What Story? Reporting a MUD-Dev Thread from April – May 2000 [re-post]

This is a re-post from my original on the Preserving Games blog, January 23, 2009. I expect to re-post most of these from over time. Looking at this one, I’m struck by how the posters’ concerns are still being considered and played out. In particular, I’m interested in the incidental storytelling notion, in my experience best demonstrated by Dwarf Fortress. A good example of that emergent storytelling is nomad (tim)‘s great illustration of one particular battle.

From August 22, 1996 to the early October of 2004 the MUD-Dev mailing list housed a slew of earnest and lengthy discussions — technical, philosophical, design and otherwise — concerning the development and play of multi-user dungeons (MUDs).

MUDs were developed before graphics-capable computers, originating and remaining entirely text-based. Players type commands, role-play or just socialize through the keyboard. Gameplay ranges from hack and slash to interactive fiction to simple chat, with all sorts of degrees of role-play in between. MUDs are often discussed as the precursors of today’s MMORPGs, and therefore an early index of the concerns and goals of those MMORPGs by at least 10 years. But MUDs are by no means a dead genre. New MUDs, and players for them, are continually coming into play.

The MUD-Dev archive is available at Raph Koster’s site as a bundle of distinct HTMLs, or right here at the School of Information on a single (very) large page with the messages hyperlinked and separated.

I’ve taken a look at the threads “Procedural Storytelling” and “A footnote to Procedural Storytelling”, which had sprung off from an earlier discussion, “Self-Sufficient Worlds”. The topic, broadly, concerns the art of storytelling in MUDs and more typically, how to generate them automatically on a large scale by abstracting them. Instead of doing a play-by-play of the discussion, I thought a report of the salient ideas and contentions would be more digestible.

  • The first idea to be discussed is whether, in the design of MUDs and their story content, “interesting stories” can be computationally generated. It’s posited that interesting stories are not computable and no amount of computation will generate them, at least not consistently enough for actual use. The counter argument believes that it is simply a matter of computational scale.
  • The issue of computational power and its potential for procedural storytelling is complemented a argument: automation and generation is less a problem than a toolset that allows players to interact with a persistent and consequential environment. This idea is revisited a few times throughout the thread. Posters wonder how the history of a world could be more thoroughly fleshed out, if a model could be made to allow future events to reference or be contingent upon past events, and the consequences of a persistent world given the unpredictable nature and large number of player actions any MUD would contain. I think this is an interesting consideration; it well highlights how ahistorical gamers’ interactions are in even very complex worlds. Continue reading “What Story? Reporting a MUD-Dev Thread from April – May 2000 [re-post]”