March 6, 2017 4:30 AM | Thomas Faust
A lot of incredibly clever things could be said about Maschinen-Mensch's first title, The Curious Expedition: how it successfully blends roguelike and exploratory strategy game, how it acts as subtle commentary on colonialism or the tendency to reduce important female characters to mere footnotes in history books, or how it allows you to ride dinosaurs and giant crustaceans.
However, the game's biggest accomplishment might be the stories. Not necessarily the ones told by the game, but the tales you make up in your head. Here's the thing: The Curious Expedition tells you what's happening, but it lets your mind fill in the blanks.
I still remember my very first expedition. Searching for the legendary golden pyramid, my valiant groupt of explorers - beaten, bruised, and going slightly mad - had lost most of its human members to... something lurking in the jungle, probably. The only remaining members of my trek were my human protagonist and two animals, a mule and an ox. Everyone's nerves were strained, and they started to develop certain character traits.
And so it happened that I eventually made camp, with my lousy ragtag band of mostly animal explorers sitting around the campfire. My mule was depressive. My ox had become paranoid. They were sitting there in awkward silence, just staring at each other and feeling uncomfortable and suspicious.
What an absurdly hilarious scene! Did it really happen that way? I don't know. Probably not. The game gave me some details, and my imagination ran wild with it. Stuff like that happens all the time in The Curious Expedition. We get some basic data - "the nun developed a taste for human flesh and ate the priest" - but the whole scene unfolds in our heads. It's marvelous.
It's even more amazing when you consider that those scenes weren't necessarily written to happen in a certain way, but are, in fact, procedurally generated. Every new expedition is a true journey into the unknown. Every undiscovered part of the map is true terra incognita, both from a gameplay and a narrative point of view.
But enough about the past, let's have a look at what comes next. The Curious Expedition just got a huge free content update, adding a whole new area and gameplay mechanics as well as countless small additions and features. Maschinen-Mensch are far from done with it. Mod and Steam workshop support are the next big planned features. They will hopefully add more wonderfully weird stories to the game.
Even with post-release support for The Curious Expedition still going strong, the developers are getting ready to tackle their next project, The Curious Case. This "generative crime story" will be set in 1920s Berlin, which in itself is pretty special. The Weimar Republic, that curious part of German history which is sandwiched inbetween World War I and the Third Reich, was an outrageously decadent era and a fertile ground for intellectuals and artists.
The (German) Roaring Twenties have also been largely ignored in modern pop culture. Against this backdrop you're tasked with solving murder cases by delving into the victim's life and social environment, all of which will be procedurally generated down to the smallest details.
Where The Curious Expedition had procedurally generated landscapes and events, The Curious Case will generate a whole society. Lives, connections, educations, essential and trivial information about these people - all of these things will be wildly different with every playthrough. The scope of this is actually stunning.
Based on this dense web of information, the game will build murder cases within certain regulations: someone will only kill a rich person for money if their own fortune is below a certain treshold. A child will only be able to get a proper education if it comes from a certain social standing. Unraveling these threads and convicting the guily party in court will be your task.
The game is also influenced by David Lynch's Twin Peaks, with the player's experience being "riddled with mysterious characters and subtle supernatural happenings that infuse each crime case with a dark and in some places almost surreal tone."
There won't just be a thematic and tonal shift from their first title; Maschinen-Mensch are planning to leave The Curious Expedition's pixel art behind and are working on a three-dimensional style this time. But then, it's still early days for The Curious Case and the game has not completely emerged from the concept stage yet.
If there is one takeaway from all of this, it's that procedural generation is a far cry from being "level design for lazy people", despite it's bad reputation. Instead, it has the power to make meaningful stories come to life not only on the screen, but in your imagination, as The Curious Expedition so masterfully proves.