Catherine Brinegar is a trans woman who makes games and films in between writing about the former. She’s working on ‘until biglight,’ a mousepunk visual novel.
Melted wax oozing from my left arm, I make another feeble swing at Suago-mo. I miss, my waxflab appendage severed from my body by their counter-attack. “Well, that solves the infection,” I think to myself, trying not to panic as oozing wax is replaced with gushing blood. Now, several hours into this character, exploring a historical site that had been brought to my attention within the first moments of gameplay seemed something I was very much capable of by this point.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Suago-mo dodges another sword swipe, a swift counter rending my right arm from my torso. Waxy and bloodied, I attempt to turn and run, hoping to improvise some sort of solution around my lack of dexterous appendages by employing the two I was lucky enough to retain. I manage a few steps from the Snapjaw and recall that I stumbled across a handy teleportation device just moments before this encounter. Where it will take me, who knows. But, my back against the wall, I activate it. The destination, however was directly in the middle of yet another Holy Ground, defended by killbots and turrets surrounding swaths of cultist glowhawks. Their cries provide little comfort as I’m torn asunder.
My HP slowly drains to 0 and I let out my final gasping breath before I’m presented with the stats of my journey. Upon closing the results screen, this Qud vanishes from existence: all traces of my character’s trials and tribulations, the ancient artifacts I had been collecting and cataloguing, the yet-untold cultural histories that filled the world. All of it gone, thrown to the wind, creating a new character, resetting the world historia, establishing new key figures for fanatic cults to worship, and scattering unique knick-knacks across the countryside that are brought into existence for this new instance of Qud and this instance alone.
As I lay dying somewhere in the unknown of a now-forgotten saltlands, all I can think is how this whole fiasco will make a great story.
Of course, Caves of Qud isn’t generating all of these texts and mythologies completely new every time; there’s a system of intent in place to ensure each run of its world provides an engaging history for players to uncover. In and of itself, the generative system is not deeply complex in its rules. In a talk preserved in the GDC vault, developer Jason Grinblat explains that Qud follows a straightforward path to procedurally generate history: starting with five “Sultans,” these monumental people are given a set of up to 12 notable events that make up their lives. Avoiding any sort of designed narrative arc, these events are only tied together through varied keywords such as factions interacted with, or base concepts like a predetermined elemental proclivity or personality trait. Beyond these loose threads, events bubble to the surface at complete random.
From this, the stories of the Sultans are given cohesion not by a writer but by the player themselves, exploiting humanity’s natural tendency toward apophenia: mistakenly perceiving connection and meaning between unrelated things. In an example given by Grinbalt during the GDC panel, Event A occurs with positive involvement of a faction. Event B then happens, regurgitating the name of the faction. Between the two, the player infers depth and grants intent to the faction given its recurrence. Naturally, the faction’s extended involvement steers the logical thread between the Events regardless of the lack of detailed reasoning.
Relying on this eagerness we innately possess to assign reason to things, Qud crafts a tapestry of completely random events with no determinate process of cause and effect. It does this with every new character, an endless stream of variables that are replaceable outright. In Qud, there are very few handcrafted stories from the developers, and the player would be quickly forgiven for not having involved themselves with these plots whatsoever given that they exist as the smallest sliver of the world at large and the greater historical epics that have played out within it.
This disregard for ensuring carefully plotted storylines and detailed, coherent lore frames the intentions and interpretations of the player over all else. Within these disparate, independent variables that make up the world of Qud, one of the only constants is the player and their existence within the world. Narrative-wise, it’s a Ship of Theseus: the thought experiment that if you take something and replace its parts one-by-one, at what point does it stop existing as the original entity started with?
Qud, then, begs the question: to what extent do specific, concrete details matter in storytelling? Its flux of details and consequence that make up its histories drain these generated events of inherent meaning. All is mutable and transient, without anchor to anything.
However, that is not to say that Qud is a world built upon meaninglessness, but more so that it provides a hauntological substrate in which the player is given a playground to explore what it means to exist within this world that is deeply uninterested in the concrete and stable nature of predetermination. It seeks to elicit improvisation, interpretation, to take by surprise, to keep the player on their toes. Through this, Qud is eager to be a stage upon which the player can assume and develop a personal identity; to hollow out their niche amongst the crags and envision themselves as part of a world that is not necessarily crafted for them, but one that simply exists.
“Self-definition does not occur in a vacuum, but in a world already defined,” writes anthropologist Jonathan Friedman in his paper The Past in The Future: History and the Politics of Identity. Friedman illustrates this concept by exampling how Greek and Hawaiian cultures have approached finding self-defined identities. For Greeks during the 18th century, they came to define themselves not by the continuity (or lack thereof) of their nation but by the cultural web weaved between each person regardless of city-state lived in. A distinction grew between personhood and state, that was further defined by the oppression of Romans, and later the Ottomans. Forming a view of themselves from the outside-in, the Greek definition of identity appeared in opposition to the encroaching Other: differences illuminating what was “Greek” and what was not.
For Hawaiians, the inverse occurred. Colonialism draping over the land like miasma, American self-insertion during the mid-19th century instilled abject crisis on the islands. Creating unstable internal governments and economic plight, the colonial authorities took advantage of this by exploiting native islanders for the sandalwood and sugar trade. Unique Hawaiian cultural identity began to deteriorate not only from the American hegemony importing and enforcing its own culture, but from the growing influence of Asian immigrant plantation workers and the continuing disenfranchisement of the native Hawaiian people. Within this state of affairs, foreign rule stymied any simmering practices of culture or language outside the American standard. This suffocation eventually gave way to a resurgence of reclaiming what it means to be Hawaiian, supported by a nationalist movement that defined itself in “opposition to Western society and … rooted in a historical distinction between Hawaiian life forms and those that became dominant in the islands,” (Friedman 842).
The interplay between these two processes of self-definition relates back to the world of Qud and how we fit into it. Its generated stories serve as the guiding rails for us to turn inward and express ourselves through limited role-play and action. Our place within the base, non-historical world of Qud serves as interloper to a degree; our characters emerging into this place from outside its natural order. From this and from the tales we develop within it, the player balances between Friedman’s examples of defining identity, “the former assimilating another’s image of its own past to become what it is not, the latter projecting what is onto a past whose image belongs to another,” (Friedman 845). Players are thus not only defined by what they are not in terms of NPC or generated history, but also from the inside-out: personal identity from actual reality infecting the role carried over to this space. Qud’s harsh and bizarre natural world then becomes not fodder for analytics and discussion because of its transient state, as it gives no sense of personal definition within it, but instead acts in service to generate campfire stories: intimate digital folklore built upon shifting tides of mutual understanding through which we can see not only ourselves, but each other.
When Qud is discussed in any social circle, the typical topic-du-jour amongst participants is the most surreal and bizarre way the player faced death. Much like the anecdote opening this, Qud is an endless stream of these tales for those who brave its wastes and jungles. The real fun of it emerges here: not in the game proper but in sharing the absurdity of it with one another. Qud becomes less by-the-numbers RPG, and more a conductor to facilitate relation. It serves to glomerate players outside its borders, plugging them into the noosphere of shared experience.
By engaging with the meta-game of personalized storytelling, Qud posits a construction of personal identity through this interconnected composite of adventures. James Fearon in What Is Identity? (As We Now Use The Word) explores a modern definition of what it means to identify oneself, but most importantly settles on the idea that “Our modern construction of ‘identity’ tacitly connects the bases of self-respect with membership in social categories,” (32). To have identity is not to simply understand your moral makeup or personal preferences, but to exist within an adopted socialized moniker that binds you to others.
You act not as the historian of whatever world seed in which your character resides; instead You are the historian of Qud in and of itself as a lived experience. The generated history of the Sultans may have funny or interesting quirks worth exploring or sharing, but it is and will always be lacking in emotional resonance when compared to the greater human drama that occurs in the moment-to-moment of play. What essentially boils down to Markov chains of input story beats from the developer ends up cold and disaffected without being placed against the unpredictable nature of player desire, the two acting in tandem to synthesize the quintessential Qud experience. Personal identity here is not so much influenced by the happenstance stumbled into during play, but by the linkage of you to others through the social category of “denizen of Qud.”
Qud is a dead world without player input, your desire to see it and take it in. What does it matter if Joppa has a statue to a Sultan, that there’s a commune of their frenzied worshippers a few screens away? That Sultan’s name, details, life are all dust in the wind, constantly shifting alongside varied lives in this world; they are nothing more than castles built on sand, rocks eroding in a river, stars burning out. To care immensely about these minute facts is to have tunnel vision, to lose the forest for the tree. Far be it for one’s experience to twist into something wrong for deriving pleasure from the experience within those generated frames, but it remains important to understand the transience of each world between play sessions.
Outer layers of irrelevant details per each world generation end up acting as a container, the flesh and bone of Qud as a game. But, this form is nothing from a metaphysical standpoint without the signifiers of consciousness. The electrical impulses between our synapses and neurons give way to our understanding of what humanity is or can be, but our anchoring to this meat-world hinders physical transcendence.
Exploring instead the ephemeral horizons of digital space, worlds such as Qud’s act as flesh which we, the player, provide the circuitry for. Each world seed serves as substrate for us and our desires to reach outside the barriers of skin. From it, we can graze one another, finding merriment over the sand draining between our fingers as we try to cling to it. We cannot hold this form, much like how Qud cannot hold its history. It is here for a fleeting moment, then gone. Beyond that, beyond the pale of Red Rock or the Spindle, or all else, is the excitement in sharing the bizarre possibilities of the unexpected. An affinity can emerge from the player for this space and its strange ways through that linkage of storytelling, returning to the game’s predispositioned fodder for apophenia, tapping deep into that satisfaction of connecting disparate details and ourselves to them. An unremarkable play session can take the form of a classic epic given the right storyteller.
Topophilia, a love of a place twixt its greater cultural or social import, applies not to the variant of Qud in which a specific player character resides. Instead, we turn to the verdant world beneath that slumbers in the absence of human input, loving the interpersonal connections we can form because of it. Under code and graphics, we reach a place in which we can safely explore our own impermanence, reveling in it, appreciating the euphoria of life unknown while we still have it. Within Qud’s facilitation of an experiential post-game about sharing and storytelling, it joins the annals of games like it such as Dwarf Fortress or Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead with its intention to create possibility space for a player to delve into their own psyche through a stand-in world paralleling our own in its nuance and depth.
These games ultimately can allow us to see past the lie of the self: to realize that should we slough ego and accept our own mutability through the fractal reflections we are of one another. Understanding our details are interchangeable and ultimately moot, one can instead turn to the greater identity informed and shaped from the noosphere of our shared unconscious, viewing its unseen tendrils connecting us all. Personal identity finally gives way to transcendence: acceptance of our minuscule worth to anything other than one another. In the absolute end, all we can cling to is each other, the shared personal and social identity of the human condition linking us from birth to death. Everything else is simply noise.
Forever live and drink, friend.
Grinblat, Jason. “Procedurally Generating History in Caves of Qud.” YouTube, 2018.
Friedman, Jonathan. “The Past in the Future: History and the Politics of Identity”. American Anthropologist, vol. 94, no. 4, 1992, pp. 837-859.
Fearon, James. “What Is Identity?” web.stanford.edu, 1999.