The Contradiction Of Linearity
October 7, 2010 Page 1 of 4
[Tale of Tales' (The Path) designer and developer Michaël Samyn examines how computers arose as a tool to successfully simulate game rules, how creators imposed narrative on the process, and how removing it from the equation will allow for the emergence of a truly original and effective new art form.]
Not many people would argue against the pivotal nature of nonlinearity in computer technology. Many consider nonlinearity one of computing's most essential and exciting properties.
It is thanks to this nonlinearity that the computer has become such a useful tool, and has turned our civilization upside down. Why then is most of our computer-based entertainment so linear?
The joys of linearity are equally beyond dispute.
We love the tension that comes with a carefully constructed story arc. From Greek theater through medieval fairy tales and printed novels to stereoscopic high definition cinema, humankind has enjoyed storytelling for thousands of years.
We're also very fond of the games we play. We love to compete against each other, we love to measure ourselves against a given set of rules, we love the excitement of getting better at something. We love to control, to strategically manipulate the parameters of a system towards victory. We love to win.
The computer is a versatile machine. And it has enhanced many old forms of entertainment. Computer technology has added a new level of realism to the special effects in movies. And computer technology has made it possible to play games on our own, or to compete with people on the other side of the globe.
It has also added a new dimension to drawing, photo manipulation, writing, engineering, sculpting, and so on. This is thanks to utilitarian computer applications that take advantage of the computer's capacity to process data in a nonlinear fashion.
Stories and games amuse and enlighten us by virtue of their linear nature.
But a creative, expressive form that has grown out of this inherent potential of the technology has not emerged yet. Once in a while, video games make us dream -- by showing us a glimpse of the power of nonlinear entertainment. But they always end up disappointing. Because they seem to be stuck in either or both forms of linearity: the linearity of narrative, and the linearity of competition.
Both games and stories are linear. They are sequential constructions of causes and effects strung together by means of game rules or narrative logic.
The Story of Video Games
Narrative is not an essential element of games. But it is often easy to add a narrative layer to a game, as it develops during play -- even to a board game or card game. Because games involve relationships between elements, and it's very human to pretend that these elements are characters in a story. So games can easily be told as stories, stories of conflict. But at their core, games don't need stories. They are systems, sets of mathematical equations, logical constructions that the player can combine and play with.
As such, from quite early on, games and computers seemed to be a match made in heaven. The rigid logic of computer technology formed a perfect framework for the precise rules of games.
Computers and games: a match made in space.
(Dan Edwards and Peter Samson playing Spacewar! on the PDP-1 Type 30 display, circa 1962, almost half a century ago -- before I was even born.)
But of course games weren't the only thing that a computer could do really well. As time went on, computer technology became increasingly successful at presenting and manipulating images and sounds. And video games followed that evolution every step of the way -- and often even drove it. So computer games started looking and sounding ever more attractive. And the fantasies that we used to make up while playing now seemed to materialize before our eyes and ears.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, video games evolved from a kind of digital sport for nerds into something that was deceptively similar to a medium. Their sophisticated graphics looked a little bit like cinema and the linear progression of competitive interaction felt a little bit like the stories we knew from popular fiction, about good defeating evil and knights saving princesses from dragons.
So we got ambitious and started telling tales through video games. Our little pawns became characters with names and histories. These little creatures engaged in simple relationships with each other. And we built worlds around them where they could live their little lives.
As the technology continued to offer more opportunities, we were able to model the looks of our characters, the way they behaved and the environments in which they lived with increasing detail. More so than had happened before in any other medium! Because the moves of our players were unpredictable. And we wanted to make sure that everything looked good and believable from any viewpoint at any time. We were not just producing images. We were building worlds!
With the increasing number of pixels and polygons in their presentation, the ego of our game heroes grew as well and we wanted to know more about them.
As we perfected the presentation of our creations, the backbone of our designs shifted from the linearity of competitive gameplay to the linearity of the narrative arc. Our characters and worlds simply demanded this. We could not create their appearance in such detail without also creating a story for them.
Our games became longer. Not because our intricate systems of rules and goals were endlessly replayable. But because developing our characters required that we lead the player through carefully constructed plots. From an all-knowing godlike player moving pawns on a small board, the player turned into a pawn himself, moved around by the great will of us -- the tellers of tales.
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