Procedurally Generated History

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By Tan Montana on November 18th, 2020

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Even playing the seemingly one-dimensional games available to me on my parent’s (yes, it was theirs) Sega Genesis, I desired more experience. Not to say that narratively strong games didn’t exist in 1999, just that I didn’t have access to them. Had I the comprehension skills and a disposable income at the tender age of 6, I certainly would have enjoyed a Final Fantasy or a Planescape: Torment. But sadly, it wouldn’t be until a great deal later that my fuller love of RPGs was realized. 

And so as some kids do, I began to form stories spun around what the stylings of Quackshot and Puggsy offered me. I needed a deeper reason for why Puggsy necessitated killing a giant mecha raccoon, I wanted more to keep me invested. Eventually, I would become obsessed with JRPGs and any TTRPG I could get printed at my local print shop. My very concept of games intertwined with the prefixed narrative that I needed to drag me to another level. My time was invested, so I wanted something that invested in itself just as much. And so-

Procedurally generated history in games makes me vibrate.

Caves of Qud and Generating a World

Good evening! It is a lovely Waxing Beetle Moon on the 3rd of Kisu Ux. 

That would be September 4, 23:06:26 pm UTC, according to the greeting I get on the Caves of Qud website. Caves of Qud is a logical place to start when talking about historical procedural generation. The small creative team of Freehold Game by no means was the first to attempt this feat (Dwarf Fortress I could, of course, write another entire article about), but their game certainly does it in a fascinating way.  (if you want to read more about Caves of Qud you can look at this in-depth review here)

In a thirty-minute expo at 2018 GDC, Free Hold developer Jason Grinblat talks about blurring the lines between history and myth. Caves of Qud is the perfect game for creating a stumbled upon mythos. The game, a strange post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy, is framed as being an ancient world. It excels in doing so by sharing its history via legends, forgotten tapestry, and ruined statues. 

The game frontloads most of the history generated for your experience on a run. I say run because you will die, a lot. There are Six Sultans, and only one of them has a fixed history. However, the other five will lead painstakingly generated powerful and history-altering lives before your character even enters the world, not that you will know it. Only by exploring the game world will you learn the other Sultans’ history. This is where the blending of history and legend becomes a world filling backdrop to your doom ridden trek into juiced up cannibal infested swamps: each run, a new mythos for your traveler to uncover. 

building a World of time

The idea seems simple enough, but Free Hold games implement it uniquely compared to most games. Allowing the history to come before, and the human apophenia to follow. The world as you absorb it, is left up to your imagination, nudged along by these fact revealing oddities and the connections they draw faint lines between.

Generated history is a mechanic that some players will find engrossing, while others may push it to the side. Why should the history of this old world matter to their character? She’s just trying to get through this destroyed cityscape without getting crushed to pieces by a Mechanimist Paladin. But for those characters seeking their greater meaning amongst the chaotic world of Caves of Qud, these histories can provoke more profound questions; what is her motivation to get through this destroyed cityscape without getting crushed to pieces by a Mechanimist Paladin; is it to live? Or to mark her accomplishments in the ever-changing annals of generated history? Probably to live, but still, I think it’s neat.

Fabricated years and Sol Trader

Another fascinating venture into the world of any-generation is Sol Trader. Sol Trader is a kickstarted and ambitious space-faring project from Chris Parsons. The game isn’t just another Privateer venture into faction stats, economic structure watching, and so so top-down dog fights. Instead, this game puts you in the position of an information broker of sorts, and information in this instance is entirely who you know and who they know. In order for the game to work, it needs a wealth of characters, and each character needs an elaborate tree of cohesive connections and familial patterns. Another game might just randomly build these things out. Chris Parson says no. He says that’s not enough. The game must, in fact, build 200 years of prior data and society that predates your birth. Very cool Chris.

You’re born into a 200-year-old world. A world where what your parents did matters to you—a world where what their parents did has far-reaching societal influences. Every small action of every minor character that predates you leaves the slightest disturbance in the water that reaches you like the gentle waves of a pool from a far off disturbance. The game is entirely made up of these micro influences and how they shape the world around you.

The endless potential in just the two games listed above speaks volumes about the prospect of these projects. Not just because these ideas work cohesively in games that are fun to play, but that tiny indie studios made these games. These ideas and interactive narratives are the brainchildren of a few people with big ideas. How much more so could these mechanics work on a grand scale with the full force energy of a studio and larger team behind them. I think about this often.

Regardless of if you interact with this process of worldbuilding, its impression can’t be easily dismissed. The complexities and intrinsic nature of storytelling using grammars and code have absurd amounts of implications in the right games and with the right players. When I play a game with a capacity like this, my thoughts always stride to what next? 

Tan is a Tabletop RPG writer with a deep love for give-'em-a-chance indie games and music made on a ten-year-old laptop in Audacity. They drink their seltzer warm.

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