Video games have long been about shared experiences. How did you beat that boss? Where did you get that item from? Did you see that competition? The communal aspect is one of gaming culture’s shining elements, but things have moved from Super Mario 64 cheats into the realm of massive-multiplayer battle arenas and blockbuster titles that, to me, feel like they are missing a certain sense of adventure.
I’m finding that adventure returning in one specific area of games: “indie” games that use “procedural generation,” also known as “Random Number Generation (RNG),” also known simply as chaos.
The beauty of the indie game is the ability to approach something a larger publisher won’t. Indie games and creators are ruffling the feathers of players and bringing back the lost love of having a new experience when you pick up a controller. Games like Spelunky, Binding of Issac, Risk of Rain, Rogue Legacy, Crypt of the NecroDancer, Don’t Starve, and Faster Than Light are helping to bring stories and adventure back to video games.
These games all use RNG to re-introduce randomness into video games, creating items, enemies and even entire levels randomly as you play. RNG is what gamers praise or curse when Fate has been kind to them—or, more commonly, unkind.
MASTERY OVER MEMORY
Games have a tendency to be repetitive and linear by nature. Games like Halo—which is, by all accounts, a fantastic game—are the same every time you play them. But what if when you died, you respawned with a slightly higher jump ability, or a gun that was slightly more accurate but shot more slowly? This is almost exactly what Canadian developer Cellar Door Games has done with Rogue Legacy.
Each and every time you die in Rogue Legacy (and you will), you start again as a new character who shares some traits with your old one, but also has new characteristics. Some traits will make aspects of the game easier while making other parts more difficult.
“[Using randomization] allowed us to emphasize mastery over memory,” said Teddy Lee, co-founder of Cellar Door Games and game designer of Rogue Legacy. “An example of this would be a standard set piece in Dark Souls versus a Mega Man game. In Mega Man the encounter, the enemy will always follow a specified pattern. Learn the pattern, learn the game. In Dark Souls, the enemies have a base AI logic which means the player can’t always just dodge left at three seconds, attack at five, etc. They have to learn the tells, and accommodate accordingly.”
In other words, you have to actually become good at a game, instead of just memorizing where everything is. It’s really quite something.
Spelunky, which became incredibly popular in recent years, also uses random generation to keep players on their toes. Every time players die in Spelunky they have to start over from the beginning, and every time they do the levels are completely different.
“Randomization brings a few different advantages,” said Andy Hull, lead programmer and designer for Spelunky. “Level creation can be very time consuming, and while it takes time to code the algorithms to create levels [randomly], those algorithms can produce an almost infinite variety of levels for your game. These levels will undoubtedly contain interesting situations and set-ups that most likely wouldn’t have been created by hand.”
In games like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and others, dying doesn’t feel like a major loss. It will set you back to the beginning of the game, but playing is as much about learning and discovery as it is trying to beat the game.
“I think having such a deep possibility space gives them not only replayability, but a sense of unique, personal storytelling that sticks with players long after they stop playing,” said Hull.
SOMETHING GOES WRONG
These stories transpire past just a fun afternoon. with so many different variations to a game, chances are something will go wrong eventually and permeate through the community.
In one example that Hull described, Spelunky players learned how to break certain blocks that were meant to be indestructible, allowing them to beat the game in a way that the developers hadn’t intended. “Without getting into too much detail, this ended up making a solo eggplant run possible, where a single player is able to carry a secret eggplant to the true ending of the game, which was originally intended to be completed in multiplayer,” he explained.
”Though it was unintended, we thought it was a neat enough secret to leave in the game,“ Hull continued.
The future of video games isn’t the massive stories you hear about on the news and the blockbuster games topping the charts. It’s the stories you share in a YouTube highlight reel when something unexpected happens, or when the game breaks in an unexpected and funny way. And this future is found in randomness.
Marcus lives in Colorado writing about video games and drinking beer. Follow him on twitter at @pralitemonks for more of both.
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