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Procedural content - update

Argh! How could I write about web filters without mentioning two of my favorite filters:

  • The Eater of Meaning. It turns any web page into brain-bending mush. See for yourself. It even eats HTML comments! I've saved two copies of it's output because it's just so cool. And it's written in Python and you can download the source.

  • The bizarre search-and-replace CGI tool by 'yoz'. See what it can do. Hack the URL to create your own effects. I have already used this for practical jokes - few people check if the URL they click on is the URL the browser is displaying...

Procedural content

Being someone who has both programming skills and creative urges, I suppose it is not very surprising that I am very interested in procedural content. Code is a crucial element of interactivity, so I've always thought that using code to generate or modify content is an easy and fascinating way to make interactive entertainment richer, deeper, or just cuter.

This explains why I bought Texturing and Modeling: A Procedural Approach, and then sold it again to buy the second edition, even though I hadn't really implemented anything from it. (I'm now tempted by the third edition.) It also explains why I'm a fan of Ken Perlin's work.

And it explains why I'm a fan of generators, translators, and other cute little gadgets, such as:

There's too much to mention really. But I cannot leave out the Random Jack Vance Dying Earth Quote Generator, even though it does not do a lot of generating. But first of all this role-playing game by Robin D. Laws is really well-designed, and second I'm a huge Jack Vance fan, and these quotes are some of the best examples of his delightful writing skills. (One may appear familiar to people contacting me per ICQ.)

I think all of these various gadgets and tricks can be used to create emotional effects in games. Obviously, some of them are gimmicks that are hard to use in a generic manner, but cool for occasional spot effects. Many of them are particularly useful with non-standard input and connectivity mechanisms. A game like Animal Crossing could particularly benefit from these tricks, if it doesn't do so already. These gadgets can also be useful to confuse the player, which can be a worthy goal if your game involves surrealism, psychological states, horror, or the uncanny. However, if you use player input to generate content, some care must be taken with the player's suspension of disbelief.

To conclude, I'll describe a concrete example of the use of procedural content from a project I worked on that never got finished. The player takes on the role of a fallen god, a once-powerful being revered by all, who now wakes up in a dusty tomb, severely weakened. The idea was to let the player enter his character's name at the beginning of the game, as is standard in many games. Then, towards the end of the first act, the player would discover a huge, crumbled statue of himself, with his own name carved into the weathered pedestal. We had TrueType to 3D mesh and 3D Boolean operation code lying around, so my hope was it would have taken about a week or so to implement. It's just a gimmick, but one that, if done well, might have an emotional impact somewhat like the ending of the original Planet of the Apes.

(Links from various sources, including the excellent BoingBoing.)

William Gibson on the future of narrative

On May 17th, William Gibson gave a talk at the Directors Guild of America's Digital Day about the future of narrative. It's hard to say whether his view of the possibilities of technology applied to narrative are sarcastic, pessimistic or something else:

"Because I see Johnny falling asleep now in his darkened bedroom, and atop the heirloom Ikea bureau, the one that belonged to his grandmother, which his mother has recently had restored, there is a freshly-extruded resin action-figure, another instantaneous product of Johnny's entertainment system.

It is a woman, posed balletically, as if in flight on John Wu wires.

It is Meryl Streep, as she appears in The Hours.

She has the head of a chihuahua."

(From BoingBoing.)

New gaming blog

Jason Della Rocca of the IGDA has started a new gaming blog called Reality Panic. It is focussed on the games industry and the state of the medium. I particularly like the following bit from his most recent post:

"Anyway, what's important moving forward is that designers [...] explore the boundaries of what can be expressed in games. While there will always be room for violence in the designer's palette, I'd say we've pretty much painted the whole house "red" and need to start applying (or creating!) some other colors...

In the end it is about leveraging the medium, understanding the tools, and pushing the boundary of what a game is."

I agree wholeheartedly.

Activision's One

A while ago, Matt Matthews from Curmudgeon Gamer wrote a review of an old Activision game for the PS1 called One. I remember looking at it when it came out, because it made good use of the hardware and I was working on a PS1 title at the time.

What I remember is a game with a very cinematic level design style. The first level was quite heterogenous, with big events happening one after the other. You basically start with being attacked by a boss. No running around identical rooms with generic baddies here. It's not a breakthrough in game design but it's not bad.

I also liked the game's rage mechanism. The more hits you score, the more your rage meter goes up. If it reaches a certain level, you basically go berserk and are able to kill more enemies more rapidly. (Unlike Matt, this never felt counter-intuitive to me, but I can see his point of view.)

I consider this technique - using rules push the player towards a certain kind of behavior - to be essential to interactive entertainment. Many good games do this, but often the effect is not designed to integrate well with the fictional aspects of the game. This is a general problem: many games fail to exploit the emotional effects of the synergy of game rules and fiction. One actually did a good job here: you play the role of a homocidal maniac, and the game rules reward you for playing your role.

However, pen and paper role-playing games, such as Unknown Armies or any one designed by Robin D. Laws, take this a lot further. They cover a broader range of themes, and with more subtlety.

One was a flawed game. I remember it being difficult and unforgiving: you make a mistake, you die. Matt got a lot further than I did - my frustration threshold is quite low. But the rage mechanism and it's high production values left a positive impression.