The computer game on everybody’s lips at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year was Hello Games “No Man’s Sky”. It’s a science fiction game that has a simple aim – to procedurally generate an infinite galaxy and allow the player to explore it in real time without boundaries. The player can fly around the galaxy in a space ship, pick a sun, land on any of it’s planets, and then walk around the planet in it’s entirety, exploring to a level of detail that includes the very stones upon the ground. How is this done? Where much of the content in most walk-around games has to be generated by large teams of people – all designing and then coding the content from the bottom up, the beauty of this game is that the content is procedurally generated on the fly, using mathematical equations. The equations all act upon an initial “seed” a magic number if you will – and the whole galaxy with all of it’s lushness directly follows.
This is a staggeringly powerful concept as it means that all of the suns, planets, creatures, spaceships and technology exist in a kind of invisible “potential state” and only appear when needed as a player tunnels a path through this space, revealing the content as they go. It’s important to note that this is not “random” as multiple players will see exactly the same content if they journey to the exact same position in the universe. Any randomness in the universe is simply used as a mathematical tool during content creation by the designers, to form the staggering variety of creatures that inhabit any planet. Neither is the content “stored” anywhere – it exists in the computer’s memory at the time of creation and then is lost as soon as the player moves on.
A couple of interesting philosophical questions arise from the implications of this kind of content generation. First, could the contents of the “real” universe have been generated in a similar way? (This could also be re-phrased as: Is the universe being generated in such a way right now?) Leading straight on from this, does our perception of space-time work in a similar way, or replace the generation of the universe, thus it only exists in the mind? I have never been to New York and yet I have impressions from second hand reports and images, from books, films and so forth. For me New York could be said to “not exist” until ultimately I arrive there to experience it “first hand” – whatever that means. Note that my first hand experience of New York will be unlike the experiences of other human beings, past, present and future. Our brains are content creation engines that form a narrative path through life and it is an obvious step that our games will home in on this paradigm for the creation of new narratives that we can use to supplement, or even supplant our own.
In a recent post I talked about exoplanets and how we may only ever be able to infer the activities of long dead civilisations from their ancient light. Well the procedural generation techniques used in “No Man’s Sky” may one day be able to be applied in a different way. Many science fiction stories use the well worn tropes of worm holes, folding space, etc. to overcome the problem of vast interstellar and intergalactic distances in the universe. What if a purely mathematical system could be used to “bring” far away places to our corner of the universe? Imagine mathematical models so precise that using “seed” generation we can, to quote Douglas Adams, abandon all that “tedious mucking about in hyperspace” and instead create simulations of distance planets that are correct down to the very stones upon the ground.
– Your Joyful Benefactor