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chibi_tektek

Recently my friend pts described what I'm trying to do with Emergence as a "rogue-like narrative," and I think that's an interesting place to start.  Rogue-like games have bits and pieces of moment-to-moment gameplay that are stitched together by programming into a seamless, more straightforward game experience.  I am looking to do that with Emergence -  to have bits of narrative and RPG play, stitched together algorithmically into a more straightforward RPG experience.
One aspect of that is the reduction to a more standard experience.  You could pre-program most rogue-likes ahead of time if you wanted, and a single play of the game might feel similar. All the enemies, the dungeon rooms, the advancement options, would be there and would play the same whether you spelled them out ahead of time or "randomly generated" them in that manner. What's different is the next playthrough, and the longer-term understanding that you come to have of the system.  The pride in beating a rogue-like isn't in completing one play, though that may be a real feat. The pride comes in being able to consistently do well. In being able to adapt to and handle whatever the game throws at you.

Another aspect of that larger systemic understanding is exploring and appreciating the "geography" of the design space.  In Minecraft, that's literal geography, so we can see it well there.  Some players dig just exploring the world, not because they want to see every element --which you can do in a few hours-- but because exploring the world lets you see everything that the system can do - all the possibilities, the combinations, the unusual peaks, valleys, and even places where combinations seem weird, like a really giant ocean or a waterfall off a floating island.  They didn't program floating islands into Minecraft's normal world ... but they didn't program them out, either. They emerge from the algorithms.  See what I did there?
So what does a roguelike narrative look like? Themed level groups are chapters.  It still helps to force an arc at that level, and many roguelikes do. Nethack ensures that you’ll face a certain number of levels of a certain type before another type, before potentially getting the Amulet.  Then it’ll give you more once you’ve gone back up.  The overall plot is there.  To open that up a bit, there will be stages of Emergence that the player will pass through, each with characteristic encounters and challenges.  Eventually, the kinds of encounters and challenges will change because of progress in the player’s storyline.

A rogue like narrative also has smaller elements that are built ahead of time but not chosen ahead of time.  Within those themed levels, preset elements which contain fully procedural elements are arranged. In original roguelikes, those might be special rooms - a room with a fountain could contain x, y, or z, while shops could contain a or b.  These feel like quests.  It’s important for quests to be pre-set, I think, so that characters can have interesting stories.  Also, I think where the attempt to procedurally generate meaningful narrative most often fails is in trying to create dramatically interesting and meaningful character stories.  So I think that at the character level (whether those are PCs, NPCs, or what I suspect will be DPCs (demi-PCs), it’s okay to write narrative ‘rooms’ where there are entrances, exits, and important features, even if there are a few ways to complete them.

At the atomic level, roguelikes randomize encounters as fully as they can.  That carries over to my roguelike narrative pretty well, as long as I can narratively rationalize random encounters.  I think I’ve got a lead on that, but we’ll have to see how it plays out - right now it feels like it’ll be restricted to two of the game’s chapters but not all of them, which will be awkward.
Another thing I like about that description is that rogue-likes aren't precious about their story. Or, rather, they put in elements that are interesting at a base level, and leave the meaning to the player.  Dramatic narrative in rogue-likes comes out of when something crazy happened in the midst of an otherwise run-of-the-mill session, or when interesting elements were juxtaposed in a challenging way.  That is something we have the capability to do, now, with narrative, I think.  It is very hard to guarantee that a procedurally-generated narrative, especially with significant player input, will achieve either a particular meaning or will be meaningful.  But I think that we can trust the player, even with a relatively stupid agent, to head out into the world both seeking meaning and knitting it together where they find it.  I’ve played enough Minecraft, and seen enough Minecraft played, not to mention 80 Days, or MMOs with their deliberately record-skippy questing, to believe that we designers can leave this to the player more often than we do.
It will help, I think, to have a story that addresses complexity and emergent systems.  I'm hoping that will prime the player and help them to round the sharp corners off of story-bits that fit awkwardly.  And there will be those.  It is no accident that I’m leaving to chance the making of higher patterned narrative out of relatively simple, algorithmically offered elements.  The question is going to be how sharp the edges are that the player must sand down in order to run their hand over the whole and appreciate it.

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