Curating Simulated Storyworlds - James Ryan's PhD Thesis


It doesn’t look like anyone has mentioned this here: James Ryan’s 800+ page PhD Thesis Curating Simulated Storyworlds is available.

He’s talking about procedurally generated narrative, and advocating for the idea that, instead of trying to bend simulations into narratively interesting paths, we should simulate lots of characters and then (possibly automatically) curate and present the stories that turn out to be interesting.

He goes into more depth about his projects here than I’ve seen elsewhere, covering three simulation/story-product pairs: World & Diol/Diel/Dial, Talk of the Town & Bad News, and the in-progress Hennepin & Sheldon County. Worth at least a quick look through the table of contents. It seems fairly modular so you can drop in and read sections that look interesting without having to digest the whole thing.

(Parser Commander) #2

Thanks for the link Josh!

Some time ago I start to develop an automatic Lovecraftian style story generator for pen & paper Cthulhu like Role Play Games, and the table of contents in this document seems inspiring.

Long document, but i think i will give it a try listening it from a PDF reader while making sport :slight_smile:


In a similar vein, I’ve been thinking about having the NPCs play the story world prior to the start of the game to provide backstory and motivation for the characters.

(Hanon Ondricek) #4

An open world IF with emergent gameplay can work, but it needs a metric ton of content and a lot of “directed non-direction” planning on the part of the author.

It sounds from @JoshGrams recap though that the intention isn’t to turn the player loose in an unscripted world to see what happens, but rather for the author to play with the procedurally generated content and use that to inspire plots and throughlines that the player is directed to. I’m all for this in theory…if one is looking for inspiration and if they have that metric ton of time to accomplish it… Procedural generation can work to inspire that feeling of a living, breathing, world, but all that content to seed the world still has to be created by the author, and one needs to avoid the “10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal” problem.

It’s probably not as random a procedure as the “a million monkeys with typewriters” kind of thing, but the content to noise ratio seems as though it could be really high without intelligent input and planning by the author. Sometimes a random monkey will happen upon something brilliant by accident, but a lot more of the time they won’t.

I think procedural generation is a great tool, but by no means a shortcut to world creation.


Yeah, it’s a huge amount of work: he spends nearly twice as much time talking about the simulation (70-100+ pages to give a brief overview of each of the three examples.) as about the “games” built on top.

His primary argument is about using curation (human or automatic) to avoid the oatmeal problem. So Bad News is a human-curated and human-narrated game where the player is finding the next-of-kin of a deceased person to notify them of their relative’s death. So a “wizard” searches the generated town history for interesting stories and communicates with an “actor” who plays the part of all the townspeople, and then the player talks to the actor to describe what her character is doing. Basically the simulation is designed to produce a history that is consistent and contains “an overabundance of narratively potent situations […] misanthropes, recluses, social status, the interpersonal circumplex, unrequited love, asymmetric friendship, internal conflict, love triangles (polygons), extramarital obsessions, business rivalries, town institutions, family feuds, family drama, and forbidden love” which the performers can improvise upon.

In his final work-in-progress experiment, he extended the simulation to have a more narrative focus and is working (was working? I can’t tell if it’s dead or not) on a system to have a computer automatically select stories and generate a podcast all on its own. He has a couple short proof-of-concept audio samples on Soundcloud.

Anyway. I didn’t find the whole thing hugely compelling, but there’s some interesting stuff in there.

(Hanon Ondricek) #6

It’s a really neat idea, and great for a thesis. It’s also a good study for game creation in general. This is the weird kind of stuff I like to geek out over!