Procedural Stories

 Pages 1 2 NEXT
 

Procedural Stories

Storytelling by algorithm might work, but you might not really want it to.

Read Full Article

Hey look everybody, Shamus is back! Always great to read your columns.

Skyrim also did the "procedural content" thing with those "radiant quests" and I can most definitely say they were not fun, especially after retrieving the nth lost sword/shield/amulet/book from the nth cave/fort/ruin. The arbitrary reasoning for how the item even ended up there... at the end of a linear path... waiting inside a large chest... just made the tasks even more tedious.

I would, however, LOVE to see a game like the one you mentioned in the town. The Walking Dead came about as close to making me feel like I had i4nfluenced the story as any game has. Apart from Mass Effect, but we all know what went wrong there.

Hooray! I've been hoping for a little Shamus in my life lately!

Maybe another Online MMO comic is coming *crosses fingers* or any other creative endeavor he would care to share.

Just sayin' (and hoping)

I sound like a fanboy..

This is the kind of thing Civilization and Mount and Blade does really well. They drop you in, there's a bunch of ways to win, and you choose what you want to do and see what happens.

Dwarf Fortress also lends itself spectacularly to this sort of thing. When you get past the admittedly high barrier of entry, at least. But if you do, there's plenty of "fun" to be hand.

I have yet to read the article, but I'd like to point out before I do...

New Experienced Points article? FUCK YEAH SEAKING

My day just got a lot better. Which is nice, because I've had a pretty good day.

EDIT: OK. My giddy excitement abated, I'd like to say that:

Irridium:
This is the kind of thing Civilization and Mount and Blade does really well. They drop you in, there's a bunch of ways to win, and you choose what you want to do and see what happens.

Dwarf Fortress also lends itself spectacularly to this sort of thing. When you get past the admittedly high barrier of entry, at least. But if you do, there's plenty of "fun" to be hand.

YES. THIS. I've been saying this for a while now. I love some structured game plots, but honestly, I think that the thing gaming does best when it comes to narrative is the glory of 4X-style emergent stories. They belong to the player.

I admit that this is partly down to my favoured choice of games (I'm a big, big strategy fan), but the principle is (in my opinion) objective - The story of my trials and struggles in Crusader Kings II was more tense, thrilling, and intensely emotional (Of course, CK2 being CK2, these emotions were hate, fury, rage, loathing, and resentment, but that's beside the point) than the main plots of most of the last 5 RPGs I played.

I'm not suggesting that one replace the others, simply that the brilliant, unique qualities of the emergent gameplay/story model be embraced by the more rigid story-focused series.

Already you can sort of see this in Elder Scrolls - the main plot is basically ignored for most of the game. Instead, you spend your time doing what you want, crafting your own character. The actual narrative is buried so far down the backseat, you'd need a endoscopy camera to see it. The game's strengths lie in the side journey. The bandit forts and dragon lairs. The daring thefts and accidental murders.

That's the stuff you remember.

Yay, Shamus is back!
Procedural storytelling sounds interesting, but I can see it fall short, when players do something the creator wasn't counting on, to what the game wouldn't know how to respond.

Shamus, you brought up The Sims as an example of attempting emergent stories, but there is an even better example you might have heard of: Crusader Kings II, aka the medieval stabbing simulator.

Here's a light article that gives an idea of why that works so well (it's Kotaku, but it's not crap for once). And here's another that goes a bit deeper into it.

Anybody interested in this sort of things should check the game out, it's amazingly well done.

Can story be handled like stat based combat? Something like each character has stat pools of story based whatever - fear, bravery, love, hate, willpower - and have that affect the story rather than the gameplay. Where in some games you have a meter of good vs evil and it determines your powers or ending just have a bit more of that but have it affect events throughout the story - not - did you save Ben at chance number 1 so now this and this will happen - instead, you saved Ben at chance 1 so now you get this many points to your protector stat

You have stat Black, White, and Red
Walking Dead game You enter the house with the dog collar
Kenny has 25 red stat - he's going to search the house - if he has only 19 red stat he picks a fight with Lee, if his Black stat is 30 he collapses on the floor

It would have to account for a lot, but selecting three or four story important pools and having something not too complicated, like 3 or 5 options per character based on those pools at each story moment, while a lot of work I am sure, seems like it would allow for a lot of flexible story.

would that work at all? or is already in use to some extent in games?

ChristopherT:
Can story be handled like stat based combat? Something like each character has stat pools of story based whatever - fear, bravery, love, hate, willpower - and have that affect the story rather than the gameplay. Where in some games you have a meter of good vs evil and it determines your powers or ending just have a bit more of that but have it affect events throughout the story - not - did you save Ben at chance number 1 so now this and this will happen - instead, you saved Ben at chance 1 so now you get this many points to your protector stat

You have stat Black, White, and Red
Walking Dead game You enter the house with the dog collar
Kenny has 25 red stat - he's going to search the house - if he has only 19 red stat he picks a fight with Lee, if his Black stat is 30 he collapses on the floor

It would have to account for a lot, but selecting three or four story important pools and having something not too complicated, like 3 or 5 options per character based on those pools at each story moment, while a lot of work I am sure, seems like it would allow for a lot of flexible story.

would that work at all? or is already in use to some extent in games?

I would love to have this for clothing in rpgs, this kind of system. If you look more like beggar, some thieves could let you go alone, while richly dressed merchant would be the target almost every time he went on road. It would also make your choices matter from a social standpoint, attending the king in appropriate attire, etc. Some players may skip the armor protection for advantage in speech checks or something... I dunno, that could maybe work.

Mordekaien:
I would love to have this for clothing in rpgs, this kind of system. If you look more like beggar, some thieves could let you go alone, while richly dressed merchant would be the target almost every time he went on road. It would also make your choices matter from a social standpoint, attending the king in appropriate attire, etc. Some players may skip the armor protection for advantage in speech checks or something... I dunno, that could maybe work.

That would be awesome, like that heavy suit of armor gives a great protection value but knights are seen as tyrannical bastards so in town slums store prices are nearly doubled, peasants avoid you, you're more likely to be attacked by a mugger, but in the rich districts you're showered with gifts, and prices are lowered. However dress as a shlub, and in the nicer parts of town they refuse to even sell you goods.

I always play with clothing options when ever given the choice, to the extent of refusing to wear ugly armor if the boost isn't high enough - I don't want the +20 armor, my +15 armor looks better

I don't think sandbox is the thing we're looking for. IMHO you either want sandbox, OR story. I mean sure there are games such as the sandbox GTA IV with a story of its own, but the story element is basically a game of its own, while the sandbox is either just a distraction, or basically a another game of its own.

As for procedural stories, I'm thinking more about creating a general story template for the whole game with many branches. Like mentioned - the player might want to join the bad team, or cheat on the love interest or whatever. So, the whole game tree would be set by the designer. The procedural part would come from the details, such as which faction is in alliance with which other faction. I mean say you have a shooter or RPG based on Red Alert 3 universe with 3 distinct parties where you either play for one fighting the other two, or one of the two fighting the third. So there are a lot of strategic elements and potential for differting gameplay right there. Then throw in the randomly generated missions in the Enemy Engaged style, THEN throw in that sandbox thingie... Err well okay now we actually have a sandbox again.

So basically I don't know either :/

ChristopherT:
Can story be handled like stat based combat? Something like each character has stat pools of story based whatever - fear, bravery, love, hate, willpower - and have that affect the story rather than the gameplay. Where in some games you have a meter of good vs evil and it determines your powers or ending just have a bit more of that but have it affect events throughout the story - not - did you save Ben at chance number 1 so now this and this will happen - instead, you saved Ben at chance 1 so now you get this many points to your protector stat

You have stat Black, White, and Red
Walking Dead game You enter the house with the dog collar
Kenny has 25 red stat - he's going to search the house - if he has only 19 red stat he picks a fight with Lee, if his Black stat is 30 he collapses on the floor

It would have to account for a lot, but selecting three or four story important pools and having something not too complicated, like 3 or 5 options per character based on those pools at each story moment, while a lot of work I am sure, seems like it would allow for a lot of flexible story.

would that work at all? or is already in use to some extent in games?

Thats a really interesting idea. Would you mind if at some point I made something roughly based on that? I know a while ago Yahtzee talked about a randomly generated book. Combining your idea with his could create a fairly easy (although time consuming) to write short story generator. If I ever have the time I would love to give that a shot, but I don't want to steal your ideas.

Winthrop:
Thats a really interesting idea. Would you mind if at some point I made something roughly based on that? I know a while ago Yahtzee talked about a randomly generated book. Combining your idea with his could create a fairly easy (although time consuming) to write short story generator. If I ever have the time I would love to give that a shot, but I don't want to steal your ideas.

By all means feel free to, please

Aww. I thought you were about to talk about Procedural Fiction - that is, cop stories that focus on the procedure of investigating and prosecuting crime. Like Law and Order, or Castle. Or like LA Noir, if we're talking games. I have a thing for procedural police fiction.

Ah well, randomly generated stuff is neat too.

Woo hoo! More Shamus! :)

Great article, and I see that several people have already made the same logical leaps as me...

Proverbial Jon:

Skyrim also did the "procedural content" thing with those "radiant quests" and I can most definitely say they were not fun, especially after retrieving the nth lost sword/shield/amulet/book from the nth cave/fort/ruin. The arbitrary reasoning for how the item even ended up there... at the end of a linear path... waiting inside a large chest... just made the tasks even more tedious

I didn't mind the radiant quests. The thing is, Skyrim is so incredibly vast that in four play-throughs I STILL haven't actually explored the whole place. So those radiant quests give me an incentive to go and explore a specific part of the world, which is not all bad.

Irridium:
This is the kind of thing Civilization and Mount and Blade does really well. They drop you in, there's a bunch of ways to win, and you choose what you want to do and see what happens.

Mount and Blade is certainly a leader in this regard. I think the commercial limitation is that emergent stories require creative involvement from the player. We throw around the term "sandbox game", but we often don't realise what it means. A true sandbox game (like Mount and Blade) is one where the game provides the tools for the story, but the player has to make them. That is, it's got as much inherent story as a real sandbox. It's up to the player to think about things like their character's motivations and where they want to sit on the good-evil-chaotic-lawful spectrum, and adjust their in-game actions accordingly. Do I want to burn down this village? What if the only in-game consequence is a pile of burnt bodies and the knowledge that I am to blame? That is a true sandbox situation. (Of course, depending on the rules of the sandbox, you could have repercussions from the villager's allies, or the local army, but you see the point).

This can be far more immersive and satisfying than being spoon-fed a story, but it's less palatable to a player who is used to passively receiving entertainment a-la TV (or some JRPGs). Mentally, if not physically, the player needs to get off their ass and get involved in creating the story.

Aye, Mount and Blade does this brilliantly. It even does something akin to the town Shamus describes, although not in quite as much depth. If you get involved in the courtly politics of one of the realms, you quickly find that the court is split into different factions, helping certain noblemen makes him and his friends like you more, but earns you the dislike of their enemies. Everyone distrusts the turncoat nobleman/noblemen (there can be a lot of these if your kingdom really starts dominating the map) at first, but sometimes they end up becoming part of one of the factions due to their actions. Get enough support and there's good odds you'll see material benefits from it, and if you set things up right you can become the true power behind the throne.

Actually, one hopeful indication on the horizon is a seldom-discussed aspect of Skyrim. That is, the guard dialog.

Yes, all that crap about "Hail Companion!", and "I don't suppose you'd enchant my sword?"

It seems pretty trivial, and it can get a little repetitive, but it's actually an example of the world dynamically adapting around the past actions and current abilities of the player. It's a framework on which emergent procedural gameplay could be built.

I think it'd be quite feasible to make a rudimentary generator that plops out a bunch of stories, but the problem is that quantity != quality. You'd specifically need someone to read over the stories and pick out the good ones, that are topical, or focus on life's little idiosyncracies and ironies.

Enter Twitter.

I seriously think that Twitter's massive hashtag repository could be used to identify the short stories in which the procedural content has the potential to be topical. Use groupings of hashtags to understand which story elements go together, and also what current events are deemed interesting or ironic (thanks hipsters for going through life and tagging all those events for us!) As a yardstick, you'd want to make the core algorithm, and then add the Twitter filter on at the end to rank potential stories, and try to see if a story concerning, say, troops seeking the legendary insurgents in the magical land of Afghanistan plops out at the top of the list.

At the absolute worst, you'll just end up with some sort of tale of crystal bacon Jesus seeking a hobo narwhal doctor but apparently the internet already likes that crap.

Interesting article.

I think to a limited extent it could probably be done, but we'd need better non-player character intelligence first. If you combined an engine that could work out "logical" actions for a character to perform, based on something vaguely like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and crossed it with a sort of chart of narrative/dramatic beats into a story matrix, I think you'd have a beginning.

Consider, for example, a sort of "cop action movie" kind of game. The drug lord Mr. X starts out wanting to secure his power base, edge out any upstart competition, and increase his wealth. Perhaps he tells his minions to undertake a smuggling operation and firebomb a rival's supply warehouse.

But the player prevents the firebombing. Mr. X's need to edge out his competition goes unfulfilled, and he starts to recognize the presence of the player at a low level- perhaps not knowledge of the player's character himself, but merely that there's a new wrinkle interfering with his plans.

Mr. X sends his goons out to recruit new minions, and, still seeking to destroy his competitors, arranges for a drive-by-shooting at a dock where his rivals bring in their own supplies. The player fails to stop the shooting but disables the vehicle that performed it, and between his contacts on the street and the goon he captures fleeing the vehicle, he starts to close in on the villain.

By now, Mr. X is very aware of the player and sees him as a real threat. He decides to kill the player's wife, but the story chart intercedes, saying that a) the wife is too important a character to be killed off frivolously and b) it's too early in the story for such a dramatically intense "beat". Through either a downgrade of the original "storyline" or the generation of a new one, instead, a rookie cop the player is friendly with is injured in an attack intended for the player. The player uses the information he gathered through earlier interrogations to start going more aggressively pursuing Mr. X's interests, and closes an important drug processing factory.

By this point, the story/character matrix is quite clear that Mr. X is very aware of the player's character and considers all other goals superfluous to destroying the player's character, preventing the foiling of future attempts to satisfy his need hierarchy. His wealth has taken a hit, but his rivals are less of a threat, and his recruiting has been successful, so he has plenty of manpower. The matrix concludes that the appropriate (both logically and dramatically) step for Mr. X to take is a full-on assault of the police station.

When the player and his comrades successfully fight off this assault, interrogating one of the dying assailants reveals Mr. X's headquarters, and sets the stage for a final showdown.

Of course, none of this engages the problem that we frequently expect games with any significant sense of drama to be fully voiced these days, and fully scripting out responses like the ones above would just mean a ridiculous amount of unused assets, more or less destroying the reasons for having procedurally generated content in the first place. But I think with a willingness to put resources into engaging such problems head-on, a well-realized game could be created centered around such a matrix.

Want an example of well done procedural storytelling?

http://www.gearheadrpg.com/

Bam!

Procedurally generating a story isn't necessarily too hard. Yes it will be rather formulaic, but every good story, and even a lot of bad stories, are. Its what you do with that formula that makes it good/bad.

Step 1: Pick your genre. Horror, Action, Mystery, Romance - ect. From this you get a basic plot outline. Yeah, it'll be a cliched plot - as said, most of the best loved stories are cliched.
Step 2: Pick your setting. Steampunk, High Fantasy, Modern Day, Cyberpunk - ect. This gives you you encyclopaedia of what you can use in your plot; the sorts of characters and places that exist, the scenery, the themes you're likely to explore - ect.
Step 3: Draw some "inspiration" from other stories. Setting it in a Fantasy world? Draw inspiration from Norse Mythology and include some of their less well known myths and stories as base patterns for your own, linking between Horror, Mystery, Adventure and Romance Norse Myths to the genre you are writing. Any who have read the Sword Art Online light novels will probably find this concept familiar, as its what the "Cardinal" system does in game for its random quest generation.
Step 4: Generate your story following the general plot outline of any story of that genre. If its adventure or action you've got your classic "Hero's Journey" outline. If its Romance you've got to pick a subgenre before you can tell which outline to follow, but for something like Romantic Comedy there's the obvious "Boy Meets Girl, neither like each other, are forced together by circumstance/problem, spend time together and grow to like each other whilst maintaining Tsundere attitude towards each other, problem is solved/circumstance is over, both admit to liking each other" plot that is so common in Hollywood.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of it, but stories are, if nothing else, rather formulaic. If its formulaic, it can be put into a PC to get it to do something. Of course it'd also need an immense database of knowledge like Watson has to be able to draw its 'inspiration' from, as well as presets of normal story telling plot outlines, but that's the same as any person. You figure this stuff out through hearing other stories, and discover subconsciously what it takes to write an enjoyable story. This could probably be accomplished with Machine Learning as well, but W/E.

On the topic of Emergent Stories... I don't like them unless they are very, VERY well done. For example, Skyrim. Skyrim is not well done for emergent stories. Sure, its got the world, its got the freedom, and its got things happening for you to have your story, but it has the problem of any story always being a very vague outline, or just comical. "Got pissed off at a guard and decided to kill him, leading to him being chased out of the hold" as an example. Why was he pissed off at the guard? 'cause he'd been told about the guy getting an Arrow to the Knee for the 500th time.
A lot of the problem is that NPCs don't really have conversations. They have some pre-set lines for quests, but that's most of it. You can't get any good dialogue, which leaves you leaving the details of the story vague, or having a poorly written one. You can't have any good idle conversations with NPCs. Additionally, nothing you do has much effect on the world. You're leader of the companions? No-one treats you with much more respect. Killed Alduin? Bandits still come up to you thinking they can rob you, and without any grand schemes either. Well known as the greatest mage in Skyrim? Nobody decides to surrender, knowing they can't possibly beat you.
Additionally, no-one but the guards really notice when you're carrying a legendary weapon. Carry Dawnbreaker and Necromancers should go "Oh shit, its Dawnbreaker. Has Meridia's champion really come for me?", and try to run rather than fight. Bring in Volundruung and most warriors should flee at the sight of it. That's emergent story. It arguably gets in the way of gameplay, but that's required for a good emergent story a lot of the time, allowing you to actually grow in the world and have your reputation mean something. It doesn't really help immersion when I have to pretend every bandit and low life thug is stupid enough to want to challenge the strongest Warrior, Mage and Assassin in Tamriel to a fight to the death, or that they miraculously haven't heard about me, even though I'm the Thane of every hold and have been the leader of every guild for months, and aren't intimidated by the big fuck off hammer I'm carrying that's glowing red with power, along with the black shadowy aura my armour's giving off.

When emergent stories are done a lot better then they are in most sandboxes now I'll like them more, but I enjoy a polished story over one that barely exists.

Callate:
snip

I'm picturing this in my head and it sounds beautiful. It's not that farfetched really. It's almost like applying NPC AI principles to the game's plot. That kind of logical decision making is what makes AIs work, but at the moment in most games it's a fairly linear sequence where an NPC works out what's visible to it (and possibly it's allies), whether to start attacking anything it sees and where to move to after that. It's a system with only a few states, sometimes as few as whether an NPC is wandering or attacking something. You'd basically need to create an AI that can work out logical plans, which involves a lot more forward thinking than what current AIs do. Otherwise you end up with the same situation as games with "multiple endings", i.e. effectively the same storyline and game with minor changes that don't change the experience very much.

Still, if it worked... wow.

I think a form of procedural stories already exists in gaming. It just doesn't exist in digital gaming. If what we are looking for is the ability to create content "on the fly" then we must look no further than the tabletop. In tabletop RPGs the GM/DM serves as the "algorithm" that generates the content. A good GM/DM does create content on the fly in response to his/her player's actions. The first time I played a tabletop RPG (7th Sea if you're curious) our party cut out the final boss entirely because one of our members acted in a way the GM didn't anticipate. In video game terms this would have been a bug, possibly a game crashing one. Our GM went with it and used the extra time to create a new follow-up scene to our sewer adventures wrapping up the story.

I think tabletops excel at this type of procedural gameplay because humans are hard-wired to create scenarios from existing information. It will be interesting to see if computers are ever able to do so effectively, but until then I think we'll have to be content with whatever tabletop gaming we can find.

And this niche, procedural gameplay, which tabletops can offer may be a good reason to start bringing them into the same wider cultural influence digital gaming is starting to enjoy.

Shamus Young:
I think rather than procedural stories, we ought to be looking for ways to make emergent ones

The 'problem' with emergent stories is that they rely on the player to construct a coherent narrative out of a bunch of actions/situations/events. That's not an issue for the sort of player who takes all the tools a game can give them and just run with it but if you've ever been on the forums for games that inhabit the more extreme end of the sandbox spectrum and read the number of 'BUT WHAT DO I DO?' threads you know that there are quite a few players that need preset goals or some canned narrative to give them that initial kick in the arse to get them invested into gameplay.

I think the biggest hurdle for emergent stories as far as the average gamer goes is that outside of narrative heavy games NPCs generally lack personality enough for people to emotionally invest in. When your Allies, Rivals and Enemies are all as 1 dimensional as Quest Giver #14 and Random Peasant #431, they're not characters they're cardboard cutouts. Of course trying to build characters that are believably adaptive to the entire AI ecology as well as player agency is going to be challenge enough let alone actually injecting personality into them. Of course, even if a developer was hell bent on having that sort of thing in a game there's the question of budget and resources to be able to do it.

Emergent stories are something the core Paradox games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, Crusader Kings) do amazingly well. So well in fact that there's a whole community based around retelling game events as linear stories: AARs. (For instance, I've been working on one off-and-on about a rival faction beating the Ming in the civil war after the Yuan Dynasty collapsed. The game gives enough data and enough room to flesh out all the AIs as characters with personalities and motivations, and whenever anything crazy happens, I can comb through the data to come up with realistic historical forces explaining them.)

Their games are essentially sandboxes once you get good enough that the AIs aren't difficult (though they're never completely toothless.) AIs aren't brilliant, but they often have driving motivations and frequently act in clever ways to further specific goals. Random events can throw wrenches in your careful plans, and the game provide so much info that many of the stories are just crazy things you notice. It all comes together to essentially be a story generation machine.

Like... in the China game, two of my rivals' kings had "random" deaths in quick succession... and were replaced by members of my main rival's dynasty. The sudden family link made the AIs completely change the way they behaved in war and diplomacy, turning a six-country free-for-all into two large rival blocs. Or... Japan was stuck in a centuries-long civil war, and I used the turmoil to invade and take Kyushu/Shikoku. One of the minor powers made peace with me while I was still fighting and immediately turned on their neighbors, eventually building a strong enough base of power to end the civil war and unify all of Honshu.

And there's tons of small-scale drama going on that's easy to miss, but when you notice it, it's great. Like in a CK2 game where I was playing as a Muslim nation, there was a common-born woman in one of my vassal's courts. Her stats were all incredibly high, but her being a commoner made her somewhat undesirable for marriage (marrying often lets you ally the groom/bride's parents if they're dukes/sheikhs/whatever.) She ended up being married off to a landless noble whose brother was an emir. Then she murdered her husband. Being in the emir's court made the AI see her as a great match b/c of her stats... so her brother-in-law made her his second wife. Then she had a son. Then she murdered the other wife's son. Then she murdered the other wife. But this time she got caught and was executed.

Stories like that are what make me keep going back for more.

Edit:

RhombusHatesYou:
The 'problem' with emergent stories is that they rely on the player to construct a coherent narrative out of a bunch of actions/situations/events. That's not an issue for the sort of player who takes all the tools a game can give them and just run with it but if you've ever been on the forums for games that inhabit the more extreme end of the sandbox spectrum and read the number of 'BUT WHAT DO I DO?' threads you know that there are quite a few players that need preset goals or some canned narrative to give them that initial kick in the arse to get them invested into gameplay.

Grand strategy games do a great job of setting out clear goals for new players while being sandboxes for the more experienced. For new players, it can be challenging enough to just not die. Then everything grows out of that: "I can pursue x, y, or z strategy to be stronger or be less of a target so I don't get my ass kicked." As they improve, they have more freedom to set bigger, over-arching goals for themselves. And once they're really good, the game becomes so easy that they can either self-impose challenges to keep things tough, or they can do whatever they please to construct stories.

Of course, the genre isn't for everyone. Plus they can be really sink-or-swim (or rather "study-the-wiki-or-sink"), and the complicated UIs and the enormous amounts of data can make them seem really arcane or impenetrable. But yeah. They provide literally zero narrative guidance ("here's like 300 countries, pick one and do whatever") and instead use their mechanics to force goal-oriented play.

Irridium:
This is the kind of thing Civilization and Mount and Blade does really well. They drop you in, there's a bunch of ways to win, and you choose what you want to do and see what happens.

Dwarf Fortress also lends itself spectacularly to this sort of thing. When you get past the admittedly high barrier of entry, at least. But if you do, there's plenty of "fun" to be hand.

Too bad that the dreadful part of gathering relation points with other lords when you plan to start a rebel faction / make your own nation is so tedious. You need several lords to join you, and that means huge amounts of shitty quests for the lords.

Joccaren:

A lot of the problem is that NPCs don't really have conversations. They have some pre-set lines for quests, but that's most of it. You can't get any good dialogue, which leaves you leaving the details of the story vague, or having a poorly written one. You can't have any good idle conversations with NPCs.

+1 to this. I don't think you can get really good procedural stories unless you can generate procedural dialog.

I wrote a brief paper on this a few years ago while I was at MSR: "Using Natural Language to
Manage NPC Dialog" http://research.microsoft.com/apps/pubs/default.aspx?id=69325

The general idea is that you create a backstory for each NPC using natural language; parse it into abstract "logical forms" (LFs) to create a knowledgebase (KB) for each character. At runtime, these KBs are analyzed to find relevant chunks, which are then ranked and generated back into (grammatically correct) English utterances. Sadly, this process is non-trivial - rather than a simple translation of static text, it requires a parser and a generation engine for each language you want to support.

Story was handled in this system by tagging some nodes in the KB with tokens that represented significant items, ideas or knowledge. The dependency graph of these tokens was used to help drive the story.

I only had a chance to create a small demo before I left MSR, so I only handled basic Question/Answering interactions. But it certainly could have been expanded to include more complex dialog interactions.

Haven't read the column yet, but welcome back Shamus!

Yay, Shamus is back. Nice to see another Experienced Points up on the Escapist.

As for procedural stories: no. Just no.

There's a reason literary scholars call it the craft of storytelling.

Good stories, really good stories, are about more than a procession of events. Genuinely great stories are about the things happening behind the events. Great stories are about subtext, thematic content, symbolism... in short, meaning beyond the simple events that are portrayed. And quite simply, that is not something that you can reduce down to an algorithm for a computer to follow. A story simply enough for a computer to come up with from scratch is a story any hack writer could have come up with in two minutes.

I know games are a 'tech' medium, but not everything can be reduced down to programming. A good story needs to have heart and emotion, and those are both things which computers, almost by definition, lack.

I've seen a few people on this thread use the excuse 'well all stories are formulaic...' as reason for procedural storytelling. All I have to say is...really? You think all stories follow the same Hero's Journey formula? Have you read much post-modern literature? Have you not seen some of the films born from the arthouse and indie film movements? New types of story are being created all the time, new ways of portraying narratives to the audience. Pulp Fiction isn't a formulaic story. One of the main characters dies halfway through. Memento isn't a formulaic story, it's a story told backwards. No Country For Old Men. Mrs Dalloway. Neon Genesis. Watchmen. The Sandman. Planescape: Torment. These are all stories that pushed the boundaries, and subverted the expectations of the audience. You can't take the creativity and originality of such storytelling, and try and turn it into a mathematical equation.

If all you seek from a game's story is a basic series of events to do nothing more than justify player actions, then perhaps procedural storytelling could work. But if you want a story that has actual meaning, then you need a human hand writing and, and infusing it with meaning in the first place. If you want a story with emotion, then you need a person writing it who understands what emotion is, and how to inspire it.

Realistic random storytelling with NPCs will happen when you get NPCs acting in a realistic way. An NPC who has a life independent of the player,who doesn't just hang around the one spot(like a blacksmith who never eats, goes to the toilet,showers,rests,meets up with friends,travels or even sells any of his goods to anybody else but the player).NPCs need to be true individuals with their own problems, goals, moral systems, skills,etc and they need to interact with other NPC's just as much, if not more than they interact with the player.Its not so much making procedural stories as letting complex character interactions create those stories.

Good article Shamus, really like your procedural city.

I think rather than procedural stories, we ought to be looking for ways to make emergent ones. Instead of a static story about a hero who does something heroic, it might be better to simply generate some starting parameters and drop the player into a sandbox style world. When the player enters town they discover that Anna has a crush on Bob. Carl is insanely jealous of Anna and would kill her if he saw her with another man. Dave is business partners with Anna and needs her help to succeed. Ellen hates Dave but likes Anna. Fred is looking for someone to steal Carl's prized sword. And so on. The player is then free to act or not act as they see fit. Their version of the town will be different from someone else's, and the decisions they make will form a unique story.

Once again, Mount and Blade Warband laughs in the face of the poor plebs that think such things have not been tried yet. Mount and Blade has pretty much exactly this system already up and running beautifully.

I personally think emergent stories are fascinating, and could be the future of game writing, taking advantage of the medium's unique ability to change and interact with itself.

I even think a whole new medium of entertainment could be possible with this system. We just need to try it out.

Shamus Young:
Procedural Stories

Storytelling by algorithm might work, but you might not really want it to.

Read Full Article

Creating procedurally generated stories take two prime ingredients:

1. A Procedurally Generated World:
-I teased the basic concept in another thread
-The key goal is to create a world where some kind of conflict can occur procedurally and where the player would be free to attempt to resolve this conflict; you indicated as much in your article
-The primary way you'd do this is to make each individual NPC an actual character in their own right. Simulate reality as much as possible then add a little extra drama or some higher stakes.
-Other important things include a diversity of choice so that the player can approach solving the conflict in pretty much any way they can think of.

2. A Generic Monomyth template:
-Create a Call to Adventure procedurally using an interesting plot hook that involves requiring the players active participation to solve some problem.
-The "problem" can be as diverse and complex as you want it. Traditional "slay monsters because they're bad", or "fetch me xyz" are of course the low-hanging fruit. There could be political squabbles, labor shortages, an evil villain, etc. etc. You can even go for internal conflict if you so choose.
-Consider each of the Monomyth's stages and consider designing your procedurally generated world in such a way as to incorporate many of these concepts in diverse ways.

Some other stuff to take into account:
-Generally, the bigger the implications, the longer the time scale. A bunch of different love triangles might erupt in violence dozens of times a day in large cities. Meanwhile a brainwashed or manipulated-by-evil-advisor king of the empire can only happen so often before things become a little ridiculous. The rate of the passage of time should be malleable so that things seem to develop over an adequate amount of time while also keeping the player entertained.
-One way to resolve a lot of potential problems is to go for a roguelike game with an overarching story (optionally also procedurally-generated) that counts as a game completion if resolved and where any failure along the way is of course to restart the roguelike and reset your progress and character.
-If you really want to nail things down you'll probably have to build game versions of psychological profiles for individual NPCs that affect their behavior as well as metarules for what kind of motivations they tend to have and how they accomplish those goals
-You'll probably need to procedurally generate dialogue, and you'll have to figure out some kind of system that works for your game because it's the interface that connects all the simulation and data behind the NPCs with the player.

call me simple but I think we need to focus on better writing and implemtation of story/narrative in games rather than having endless choices

j-e-f-f-e-r-s:

As for procedural stories: no. Just no.

There's a reason literary scholars call it the craft of storytelling.

I have to agree.....thats the reason the elder scroll games just don't do anything for me its not "my" job to come up with the story

Hey, Shamus is back, awesome!

Personally, I think the best kind of story in games with random content is... Having little to no story at all. Why? Because then you are making up the best story in your mind.

I remember playing old Championship Manager games (2001/2002 is still the best one period, I'm playing it to this day) and imagining my half time speeches during important games, depending on my position in the league, form of my players etc.

Other example more close to the people who are not playing sport games? X-Com Enemy Unknown. Don't tell me you didn't make the personalities of your soldiers based on stuff that happened during missions, or some kind of revenge plot after one of your best veterans died in combat. I remember saluting to the end credits, because the "chosen" soldier was my favorite guy, and why he was my favorite? Because after a certain mission went fubar, he was one of the two survivors, and he was a rookie at the time, going to the battle with hardened vets (not to mention he became the best pal of the other survivor etc). He then became an assault guy and averaged something like 5 kills per mission. He was the bravest soldier I've ever seen in a work of fiction, and it was all in my head. Amazing.

FTL? Same thing. Hell, I had my own stories for my recruit assassins in AC: Brotherhood.

Trying to have some kind of complicated story in the random generator seems like a recipe for a disaster because with some many random variables it can become a mess really fast, but if you'll keep it simple then you'll have one of the greatest story ever created, and it was created by you. And the best part? If you'll play the game again, you'll have another, different story, but just as awesome.

I think a major problem with these emergent stories is their heavy reliance on templates. Once you're playing for a while you start recognizing them and characters and events just turn into copies of each other with minor changes instead of actual unique instances.

At those points playing them tends to become less about experiencing the emergent story and more about gaming the system, for me at least.

Once I know that if I put template A into situation B he will perform action C which benefits me greatly I'm just going to seek out characters with template A, use the same actions I know will put them into situation B so that they'll perform action C. They've turned into mindless automatons instead of rational characters.

 Pages 1 2 NEXT

Reply to Thread

Log in or Register to Comment
Have an account? Login below:
With Facebook:Login With Facebook
or
Username:  
Password:  
  
Not registered? To sign up for an account with The Escapist:
Register With Facebook
Register With Facebook
or
Registered for a free account here