The Writer’s Game: Approaching Infinity

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Welcome to the start of a new series analyzing how games and game systems provide lessons for storytelling.  I will focus on what games teach us in general, though my focus is on advice for non-game tale-telling.  Now, onward!

Approaching Infinity

Approaching Infinity is a space adventure in the “roguelite” vein.  Like the classic game “Rogue,” the game is usually over when you die.  Games become a little easier as players unlock resources available for the next adventure into a hostile cosmos.

The game contains all the elements of classic space adventure in a simple retro style that draws from decades-old genre tropes.  Travel in space, blast aliens, trade goods, explore planets, the usual.  The lessons come from how these tropes work within more significant stories and how they come together to make a unique tale in each game.

Approaching Infinity‘s story elements exist on three levels and provide valuable lessons on writing.

Great Rivers of Story

At the “top” of Approaching Infinity‘s stories are different factions, about a dozen as of these writings.  Players can take missions for these factions, and most missions unlock further opportunities and advance the tale.  When the player completes a faction’s linear chain of missions, they usually unlock an ending to the game.

Each mission chain provides a background story on the faction and its place in the galaxy.  The player’s activities have meaning in the context of the game.  Faction missions also provide a sense of a bigger picture, filling in blanks as one plays the game.  One could play the game many times before they saw everything or understood the backstory.

These “big arcs” remind writers that stories work with an overall, meaningful tale.  Such arcs don’t have to be complicated (Approaching Infinity‘s quest chains are mechanically simple), but they should have truth in them.

These multiple story possibilities also provide a potential writing exercise.  When one looks at all the possible “big picture” stories in a work, work out multiple endings – alternate tellings.  Such work helps you understand the tale you ultimately tell, as you’ll understand why things happen and what might have been.

Choice in the Flow

The “big arcs” in Approaching Infinity also interact, depending on player choices.  Choosing to help one faction can alienate another faction.  Completing part of one mission chain may make you enemies as you’ve had to blow up a few enemies.  You can try to please everyone, but you can’t, as which “big arcs” you follow lead you down specific paths.

The game handles this with a simple diplomacy score.  The score goes up when you do things a faction likes and goes down with the opposite.  When you have about a dozen factions competing and random and procedural events happening, the game becomes complex.

Story-wise, this is a good example of how smaller-picture actions cause “big arcs” to collide.  How many great tales hinge on that one choice or one mistake?  Approaching Infinity creates that feeling of tension in a complex-to-evaluate, simple-to-understand way.  A player’s (or character’s) choices pile up and life becomes complicated at some point.

The individual parts of a story don’t have to be complicated –the “big arcs” can be simple.  The interactions, the choices, they make a tale delightfully complicated.  Plus, playing with those choices lets you ask “what If,” much as players of Approaching Infinity see their suddenly-destroyed starship and ask what they could have done differently.

All Those Tiny Waves

The sweeping adventure and juggling alliances of Approaching Infinity happen in a procedurally-generated galaxy.  Each game is random, meaning new sectors, planets, caves, space wrecks, and more await you each adventure.  Each game also starts with giving you a choice of ship models and commanding officer.

This randomization and choice mean minute-to-minute happenings are personal.  Around every corner is a new planet, new piece of equipment, a new discovery.  The fine details of your adventure are personal and unique to you and your game.

If you’re on a mission from a quest chain to defeat a space monster, you have many choices.  Do you craft a new weapon for your starship?  Dash deeper into more dangerous parts of the galaxy to buy one?  Raid enemy ships for parts and equipment?

These choices may also affect your quest chains, your “big arcs.” Even when they don’t, they’re uniquely yours, part of your adventure.

For writers of any kind, this is an example that a tale is driven by discovery.  A story may be linear and straightforward, but it’s the moments that bring it to life.  When every scene, every chapter is unique, personal, and meaningful, a story grips us.  Even when a scene doesn’t surprise or suddenly switch up the big picture, it matters.

Of course, the tiny picture might create a sudden, surprising change in plot.  In Approaching Infinity, an unwise small choice might just affect the big picture.  Even when it doesn’t, there’s the tension that it might.  In many a game of Approaching Infinity, I kept an eye on my diplomacy, knowing I might make enemies I didn’t want to make!

Closing In On Infinity

Approaching Infinity‘s mix of simple “big arcs” and personal, minute-to-minute experience makes the game a Space Opera simulator.  Using simple roots, it creates a replayable adventure seeped in both lore and individual experiences.  No one element is overly complex, but their interactions are – just like many good tales.

Takeaways for Writers:

  • Having backstory-driven “big arcs” gets you to the truth of your tale.  They can – and often are – simple.
  • Plot multiple “big arcs” even if you don’t use them to understand your setting better.
  • Possible “big arcs” interacting help you craft a meaningful tale.  Those smaller moments of interaction drive the story.
  • Complexity can come from the simple interaction of simple “big arcs.”  The results are often far from simple.
  • Those moments where character choice sends them down one path or another are meaningful.  They also let you play “what if” and evaluate your work.
  • Storytelling is gripping when events, even small ones, are personal and meaningful.  Events don’t have to have big impacts.
  • Small moments and choices bring tension because they may have huge impacts.  Even when they don’t and the story goes along, that tension engages the audience and is meaningful.

Steven Savage

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