But imagine if you spent the entire game crafting your own special relationship with each character, a relationship that will never again be repeated again and suddenly that character turns evil/dies/kills another character that was also important to you. Remember the reason walkyourpath brought up as to why we play video games: We know we will get the desired outcome out of our actions. Well, what if we have no control over our character's destinies and things rarely go according to plan, just like real life? Then is there truly enjoyment when best laid plans don't go according to plan? Or is there disappointment? This leads up to a question I ask of the reader.


walkyourpath states that a huge reason for why we enjoy video games is because we enjoy having a desirable outcome to our actions within the game. It's a farcry from real-life, where a lot never goes according to plan. Well, my question is, what if there was a video game that mirrored real life in that lots of things never went according to plan because the developers never created a plan to follow? Do you think it would appeal to you in the same way as videogames that developers create actual legitimate outcomes for? Or would it not seem like much of an escapist route, as it held the possibility of being very depressing, to the point of mirroring real life's unexpected problems?

Thank you, and good night.



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