Dec 23, 2012

A couple years ago we gathered three shadowed men in our secret, extremely leet lair to discuss 2001's Uplink, the film-inspired hacking sim by Introversion Software. In 2006, Uplink came to Steam, where it's still humming away today for $10 (or only $2.49 during the Holiday Sale!). Though it's over 10 years old (and actually takes place almost three years ago in 2010) and our panel had a few issues with it, there's a strong case to be made for retreading the rise from script kiddie to black hat hacker one more time.

Logan Decker, Editor-in-chief: I know that crime is bad. I understand that it’s wrong to steal. And I realize that the reality of computer hacking and subsequent criminal conviction is not as easy or as pretty as it is in the movies. But the truly awesome achievement of Uplink is that all of that gets turned on its head. Being a sociopathic criminal with the l33t3st skillz this side of Angelina Jolie in Hackers is high stakes, low-risk and fun as hell.

Robert Hathorne: Knowing nothing about Uplink going into this, I was blown away by how minimalistic everything is. The game is nothing but a fake OS interface. There’re no cutscenes or mood-setting graphics, just some programs and the next job. What I was surprised by is how quickly I became comfortable with it. I didn't need high production values to be immersed; that was taken care of by great design. Shut the door, turn the lights off and hunker down in front of the monitor—you’re a hacker.

Erik Belsaas, Podcast Producer: Yeah, a rookie hacker. Your first email introducing you to the mysterious worldwide hacking organization “Uplink” makes you truly feel like a part of something bigger than your own computer. Unfortunately, working your way up from the bottom means your first job of changing a kid’s grades isn't exactly thrilling.

Logan: And that’s the game’s worst crime: repetition. Many of the missions—OK, most of the missions—are essentially the same thing: back and run a few more of those tedious missions before you can crawl out of the little leagues. But that’s not a terrible trade-off. It keeps the risk at the right level: low enough that rewards are worth the danger of getting caught, but not so high that you want to quit.

Robert: Uplink really gives me that “just one more turn” feeling; it has to do with the upgrade system. As I began a new job, I always had my next upgrade in mind, which would lead to another, then another. There’s always the next big thing to earn, and getting there is so fun you hardly notice how quickly you’re burning through missions.

Erik: It captures the hacker movie vibe so well—an alternate title for Uplink could be Action Typing 2001. I love the pressure of setting up a fake proxy server to get through a firewall. The overarching plot of (spoiler alert!) an ominous corporation developing a virus made to destroy the very internet adds a dose of drama, too. Yes, it’s cheesy, but it makes the game more interesting. The story keeps you on your toes, 'cause who wants to be responsible for the end of the internet?

Robert: There’s something to be said for a game that drops you right into an interface with a brief tutorial that you have to find and execute in order to use. You’re given all the tools necessary to get the job done from the start—you just have to figure out how to use them. This isn't a drawback at all. If tool tips walked you through the whole thing you wouldn't feel like a hacker, just a hack.

Erik: But if you spend too much money upgrading hardware and not enough on programs, you can dig yourself into a rut and get stuck. Something not too fun I've done more than once.

Logan: Agreed. The lack of information provided to make good judgements on upgrades is frustrating. It takes a lot of trial and error to understand when it pays off to upgrade, but that part is so tedious that I eventually caved and consulted a guide. And I've played the game before! The same goes for the software, which isn't clearly explained and takes a lot of painful stumbles to get the hang of, thus further extending your tour through the minors.

Erik: Totally forgivable in my mind, though. Introversion changed what I thought a game could be. Instead of blowing stuff up or crunching RPG stats, games can create entirely new genres. Uplink even had a secret IRC chat you could execute to talk to other people playing!

Logan: Lots of game developers at the time rocked us silly by crushing the barriers of what was possible on PC hardware at the time. But Introversion’s genius was to match its game—the concept of hacking as entertainment and the simple “terminal” style of its graphics—to the hardware and its own resources. That it’s still enjoyable now—and I don’t mean in the novelty “retro” sense—is proof of that. You could never fairly adapt this game to a console; it just wouldn't have the tasty verisimilitude.
Dec 15, 2012

This article originally appeared in issue 247 of PC Gamer UK. Written by Owen Hill.

As a game designer and co-founder of Introversion, Chris Delay is a respected, successful indie developer. He and his partners, Mark Morris and Tom Arundel, won the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival for their virus-infected strategy game, Darwinia. They’ve haunted a thousand multiplayer servers with the spectre of global thermonuclear war in Defcon. They’ve also established themselves as a cornerstone of the independent developer community.

But before all that, there was just Chris and an idea.

“By the end of sixth form I had the idea for the game. It was going to be like Frontier Elite 2, in which you fly a spaceship around and visit starports and upgrade. I wanted to do that, but in the online world.” He called the idea Uplink.

When it was released, Uplink was an austere, menu-driven hacking simulator, where players navigated electric blue interfaces to manipulate mainframes, race against progress bars and escape without trace. It took place in a murky, cyberpunk world where the act of electronic pilfering was fast and panicked, sleek and cool. A world viewed through a computer screen within a computer screen, where the player was always seconds from detection.

How did Uplink get from that Tron-like idea of flying inside your computer to a slick vision of hacking?

Chris calls his Uplink notebooks ‘bibles’.

The first problem was that real-life hacking is boring. Really boring. Chris explains: “The first thing you’ll probably do is a port scan on a device. You scan every single open port. It’ll probably have a hundred open ports; you need to look at every one. It could be hours of work to get there and it might not even work. Even I can’t be arsed with command prompts.”

Uplink was inspired by classic ’80s movies like WarGames, where Matthew Broderick cracked into government computers with a tape deck and a few typed command lines. Whatever the game was going to be, it had to be similarly streamlined. Even when removed from the dull slog of real hacking, Chris was sceptical that his game would ever be commercially viable.

“I wasn’t even planning on releasing it publicly,” he admits. “It seemed that the subject matter, lack of 3D graphics, and dominance of the big-name publishers would make this game impossible to sell.” This was in 2001, a short while before indie game development became popular, or minimalism was an accepted game design choice. Given that it’s the simple, 2D menus that keep Uplink timeless today, we’re lucky it turned out that way.

Early in development, Chris’s hacker vision was clouded by a slightly more modern movie. He was drawn to the futuristic world depicted in 1995 cyberpunk action flick Johnny Mnemonic.

In fact, his concept for Uplink was cluttered with misguided influences: “You would be able to enter your own computer and see the CPU as a soaring skyscraper, and you would routinely be attacked by a virus that you would have to destroy. Target computer systems looked like small cities. The game originally looked more like a surreal flight simulator than anything else.”

The ideas they contain are surprisingly cogent and recognisable.

It set development off in the wrong direction, and it took two months before he jettisoned the idea of a 3D world. “I think 2D’s brilliant. I love 2D to death,” Chris says with the benefit of hindsight. Far from discouraged, though, the setback made him focus more. He grabbed a notebook and started writing down every idea he had for Uplink.

“Once you’re two years into the project, that’s when you realise you have to write things down at the start, because you forget what the point of the game was. Being able to open up the original book and figure out what it was that excited you in the first place is a great guideline, a really good touchstone.”

Chris calls these touchstones his bibles, and it’s a fitting name. The notebook pages you can see in this feature are an uncannily accurate representation of the final game. They aren’t a set of notes, they’re synoptic gospels. There were three of them in total, used to store Chris’s ideas before they evaporated. He’d jot them down in university lectures, or moments of inspiration. “It was probably 12 months before what you see on those pages ended up on screen,” he says. As a kind of tribute to their importance, Chris even made the books available in-game, on a secret server.

Even though 3D graphics had been scrapped, Uplink was still vulnerable to feature creep. At one point, Chris had the player organically linked to his computer, cyberpunk style: “You were totally immobile but you could install security such as cameras and laser trip wires to defend yourself. You had a couple of helper robots under your control, which could run around your room performing maintenance on all your hardware.”

The original Revelation Virus, which still features in Uplink in a different form, would trap hackers, keeping them fixed to their CPUs and starving them over time.

“I hit on the idea that it was going to be a piece of Total Fiction – capital T, capital F. The idea that it never admits to you that it’s a game,” he says. It’s easier to suspend your disbelief when there’s no art and very little story to criticise, and eventually every extraneous idea was boiled away. “Uplink had become a rather silly cyberpunk romp, which wasn’t what I intended. It can be hard to make decisions like this, but in the end I just hacked it all out – weeks of work spent writing the ‘bioware’ was simply torn out and thrown away. I think it was the right thing to do.”

Chris worked for 18 months before he shared his first build. “It can be very difficult to expose yourself to that kind of risk – when a close friend could demolish months of hard work and late nights with a couple of off-hand comments.”

Eventually, Chris’s flatmates and future founders of Introversion, Mark Morris and Tom Arundel, got to see Uplink in action. The interface was brutally unforgiving, but it showed promise, and impressed them enough to invest.

Mark and Tom created a business proposal. “The gestation was that in Imperial College in the final year there was a business competition, and the premise was you had to write a business plan and submit it. So we wrote a business plan for Introversion before the company really existed.” The plan didn’t place in the top three, but it was good.

“They estimated that we would need maybe £200 each to get the company off the ground – a tiny amount of money,” Chris says. So they did it. Introversion was formed on £600, and no more cash has ever been injected into the company aside from earnings from game sales.

An uncannily accurate picture of the final game.

“None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for them; I would have given the game away probably. It would have been donationware – send me some money if you like it – and no one would have ever heard of it again. They were really, really fearless and really pushed it.”

The three friends spent £100 on legal fees to register Introversion. The other £500 was spent on printers and blue ink, so they could print the game’s now iconic artwork. “We had no advertising budget to speak of, no money to pay for production, and no formal training in any relevant areas such as marketing or advertising. We didn’t even have a proven game concept,” says Chris.

Fortunately, they had the smarts to send the game out to the press. One copy landed on a desk here at PC Gamer, where Kieron Gillen awarded it 80%. Uplink started to sell. Chris, Tom and Mark were burning the game to CDs, printing their own labels, and packing the parcels in their living room.

Uplink was Chris’s creation, but it was Mark and Tom who pushed the game out to the world. “They were talking about doing a shop version,” says Chris, “What? Get it in the shops? Next to FIFA and Warcraft?” They managed exactly that, with a lesson in distribution from the manager of a local HMV.

“They went into HMV with a copy of the game and asked somebody behind the till ‘Can we start selling our game in your shop please?’, and they basically said ‘What planet are you from?’. They stayed there and spoke to the manager of that HMV store. He told them that they would need a deal with a major distributor.”
The freshly-formed company picked UK game distributor Pinnacle Software to publish Uplink. And sure enough, HMV ordered a batch of 10,000. “We kind of did the shop deal in the same way as the game. It was all absolute first principles: start from nothing, then figure it out,” explains Chris.

The first copies of Uplink were burned, packaged, and sent out by the gang.

Introversion was formed with a clear agenda – to make money – and it did that without any advertising. “So far, everything we’ve done with Uplink has happened because of word of mouth. It’s a very simple principle: somebody likes the game, so he tells his friends.”

Chris reminisces about the moment when he realised the game had become a success in his essay, The Genesis of Uplink: “The moment when I knew Uplink had been a success was when I stepped into Tom’s living room and saw the stacks of CDs that we’d ordered. Boxes and boxes of them, piled up to my waistline. As I sat down and admired the sight, Mark informed me that this was half the order, and that the other half were in the back of the garage.”

Chris had turned his old idea into a finished game, with help from three notebooks and two friends – but no marketing budget, no contacts and no experience. The money Uplink brought in allowed Introversion to start planning for the future, and Chris could start working on his next idea: Darwinia.]

Today, Introversion are working on a new game, Prison Architect, the paid alpha for which has already made it a success. But if you want to go back to that first idea, Uplink still stands up, as slick, tense and fun as ever
minecon indie talks

Minecon wasn’t only about Minecraft. Mojang were good enough to invite along the bright lights of the indie dev scene to give a series of inspiring, funny lectures, describing how they got into the business and what they’ve learnt along the way.

Taking to the stage in chronological order: Hello Games, purveyors of deceptively chirpy stunt-biking game Joe Danger; C418, Minecraft’s maestro of electronica; Introversion, creators of Uplink, Darwinia and the tremendously tempting crowdfunded clink-sim, Prison Architect; Suspicious Developments, aka Tom Francis, aka maker of Gunpoint, aka PC Gamer writer, aka man sitting two metres two my right as I type this and looking rather dashing too, I might add; Mike Bithell, the dev behind clever platformer Thomas Was Alone; and Mode 7, creators of simultaneous turnbased-tactics masterpiece Frozen Synapse.

Hit the jump for the videos of each talk, and watch out for our PCG-helmed indie dev round-table which we'll publish in the next few days.

Hello Games / Grant Duncan

Hello Games' supremely talented artist, Grant Duncan, takes the mic to talk about conjuring Pixar-like delight from pixels and polygons in Joe Danger (and also to tease Hello Games’ next aesthetically divergent title, quite possibly coming to PC, currently going under the codename of Project Skyscraper).

C418 / Daniel Rosenfeld

The effervescent Daniel Rosenfeld, also known as C418, talks about the production of Minecraft’s electronica score, game music in general, his album, and the soundtrack for the upcoming Minecraft documentary (teaser clip within) - all in some impressive technical detail. A must for electronica nerds and aspiring musicians.

Introversion / Mark Morris & Chris Delay

British indie-dev double-act, Mark Morris and Chris Delay discuss the long and bumpy road they’ve taken, from early hits Uplink and Darwinia, to the calamitous production of Multiwinia and the aborted Subversion. But - spoilers! - it has a happy ending with the hugely successful crowdfunding of clink-building sim Prison Architect.

Suspicious Developments / Tom Francis

PCGamer’s very own tame indie developer, Tom Francis, discusses how being mean to games professionally has helped shape his development practices on Gunpoint, and how becoming a developer has changed his perception of the games he writes about.

Mike Bithell

The supremely affable creator of Thomas Was Alone discusses its origins as a rough-hewn Flash experiment and how the curiously emotive reaction to it - which saw players ascribe human thoughts to its simple cuboid avatars - snowballed into a project capable of attracting accolades and high-profile voice-actors.

Mode 7 / Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor, the co-director of Mode 7, who heroically multitasks as a musician and creator of hilariously terrible PowerPoint slides, tracks the company’s evolution, from its early swordfighting game Determinance, to the terrific tactical tour-de-force which is Frozen Synapse.
Uplink Trailer - Alice O'Connor

Introversion's delightful computer hacking sim Uplink is coming to those most cyberpunk of platforms, tablets. An iPad version was released yesterday, while an Android edition is "coming soon." Get your cyberglove on, decker.

Uplink turns you into a leet haxor for hire, sneaking into systems with malicious intent, stealing, sabotaging, and framing while you try to cover your tracks. Good fun, and now a fantastic way to make people sitting next to you on the public subterranean rail transport feel very nervous.

The iPad edition is available now from the iTunes App Store for $4.99.

Shacknews - Alice O'Connor

The Humble Bundles keep on rolling, with a new 'pay what you want' indie mega-bargain arriving mere weeks after the last one wrapped up. The new Humble Introversion Bundle packs four games from English indie Introversion: hacking sim Uplink, RTS Darwinia, its multiplayer sequel Multiwinia, and Cold War 'em up Defcon.

The Bundle also includes two Introversion tech demos, the procedural city generator used in Subversion and a voxel-based destructible building demo. As Subversion is on indefinite hold, it'll be nice to get a good look at some of it at least.

On top of that, if you pay over the average price, you'll also score Humble Bundle veterans Aquaria and Crayon Physics Deluxe.

The Bundle has already outsold Xbox Live Arcade's Darwinia+ within 41 minutes on sale, Introversion revealed on Twitter.

As ever, all games come DRM-free, but you can activate them on Steam if you fancy. And, as Humble Bundle tradition dictates, you can choose how you divvy up your money between the developers, organisers, and the Child's Play charity and the EFF.

Head on over to Humble Bundle to name your price.


Darwinia and Defcon developer Introversion stopped working on Subversion nearly a year ago, Eurogamer has discovered.

Subversion resembled a collection of tech demos but "the core game itself wasn't really that great", creator Chris Delay told us.

"What happened was, we were tinkering away on Subversion for ages and ages, trying to make some progress - and we did make a lot of progress on it - but we always had this worry that the core game itself wasn't really that great. There wasn't really much to do.

"We had literally years of tech demos but no sort of cohesive core game. It's the core game that was missing.

"Whenever we stopped and thought about it from a high-level point of view, in terms of what's the player going to be doing, where's the fun going to come from, we were drawing a bit of a blank, all the time.

"We finally faced up to it," he said.

Subversion, an infiltration and espionage game where gamers controlled a team of operatives moving through hostile high security buildings, is officially now on hold.

"It's on hold and we openly told everyone to forget about it for now, pretend it doesn't exist if you can."

Chris Delay, lead designer, Introversion

"Yes, that's exactly what it is," confirmed Delay. "It's on hold and we openly told everyone to forget about it for now, pretend it doesn't exist if you can.

"We do plan to go back to it - that's our firm intention, to go back to it after this game. But we wouldn't want to promise it or anything like that, or for anybody to get their hopes up, because we're a small company and we can't work on more than one project at once, so we always have to pick what we're going to work on.

"We had quite a few chats to discuss what we wanted to do and switched whole heartedly onto Prison Architect, and Subversion hasn't had anything done on it since then.

Prison Architect, a game about building and managing a high security prison, "fell out" of Subversion, Delay explained.

There was a Subversion mission where you had to "bust" a team mate out of jail, apparently. "You had to get this computer hacker out of prison," Delay said. "And we started all this work on this prison code code, and it was turning into a massive project just for one level.

"While we were doing it, laying out the prison in our Subversion map editor was actually really good fun. And that's the gestation of it, really - that's where it came from."

Prison Architect will be a PC game and, Delay said, probably also for Linux and Mac.

"It's still too early for us to say a lot about Prison Architect," Delay said. "We find it difficult to pace this stuff, because it's still a while off being released, and we don't want to give it all away at this point.

"It's not a 2011 game, but we're hoping for early next year to be launching this thing."

Prison Architect was recently submitted to the Independent Games Festival - the same competition Darwinia won back in 2006 - and Introversion hopes to launch around the time of the IGF awards (March 2012).

Will Prison Architect win?

"That was a very different time, when Darwinia won. Even now I don't believe Darwinia would sweep the awards," said Delay. "It was a different era then."

Six years ago, Introversion was crowned king of a soon-to-boom indie world. Today, Introversion still clings to those same high points. Mistakes were made, hard times were hit. But Delay is upbeat about the health of the British developer today.

"We get people on the forums and things going, 'Have Introversion gone bankrupt or something?' People really worry about Introversion because we did hit some really rough times, around 2008, 2009 time," Delay said.

"We don't even have an office any more. We got rid of our office; we've come right down to just the core team."

Chris Delay

"We don't even have an office any more. We got rid of our office; we've come right down to just the core team. There's only a handful of us. It's like the first days when we started out and there was just three or four of us working on something, all working at home, just on the next new game. We've kind of got back to how it used to be, and we're quite enjoying it now for that reason, because we're able to just go ahead and make our own game again.

"It seems like a simple thing, but we didn't have that for a long time. We had a big team; we were up to 11 staff at one point, which doesn't sound that big, but that's very big for Introversion. 11 staff and a few freelancers all working on console versions of the game and stuff like that. We were a much bigger company then and we were spending a lot of money each month. That's what it ultimately came down to. And it wasn't really that sustainable like that.

"It sort of required us to have big success on the consoles, which Darwinia+ never really achieved. It actually continued to be outsold on Steam, even though the game's been out on PC for ages. The Steam versions and all the PC versions of Darwinia just carried on doing better.

"We thought [Darwinia+] was a bit of a misstep, a bit of a mistake, and luckily we have enough games out now - four main games and one console game - that continue to sell to this day, and that keeps us going."

Video: Introversion demonstrating Subversion.

Uplink - Valve
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Despite the advances of the past decade, from physics engines and motion control to near photo-realistic graphics, there is one area in which games still have huge scope for improvement. Why, after all this time, are so many videogames still so bad at telling stories?

True, there are more examples of better quality writing to be found these days. More adult themes and activities have crept into titles like Heavy Rain. But there's no escaping the fact that for the most part, most games have about as much narrative sophistication as a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Scripts, voice acting and the range of choices available to the player have all improved, while open-world games offer a sense of freedom which exists outside of the boundaries of plot arcs. Yet in some ways, these advances serve only to highlight the jarring nature of what happens when you are funnelled into pre-scripted paths.

Why is this? Will it ever be possible to play a game with causality, where you can truly affect the outcome of a story? Eskil Steenberg, the solo developer behind the innovative first-person MMO Love, certainly thinks so.

"It's already been done, except we don't think about it as story-telling," he explains.

"Take Counter-Strike, for instance. You wouldn't call that a strong story-telling game, but its a game where most of the players have stories from the game. It's a very limited story, which involves mostly bombs and hostages and how many people are left. But they are stories and they are told by gamers."

This concept of players developing their story within a set of rules is known as "emergent narrative". Indie games like Dwarf Fortress, the oft-mentioned Minecraft and Steenberg's own Love are leading the way in this field. By offering up gameworlds you can interact with on a deeper level, they create the potential for dynamic, player-authored storylines.

"The human mind is hard-wired to construct narratives as means of explaining what one experiences in one's real life, when watching a movie, or when playing a game," explains Mark Riedl, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Interactive Computers. He is currently conducting research into intelligent narrative computing.

"But while an experience – in real life or a game – can be compiled into a narrative, there is no guarantee that that narrative will be a 'good' one.

"Emergent narrative is simple to achieve; all you need is a rich environment and a good set of rules with which to simulate the microworld," Riedl continues.

"The alternative, which I refer to as "managed experiences", relies on a storyteller that is looking at the microworld, the player, and future possible narrative trajectories, and attempting to enforce some sort of structure."

Steenberg has adopted a similar approach for Love. "The game itself generates the entire world. The players can build a settlement anywhere in the world, and the AI are independent AI characters," he explains.

"There are five different tribes: they fight the players, they help the players, they do all kinds of things – they act as if they are independent actors. And that creates a story that is very very dynamic and a lot of things can happen."

This strategy is markedly different to the one most developers employ today. "Currently I think that games are kind of depressing," says Steenberg. "If you play the first Zelda game – it's 25 years old, but you can do more things in that game than most games you can play today."

He adds: "That tells me we haven't really gotten very far. The games that are closest are games like Fallout, but they are very scripted. They are sort of brute forcing it. Instead of making a roller-coaster, they're making a roller-coaster with multiple tracks and various places where you can switch tracks."

Chris Delay of Introversion Software (the studio behind indie classics Uplink, Darwinia and Defcon) has a different take. Though Fallout 3 is scripted, he feels the game manages to create a sense of freedom with its narrative.

"They did a very convincing job of populating the world. I didn't feel like I was too on rails or anything. It certainly felt much more open than the average first- or third-person shooter," he says.

"So in that sense, they successfully did it. They created a whole world and filled it with interesting stuff. The world never felt to empty or sparse, there was always stuff to do."

Riedl argues that true agency – the freedom to change the world and plot – isn't actually necessary for gamers.

"I think this is where game designers have excelled: scripting plot lines to create the perception of agency, without actually enabling the player to significantly change the direction or outcome of the game's plotline," he says.

"Players have what I call 'micro-agency', the ability to affect the simulated world from moment to moment, but not the ability to affect the overall plot."

But this approach creates a huge burden on game designers, according to Riedl. "Theoretically, for every branch point the amount of plot-related content that must be authored at least doubles, resulting in an exponential growth of plot-related content."

As the sole coders on their games, this is an issue Steenberg and Delay are only too aware of. "It's very, very expensive to produce all this content – its only an option for a really big company," says Delay.

"And of those really big companies, very few choose to go that way, because it's actually much easier and in many ways more reliable just to churn out a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare-style scenario, where generally everything is on rails."

The cost of development means indie developers are frequently more reliant on procedural content – that is, content generated by the game itself.

Delay's latest project, Subversion, is a Mission: Impossible-style game in which the player pulls off heists. The game is set in a rich, procedurally generated gameworld that simulates entire cities, including the interior and exterior of buildings, and the security systems that protect them.

"The typical way to make a heist game would be to design some levels and in those levels to script specific things, like this button switches off the security and this guard walks this path and so on," he says.

"But then you get a predictable result and you get predictable gameplay. Rather than coding specific events and set pieces, I've been programming the world to be as general as I can – so that security systems genuinely work.

"If you have a camera in a room it doesn't just automatically trigger the alarm – it has to be wired into a monitor somewhere, and there has to be a guard watching the monitor and when the guard sees you on the monitor, he has to press the alarm button. And any one of those is a fully simulated system that you can tinker with to your own advantage."

It is this rich simulation of gameworlds which will afford players the option of a wholly dynamic approach to heists. They can approach missions as they choose, and because the world is so deep, numerous options for emergent narrative will exist.

"My initial design idea was to have a gameworld in which there were procedural missions wherever you looked. In any building, anywhere in the city there would be things that you could steal or break into, but that wouldn't be the core game," Delay says.

"My plan is to have this rich gameworld in which the game of Subversion will be set, and the core game will make much more use of hand-crafted levels."

So if well-simulated gameworlds provide scope for emergent narrative, where does this leave the traditional plot? When it comes to RPGs and adventure games, we're used to narrative arcs, plot twists and character development – complex structures that emergent narratives so far don't produce.

According to Riedl, procedurally generating plots in games may not be so far away. "I think procedurally generated side-quests could be low-hanging fruit, in the sense that many of the technologies are ready to go and can be performed fast enough for games to realistically use," he says.

Riedl has already embedded his branching story generation algorithm into the Unreal Tournament engine, as part of work that is partly funded by the US military. By simulating a marketplace, the system challenges the player to prevent a terrorist bomb attack through talking to NPCs. If the player thwarts an NPC's efforts, the algorithm rewrites the narrative - dynamically changing the responses of the NPCs to the player's actions.

"Once one game demonstrates its effectiveness, demand may follow. There will always be room for emergent narrative, when used properly," says Riedl.

"Procedurally branching game narratives, in which a procedural content creation system makes small adjustments to the main plotline of the game, or weaves emergent sub-plots into the game, may come a bit later. In some respects, Mass Effect 2 has taken a step in this direction."

Riedl suggests that similar approaches could be used in multiplayer games, either to co-ordinate NPCs or to co-ordinate player stories when teams break up. However, he's unable to elaborate further on his own plans in this regard due to having signed a non-disclosure agreement.

For Delay, there are issues with dynamic plots that go beyond the purely technical. "There's a a wider question – is it possible for a videogame to tell a good story, in the traditional sense? Because I'm actually not sure," he says.

"Stories tend to be quite character driven. The story emerges out of the characters doing what they would do in the world. And those are the really great stories. But in videogames you've got this massive problem – the main character is controlled by the player. So it just doesn't have any of that inner emotion or drive in the same way that a screen character would do.

"If you then ask, is it possible to procedurally generate a good story, I would say it's even harder. You're starting from a medium that isn't that great at telling stories in the traditional sense, and you're trying to do it electronically."

While Riedl has had success with story generation algorithms, he says developing emotion in the output is challenging.

"In academic research labs such as my own, we have AI systems that can generate short fairy tales from scratch and AI systems that can generate branching story trees for games and training simulations," he says.

"This is because the structures of fairy tales and many computer game plots are relatively straight-forward, focusing on action and causality. The harder problems involve the conveyance of nuance and emotion through story."

So what does the future hold when it comes to story-telling within games? Steenberg and Delay are in agreement: creating the deep, simulated gameworlds needed for well-developed dynamic and emergent narratives is incredibly complex, and success is hard to measure.

"Right now, if I were a commercial game developer, I would be very hesitant to make the kind of game that I've made, for those reasons," says Steenberg.

"On the other hand I'm sort of convinced that at some point, and I think some of my players are at this point, people will play a game and they will understand what a game can be, and how dynamic a game can be.

"And that will make other games feel incredibly old."


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