June 21, 2006

Split Infinity Game Generation

by Andrew Stern · , 3:47 am

For quite some time now I’ve been waiting for some astute game scholar somewhere to analyze Piers Anthony’s most excellent Apprentice Adept sci-fi/fantasy series from the early 1980′s, the first book being Split Infinity. From what I can tell via Google, in the context of game studies and game design, no one has yet written about The Game from the Apprentice Adept novels. Maybe I’m the first; perhaps there are few game scholars old enough to have read Anthony? :-0

I read these books as a 10 or 11-year old kid (as well as Xanth, etc.), and I still think about them once in a while, particularly The Game. Anthony offers what I think is a fascinating vision of the future of game competition, and game generation; I could imagine attempting to create a video game version of this.

First, some backstory: the Apprentice Adept series takes place in two worlds, the technology-based planet of Proton, and the parallel universe of Phaze, a land based on magic and fantasy. The series focuses on the character Stile, a Citizen of Proton who discovers Phaze and travels back and forth between the two worlds / realities, has adventures, etc.

Anyhow, on Proton, societal status is based on your ranking in The Game, sort of a cross between the Holodeck and a Gameboy. Every time two players begin a Game, the form of the competition is unknown, to be determined by the players themselves. Players begin by taking turns choosing game characteristics, progressing from the abstract to the specific. Thousands of different games can be generated in this way; part of the strategy is to choose game characteristics that favor your aptitudes and not your opponent’s.

Rather than describe it further, I took the liberty of scanning in a few pages from Split Infinity, below. These are from my original 1980 paperback, that I bought at the mall at B. Dalton in Raleigh, North Carolina with my allowance. I edited out extraneous text not related to The Game. The characters here are the protagonist Stile, and a woman he just met, Sheen.

Later in the book, Stile plays another couple of Games, against two different opponents.

The Wikipedia article on the series further describes other Game events: “Stile plays a Naked Arts round in interpretive dance, while later on the same category produces extemporaneous poetry. ”

10 Responses to “Split Infinity Game Generation”

  1. Chris Says:

    Good heavens. That takes me back.

    Is this, do you think, a generative system, or a taxonomic system? Are games created to fill in the blanks, or do categories get created simply because games can fit into them?

    This is a tangent, but: I don’t know if you’ve read Georges Perec’s “W, or the Memory of Childhood”, which has another take on a society dominated by games (and is divided into two different but interrelated worlds, hm). It would be interesting to compare the two.

  2. josh g. Says:

    From the text above, this seems more like a taxonomic system than a generative one. It would be interesting to take the concept and translate it to a truly generative system.

    I wonder, though, could a truly generative system work well in a competitive environment like the one this story describes? Usually designing a game to be both fair and challenging takes significant time to balance and refine. A generative system to create new games would probably be easier to apply in an experimental, co-operative environment where people are looking for new experiences and challenges rather than trying to compete for recognition.

  3. noah Says:

    I think the only engagement I’m aware of is Anne Balsamo’s A Pedagogy for Original Synners — an evocative mixture of ideas from many speculative fiction sources, used as a way of thinking through current pedagogical questions.

  4. andrew Says:

    [Update: I just realized I missed scanning in pages 236-7 — they're now there.]

    You’re probably right that Anthony didn’t necessarily imagine The Game as generated Holodeck-style; for example, the Dust Slide and antique pistols that appear above may have been part of an elaborate game arena, that has all combinations of games “unrolled”. The antique pistols were presumably placed on a table by an assistant; the Dust Slide was pre-constructed. If some other players happened to have narrowed down their game to the Dust Slide and were currently using it, you’d have to wait your turn.

    But yes, like Josh suggests, one could imagine this being truly generative. For example the specific options in the third round of choices could vary: instead of snowbanks and limestone cliffs, we could imagine mudslides and jungle trees. Even the some of the more abstract characteristics could potentially vary; this would exponentially increase the number of game combinations.

    Could a generative game system create a well-balanced, well-designed game? In my blue-sky imagining of such a game generation system, of course!

    What I find really exciting about this vision is how it combines generativity with competition. Most research into generative stories/games have enough trouble getting the generativity itself to work, leaving little thought to how actually apply the generativity to entertainment ends. Here the process of generating a game, the meta-game, is part of the competition itself. Great design.

    (The whole Proton/Phaze universe is ripe IP for an excellent game/MMO, IMO. I wonder if anyone’s secured the game rights yet.)

    Also, a generative system like this would to some extent be a collaboration between human players and an AI, to create a new game.

    Noah, thanks for the link to Balsamo’s essay; it didn’t come up in my search because “Anthony” isn’t mentioned in the text (as you say, she’s informally riffing on several sci-fi ideas, not doing an analysis per se, references not strictly required.) Chris, nope I haven’t read the Perec book, will do.

  5. Brian Moriarty Says:

    Andrew: After that game scholar finishes with Anthony’s Xanth game, perhaps he or she will consider its precedent: Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

  6. andrew Says:

    Thanks for that reference, Brian; here’s a not so elucidating Wikipedia article on it, and here’s a better review of the book. It won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946! I’ll have to read it.

    Btw, Xanth is a different series; Split Infinity is book one of Apprentice Adept series.

    Also, sorry folks, I made an error in my original post: while I bought virtually all my Piers Anthony novels at the mall at B. Dalton in Raleigh, I just remembered that I got Split Infinity one evening on a summer vacation to Cape May, NJ, in an outdoor plaza of shops. Shortly after the bookstore, that same night, one of my younger brothers, who was about 7 at the time, somehow drifted off into the crowd, and went missing for about 15 panicked minutes. We found him, a bit shaken, but alright, anxiously wandering the maze of shops. I remember clutching my copy of the book as we searched, and my mother’s grim expression; I hadn’t experienced that kind of creeping fear before, until that night. I haven’t been back to Cape May since.

  7. B Rickman Says:

    There are several translations of Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), some more readable than others.

    One interesting way that The Apprentice Adept dates itself is that while some of Anthony’s games are facilitated by “panels”, there are no video games in The Game.

  8. Brian Moriarty Says:

    The only English translation of Das Glasperlenspiel currently in print also happens to be the best: The one by Richard and Clara Winston, first published in 1969.

    The 1949 translation by Mervyn Savill is said by Those Who Know to be rather stiff and formal in comparison.

  9. J Bushnell Says:

    Another interesting “game” in a Anthony novel is the “hypnogourd,” a sort of fantasy VR device, where peering into a hole in a gourd transports you into a world full of various dangerous puzzle-challenges. In Ogre, Ogre. The idea of such a thing quite deeply fascinated me when I was younger and reading Anthony novels…

  10. SteveSegreto Says:

    This brings back some memories. :)

    The main grid is always 4×4 and has the same 8 row/column headings, giving 16 choices.

    So 16 possible subgrids stem from the main grid. The two examples shown above differ on how many rows/columns exist in the subgrids (i.e. the subgrid from naked/physical had 16 choices while the subgrid from machine/physical only had 12 choices).

    Also from reading the text above, after the subgrid choice is made, the final 3×3 grid has its rows and columns formed by having the contestants choose variants from computer provided lists one after another.

    Then one contestant selects a choice from the row and the other selects a choice from the columns. That is the “game” they compete at.

    If you picked reasonably finite values for the length of the final grid lists (say 9 variants each) and required all the subgrids to only be 3×3, then you would need to intelligently select 1400 category headings and 1296 final games could be derived from combinations of them. Of course the first 8 category headings are already selected by Mr. Anthony

    4+4=8 categories for the first grid (already defined by the text above), yielding 16 STAGE 1 choices
    16 * (3+3) = 96 categories for all the subgrids (assume each one was capped at 3×3), yielding 16*3*3 (144) STAGE 2 choices
    144*9 = 1296 categories in the final grid list, though only 144*(3+3)= (864) could actually be placed in 144 3×3 matrices as the row/column headings during STAGE 3. In STAGE 4 that choosing from that final matrix would yield 144 * 3 * 3 = 1296 different games total.

    Of course, if you wanted more possible games, you could have variable row/column matrices during STAGE 2 and more than 9 variants in the STAGE 3 list used to form the final STAGE 4 3×3 matrix.

    This would indeed be an interesting concept for an MMO, though the sizes of the matrices would probably have to be increased considerably.

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