Procedural Generation

by Tom Graham


the days of the hermitage, his small urban sanctuary. Steven, for as long as he could remember, had been agoraphobic. His food was delivered (meals-on-wheels) and he spent his time between an indoor orchid garden, reading stacks of old newsprint, and mindlessly computing, data entry his method of maintaining his seclusive lifestyle. It seemed like such a small error in his program: a stray spark from his fireplace ignited the yellowing papers, and coupled with a strong draft, had spread quickly out of control even as Steven unknowingly tended to his flowers.


After a brief period of denial and mourning, he came to terms with the fact that it would be impossible now to return to his unspoilt existence. Tentatively, at first, he came into the world, but soon embraced it. It seemed he only needed the great shove of flame, like a baby bird tossed out of its mother’s nest. He rented an apartment, continuing his data entry job, but instead of reading about the world, he explored the blocks of city/park/suburb/lake.


The first problems arose in the city, when, as he wandered the identical blocks, the buildings didn’t seem to quite form themselves in the distance, or at first, the buildings would appear to be cheaply made facades, as if on the set of a Western. At first he thought this was a problem with his eyesight, but then he tried to run ahead and noticed he could actually catch up to the facades in the distance. A wire man sat on the steps of an apartment complex. The wire became bone, a layer of gray muscle was added, skin stretched over his face and ratty clothes manifested. As a final touch a cigarette and a thin line of smoke appeared in his hand. He looked at Steven and said, “What the Hell are you looking at?”


The zoo was rich in its detail, but then, as he bussed back to his new apartment, the traffic on the freeway froze for a full five seconds, until it jumped ahead suddenly and dramatically. This occurred with more frequency, particularly prevalent whenever he was dealing with liquids. In the morning he spilled his coffee, and the water hung in the air theatrically, until it splashed onto the floor in an elaborate pattern. [slow script, waiting for response] On one day it began to snow heavily, but the flakes wouldn’t fall continuously, instead jumping in small intervals, so that it hurt his eyes to look at it.


He went to see a physician. He sat on the cold examination bench, stripped down to a robe that he was unsure he had put on correctly. The doctor entered frowning at Steven’s charts. “This is way outside my area of expertise.” He said. “You’re in a simulation. Actually, I’m experiencing some cognitive dissonance right now, because it means I’m just background noise.” He scribbled something on a prescription pad. “Here, see a computer programmer.” The doctor left the room hurriedly.


What got worse was when whole chunks of the world stopped coming into existence at all leaving large holes. Often he’d see these in the distance, and they were there for a just a moment in the corner of his eye, but then he nearly stumbled right into one one his way to find a programmer. It looked to be about 250 square meters, where the street stopped, and he saw a cross-section image of the earth going impossibly deep. [chunkloading error] The gaping maw apparently had no bottom, not even a black abyss indicating a bottom. It was an unnatural shade of blue, possessing no apparent depth or dimension. Oddly though, cars and pedestrians moved in and out of it unperturbed. He could even look into a house, neatly bisected, the shower right on the threshold. The man was bisected as well, his organs gaudily displayed.


The doctor had sent him to a business called “Modyne Specifications” displayed on a decaying signboard. The door was open. Steven discovered, upon entering, a messy establishment filled with broken computer parts, the shadow of where a front desk used to be, and empty pizza boxes. A man peeked his head from behind an open office, “Oh, hello!”

Steven told him his problems with physics.

“Ah,” he said, “That’s got to be a rendering issue.”

“Why is this happening?”

“It’s usually a problem with memory. A common strategy with open-ended simulations is procedural generation, the world only coming into being as you’ve been there according to some prearranged algorithm. It’s a memory saving strategy. Could be you’re starting to take up to much memory. Hmm…” The programmer looked pensive.

“What is it?” Steven asked.

“Well I don’t want to alarm you, but if you take up much more space, the world could crash.”


[rundebug] Steven was terrified, his world was slowing down further even as he returned from the programmer’s. He vowed to resume his cloistered existence. On his way home he purchased a library of books, and signed up for HBO. As he read, however, he found the books were empty unless he looked inside and the production of the text was slowing down, failing to keep pace with his reading. He turned on the television and the screen flickered insistently.

Maybe if he shut everything down, it would all work again, he thought. From his window, he could still see pieces of the city rendering in the distance, cropping up out of the fog. He blocked the window with foil. As he fumbled for the light, he thought about the programmer and the doctor. Do they each now have family and friends that have spawned into existence to make their characters believable? As he imagined the doctor returning to a large house in the suburbs, the little kids coming out to great him, this began to flicker as well. It seemed even letting his mind think about them was forcing them into reality, becoming fixed out of the ether. He attempted to quiet his mind, but thoughts sprung up like orchids in bloom, rising imperceptibly. He wished he could undo the fire; he wished he could ctrl-z back to the beginning. He longed for his limited life, he longed for


[terminprocessSteven. reboot]

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