In interactive fiction, are all sentences created equal?
Aaron Reed might not think so. His latest work, Almost Goodbye, procedurally generates what he calls satellite sentences, bits of prose that anchor setting and color dialogue.
When I think of that buzz phrase, procedural content generation (PCG), I think of Dwarf Fortress, in which vast geographies and histories owe their existence to the ruminations of computer algorithms, shaped by human creativity and tempered by practical know-how. It’s easy to get lost in such a world. When you build a fortress that is so unmistakably yours within a setting that is so exquisitely randomized, you participate in a conversation of mutual respect with the game author. Your voice feels just as important as that of the developer, and the performance that emerges from this controlled chaos is unexpectedly personal and relatable.
But enough about Dwarf Fortress. I think it’s safe to say that the implied goal behind PCG is replay value. It caters to the school of thought that sees pure games not as contained stories, but as infinite possibility spaces. Movies, books, songs: these are things that we take in once, then discard or re-experience later. But let us talk of the game that has infinite replayability. This is what we’ll take with us to our desert island to experience over and over again, as the chains of time rust and finally fall. Such is the Mecca of procedural content generation.
Adventure games and interactive fiction arguably owe more to traditional narrative forms than they do their more ludic predecessors. Almost Goodbye is a brief sci-fi affair that attempts to bridge the gap between the two disciplines. Our protagonist, Dr. Muriel Ross, is preparing for a one-way trip to the other side of the galaxy, and she’s got a few hours left for farewells. That’s where the “interactive” part comes in. You get to decide the order and location of her visits, and you’re thrown a handful of dialogue choices. A display to the right lists the time of day, location and some descriptors reflecting Murial’s mood: afraid, driven, sure. Your choices affect what is displayed on this side of the screen, which in turn affects the procedural content that sprinkles the permanent text: “Time passes“…..”I remember to breathe“…..”The summer afternoon seems like it could last forever.” The game gives you the option to highlight the generated content, so you can more easily discern your effect on the prose.
Reed’s hope is to encourage player agency without surrendering authorial voice. From his academic paper on the project: “I consider the minimum amount of PCG that might make a human-authored story computationally interesting but still authorially sound.”
I can see what Reed’s going for. Building a computer brain capable of generating a work of fiction comparable to The Sound and the Fury, or hell even Twilight, is most likely an impossible task. So it makes sense to keep most of the story grounded and let the computer handle small portions of text, phrases that lie on the periphery.
But just as the phrase implies, Reed’s satellite sentences feel removed from the crux of the narrative. The phrase “A pulsing pain behind my eyes” is awkwardly sandwiched between clear descriptions of the character opposite the protagonist. You get the sense that these satellites are paying attention to what’s going on, but they stick out from the permanent body of text. The resulting sensation is not one of freedom, but of interruption, as a consistent narrative voice is sacrificed for the dream of agency.
I don’t mean to sound overly dismissive of Reed’s work. Almost Goodbye is a fascinating project. If the generated voice were distinctly separated from that of the static narrator (Maybe in the form of some robot character. Other, less bad ideas are welcome in the comments), I think this problem of consistency could be overcome. In addition, I understand that this work is an experimental blueprint of sorts, and I admire its ambitions. I also like that Reed seems to understand the narrative potential of PCG. I’m not really excited by the idea that a game will rearrange itself if I play it twice. For me, the appeal of generated content doesn’t stem from a desire to play through one game repeatedly. What excites me is the potential to affect a larger narrative thread; the opportunity to collaborate with a game’s author in telling a story. That’s what replay value means to me. Procedural content generation in interactive fiction could perhaps feed this desire for collaborative authorship, but it’s got a long way to go.