Dungeon Generation in Unexplored

It’s rare that you see a game that gives top billing in its marketing to the quality of its procedurally generated levels. Normally PCG is sprinkled in a game to add a bit of variety, or to make up for the lack of actual level design. But, for 2017’s Unexplored, the rest of the game is there to justify the stellar levels.

Unexplored presents itself as a fairly standard roguelite – enter a randomly generated dungeon, descend 20 levels and retrive the amulet of Yendor. The gameplay features a realtime combat based around timing and aiming your swings, but otherwise plays things by the book.


But it doesn’t take long realize why they much such a big deal out of the procedural generation. Unexplored level design takes more after 2D Zelda games than it does Rogue. Instead of just wandering at random, you quickly find that the path forward is blocked, forcing you to solve puzzles, find items and keys, defeat enemies to continue. There’s a huge variety of structure, all randomly generated, but nearly every level is a tightly packed, interesting space.

Full video here
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PhantomGrammar and Ludoscope

Last time, I took inspiration from a game called Unexplored, and wrote about about a system of rule evaluation called Graph Rewriting.

In developing Unexplored and earlier games and academic papers, developer Joris Dormans has over the years developed an entire software library centered around graph rewriting. It’s called PhantomGrammar, and it comes with an accompanying UI called Ludoscope (sadly, neither is publically available currently).

I think it’s worth discussing how it works, as it turns the previous theoretical ideas into something pratical to work with.

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Graph Rewriting for Procedural Level Generation

I’ve been doing this series on how games do level generation for some time, and I have a complete beauty for you.

I’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing Unexplored, a 2017 indie game by Joris Dormans. It just nails procedurally generated zelda-like dungeons, and I had to know for myself how the magic happens. Fortunately, most of the generation logic is written in a custom language, PhantomGrammar, so between that and some help from the developers, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how it works.

The ideas of Unexplored are so interesting that I felt they deserved an article in it’s own right. The game is centered around a concept called Graph Rewriting, which, while well understood academically, is rarely used in games. I’m going to spend this article talking about that technique alone, then how PhantomGrammar specifically uses and extends it. Finally I will talk about how these techniques are put together in Unexplored to make such sophisticated levels.

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