Chances are you were too busy taking in the oceans of stars to notice the talking point of No Man’s Sky, the recently unveiled star-fighter from the studio that has brought us outstanding little gems about an Evel Knievel named Joe Danger. Maybe you were half paying attention, not knowing what you were about to digest. But there was a span of a few seconds when developer Hello Games really wanted you to know that this game is (wait for it) procedural.
The typeface flashing on-screen goes on to explain how “every leaf, tree, bird, fish, rock, ocean, cloud, ruin, star, sun, galaxy, [and] planet [is] procedural,” which I must admit tickles the part of my brain that wants the holodeck to be real. But I had to wonder how many people really care what the term “procedural” means or is.
I suppose it’s easy enough to infer, given the context, that “procedural” means that many facets of the game are not man-made, but automatically generated by artificial intelligence. I know that because I write about videogames all day, and you know that because you are here reading. You and I also know that procedural games like FTL and Spelunky can be exceptional. But is the tech that underlies the experience what we really want to talk about when admiring these works?
What’s really fascinating about procedurally generated content is the possibility of endless discovery, i.e. that these games can be reshaped into an unfamiliar figure each time. Sean Murray of Hello Games got it right on stage, without resorting to the word “procedural.” “We wanted to make a game about exploration,” he said. “If you can see it, you can walk there.”