Minus World: Generative Game Reviews from a Parallel Universe

By Max Kreminski (Twitter,Website)

(Submitter’s Note: A few days ago I was digging through my lab’s extensive board game collection and found a strange-looking gaming magazine, apparently published by an organization called the “Tlön Society for the Advancement of the Ludic Quasisciences”, sandwiched between a couple of the boxes. Upon closer inspection, I found it to be full of reviews of games that don’t actually seem to exist. I don’t yet know quite what to make of this discovery, but several of the reviews describe games that make use of procedural generation in very interesting ways, so in lieu of a “real” submission, I’ve elected to reproduce a few excerpts from the magazine’s numbered “Best of 2018” list here.)

34. YAWP (Fern Buckley)

Much like veteran designer Fern Buckley’s previous three games, YAWP is a grueling QWIPlike that starts out tough and only gets tougher as you gradually come to terms with the true nature of the challenge.

To begin with, you’ve got the usual awkward mapping of keyboard buttons to individual muscles; this time it’s the muscles that control a human vocal tract. Your first utterances will horrify the ear, and even once you start to get the hang of the controls, the real challenge still awaits: the NPCs around you, whose own utterances are easily mistaken for gibberish at first, are actually speaking an entire procedurally generated language that you have to learn to speak yourself (through the same awkward button-mashing interface) in order to progress. Seriously, this game’s subtitle should be “Developmental Linguistics Simulator”.

As a concept, YAWP is brilliant. As a game… well, I ragequit about 3 hours in. Consider yourself warned.

17. Gutter (Fake Palindromes)

Gutter is a game about truth. Something terrible (no one’s quite sure what) befell the world about 700 years ago. Civilization bounced back well enough, but the paucity of surviving documents from Back Then has left you, the historian-protagonist, facing down a mystery of literally apocalyptic proportions with basically no real evidence to go on. One day, some enterprising archaeologist discovers a huge cache of well-preserved newspaper comic strips from the years immediately preceding the Event. Now, the race is on to pick through the strips and piece together a coherent explanation of What The Heck Happened. If the public finds your story convincing, you might just be able to establish yourself as a historical authority and save your faltering academic career.

Gutter is massively replayable. The world’s history, including both the exact nature of the disaster and the comic strips themselves, is procedurally generated on a per-playthrough basis. Different cartoonists have different styles and senses of humor; they might be aggressively political or focused on the everyday, relatively impartial or horrendously prone to bias. As you struggle to deduce what real historical events the strips might be referring to, you have to take all of this into account.

At times, sifting through the myriad layers of indirect reference to scrape together some scrambled impression of the truth feels like trying to reconstruct the events that set off the latest discourse on Squawkbox (or whatever social burrow you prefer) from vague subsquawks alone. It can make for some frustrating gameplay – but the moment of triumph when you finally assemble a story that fits, one that can withstand the scrutiny of your colleagues and resonate with the public imagination, makes all the struggle feel worthwhile.

6. Ruin Value (Softwary)

The premise of Ruin Value is deceptively simple. As the personally appointed Chief Architect of a tyrannical and image-obsessed dictator, you’ve been tasked with securing the legacy of the present regime. You are to oversee the construction of great wonders, majestic structures capable of outlasting even the death of your entire civilization by hundreds or thousands of years. To assist you in this task, the resources of an entire procedurally generated empire have been placed at your disposal.

As you build, your employer watches closely over your shoulder, frequently touring construction sites in person and offering his feedback on your progress. These visits are a constant source of stress, compounded by the unreliability of your supply chain (resource shipments are often delayed due to constant fighting on the empire’s fringes) and the difficulty of managing a veritable army of laborers (many of whom are not offering their services voluntarily, and will take any opportunity to stir up trouble).

Nevertheless, you make progress. Until one day the empire falls, and you’re suddenly booted out of the game for six whole real-world months.

When (if) you return, the camera has shifted to first-person, and the intricate management interface is gone. All that’s left for you to do is walk around the remains of what you built – weathered and worn by millennia of simulated time – and reflect on the value of ruins.