I don't know if you've heard, but Minecraft is pretty great. Now, maybe (read: probably) I'm crazy, but building towers that scrape – nay, grievously paper cut – the sky and versions of Mt. Rushmore with the faces of Rush band members actually isn't my favorite part of the game. Truth be told, that award goes to the simple act of cracking open a fresh world and seeing the sights. Minecraft's random generator is a subtle master of “Ooooo, what's that over there?” and each unique world is a joy to explore. Towering, snowcapped mountains, glorious seaside vistas, winding cave mazes that feel thousands of years old (as opposed to seconds) – each one's a Costco bulk bag of block-shaped eye candy.
Meanwhile, when most gamers hear “randomization,” they probably think “Diablo loot,” or – if you've been around the block/are a clinically diagnosed masochist – “roguelikes.” That, I think, needs to change.
Now, don't get me wrong. Randomization's not the solution to all of gaming's greatest ills. BioWare, for instance, probably couldn't fire its entire writing staff and hire a bunch of Magic Eight Balls. But randomization is an incredibly powerful tool that consistently collects dust in many developers' arsenals. I mean, I'm sure you've contemplated running through a level of Modern Battle War on the Homefront blindfolded while making all the sound effects and pinning a tale on a donkey before. Or maybe not... that, but you know what I mean. Here's the thing, though: For modern videogame randomization techniques, adding a few branches to that excessively linear path is only the tip of the iceberg.
Let's start our tour with Civilization. Granted, Sid Meier's time-transcending opus has far fewer factors to randomize than, say, a triple-A shooter, but that's precisely why it works so well. Civilization's core design thrives on randomness. Where will key resources end up? How about each major faction? Depending on just a few deft pokes and prods from the invisible hand of fate, your entire in-game story changes radically. I'll never forget my Japanese nation's centuries-spanning war with the Spanish, but it could have easily been a hug and handshake convention for the ages if the dice had landed a couple ticks differently. Either way, though, it's my story and nobody else's.
Moving into more complex territory, there's the likes of Dwarf Fortress and Love. Both games use algorithms and randomization to generate entire worlds. But while Love hasn't quite found its footing just yet, Dwarf Fortress is legendary for spawning tales that are equal parts epic and epically hilarious. Depending on innumerable factors – from individual dwarven dispositions to freaking soil erosion – you might end up with anything from an inspirational tooth-and-nail battle against the odds (and, you know, a genocidal murder monster) to a single dwarf suddenly going mad and smelting another dwarf into armor. There are entire websites devoted to this stuff, and with good reason: It's videogame storytelling in its purest, most emergent form, and – more importantly – it's really, really good.
You may be wondering, however, what's happening in Big-Budget Land beyond Diablo III and its ilk. Unfortunately, the answer's currently “not a whole lot.” Can you really blame the Activisions and EAs of the world, though? I mean, building a game like Dwarf Fortress with the scale and fidelity of, say, Battlefield 3 would be a task on the level of creating a second Great Wall of China made out of Sistine Chapels and ancient Egyptian Pyramids. There are simply too many variables to take into account.
That said, a couple games are carefully tossing in a few dashes of dynamic tech to spice up otherwise tried-and-true formulas. Foremost, there's Left 4 Dead, whose AI Director bases enemy timing and placement on what's most frightening and oh god there are Witches everywhere and my whole world has been engulfed in fire and despair. Er, sorry about that. But, yes, the end result of all that randomization tends to be a perfectly delicate, utterly unique snowflake of bloody, screaming chaos. As such, Left 4 Dead's at its best when everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. “We succeeded” is a boring story. “Everyone died” is far more fascinating when Left 4 Dead's telling the tale.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, meanwhile, is probably playing the quietest variation on the randomization theme. Basically, depending on where you are in the game world, Skyrim will kidnap a character – probably somehow using dragons – from a nearby town and toss them into whatever quest or storyline you encounter. It's a tiny twist, sure, but the hope is that it'll ultimately lead to more believable, personal stories.
It's also a perfect example of how deeply these dynamic systems can run. They don't have to be the backbone of an entire game to make a big difference. You may not even notice until you're talking it over with a friend, but really, that's the beauty of it. Plus, it's friggin' Skyrim. There are already reports of chickens-turned-law-enforcers and newlywed NPCs cheating on their wedding nights. Drop even the teensiest pinch of randomization into that cauldron of crazy and you're likely to get a full-on explosion of hilarity.
I feel, then, that the gaming industry's sitting right on top of this wellspring of potential, but mostly opting to pass by it in favor of dry, cracking hand-me-downs from other mediums. Many people seem to see randomization as this place where intricate game mechanics – especially those involved in storytelling – go to die. That mentality, however, couldn't be further from the truth. I'm tired of roller coaster rides masquerading as games. I want the whole damn theme park.