So yesterday I posted about Symon, a procedurally generated adventure game from a couple of years ago. And I suggested that the potential was there to do something on a much larger scale, but they'd need to figure out a way that didn't involve the 'cheat' of using dream logic. Well, one of the creators at Gambit, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab researcher Clara Fernández-Vara, got in touch to point out that's exactly what they set out to do last year, with Stranded In Singapore.
This time, as the title somewhat suggests, you're stuck in Singapore, your flight cancelled. You book into a small hotel, where the rather frighteningly aggressive owner insists that you explore the city, and on your way collect her a short shopping list of items. And much the same as with Symon, you then visit a series of locations, and provide items for the locals in exchange for other things, via combining objects in the world and in your inventory.
In some terms it's a step forward from Symon, such that dream logic isn't used to get around the weirdness of the combinations. In others, it loses something by removing the narrative poignancy, and replacing it with a slightly detached reality. It is at least reasonable for random people to scream at you that they want their tea with coffee in it in a dream. On the streets of Singapore, it's just plain odd. But this partly contributes to what I think the game best achieves: teaching you something about Singapore culture. Just tiny things, oddities of food mostly, but as a prototype for something more grand, it offers identifiable success at a game being used as a communication tool.
It also succeeds at offering more variety. It was especially unfortunate that my first and second plays through (you can get it down to a minute long once you've got the hang of it) were almost identical. That gave a bad first impression, but is par for the course when something is randomly generated. I've gone through it nine times now (purely because I wondered if something might happen after the ninth, since there are nine slots in the end-game photograph album - it doesn't) and there's a lot more variety than my second game suggested. There are more objects in the world to use, and while the inventory combinations are pretty odd, again they're more plentiful.
But this does still feel like a very early stage in something potentially very interesting. Despite the improvements, I actually much prefer Symon. The loss of any emotional resonance, and with it any real notion of a narrative, makes Stranded In Singapore feel much more stilted and artificial. However, it further convinces me that with a far more elaborate project, perhaps breaking down the randomness into confined chapters, it would be possible to create something that is different every time you play, and yet still conveys a sense of story. To make that satisfying or meaningful would be extremely difficult, and of course opens up all sorts of questions about whether a story has meaning if it doesn't have intent. Although personally I'd love to see a combination of the two - a deliberate pre-scripted story, that's given a replayability that adventures really lack through dynamic, improvised puzzles. The work Gambit is doing certainly proves there's potential for something like this, and they're willing to share the system by which they've achieved it. I'll write the story if someone else does the programming.
Oh, and by coincidence, Electronic Dance has an interview with developer/researcher, Clara Fernández-Vara today.