Following yesterday’s post about Subcutanean, a couple more thoughts on procedurally-generated entertainments:

Subcutanean intentionally exposes enough of its own process to the reader — just in its “on-board” preface and appendix material, and apart from the author’s online deep dives into the book’s producton — that one gets a sense of the scale of the entire project, the scope of all its possibilities, and most importantly the intention behind it all. Subcutanean openly limits the scope of its procgen-engine’s meddling to two characters and one setting, keeping the broader story contained within an author-defined envelope of theme, plot, and purpose.

At risk of over-using the comparison (since I invoked a similar one just days ago, writing about Sayonara Wild Hearts), the novel’s epilogue that lists how one’s own uniquely generated copy of Subcutanean differs from others gave me a very similar pleasure to the end of a Telltale game’s chapter, when you see a recap of the major binary decisions you made during play, and how your choices compared to the rest of the playing audience. Just as I thrill when I see that I made an unpopular Telltale choice, I felt a strange but real pride to see that “my” protagonist’s home boasted a conversation pit in its shag-carpeted basement, an element that came up a handful of times in the telling and which — the epilogue assured me — featured in very few Subcutanean copies.

I felt, in short, like I comprehended the whole possibility-space of the novel, even though I’d “seen” only a single thread running through it. I feel the same way after completing a Telltale game’s chapter. Admittedly this seems a little unfair to the book, since I gather its entirely textual procedural space as far “bushier” than that of a fully animated and voice-acted Telltale episode. And yet, I finished the novel with the same pleasant sense of ownership and familiarity with the choices made within, even though I myself hadn’t made a single one! In both cases, I enjoyed similar recognition of a multi-dimensional structure, and the satisfaction of winding a complete passage through it.

Compare to a famously super-duper-procgen video game like No Man’s Sky, which does try to simulate all of existence in a single grand subroutine — and so gives you an infinity of stars and planets and aliens and buildings that are all more or less the same, spread out across the galactic plane like butter on toast. This planet might have a green sky instead of a blue one, and that one might have acid rain and 30% more silver deposits, and this star system has double the space-piracy than that one. It provides an ocean-wide and ankle-shallow possibility space, and the game’s expectation that you revel swimming in it exposes a mismatch, somewhere.

For all these grumbles, though, I have No Man’s Sky on my mind because I just rolled up a new hapless astronaut within it. I’d tried the game a couple years ago, and lost interest after six hours or so playing alone. This time — given courage by my wonderful vacation last year in Subnautica’s dangerous shoals — I began on the game’s somewhat more attention-demanding “survival mode”, with stiffer (if not exactly catastrophic) penalties for dying. The game’s received a bunch of significant updates since I last visited, as well, and I look forward to trying its multiplayer modes.

Most importantly, my wife joins me as a co-pilot for this round, making the thought of a flight to my goal in the galaxy’s core more of a pleasant household diversion than a lonely and time-consuming grind. She’d lately been expressing some curiosity about the game, and this short Twitter thread by Laralyn McWilliams inspired me to give the flawed but earnest work another try. I intend to stick to it at least through the completion of its story mode, which I expect to be a much less compelling but a far more attainable goal than finishing Subnautica.

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