Something that’s come up on several of my projects recently is the question of how much randomized text variation can add to the sense of depth in a scene.
In particular, how good a job does it do of simulating lots of different, hand-crafted pieces of content? Are there better and worse ways to deploy random content for this purpose? Do you have a generic sentence form with a lot of randomly swappable elements, like
A red/brown/black/grey dog/fox/squirrel scampers/runs/hurries past you into the undergrowth. ?
Or a table with a lot of hand-rolled sentences, each unique, but each going to be the same every time it appears? Or some variation on all these?
For interactive fiction, this tends to come up a lot in cases where we want to make the world feel deeper and more fleshed out. We want a player to be able to browse a bookshelf and find the titles of many many books. Or hang out in an outdoor area and see lots of environmental messages suggesting people going by, animals passing through, etc. Sometimes it’s possible to rig up a full simulation for this kind of thing — that is, actually track dozens of animal objects running through the gameworld — but usually that’s a lot of overhead for a lightweight effect. (And see Matt Wigdahl’s comments on the “foley” system in Aotearoa.)
My current operating theory is:
1) it’s good to have a mix of more generic sentences with lots of variation and more hand-crafted sentences with moderate variation. This keeps things from feeling too predictable.
2) where random variation is used, the most productive way to use it to maximize the *impression* of content is to construct pairings/arrangements of random elements that are themselves striking and memorable or distinctive.
I brought this up on the #craft channel on ifMUD, where I had the following conversation with Andrew Plotkin (“zarf”) and Dan Shiovitz (“inky”). They had a couple extra points I hadn’t come up with, so, with permission, here’s what they said:
Emily says, “so I’ve been thinking about randomized output and zarf’s observation that having random text composed of (say) N variants * M variants does not produce the sensation of N * M different things”
Emily says, “but something more like N + M maybe”
Emily says, “(I may be misremembering, but I think this came up years ago re. Hunter in Darkness)”
zarf says, “Probably”
Emily says, “but what I am wondering is, does that still hold true if the combination of N and M is itself surprising/memorable? I’m thinking of the Curses radio here”
zarf says, “it’s never *exactly* true”
zarf says, “and you can finesse it in various ways”
Emily says, “where if you actually imagine an easy listening version of Head Like a Hole, that is a specific thing”
zarf says, “that’s a good example except that I can’t imagine an easy listening version of Head Like a Hole”
Emily asks, “The Real Slim Shady on Glockenspiel?”
zarf says, “having grammatical variations is more memorable than word variations, for example”
Emily says (to zarf), “hm, yeah”
zarf says, “so allowing both ‘The Real Slim Shady on Glockenspiel’ and ‘a Glockenspiel rendition of The Real Slim Shady’ is more than twice as good”
Emily says (to zarf), “that is an excellent point”
inky says, “anyway, it seems to me like the goal probably shouldn’t be to create something that is entertaining enough to act as “primary content””
zarf says, “right”
Emily says (to inky), “well, no — I’m more thinking of things that can be used as dynamic window dressing”
inky says, “but rather have it be secondary content that occasionally produces something interesting enough to act as primary content”
zarf says, “(this reminds me that I should write a blog entry about that MMO prototype that I never did anything with)”
zarf says, “the secret plan that I never did anything with was to combine the window dressing with a power law of frequency, so that the room descriptions are random but one *particular* random room is your home base and you see it more often”
Emily says, “huh”
Emily says, “that’s interesting”
zarf says, “and then there are the rooms you visit frequently, and the rooms you visit rarely”
Emily says, “what I did with CoS for things like the pedestrians was to have a lot of autogenerated stuff and then layers of handcrafted more-specific stuff”
Emily says, “in an attempt to reproduce that feeling where you see a lot of mundane things but occasionally something surprising”
zarf says, “yeah”
zarf says, “I like the idea of making the handcrafted stuff *still* somewhat random, just rarer”
Emily says, “from a narrative point of view, I guess the purpose of this is to suggest to the player over time what is normal and what is slightly exceptional in this environment”
inky says, “or to surprise or amuse or disconcert them”
inky says, “(which are all based on defining normal and then violating it, so)”