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.
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.
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 Binding of Isaac, and its remake, Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth are one of my favourite games of all time. It’s a roguelite twin stick shooter, much like Enter the Gungeon.
It’s time for another in my series on how games do level generation. Let’s take a look at SLIGE, a random level generator for Doom. The original Doom. That’s right, we’re going back to the early 90s for this one.
Doom was one of the first games designed from the ground up to friendly to modding, and consequently the community around it exploded. In the years following its release, level packs and tools started to circulate for free. It was only a matter of time until someone designed a random level generator.
SLIGE was one of the first. It quickly became infamous because newcomers would often attempt to pass off the level it creates as their own. But they’d inevitably get caught – SLIGE levels have a very distinctive feel, as you can see in the video below.
SLIGE may not be the most sophisticated level generator out there, but its fame caught my eye. It was under development by author David Chess for a number of years, and so has lots to explore. In this article, we’ll delve into how exactly it works.
I’ve been playing a lot of Enter The Gungeon recently. It’s a great, brutally hard, twin stick bullet hell that reminded me a lot of Binding of Isaac. But as I’ve been playing it more and more, I realized that the dungeon design actually shows some subtle genius.
There are many procedural generators out there that produce sensible level layouts that manage pacing and rewards correctly, and there are other generators out there that provide levels that include loops and compact layouts. But it’s hard to find both in a single game. Really, the only other game I’ve heard attempting this is Unexplored.
So, naturally, I broke out the decompiler to reveal all of Gungeon‘s secrets to me. I’ll share with you what I found.
Diablo 1 is a classic 1996 hack and slash action RPG. It was one of the first popular attempts at bringing roguelikes to the masses, from the niche ascii art. It’s spun a host of sequels, and imitators. It’s known for a dark, moody atmosphere that intensifies as the player descends into the dungeon beneath the town of Tristram. It was one of the first games I played with procedurally generated maps, and it blew me away that generating such convincing areas was even possible.
I recently discovered that thanks to the discovery of various debug symbol files accidentally left lying around, several fans took it upon themselves to reverse-engineer the source code and clean it up into a good guess at what the original game is like. Thus began a week long deep dive into how exactly did lead developer, David Brevik, actually craft these levels. It may have taken away some of the magic of the game, but I learnt lots of techniques I think are applicable to anyone developing a similar game, which I share with you below.