What's your favourite example of devs making procedurally generated stuff feel meaningful?


Unexplored (Classic dungeon delving roguelike) has a few cool tricks which I love. It’ll pick a subset of its possible biomes and enemies for each run so you feel like you’re delving into a place rather than just a stack of rooms (e.g. a waterlogged, rat infested cave or the submerged tower of a sorceror). It also lets you run through daily and weekly challenges as many times as you like, meaning you get to learn the ins and outs of it like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Another one of my favourites come from Towerclimb. It’s an unforgiving roguelike where you climb a tower and involves a lot of gauging jumps before you take them. This game has a function on its main menu where it plots a graph of your progress up the tower. Mousing over any one point shows you that character’s name, how far they got and a screenshot of just how they died. Grisly.


Okay so I have got some Opinions about this! As much as I haven’t played it in years on account of the interface being absolutely brutal, I love the way that Dwarf Fortress suggests meaningful stories. It’s like, if you listen to Friends at the Table, there’s a part where they talk about the power of the gods to rewrite history.

The gods can make things, but they can’t make something from nothing. If they want to make kobolds, a race of lizard/dog people often skilled at mechanics and science, they couldn’t just drop them in. They had to make it so that kobolds were always there, that their society developed in such a way as to value science and engineering. It’s an approach to creation mythology that feels distinctly informed by historical materialism and I love it for it.

And in that same way, it feels like Dwarf Fortress goes so far beyond other games in procedural generation. It doesn’t just make levels, it crafts a continent with comparatively realistic geological features and lets it age for a bit. It doesn’t just place other societies somewhere on them map, it drops named characters onto the map and gives them centuries of time to build cities, trade, make war, make peace, and develop entire histories.

By the time your dwarves show up to settle in, the game world is already full of this context waiting for you to stumble across it. In that way, it contrasts kinda sharply with traditional empire-building games: you aren’t setting foot on an empty world rich in resources, just waiting to be colonized (also yikes that narrative has some Implications), you’re entering a place that already exists, where the people here sometimes decide to wreck your shit for cutting down trees. Your dwarves can make art related to historical events, or even make art referencing other well-known works of art. The idea that this game supports the evolution of multiple schools of art is mind boggling.


I do honestly adore the procedural generation in No Man’s Sky. We can debate how much actual variance there is to the creatures and textures, but there’s something about stepping onto an undiscovered world for the first time and realizing no one, not even the developers themselves, knows what’s over the next hill. I really do feel like an explorer all alone in the depths of space.


Reading this reminded me of some of the aspects of what I do like about the 4x genre (although, as you say, there are deep political issues with that mould of empire-building games, in my view). While the initial exploring phase can often feel a little rote, I feel that, at least in the 4x games I’m familiar with (Endless Legend and Civilisation V), that exploration phase forms the seed of a narrative about the game you’re about to play, whether that is through your environment, early trading partners, or Genghis Khan about to send you out of the game before Turn 100.

As the game continues, the procedurally generated world is imbued with the meaning of the cities those around you settle, the wars you fight, and the opportunities you seize or let drift by. The mountain pass becomes their perfect line of defense; that particular river becomes a key point to cross over if you want to engage them properly; that specific tile becomes the one you have to seize before they get it. Really memorable games of Civ V have the details of those worlds etched into my memory, even though they are just so many procedurally generated hexagons.

Conceptually, I feel Civilisation VI, particularly where it shows where someone failed to build a Wonder, also creates a living story that you stumble into.


Dwarf Fortress was one of the ones I absolutely adore! The fortress mode relics honestly make the game for me in a way. They give me a very tangiable way of pointing to my game and saying “This is mine. This happened!”. Even if it’s just a chair engraved with an image of my blacksmith eating some cheese the fact that the relic is in the world pleases me to my core. The fact that it can be sold, can be stolen, can be recovered from your ruined fortress in later adventure mode playthroughs. The way you can place it in your noble’s room or you can bury it in the tomb of the depicted blacksmith. The ability to go into histories mode and track its fate over centuries. That just makes me so happy. It simultaneously celebrates the procedural story you’ve been writing so far as you play while also acting as an entirely unique and personally important macguffin in stories to come.

That’s not to mention the descriptions of the items. I can’t help but doodle my relics as I play.