Procedural Stories


I'm in your mind fuzz
Sep 26, 2010
Yossarian1507 said:
Hey, Shamus is back, awesome!

Personally, I think the best kind of story in games with random content is... Having little to no story at all. Why? Because then you are making up the best story in your mind.
making it up in your head is good and all but if the game doesnt respresent your story then whats the point? you may as well just play with action figures


New member
Nov 21, 2009
Honestly, while the idea is nice, it also seems to be going in the wrong direction in terms of trying to provide a complex storytelling experience. While the motif of having a different story sounds interesting, in reality it's going to boil down to the same "Do X thing for Y person" or "X person has Y relationship with persons Z, Q, and 7." Gamers, even the most dense and oblivious, eventually notice these kind of patterns and grow sick of them, and if a game gets some particular exposure, then the patterns practically become spelled out for everyone to see. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that there were, like, two or three quests in World of Warcraft with different skins.

It honestly seems outlandish to think that a computer could tell a compelling and interesting story without the use of sci-fi AI and whatnot. Templates I can see, sure, but in reality, we're just making a slightly more complex variation of "X person needs you to kill Y amount of Z because he wanted you to."


New member
Jul 29, 2010
j-e-f-f-e-r-s said:
Yay, Shamus is back. Nice to see another Experienced Points up on the Escapist.

As for procedural stories: no. Just no.

There's a reason literary scholars call it the craft of storytelling.

Good stories, really good stories, are about more than a procession of events. Genuinely great stories are about the things happening behind the events. Great stories are about subtext, thematic content, symbolism... in short, meaning beyond the simple events that are portrayed. And quite simply, that is not something that you can reduce down to an algorithm for a computer to follow. A story simply enough for a computer to come up with from scratch is a story any hack writer could have come up with in two minutes.
Voltano said:
Emergent storytelling isn't just making the player define the story based upon their actions. It could work like that, but the main idea of emergent storytelling is a series of events that can work in the form of a story crafted from the core mechanics of the game.
Except we are not talking about emergent but procedural storytelling and as jeffers notes there is the argument of all stories are formulaic but wants to rebuttle it by pointing out exceptional works like Pulp Fiction that come to mind when the tradiotional formula of storytelling wasn't applied.
Voltano said:
If "good" stories come from subtext, thematic content, symbolism, or meaning beyond the simple events that are portrayed - then who adds that? The writer? The writer shouldn't be so blunt with them, otherwise there is no critical analysis from the player required to find them. Plus that is just the writer "telling" the reader/player there is some meaning to the events, instead of just "showing" it.

I believe all this is interpreted from the reader/player encountering this story which finds it engaging - and that is what makes a good story. If the reader/player is not engaged in the story, then the writer has already failed in making a 'good' story. Everyone has a favorite author, but there might be some stories from that author which doesn't work so well with that person, compared to some other works.
So first of jeffers is right that not all stories are formulaic. Voltano makes the valid point that the story is evaluated in the eyes of the reader/gamer/etc. but does not spell outwhat is way of thinking should lead one to: The death of the author. The Death of the Author written by Roland Barthes 1967 presents a theory that the intent of the author is not important when analysing and interpreting a story thus the author of a text is nothing but the projection of the reader. This is structuralism. Now from that point of view one story can be told many different ways. The hero's journey is one of the most famous. It always gets labled as formulaic but there is a reason why that formula is working so well even if the writing of the story itself is not that good. It is because of the structure of the story that correlates with latent needs and wishes of the human spirit. If a formulaic story is told well everyone likes the story i.e. Star Wars. Even if the story is not told well it can happen that there is the latent power that just makes the story loved by millions of people i.e. Bram Stoker's Dracula.
So yes procedural storytelling must be a formulaic one or otherwise a computer cannot create it but the story being formulaic does not mean there is no merit to the story told. And here comes the crazy idea for these kind of stories in a game. Just tell only one story in different clothing. Lets say take a setting of medieval fantasy like Dragon Age and put it in a science fiction setting like Mass Effect (are you on to me?) switch out some names like Morrigan and Liara (a mage and biotic are just wizards and they both have mother issues), the protagonist is the same tabula rasa chosen one that is either jesus, a prick or both but nontheless the hero who saves the day , maybe switch the order of events and defeat the evil either archdemon or reaper and people will love it.


New member
Jul 6, 2010
Sgt. Sykes said:
Phuctifyno said:
you can kill anybody at any time, and the environment has to respond. So if your respect level with that gang is low, that gang turns on you and you will always be in peril when near them (though there are two other gangs left that you might find sanctuary in), or if your respect level is high, another high ranking gang member might appreciate the position you just opened up and takes over (and rewards you some perks for your help), or if your respect level is maxed out, maybe you can take the throne yourself(and become a prime target for the two other gangs). etc etc etc.
You summed up nicely what I had in mind just couldn't put into words really.

I still think the pinnacle of procedural "storytelling" (maybe because there aren't many games like that) is the Enemy Engaged helicopter sim series. Both games technically only had 3 massive areas (such as almost the whole Cuba). Upon starting a new campaign, the game would randomly generate the whole battlefield/scenario (and it really took quite a few minutes on the computers of '99). After doing that, it would automatically generate tactical and strategic missions, on both sides of course.

So after starting the campaign, both sides usually only had recon missions. When some of the recon teams found an enemy convoy, the game would generate, say, tank busting missions. When any side was running out of units or an airfield was destroyed, transport or support missions could be generated. And the player always had the option to chose any of the available missions (if a featured helicopter was available) or generate their own.

It was utterly awesome. A helicopter sim mated with an RTS, everything generated automatically and logically.

10 years later I still have memories of playing this. At one point I played the hardest campaign on hardest difficulty. After several months of playing one campaign, the enemy raided my bases and blew up every one of my helicopters. So the game generated some transport missions - fly packs of new choppers from one side of Cube to the other. An 8-hour flight. At first I left the AI to fly those, but they were never able to reach the target, always getting shot down en route. So I took one such mission (using autopilot and time-speedup most of the time). Found it to be non-survivable and finally gave up on the campaign :-/

Another spectacular campaign loss was when I escaped the bombardment of my base, ignoring the designated defense missions and trying to reach a distant farpoint in an attempt to create a new base there. Not only was mine the only remaining helicopter, I got hit badly mid-flight and crashed right at the farpoint trying to land.

Of course, these being real military games (*smirking at COD*) there didn't have to be much storytelling to go by. All that was needed were the strategic map and automatically-generated radio chatter to tell the story. It would be infinitely harder to create something like this in an RPG especially with a try story. But man, I'd like such a game.
That sounds like a great game, though maybe a tough sell to "the kids these days, amirite?". But yeah, that's exactly what I'm talking about - to take something like that and maybe spin it more personal, or individual at least. Things would have to stay within reason (there's no point in having an option for the character to go to college and become a doctor and work in a hospital if the game is about cops and crime, or learn how to play golf if the game is mainly a flight sim), but if a game is ostensibly an open-world sandbox, you should be able to really take the reigns of the story, not just follow it around the map like a scavenger hunt.

Notice how a lot of the significance and drama in your recounting comes from your own investment/imagination? That's the thing that I think would scare most developers away from doing something like this, because "the kids these days, amirite?" don't have imaginations. Not really true, but enough to scare them. It's easy enough for a program to move plot variables around into infinty, but to make them feel like they have dramatic weight (to an audience not willing/able to do that themselves) is trickier. A possible answer would be cinematic cut-scenes generated on the spot, with the program having been taught how to use different music pieces, camera angles, voice tones, editing, etc. depending on context. We're already starting to see pre-rendered cut-scenes being replaced with in-game because the hardware's catching up, so that's something I think would be neat.

I have faith that we'll see something like it in the near future. While not completely successful in execution (of this particular topic), the recent Bioware and Bethesda games have been a step in the right direction. With a few major tweaks, Skyrim could have done this pretty well.


New member
Jan 13, 2009
Yay, Shamus! I see your stuff at your site all the time, but it's always great seeing you on the Escapist.

Thomas Hardy

New member
Aug 24, 2010
I can't believe nobody has mentioned XCOM: Enemy Unknown yet. Most of the missions are randomly generated "enemies on a map" with a few scripted Council/Terror missions thrown in.

What takes place IN those missions as your small squads are relentlessly whittled down by alien forces acting without (at first) any human-discernable rhyme or reason is basically...

...any episode of any of the "Stargate" TV franchises.

Aside from a splash of color or something on the uniforms, I never mess with the pregenerated names or appearances of my squaddies. As a result, I am often treated to anxiety-riddled gun battles and heartbreaking acts of self-sacrifice and battlefield heroism as my veterans face off against enemies that have them both outmanned and outgunned.

Research and manufacturing decisions affect the gear carried into battles and the agregate success of missions determines the course of mankind's war with the alien threat.

The overall "game" though is just a scripted collection of milestones in the course of the same war. Even though the war could play out very differently the next time, there are still going to be the same cutscenes and the same main story points.

If there could be some way to "shuffle" the aliens' motives, methods, milestones or "endgame" so that you could never be entirely sure what the aliens were after or what actions would advance the story (or in what direction the story will take based on your actions) then you'd have a constantly varying "series" arc as well from game to game.


New member
Mar 4, 2011
We have some games with emergent stories. The Civ series is largely based on emergent stories on an international scale. I think the problem with emergent stories on a smaller scale is the same as Asimov's description of psychohistory. Individual actions are unpredictable but enough people behave predictably enough as a whole.