Let’s procedurally generate something besides landscapes

Considering the amount of time required to make videogame environments, it’s no surprise that more and more developers are experimenting with procedural content generation. There’s no clearer example of this than No Man’s Sky, which promises not just an open world, but an open universe. It’s so big that the chance of no encounter with another player is more likely than not. Of course, procedural generation is hardly a new approach to videogame design. But we’ve become obsessed with it, or rather, its seemingly infinite amount of possibilities. To wit: Rogue Legacy, Cloudberry Kingdom, Proteus, and of course, Minecraft.

But all of these generate spaces to explore; procedural storytelling remains relatively untouched. David Gedarovich took this ambitious approach to his murder mystery game, Noir Syndrome. The layouts of the city and buildings in Noir Syndrome do not change. Instead, the game generates the suspects and clues and scatters them about the city, inviting you to solve a new murder mystery with each play. It’s a bit similar to the 1990 detective game Murder, but instead of a mansion, you have a whole city to comb through. Imagine a solo round of the boardgame Clue (which Gedarovich says he has never played): you collect information on the killer by examining objects and interrogating suspects, and then use this information to solve the case before time runs out.

Gedarovich methodically designed every environmental detail in Noir Syndrome. “I wanted the world to feel hand-crafted and personal, so I decided to keep all of the levels and art static,” he explained to me via email. He constructed the entire shady city: the rat-infested sewers, the glitzy hotel, and the diner where you can pay about nine bucks for a ham and cheese sandwich. Gedarovich told me that he committed to this design in order to showcase a certain mood. He set out “to convey that cynical film noir feeling, while also attempting to keep the game from becoming too serious.”

This approach resulted in a partially tongue-in-cheek tribute to the genre, and can be found throughout the game—characters blindly accusing one another, a down-on-his-or-her-luck detective, greedy mobsters and crooked cops alike shooting you. The endgame message: “You have died! Just another story for the papers.” Still, he claimed that there was no one videogame or film that inspired Noir Syndrome; instead, he pointed to roguelikes. The influence is easy to see: procedurality is a key characteristic of the genre.

Another key characteristic of the roguelike is replayability, but what motivates a player to revisit a procedural game with an unchanging environment? This was at the forefront of Gedarovich’s mind. In fact, he spent “almost a third of development time” refining the town into one worth revisiting. For example, he tweaked the other characters’ dialogues with almost every update in order to increase variety. Now, they get noticeably upset when pressed beyond their initial information. To visit every part of town requires more than one playthrough, as well. And since interrogating suspects and examining objects depletes your hunger meter, the design encourages you to read descriptions sparingly, spreading that discovery out over the course of multiple plays.

Noir Syndrome is not about exploring vast worlds, but rather watching how the elements unfold differently with each new game. As Gedarovich describes it, “The true gameplay lies in what occurs within those places, and that is where I focused my efforts.” He loves hearing of wild situations that players found themselves in, usually by accident. A hostile character will not hesitate to shoot through a crowd in an attempt to get you, dropping several innocent bystanders in the process. One of those bystanders might even be the perp you’re trying to nab. Players also pay attention to the roles and names of characters and imagine connections between the different suspects. For example, due to the procedural generation, the game may spit out suspects with the same last name. Gedarovich comments on players’ particularly “loud exclamations” upon noticing this, saying, “I find it hilarious that Anna Smith the mobster is selling out her cousin Richard Smith the police officer.” A game with two Smiths is purely coincidental, and two Smiths on opposite factions is an extra fun coincidence for players.

You can really screw yourself over, and the proceduralization just lets you. 

Along with the proceduralized suspects and clues, Noir Syndrome works because it presents you with a simple scenario and clear motivation. Your goal is to arrest the killer. But the other players have motives, too, and you can instantly change the dynamic of the game by interfering with those motives. This is where the fun comes in. If you steal from the mob, you better believe that you will be gunned down the moment you enter the speakeasy. Likewise, if you steal from a store and leave witnesses, the police will not hesitate to shoot you later on. You can really screw yourself over, and the proceduralization just lets you. Say, for instance, you dash to the market for a bite to eat and there happens to be an unhappy mobster hanging out in the produce section. You can immediately leave and miss out on a day of sleuthing, or test your reflexes and hope you shoot your nemesis before he kills you.

Gedarovich believes procedural generation still has a massive amount of unexplored potential. “Handcrafting certain pieces and generating others worked well for me,” he said “and I’m sure others could use similar concepts to achieve completely unique results.” Noir Syndrome proves you don’t need a brand new map every time you boot up a new game. There are still infinite places for us to explore, whether or not they’re geographic.