No Man’s Sky: The Need For Procedural History

(This column is posted at,, and Steve’s Tumblr)

I’m hyped for No Man’s Sky, the space exploration game that uses math to give us a procedural universe – since it’s all constructed from equations, the game has quintillions of possible world to explore.  On the rare time two people find the same world, it would be the same for both due to – math.

But as I’ve read and watched the news on NMS, there’s also talk of the lore of the game.  The story, the meaning.  The developer Hello Games has been very cagey on it, for obvious reasons – they don’t want to spoil the “story” in the game.

This lore, however, is already designed as far as we know.  That brings up something I think it a potential disadvantage in NMS – and in many procedural/random games.  A lot of the “story” is disconnected from the way the setting is made.  The lore is set, and at best sets the stage for the generation of the world – or at worst isn’t just connected anyway.

This means in many cases the randomness of the world is sort of meaningless even if there’s some meaning in the components.  There’s no history, just algorithms.  Why is the dungeon built the way it is?  Why are these artifacts on this world?  I see little to no attention paid to not just generating a setting but the meaning behind it – the history – in many a game.

Like it or not, a lot of these procedural games are about making something that seems “right” but doesn’t have much real history.  Now I love procedural games, I can get into them, but I admit this flaw, and I think the art is limited by this disconnection.  There’s no “real history,” just a shadow play of numbers.

But this also gives us an insight into what future procedural games could be.

What if large chunks of their history, their backstory, are generated?  What if, in turn this history affects the generated environments.  What if this history is part of the lore characters find, from the names of places to the powers of procedurally generated items?  Perhaps the characters themselves are connected to some procedurally generated lore.

Some examples.

  • Imagine an NMS-like-game where the basic expansion patterns/conflicts of various species are procedurally generated – and in turn the effects on certain worlds and areas is created.  Places between two peaceful species have great trade.  Worlds right at areas of conflicts may have graveyards of crashed spaceships.  Bits of history can be worked in, again procedural – you don’t just salvage equipment from a downed ship, but find out when and why it fell.
  • A procedural dungeon crawler could have history generated depending on what the origin is.  If there’s a gate from the netherworld burrowing up from underground, later levels would be older and more hellish.  Perhaps earlier heroes went in to battle and fell, so each treasure has meaning.
  • A game of global domination (or galactic domination) could start not just with the usual empty planet/galaxy trope but one filled with existing politics and peoples – with histories (and relations).  The games become not just standard 4X experiences, but ones of discovering – and manipulating, a rich history.
  • Such games would be not just fun like any good random/procedural game, but also far more compelling.  Rich, unique lore exists -perhaps even if only until roguelike permadeath means you start a new dungeon.  That lore in turn is meaningful because it explains and tells you something about the world.  The tale comes to life because the history has a living quality, not one made static or one bolted onto a randomizer.

Procedural history is procedural meaning, and that brings the game further to life.

Maybe NMS will inspire enough people to do even more procedural work, some will look at procedural history for their games.

– Steve