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Amorphous terrain

Posted by Chris Jones
On March 8th, 2006 at 13:15

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Posted in Design Journal, Scenarios

Jeff Freeman has reposted an article on anamorphic terrain in CRPGS. Anamorphosis is interesting in that it takes a known map, a constant, and manipulates it such that it distorts the source–it’s not transformation, but is an extreme form of perspective that distorts the image. A definition and exercises in anamorphic art and math are available at Count On.

Anamorphosis can be one of the things that HRose/Abalieno has been beating his head against for a few weeks now: anamorphosis takes well defined rules, applies a well defined set of distortions to it, and produces predictable results. We look at medieval and ancient maps and try to find an anamorphic representation in them, in this way illustrating what separates today’s designers and developers from the maps’ illustrators: we generally don’t practice magical thinking, favoring certainty instead.

Magical thinking
Almost without exception, people who lived in the medieval world or ancient world was magical thinkers in that things happened without cause (by the will of the gods, ghosts, etc.) and that the world was mutable. Maps were the extraordinary effort made to transform that changing world into something concrete, or at least predictable. When a sailor would live his life at the whim of the waves, currents, and breezes, or when a merchant’s journey to a foreign land may follow a slightly different track each year and would last a different number of days each time, they weren’t dealing with a predictable world.

Ancient maps are exercises in conjecture and rumor. The creator has only been to a few places on the map, most of the map being created based on other sources of variable reliability. Places outside the map are defined because “everyone knows that the world ocean surrounds us,” “every lake eventually meets the sea,” and “no land can be as great or large as this empire.” There’s no effort made to verify the map as there was no need. The world is an uncertain place, history is a new concept where it exists at all, and places that have only been heard of in rumor really can’t be that far away.

Modern designers, developers, and players don’t live in an uncertain world. We know the boundaries and rough shape of our place, and other places, and we put just as much trust in modern authorities as the ancient did. We’re even more convinced that they’re accurate because we have made a habit of certainty. Gamers don’t like shifting maze puzzles because until the pattern is understood, it’s uncertain. When we play an MMO, we take on opponents that we know we can eventually beat, and avoid those that we know can beat us–there’s no uncertainty in our choices, because we’re given information to let us know what is a death wish and what isn’t. To try to ask players who have grown up with precise maps of the world, globes, and social studies chapters that describe the world in certain terms to play in terra incognita is asking them to do something that is frankly scary and against their nature. Bartle Explorers know that they’ll eventually hit a zone wall or run into another terrain type and can map based on that. A world that shifts under the player character’s feet, that slowly and secretly turns them north as they follow a river so that their maps are uncertain is going to drive them batty. A world without a coordinate system will send precise mappers packing. For players that have been inculcated with fulfilling goals, whapping monsters, and farming dungeons, an uncertain world where these aren’t always where the player thought they had been will serve as a cause of frustration.

The frontier between the known and unknown
The frontier serves as a place where the uncertain, amorphous world meets the settled and certain. Imagine a game where food serves as a limiting mechanic and player characters can’t go long without eating without becoming weak, sick, and eventually dying. Now, imagine that food is a limited resource, where it isn’t a matter of going to any innkeeper and purchasing what’s needed, but also making sure that the inkeeper is supplied. Players have to work to establish farms for NPCs, a kind of crafting, to ensure a steady supply of food. (I’ll leave out deer hunting and rabbit trapping for now.) As players establish farms and villages to grow and distribute food, the world changes: the land around each farm and village stabilizes and becomes certain and mappable. Trails between villages, when travelled often enough, become permanent and serve as guideposts when exploring off the path. Eventually the frontier between the amorphous world and the certain world expands outward and those seeking exploration and adventure have to be willing to constantly move with it. Woods that were filled with witches and wolves and goblins become tame and terra incognita becomes known–but beyond the frontier, those mysteries still exist. And in the center of this growing known world? Without attention from the characters, eventually decay, ruins, and an amorphous land ringed by villages of the certain.

From a technical standpoint, this game world is both procedural and fixed. The amorphous world is procedurally generated (seeded by, for example, how many players are in the group, at what time did they enter, how long has their session been, and how old in hours is the oldest member of the group). When areas are settled and certain, the procedural process gets locked into a single constant seed for the region, so that for a certain distance, the size of the region, the area doesn’t change. Modifications are then applied to the generated area (i.e., the trees are removed and fields are put in their place; houses are added at these player specified coordinates; NPCs are given these starting locations). Until the area expires (no one visits for a specified period of time), the area will remain fixed in character and appearance. As an area expires, new iterative modifications take place (saplings replace fields, ruins replace buildings, ghosts replace NPCs) until the area has been restored to an amorphous state and the constant seed is removed.

Where an anamorphic world takes the designer’s world map and distorts it so that the players find themselves in a predictably skewed world, an amorphous world has no designer and players find themselves in an unpredictable world.

2 Responses to “Amorphous terrain”

  1. Mischiefblog » Blog Archive » Settlement and PvP conflict (Amorphous terrain continued) Says:

    […] I’ve been thinking about a game based around amorphous and locked terrain. After glancing over Abalieno’s and Raph’s (among others) discussion of games, I believe the mechanic is amorphous terrain which can be locked by player action, and the metaphor is settlement of a wild forest by a vigorous and adventuresome people. (Mechanic and metaphor provide vocabulary, a scaffolding which allows me to explore the game.) Metaphor: the world outside is amorphous Not far beyond the golden fields of the village were serried ranks of forboding trees, the beginning of the wild forest. Good villagers didn’t venture very far into the darkness under the gnarled boughs, only much needed firewood and medicinal herbs could persuade one to enter that dim wood. It was rumored that trails shifted and that the way that explorers ventured out was rarely the way that they came back. […]

  2. Mischiefblog » Blog Archive » Reconsidering procedural terrain generation Says:

    […] I’ve been mucking about with different algorithms for procedural terrain generation. I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that the fractal proponents had the right idea from the beginning. Then again, I’ve also decided that random terrain and procedural terrain have limited usefulness. In the example of the cyberpunk game design, building placement may be done randomly, but the overall city should be designed: […]