Time in Game Narratives

OK- so time to move the discussion that came out of "save anywhere" into it's own thread.

Thanks for your suggestion JT- I checked out Shadow of Memories and it's an interesting look at a game that is playing with timeline in a flashback style. This is not QUITE what I'm on about though...

Time travel is one thing- but doing the timetravelling flashback sequence still works its way into a logical linear timeline. The action in the game still follows the A, then B, then C route- Even if you start at C (the death of the avatar) and jump to A, and work yourself back through B to C. It's like so many movies that start with the ending and then the rest of the movie shows you how you got there. Even Memento is completely logical in its temporal progression. There is actually an article online that documents the way to resequence the scenes of the movie on your DVD player so it will run from start to finish!

The most convoluded example I can think of in this vein is Timecop 2 with Jason Scott Lee- After seeing the movie I'm not really sure how carefully they worked out the repeating timeline but it goes without saying whoever had to do the scripting must have needed a sebatical after it was complete. (having said that we could all have been spared alot of bad one liners if they'd never gotten employed in the first place!)

What I'm specifically looking for are stories that play with the idea of time itself. Run Lola Run really plays with its 20 mins. Fellini's 8mm follows the director of the movie we are actually watching as he is doing the casting for the lead actress- and then he walks into another room in the same scene and we see the costumes that were being worn actually being designed and sewn together by a costume designer. The costume exists in both times, but it is not clear exactly how those times are situated in relation to each other in terms of a linear timeline. There is a connection- but not necessarily one that we can make definative sense of because it works both ways. Many films are shifting in this direction. A, B and C are related, but there are parts of A that are part of C and whether they happen before or after is ambiguous.

Obviously games would be hesitant to introduce this shift in a players perception of the timeline because game timelines do their best to make sense so the player can understand how to get to the END.

Have you ever seen a game or game element that questions narrative linearity?
Do you think there is a place in the game industry for game narratives focussed on experiences and perceptual shifts rather than challenge and win scenarios to develop?
What would happen if games stopped delineating a flashback with limited interactivity or widescreen bars and pieces of the past could filter into the present, and what the present was could constantly be thrown into question?

OK. I'm not going to blame anyone for needing a caffeine break before attempting a response to that one...

TheBigJ's picture

quote:


It's like so many movies that start with the ending and then the rest of the movie shows you how you got there

That's right. A circular plot is still perfectly linear. Momento is not very different to other movies. The first scene (end of story) is the orientation. Characters are introduced, the scene is set, etc. The standard set of complications exist in appropriate places and the twist comes in near the end of the film (near the beginning of story). What would be really different is if the movie itself was told backwards. Characters are removed from the story before they are properly introduced, the twist occurs before you can make any sense of it, etc. This is still a very linear story but it gets away from the orientation-complicaton-climax-resolution format that exists in virtually every story out there.

quote:


Have you ever seen a game or game element that questions narrative linearity?

Hmmm. Not really. I have seen games do some very interesting things (much more interesting than film anyway) but little of it is really what you're talking about.

Take, say, Maniac Mansion 2: Day of the Tentacle, for example. You control three characters each existing in the same mansion in the past, present and future, respectively. Being an adventure game, the gameplay was about as linear as it gets. Do this, then this, then this to get to the end. However, you are required to solve problems and make the three work together. For example, the character in the past cuts down a tree so it doesn't exist in the future, etc. The gameplay made you think about what effects your action in the present would have in the future, and what you could learn from the future to help you solve problems in the past.

quote:


Do you think there is a place in the game industry for game narratives focussed on experiences and perceptual shifts rather than challenge and win scenarios to develop?

Absolutely. One of the main reasons I love games is that there is very little definition attached to the concept. To qualify as a game you have to be electronic, interactive, entertainment. I could see Run Lola Run translating quite well to an interactive story. I don't know if there is a place in the game industry of today, however. Things like this will slowly sneak their way in through titles which also offer challenge/win gameplay. Take Max Payne for example. There are really two sides to the game, awesome action and deep, symbolic storytelling. Some of my favourite parts in Max Payne 2 involve levels where you don't even draw your gun once. You're just walking around looking at suggestive mise-en-scene.

Maitrek's picture

I think an awesome example of timeline/perspective/narrative mixing in the movie industry is Adaptation. Don't ask how I'd put that in a game though :) But just in case you haven't seen it, check it out, see if you can spot the links between whats going on in the film and how the script changes etc.

Prema's picture

Thanks for tackling my fat thread guys. It really is about whether games in the future could run on a parallel development course to films.

I have seen adaptation- but only once. It sounds like quite a classic case about a scriptwriter but it turns out we're both watching the script evolve on screen as a story and within the story as the script scenario. It is a similar approach Fellini takes in 8mm with a director. Early literature has also used this approach- reading the end of a novel about a writer and realising you have just finished THEIR novel. It seems the most basic approach to creating a temporal paradox. So where's the game that's the jumbled coding of a game designer?

I am comforted to know there are some film buffs in the game industry- now all I need are star trek fans and I'm all set!

unknownuser2's picture

Okay, i see where your going prema, was a bit off track before !

I think as a game, what you said about, providing a somewhat clear path towards an 'end' as such is probably the goal for most game related stories at the moment, just to appeal to a wider market. I mean while there is hope for a sub 12 year old gamer to finish a final fantasy game and only understand 50% of what is actually going on with the story, it would be a whole heap more difficult for that same age group to even grasp the ideas of perceptual shifting etc.

That doesn't rule it out tho, i think it could be a target market, just like run lola run was, you either love that style of movie, or you hate it.

Someone would need to be on the border of insanity to deliver a powerful storyline fitting a budget and the time restricted nature of game development, although it IS moving to nearer production for movies, i think it would still be a good few years away from producing something so twisted [:P] While a movie plays out and one simply sits back and watches, a game ( especially adventure/rpg style ) can be interacted with numerous amounts of ways, and each one has to be thought through, documented, and meet a sucessful resolve.

That kind of task IS grueling with a simple storyline, let alone a story playing with time and the perception of time within a game [:P] Its an interesting topic, like i said in my previous email, but one that would require ALOT of time, perserverance and compromise from storywriter to producer.

[:O]

Prema's picture

Heya again JT!

Well it goes on...

I completely agree with your view that this kind of game approach in the current climate would probobly be rejected. Do you think though that this is also related to where gaming technology is at the moment. Just as an example- Taking the dress scene from Fellini- A player may miss a subtle clue like that because of issues like poor quality render textures in the dress...

I guess the more "subtle" indicators of paradoxical narrative timelines would be hard to implement simply because of technological limitations. In this sense- the game is working hard enough to keep the player recognising the basic environments and characters what to speak of playing with subtle symbolism. It's interesting to consider that few games will have the characters change their outfit unless it is an explicit part of the gameplay whereas films do this all the time. We can still recognise Cameron Diaz even if she's thrown on a new outfit- but Aeris doesn't change her garments, and if she did we might get her confused with Tifa or Yuffie!!

In this sense, perhaps it is only a matter of time and technology in terms of graphics and audio quality development before games can employ new approaches to temporality?
Do you think that improved technology could change the linear nature of games?

Maitrek's picture

The question that you have to ask yourself is 'why'? In the mid 90's people went beserk creating these interactive movies that, while story-wise, are still standouts in the industry - they were complete failures for numerous reasons. Working towards a film-level of character empathy is a good thing, working towards film-level storylines is probably not so worth it (it's just the wrong way to look at things I think, I would look at it as more of a side-effect of a nobler goal).

There is a 'problem' (as I'll loosely label it) with trying to defy the lienar nature of games. Most games, at this stage, are about as complex as any old board game...there are very strict win/lose conditions and alot of designers base their modus operandi on this kind of gameplay. Trying to make non-linear games requires non-linear forms of gameplay, not just a non-linear storyline. The storyline is usually (or works best as) a consequence of the success/failure of the player character within the game...if there is only a binary method for determining the player-character's success, then this leads to a very simple story path.

At the moment we are all too keen on linear styles of gameplay, and they sell well, and it's hard to market other forms.

On top of that, you have to look at what story-telling devices we have at our disposal in the gaming world. The story is almost utterly defined by non-player character interactions...they are the story tellers. If we wanted non-linear story, we'd have to heavily develop the ability of the AI/NPC to tell a non-linear story. At this stage in tech, we really can only go so far with scripting before we tire the writer out...imagine if you wanted 9 different endings to a game...how many threads of conversation could the script-writer actually be bothered doing to convey the differences between them?

Other story telling devices (as you put it, visual clues etc) are woefully under-developed, and not just because of the lack of technological beefiness, it's simply under-explored. Our environments very rarely have any artistic relevance, the architecture is staid and always based in 'reality'. We simply don't convey (or even attempt to convey) any mood in our environments or our game world.

(end of lesson)

As for flexible timelines in games, I'd love to explore this topic further after we've made some strides in regards to *simple* non-linear story-telling in games :) Crappines will tend to arise if the whole timeline/perspective shamboozle is done out of simple artistic curiosity. Using timeline tomfoolery *within* a direct interactive context (ie as part of the game mechanic) is very important, and just tacking them onto the side really isn't any trickier than having a linear game with a convoluted story. I can tell you want to explore the nature of timeline within game mechanic!

I'll have to go and have a bit of a think as to what kind of game you could fit something like this in :) (I usually don't like to work this way - trying to 'fit' something into a game, but I'll give it a bit of a go none the less).

Sorry for the useless nature of this post.

So now that I'm on the same page as all you guys I'll go back into my shell! Be back in a bit.

Prema's picture

Thanks Maitrek!

In terms of the "what story would this fit into" if we take from our fave examples and see what alot of them are doing

01: Identify the media we use and who creates it
02: focus the narrative on someone who could potentially be creating the medium
03: modify the timeline so it becomes ambiguous whether the events are happening before or after the medium we are interacting with has been created. The medium we experience through is explicitly delineated eg. we know we are seeing through the camera.
04: Have elements that fulfil both scenarios and call the linear progression of events into question.

So we have a coder who dreams of making a game as the avatar. We have an explicit interface that refers to gaming code so we experience the game like a game- not a movie.
Now for the tricky part...
The storyline calls that we are able to watch the game designer as he is coding, and also in his life.
Perhaps early in the game our avatar sees a butterfly.
At another stage he sits down and writes some code about the mathematical patterns of a butterflies wings.
Either of these events could have occured first. It is merely the way we interact with the interface that changes whether we think- he saw a butterfly and wanted to write it into his game OR he wrote a butterfly into his game and THAT's why there was a butterfly in that scene.

But there really is no right or wrong to this. The butterfly is a paradox. It is a chicken and egg problem the player really can't solve and its existence doesn't move from event A to event B.

Yhea. That's gonna have to be a short black. And if you're thinking of responding as well... make it a macchiato.

CombatWombat's picture

What you are describing seems to be missing solid gameplay, which is kind of fundamental for a game to possess :) Without gameplay, it's just a non-interactive story, just a movie.

I may have missed something - would you be able to explain to me how you see this idea contributing to meaningful gameplay?

Cheers,

Mark/CW

unknownuser2's picture

your going too deep, too quickly for me prema! [:O] I agree with maitrek, this needs alot of thinking time. see - I think you've touched a nerve here, its an interesting topic, and one that I don't think has been brought to surface much at all.

Now we as gaming peoples, see this as challenge and being who we are, need to try overcome it [:D]

CW : Meaningful gameplay comes in all shapes and kinds does it not? someone may find sheer joy in a baked bean cooking simulation, while others find more joy in a car sim, or fighting game. ( exagerated i know [:p] )

I think it will be demographic specific - its definately an aquired taste, but nevertheless deserves a shot, its definately something new.

Prema : I think what you said about the tech not being to a level where its capable of portraying such small details is not quite true, IMO, the tech nowadays is definately at the level where the textures in a dress ( the example you used ) could definately be noticed, but like a movie, the camera angles, the way the character is able to interact with the scene, zoom in/out, pick up things, move objects around, all comes into it.

Is that small thing to be a focul point ? or just a 'small' thing thats placed strategically to make the player go " hey, wasnt that the dress that chick was wearing .... [:O] wtf is going on in this game! " - but only have it in the background to make players who DO notice, go " wow, thats freaky " [8]

Now that I think about it - I think this kind of attention in a horror action game like resi evil / silent hill - could possibly build foundation for the most mind distortingly, horrific game of all time - and one I'd definately want to play.[:D] A game that really plays with the player and makes people think " did the 'game' know that happened already? or did I make that happen by doing such and such "

A game world like that would be a phenominal task, but when you think about it, offer unlimited replayability.... the mind really boggles. [:D]

Prema's picture

Hey Mark -thanks for joining our little filmbuff meets game nerd session!

I think that playing with linear time can contribute to games in the way it has contributed to films. In the examples I mentioned before (and also those posted on the "save game" topic area) creating a perceptual shift makes us question more than just what's going on in the movie timeline. It jolts us into rethinking our understandings and preconceptions of time itself. It's also important to note that the times these shifts occur are usually just a single image embedded in a scene- often something we'll miss on first viewing. It doesn't mean that the movie completely abandons the rest of the story- it just tells it in a different way. Similarly I'm not suggesting we remove all interactivity and gameplay from games- but rather that the narratives that are there could be enhanced by these kinds of elements.

I'm sure when movies began to use these techniques people had the same reservations- I mean what does it contribute to the underlying narrative in it's most basic form- maybe nothing that the charaters will explicitly understand. BUT what does it contribute to the film experience as a whole? It can potentially redefine how the audience looks at the narrative as a whole. If suddenly realising paradoxical relationships between the different scenes in a movie can get us rethinking whether A followed B followed C but somehow A could have followed C- why wouldn't the same perceptual shifts have the potential to immerse us as gamers? Games have even more potential to explore these relationships than films because their visual and audio elements can be experienced spatially as well. Just as an example the way the radio you're carrying in Silent Hill crackles when you're approaching a monster. The sound alone is able to create a suspenseful atmosphere- it has taken something from horror films and taken it further than cinema could.

Do you think that interactive game design has the potential to develop beyond the initial parameters of a challenge that the player can overcome and be more about providing a rich narrative and perceptual experience?

In the example I gave above who's to say that the main character I was talking about wasn't being hunted down by the government because in his free time he hacks evil corporations and uploads pac-man viruses into their systems. In this way the butterfly perceptual shift- realising this is some form of interactive diary and the main character has re-created everything we are seeing while we are playing is the paradox that gets introduced. It could even then be built into the value system of the character- when we realise that if we want to keep playing the game the character has to keep writing his daily coding entries. If he spends too much time becoming a famous hacker and thwomping the baddies that come to get him the game interface and entries we as the player are interacting with would simply deteriate.

Okay. I think that one warrants some chocolate coated coffee beans.

Prema's picture

Sorry JT- just read yours.

I must've been writing same time as you!

When I think of the scariest film I have ever seen I think of Mulholland Drive- And I've seen lots of horror and gore! What makes it so damn freaky is the scary stuff it does with such bland and "normal" scenery and characters. And really there's just no way I can figure out to put the story on a timeline because everything seemed to happen before everything else.

I just wish that Dino Crisis could have reached such an extreme level.

Silent Hill IS the closest thing I've ever seen to tackle this approach. I think I already mentioned the letter from the dead wife that dissappears because it was a hallucination? Because it is just sitting in you menu bar you don't even necessarily notice it unless you're an EXTREMELY pedantic player. BUT if you do you have a shot at playing the game right- ie. ignoring what SEEMS to be going on because as far as you know alot of it isn't...

Prema's picture

hey, I got JT clutching his head- guess I'm not so harmless after all!

sorry mate!

unknownuser2's picture

apology accepted! its almost like knee-jerk reaction to anything that instills vivid images in here

Prema's picture

Anyone got anything to add? Revive my brain guys I'm putting together site maps...

Maitrek's picture

Well, eventually after I didn't really think much about this at all, a good idea kind of fluked it's way to my attention. Unfortunately, there is only so far that you can go with this sort of idea because of technological restraints but it feels like a step in the right direction for this discussion.

The basic premise is this, the character in the game has a farseering ability - this could be done excellently from a first person perspective. Let's say for now that due to technological constraints, the player has no control over when/where the character's perspective of time changes. Let's say the character 'wakes up' as an introduction to a scene, maybe the player explores the house a bit, maybe goes into a different room - when the player returns to the main room there's someone standing there that wasn't there before. Even if the player tries to go straight outside you could still engage this sequence by simply having this new 'person' standing at the door when the player goes to leave.

You could do any number of things here, have a simple conversation, argument, deliver some form of narrative - it doesn't matter. Some interaction occurs between the two characters.

Then the person leaves, the player goes back to his usual business. At some stage the player goes outside then comes back, and then the same person appears in the apartment - nearly the same interaction occurs all over again, only this time, things will change slightly - triggered by the events that the player has taken since the "previous" conversation. Whatever interaction occured between them could be very different. This is because that conversation in the real timeline wouldn't have actually occured yet - whatever the interaction is, it's an important part of the story that will be delivered early on, but will change as the game progresses.

Enough of these sorts of 'set piece' moments and the player will start to pick up on it. You could have the player meet the NPCs who appear in the future 'farseer' moments - for the first time in the real timeline, then possible 'scare' these NPCs off because the character/player will know stuff about these NPCs based on stuff that hasn't happened, and they might assume the player is some kind of whacked stalker! You could have TONNES of fun with this concept although it would be hard to pull off.

You could even have 'visual' clues, a simple example - having a newspaper with completely different dates as to what "today" is lying around at the front doorstep etc etc, or maybe a clock on the wall showing the wrong time, even little things that the game knows the player will have to change in order to progress in the game.

Just some thoughts.

:)

Prema's picture

Cool idea Maitrek!

Thanks to all of you who have given opinions- The research dissertation went down very well with the powers that be...

I actually gave similar concepts for games in the dissertation- with a main character lapsing (instead of between present and future) from reality to fantasy. It works fairly similarly as a game mechanism. I actually lost marks mainly for my "youthful optimism" in pursuing concepts for applying the ideas!

Thanks again guys!
Prem

unknownuser2's picture

Happy birthday for last week [:D]

Maitrek's picture

quote:


I actually lost marks mainly for my "youthful optimism" in pursuing concepts for applying the ideas!

Could you perhaps expand on that abit?

So does anyone think you could take the concept of the character having control over time, and extending it to giving the player a more parametric control?