The landscape is the story

In the process of producing my current procedural terrain/world engine I’ve been examining a number of key games that focus on atmospheric terrain as a key design feature. I am a firm believer in notion of landscape as antagonist or exposition. I am generally dismayed at the poor quality of storytelling in most AAA games. I am also infuriated by the general mimicry of hollywood linear cinematic storytelling. Games present a far wider range of channels with which to engage the player in some form of narrative. In my opinion, the space where this interaction takes place is one of the most powerful storytelling mechanisms.

To me, navigation IS narrative and the exploration of game-space proceeds at a tempo guided by a players natural pace rather than the storytelling enforced by linked sets of scripted events. Cutscenes, rambling tutorials and ‘story’ npcs can ruin immersion, often shaking you out of the game to point out something that the game-world might have been able to tell you itself. Usually Im just reminded of how bad the voice acting, dialogue tree or facial animation is. As a consequence, I find much more empathy and attachment with the subtitled babblings of zeldas charicatures, the disembodied voice of glados or the silent yorda. For me, less is generally more when it comes to character driven exposition, there are a few exceptions but they tend to be swamped in my eyes by the b-movie majority.

Exploration of game worlds is generally an experience conducted on your own terms, to me this makes it an ideal storyteller. I can ‘re-read’ a place, move slowly when I want to take things in or examine the details. Dialogue and cutscenes are usually out of the players control, particularly in the pace of events. Usually the player is locked back into the rollercoaster seat of storytelling, or given a paltry 3 choice menu tree of responses. Back in the game world you are free to explore and experience the ‘story’ at your own pace, and the world is the paper the story is written on, the frame that holds it, or even the picture that tells it.

In Ico the castle is the enemy,( not in a gothic devil may cry mode), acting with an almost indifferent sense of mystery, history and timeless power. There is no single antagonist, no true conclusion and no dialogue. The only verbal exchanges are the boys plaintive cries to yorda and the brief undecipherable demmands of the castles denizens (even these have unreadable glyphed subtitles). The scale of the castle’s story is made more epic through its silence. Where other games would have plaques to read, notes to collect and npcs to interrogate Ico has nothing.

In some ways this is just classic videogaming, from a time before there was space or need for expansive stories. Enemies were wordless opponents, gameworlds were abstract spaces that only existed ‘for the player’, even the brief synopsis on the back of spectrum cassette tapes bore little relevaance to the game itself. But now many games (and gamers) perceive quantity as quality, and so we are treated to complex stats, achievements, filmic cutscenes, hybrid gameplay etc. Ico is haunting, and haunting is something that is very difficult to do in the noise of featurecreep.

Shadow of the Colossus revisits this idea of the game-world as antagonist, but as you play you begin to wonder who is the innocent and who is the wrongdoer. The sense of being an interloper is as tangilble as it was in Ico and the world is even more melancholy and unknown. Perhaps not as solid now as Ico might be in gameplay terms, some of Sotc seems awkward. The flaws it had on its launch; sluggish controls, low stuttering framerate and imperfect gameplay are even more obvious when set alongside next gen productions. But there are still no other commercial games like it, the daring contrast of the huge, empty landscape and the gigantic lumbering colossi is remarkable. There is something wrong about it, but then there is something wrong about what the player is being aked to do. The symbiotic nature of the colossi and their domain is effective and intriguing, they are part of the land, part of the game world, part of the story. Sadly there is more actual dialogue (guidance from the temple god) in Sotc than Ico but it is still super-minimal and quickly replaced by haunting miles of quiet melancholic ambience.

Another series, another platform. The STALKER franchise is one that initially looks like so many other post apocalyptic FPS fragfests, but its not. The open world gameplay, the brusqueness of the narrative and the strangeness of the world itself combine to tell a story that is more the narrative of a place than of people. Undoubtably indebted to both Roadside Picnic and Tarkovskys Stalker, GSC made the scarred and twisted terrain of ‘the zone’ the star ‘character’ of the series. The enemies you encounter, mutant or human, are the products of the zone, twisted genetically and morally through exposure to the menacing alien landscape. The terrain has laid waste to its inhabitants, not the other way around.

Punctuating this land of derelict industrial units and half sunk barges are the anomalies, hazardous regions of concentrated gases, radioactive emissions, electromagnetic forces and toxic liquids. Mechanics-wise they aren’t too disimilar from lava pools or spiked pits, but they have a vital role in personifying the terrain, each location forming an expression of the zones abstract malice and alienation. These locations; the brainscorcher, the oasis, the wish granter, play clearer roles in the story of the zone than the story npcs . The world of Stalker is more populous than Ico or Sotc, but the terse inhabitants converse in downbeat monotones and rarely have much of any detail to say. Missions are usually ethically vague and npcs often act in exhausted or zombielike states. Their lack of communication and lack of control forces more of the story into the terrain itself.

There are other notable cases of this style of world-story. The Metroid franchise has repeatedly projected the story of dead civilisations (alien & mythical) through its intricate level design, again building a tangible sense of substance through the architectural remnants of absent alien cultures. Even some of the Tomb Raider games follow this archaeological approach to story, albeit with an increasing hollywood edge. But world stories dont need to be macabre or morose, games like oblivion, fallout, silent hill and red dead redemption clearly attempt to mirror their storylines within the landscape. Indeed, all games should do this to some degree, its the basis of anthropomorphic fallacy. But they often mar the experience with poor exposition from other aspects of the gameplay (see my thoughts on fallout3).

What is interesting from my perspective and from my current research is whether a world can be generated procedurally and still maintain the ability to speak to players in the way that the above do.



7 responses to “The landscape is the story”

  1. Andrew Doull says:

    Yes.

    At least, that’s what level development with Unangband suggests. My intuition is that you have to accrete multiple procedural generation mechanisms in a way that may prevent you doing this for ‘on the fly’ procedural generation though.

  2. admin says:

    Yeah Andrew, I agree.
    I hope perhaps that the level of pre-play generation would set up a environment that would still allow for emergence, but just constrained in the way that you want it thematically controlled. I guess it ends up being a trade-off between detailed control and variance etc.

    I do think there is some merit in dropping more tightly controlled content on top of a more generic generation phase. Like the 1 in 100 chance for a specific altar (still perhaps generated,but more tightly) and surrounds etc that you could blend with the underlying terrain etc. This might allow you to guarantee certain focus points of both gameplay and design.

  3. I also believe this is possible; only that it’s tricky and a lot of work to accomplish.

    I’m unsure though if procedural generation can ever reach quite the same standards as the best manually created games. In some of the best exploration/location based games, each location is unique in a way that is not just emergent but follows it own kind of logic or aesthetic. For an extreme case, just think of the game Psychonauts. No procedural algorithm could conceivably be flexible enough to encompass the extremely different levels in that game, that each play like completely different games. You’d have to use a different procedural algorithm for each level, and then the procedural approach could never create “new” levels that are not just variations of existing types. Most other games are less extreme in their variation, but many of the best still have a very deliberate thoughtfulness behind every place in the game.

    I’m not sure procedural generation will ever reach those heights, but even just aspiring to it and aiming slightly lower for now still makes me very passionate about procedural generation. Whenever a procedural place produces a feeling of wonder/haunting/excitement I regard that as a success, and that has definitely happened to me on many occasions.

  4. Delphine says:

    Hello,
    I am sorry to write this post but I havn’t found your email address. Feel free to remove this post from the list ^ ^. I am a french PhD student on video game and graphic design. I find your approach very interesting compared to my thesis. I just wanted to know if it’s possible for me to contact and discuss with you, especially on your Mod QQQ. Excuse me again for my intrusion …
    Good day everyone:)
    Delphine.

  5. antony says:

    Have you checked out the books that steve jackson and ian livingston wrote prior to making the games workshop company and the warhammer games?

    those have an old fasioned sense of eery, surprising, and exciting storytelling, easily building up skillpoints and inventories. Better still, an old game book called Paranoia, set in a 1984 type of society. the personality types ranged from
    -“nice trustworthy exciteable happy”
    – “grumpy, trustworthy, good sense of humour”
    and -“sociopathic= untrustworthy, intelligent, makes friends with ordinary people long enough to rob or kill them”

    -“miscreant = doesnt even trust other psycopaths, unkind, kills victims fast and “only able to regain his composure once everyone else in the room is dead”

    good old role playing games can give a good example of story building in an open world where players have achieve tasks and collect things in order to change levels.

    landscape and the mission objectives should provide alot of atmosphere, and the music is very important. quality theatrical eccentric monologues and crafty exchanges and deal making can contribute alot and are easier to do than long conversations. most lines should sound like a memorable quote from a movie.

  6. This is beautifully written. I wrote something about the landscape-as-character concept here:
    http://thelastmetaphor.com/?p=1007

    I do think that procedurally generated worlds can carry stories in their landscape. This may be an uninspired example, but I am able to read a bipolar psychology in the surreal geometries that Minecraft generates. It feels to me as though the “designer” has emotions and mood which materialize in the landscape.

  7. Paul says:

    Perlin noise strikes me as relevant to some of the concerns brought up here about achieving dissimilar zones without resorting to precoding algorithms for every level type.

    Essentially, you break the world into big chunks with very different settings to your generator. Then you’d make more passes with increasingly smaller chunks and increasingly smaller adjustments to the settings. You should end up with very different regions that transition between themselves and exhibit internal diversity. For example, one region starts with a high Probability Of a Tree setting, but within that forest there’d be dense clumps and open regions, and in between the forests and the mountains there’d be scattered, withered trees.

    I suppose it then becomes a matter of guiding the player through thematically appropriate regions to match the story. Start them out in a region with sweeping vistas and bright colors. Move them towards claustrophobic and darker hued areas. Use mist when they’re being exposed to mysteries. Place climactic events in clashing colored, exciting feeling regions. I think just that would go a long way to using the landscape to communicate themes and story.

    Excellent post, lots of interesting ideas contained in here.

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