Procedural Stories

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Shamus is back!

Interesting article--kind of reminds me of the randomly-generated quests in Skyrim.
Watching a random-generator try to turn out a more complex story would be fun, probably disasterous, but a fun disaster. It'd be like watching the glitches in Oblivion freak out.

I also want to say I'm a fan of the Spoiler Warning Show. I'm planning on getting caught up after I finish watching Desert Bus and finish The Walking Dead game.

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

If a good story is defined by the subtext - meaning it takes some critical analysis of the story to understand some kind of hidden message or analogy coming from the story - then that implies any story could be "good" if interpreted a different way from a person. In layman's terms, "What is one man's junk is another man's treasure."

Emergent storytelling isn't just making the player define the story based upon their actions. It could work like that, but the main idea of emergent storytelling is a series of events that can work in the form of a story crafted from the core mechanics of the game.

Most stories in video games come from a Narrative engine, which has a pre-scripted set of events crafted by some person (hack writer from Capcom or Angelic writer from BioWare). From here the right voice clips, events, and cutscenes (technically called 'narrative events') are displayed to the player while pausing the game loop. Some games might give the illusion of input in these stories to create agency, but this just leaves to the cheap morale choice systems or pre-scripted, "Choose Your Own Adventure" structures found in a BioWare game. You want to stop the possessed kid from summoning undead by confronting the demon possessing the kid in "Dragon Age: Origins"? You could sacrifice his mother, or get the mages to send one of your party members in. Turn to page 45 for the sacrifice, or turn to page 6785 for the mages' help.

Now emergent storytelling isn't always good on the surface. Yes it is a bunch of events strung together to form some narrative created by algorithms, but who's to say there is no meaning to them? It could lead to some immersion-breaking events like watching NPCs talking about the deals at their store in "Oblivion". But then there can be exciting moments like how a mage in a roguelike game was able to take down an Ancient Rainbow Dragon with a vorpal dagger. Hell, emergent storytelling can even be found in narrative-heavy games from BioWare's library, such as what events I can tell you that lead my main character to defeat Malak in KOTOR at the final round.

If "good" stories come from subtext, thematic content, symbolism, or meaning beyond the simple events that are portrayed - then who adds that? The writer? The writer shouldn't be so blunt with them, otherwise there is no critical analysis from the player required to find them. Plus that is just the writer "telling" the reader/player there is some meaning to the events, instead of just "showing" it.

I believe all this is interpreted from the reader/player encountering this story which finds it engaging - and that is what makes a good story. If the reader/player is not engaged in the story, then the writer has already failed in making a 'good' story. Everyone has a favorite author, but there might be some stories from that author which doesn't work so well with that person, compared to some other works. Most people on the Escapist might agree that "Pokemon" and "Twilight" series all have terrible stories, yet there are still children who find them engaging and women of various ages who enjoy their teen romance story. Are they engaged in the wrong story for them?

Emergent storytelling is no different. It might not be so engaging for some people because they can see where template A is leading to template C and have already accomplished this task for the fourth time in their playthrough. Yet for others, its an exciting adventure they can tell at dinner or with friends while they create a new character in "Skyrim" or talk about how they defeated the final boss in "FTL".

Sgt. Sykes:
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.

The GTA series might have been closer to what you're talking about if they'd stuck with the template from GTA II and expanded on that concept. I'm referring to the three gangs that had a "paper, rock, scissors" relationship, which the player was allowed to choose alliances for by choosing who to do jobs for and gaining respect in return (gaining respect in one gang would cause you to lose respect in the gang to the left while remaining neutral to the gang to the right). The only linear sense of progress was in how much money you made. Being a PS1 era game, it was handled pretty mechanically, and your choices didn't really have any effect on gameplay. If they could revive that idea and thouroughly dramatize it, I think they'd be on the right track.

In other words, leaving it as a sandbox but making every task within the box have significant dramatic weight, so by experimenting, exploring, and trying to break the mould like you would in a regular sandbox, you are always advancing story. In the game's development, there would have to be major coordination between the programmers and the writers, since the story-telling would be happening right in the code. In fact, it wouldn't be a true sandbox, but a story-tree that's complex enough to appear as one. I can see how this would be difficult to build.

So for example: What if you were working your way up in a gang and decided spontaneously to shoot the mob boss in the head? Most games wouldn't let you (think essential npcs's in Elder Scrolls) because it would break whatever story is planned out. But in this imaginary game, you can kill anybody at any time, and the environment has to respond. So if your respect level with that gang is low, that gang turns on you and you will always be in peril when near them (though there are two other gangs left that you might find sanctuary in), or if your respect level is high, another high ranking gang member might appreciate the position you just opened up and takes over (and rewards you some perks for your help), or if your respect level is maxed out, maybe you can take the throne yourself(and become a prime target for the two other gangs). etc etc etc.

Also, cinematicaly roll credits on every game over.

Personally I think Procedural Stories is just something we can do ourselves with our own imagination... Especially in strategy games such as Civilization or Europa Universalis.

Hell, for EU III, one of my favorite stories is the rise of the "Holy Prussian Empire". Which is essentially a Catholic Prussia conquering Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and most of modern day Russia before saving China from destruction and allying with them to form the world's greatest "Power Bloc".

Phuctifyno:
you can kill anybody at any time, and the environment has to respond. So if your respect level with that gang is low, that gang turns on you and you will always be in peril when near them (though there are two other gangs left that you might find sanctuary in), or if your respect level is high, another high ranking gang member might appreciate the position you just opened up and takes over (and rewards you some perks for your help), or if your respect level is maxed out, maybe you can take the throne yourself(and become a prime target for the two other gangs). etc etc etc.

You summed up nicely what I had in mind just couldn't put into words really.

I still think the pinnacle of procedural "storytelling" (maybe because there aren't many games like that) is the Enemy Engaged helicopter sim series. Both games technically only had 3 massive areas (such as almost the whole Cuba). Upon starting a new campaign, the game would randomly generate the whole battlefield/scenario (and it really took quite a few minutes on the computers of '99). After doing that, it would automatically generate tactical and strategic missions, on both sides of course.

So after starting the campaign, both sides usually only had recon missions. When some of the recon teams found an enemy convoy, the game would generate, say, tank busting missions. When any side was running out of units or an airfield was destroyed, transport or support missions could be generated. And the player always had the option to chose any of the available missions (if a featured helicopter was available) or generate their own.

It was utterly awesome. A helicopter sim mated with an RTS, everything generated automatically and logically.

10 years later I still have memories of playing this. At one point I played the hardest campaign on hardest difficulty. After several months of playing one campaign, the enemy raided my bases and blew up every one of my helicopters. So the game generated some transport missions - fly packs of new choppers from one side of Cube to the other. An 8-hour flight. At first I left the AI to fly those, but they were never able to reach the target, always getting shot down en route. So I took one such mission (using autopilot and time-speedup most of the time). Found it to be non-survivable and finally gave up on the campaign :-/

Another spectacular campaign loss was when I escaped the bombardment of my base, ignoring the designated defense missions and trying to reach a distant farpoint in an attempt to create a new base there. Not only was mine the only remaining helicopter, I got hit badly mid-flight and crashed right at the farpoint trying to land.

Of course, these being real military games (*smirking at COD*) there didn't have to be much storytelling to go by. All that was needed were the strategic map and automatically-generated radio chatter to tell the story. It would be infinitely harder to create something like this in an RPG especially with a try story. But man, I'd like such a game.

Yossarian1507:
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.
.

making it up in your head is good and all but if the game doesnt respresent your story then whats the point? you may as well just play with action figures

Honestly, while the idea is nice, it also seems to be going in the wrong direction in terms of trying to provide a complex storytelling experience. While the motif of having a different story sounds interesting, in reality it's going to boil down to the same "Do X thing for Y person" or "X person has Y relationship with persons Z, Q, and 7." Gamers, even the most dense and oblivious, eventually notice these kind of patterns and grow sick of them, and if a game gets some particular exposure, then the patterns practically become spelled out for everyone to see. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that there were, like, two or three quests in World of Warcraft with different skins.

It honestly seems outlandish to think that a computer could tell a compelling and interesting story without the use of sci-fi AI and whatnot. Templates I can see, sure, but in reality, we're just making a slightly more complex variation of "X person needs you to kill Y amount of Z because he wanted you to."

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

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.

Voltano:

Emergent storytelling isn't just making the player define the story based upon their actions. It could work like that, but the main idea of emergent storytelling is a series of events that can work in the form of a story crafted from the core mechanics of the game.

Except we are not talking about emergent but procedural storytelling and as jeffers notes there is the argument of all stories are formulaic but wants to rebuttle it by pointing out exceptional works like Pulp Fiction that come to mind when the tradiotional formula of storytelling wasn't applied.

Voltano:

If "good" stories come from subtext, thematic content, symbolism, or meaning beyond the simple events that are portrayed - then who adds that? The writer? The writer shouldn't be so blunt with them, otherwise there is no critical analysis from the player required to find them. Plus that is just the writer "telling" the reader/player there is some meaning to the events, instead of just "showing" it.

I believe all this is interpreted from the reader/player encountering this story which finds it engaging - and that is what makes a good story. If the reader/player is not engaged in the story, then the writer has already failed in making a 'good' story. Everyone has a favorite author, but there might be some stories from that author which doesn't work so well with that person, compared to some other works.

So first of jeffers is right that not all stories are formulaic. Voltano makes the valid point that the story is evaluated in the eyes of the reader/gamer/etc. but does not spell outwhat is way of thinking should lead one to: The death of the author. The Death of the Author written by Roland Barthes 1967 presents a theory that the intent of the author is not important when analysing and interpreting a story thus the author of a text is nothing but the projection of the reader. This is structuralism. Now from that point of view one story can be told many different ways. The hero's journey is one of the most famous. It always gets labled as formulaic but there is a reason why that formula is working so well even if the writing of the story itself is not that good. It is because of the structure of the story that correlates with latent needs and wishes of the human spirit. If a formulaic story is told well everyone likes the story i.e. Star Wars. Even if the story is not told well it can happen that there is the latent power that just makes the story loved by millions of people i.e. Bram Stoker's Dracula.
So yes procedural storytelling must be a formulaic one or otherwise a computer cannot create it but the story being formulaic does not mean there is no merit to the story told. And here comes the crazy idea for these kind of stories in a game. Just tell only one story in different clothing. Lets say take a setting of medieval fantasy like Dragon Age and put it in a science fiction setting like Mass Effect (are you on to me?) switch out some names like Morrigan and Liara (a mage and biotic are just wizards and they both have mother issues), the protagonist is the same tabula rasa chosen one that is either jesus, a prick or both but nontheless the hero who saves the day , maybe switch the order of events and defeat the evil either archdemon or reaper and people will love it.

Sgt. Sykes:

Phuctifyno:
you can kill anybody at any time, and the environment has to respond. So if your respect level with that gang is low, that gang turns on you and you will always be in peril when near them (though there are two other gangs left that you might find sanctuary in), or if your respect level is high, another high ranking gang member might appreciate the position you just opened up and takes over (and rewards you some perks for your help), or if your respect level is maxed out, maybe you can take the throne yourself(and become a prime target for the two other gangs). etc etc etc.

You summed up nicely what I had in mind just couldn't put into words really.

I still think the pinnacle of procedural "storytelling" (maybe because there aren't many games like that) is the Enemy Engaged helicopter sim series. Both games technically only had 3 massive areas (such as almost the whole Cuba). Upon starting a new campaign, the game would randomly generate the whole battlefield/scenario (and it really took quite a few minutes on the computers of '99). After doing that, it would automatically generate tactical and strategic missions, on both sides of course.

So after starting the campaign, both sides usually only had recon missions. When some of the recon teams found an enemy convoy, the game would generate, say, tank busting missions. When any side was running out of units or an airfield was destroyed, transport or support missions could be generated. And the player always had the option to chose any of the available missions (if a featured helicopter was available) or generate their own.

It was utterly awesome. A helicopter sim mated with an RTS, everything generated automatically and logically.

10 years later I still have memories of playing this. At one point I played the hardest campaign on hardest difficulty. After several months of playing one campaign, the enemy raided my bases and blew up every one of my helicopters. So the game generated some transport missions - fly packs of new choppers from one side of Cube to the other. An 8-hour flight. At first I left the AI to fly those, but they were never able to reach the target, always getting shot down en route. So I took one such mission (using autopilot and time-speedup most of the time). Found it to be non-survivable and finally gave up on the campaign :-/

Another spectacular campaign loss was when I escaped the bombardment of my base, ignoring the designated defense missions and trying to reach a distant farpoint in an attempt to create a new base there. Not only was mine the only remaining helicopter, I got hit badly mid-flight and crashed right at the farpoint trying to land.

Of course, these being real military games (*smirking at COD*) there didn't have to be much storytelling to go by. All that was needed were the strategic map and automatically-generated radio chatter to tell the story. It would be infinitely harder to create something like this in an RPG especially with a try story. But man, I'd like such a game.

That sounds like a great game, though maybe a tough sell to "the kids these days, amirite?". But yeah, that's exactly what I'm talking about - to take something like that and maybe spin it more personal, or individual at least. Things would have to stay within reason (there's no point in having an option for the character to go to college and become a doctor and work in a hospital if the game is about cops and crime, or learn how to play golf if the game is mainly a flight sim), but if a game is ostensibly an open-world sandbox, you should be able to really take the reigns of the story, not just follow it around the map like a scavenger hunt.

Notice how a lot of the significance and drama in your recounting comes from your own investment/imagination? That's the thing that I think would scare most developers away from doing something like this, because "the kids these days, amirite?" don't have imaginations. Not really true, but enough to scare them. It's easy enough for a program to move plot variables around into infinty, but to make them feel like they have dramatic weight (to an audience not willing/able to do that themselves) is trickier. A possible answer would be cinematic cut-scenes generated on the spot, with the program having been taught how to use different music pieces, camera angles, voice tones, editing, etc. depending on context. We're already starting to see pre-rendered cut-scenes being replaced with in-game because the hardware's catching up, so that's something I think would be neat.

I have faith that we'll see something like it in the near future. While not completely successful in execution (of this particular topic), the recent Bioware and Bethesda games have been a step in the right direction. With a few major tweaks, Skyrim could have done this pretty well.

Yay, Shamus! I see your stuff at your site all the time, but it's always great seeing you on the Escapist.

I can't believe nobody has mentioned XCOM: Enemy Unknown yet. Most of the missions are randomly generated "enemies on a map" with a few scripted Council/Terror missions thrown in.

What takes place IN those missions as your small squads are relentlessly whittled down by alien forces acting without (at first) any human-discernable rhyme or reason is basically...

...any episode of any of the "Stargate" TV franchises.

Aside from a splash of color or something on the uniforms, I never mess with the pregenerated names or appearances of my squaddies. As a result, I am often treated to anxiety-riddled gun battles and heartbreaking acts of self-sacrifice and battlefield heroism as my veterans face off against enemies that have them both outmanned and outgunned.

Research and manufacturing decisions affect the gear carried into battles and the agregate success of missions determines the course of mankind's war with the alien threat.

The overall "game" though is just a scripted collection of milestones in the course of the same war. Even though the war could play out very differently the next time, there are still going to be the same cutscenes and the same main story points.

If there could be some way to "shuffle" the aliens' motives, methods, milestones or "endgame" so that you could never be entirely sure what the aliens were after or what actions would advance the story (or in what direction the story will take based on your actions) then you'd have a constantly varying "series" arc as well from game to game.

We have some games with emergent stories. The Civ series is largely based on emergent stories on an international scale. I think the problem with emergent stories on a smaller scale is the same as Asimov's description of psychohistory. Individual actions are unpredictable but enough people behave predictably enough as a whole.

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