The Contradiction Of Linearity
October 7, 2010 Page 4 of 4
The magnitude of the shift from linear media to nonlinear media should not be underestimated. Not only does it involve a drastic move away from the mass media that saturated the previous few centuries. It is also an enormous step in the evolution of artistic technologies, equal in gravity as the discovery of cave walls to paint on, marble to carve in, and using oil as a medium for pigment.
As such, we should not expect to see the full impact of this technology any time soon. Especially not since we started off on the wrong foot by allowing the medium to intertwine so much with competitive games and linear narrative.
But that doesn't mean that we should not start exploring the real-time aspects of the medium right now. Nor is it impossible to create impressive pieces long before the medium reaches maturity. In a way, this is the most exciting period in the evolution of an art form. Nothing is established yet. There are no conventions.
At this point, developing with video game technology is expensive. Especially on the blockbuster scale. So one of the smartest moves is to create new formats that allow us to deliver economically feasible products for smaller budgets, while at the same time explore our chosen theme in more depth.
This evolution towards more compact video game experiences is already happening thanks to broadband internet and the distribution channels that take advantage of it.
Three quarters of the development time of Thatgamecompany's PlayStation Network title Flower was spent prototyping interactivity in a world that had been defined from the start. This time was used to figure out how to express the chosen themes and emotions through interaction. (early XNA-based prototype of Flower, courtesy of Thatgamecompany)
Designing nonlinear entertainment is designing opportunities. It is virtually impossible to estimate which opportunities a particular setting or cast of characters can offer if we only have written text and images to guide us. To find out which activities will bring out the emotions and themes we want to explore, we need to work with the material.
We need to start by building a prototype. Not a prototype of mechanics or interactions but a prototype of the raw material: the environments, the objects and the characters we want to work with. We can start with cubes and cylinders. We can then gradually add more detail, both to visuals and sounds as well as to behaviors. Bit by bit, we make our world come alive! Interacting with our creation at such an early point can be a major source of inspiration.
And it prevents us from thinking in conventional terms too quickly. We don't need to worry about "what will people do in my world?" If we make that world and observe our players, we will know: a design will naturally grow, as if it had always been enclosed inside of our raw materials.
Of course, it will take some time for us to figure out how to author the entertainment in these real-time environments, especially when targeting a mass audience. But an easy risk-free step that can be implemented right now in any contemporary video game design is a simple "skip" function for gameplay sequences, as we already have one in most games for non-interactive cutscenes.
Modern video games consist of three major elements: gameplay, cutscenes and real-time exploration. We have seen the importance of the latter grow over time. Almost every blockbuster game now contains a considerable "sandbox" element. This has progressed to the point where playing video games now feels mostly like an explorative adventure interrupted once in a while by a gameplay mission or a cut scene.
Some people don't like the cutscenes. We allow them to be skipped. Other people don't like the gameplay bits. It's only fair that we allow those to be skipped as well. More so, considering that cutscenes are finite, and gameplay bits potentially endless (if the player fails the mission, there's generally no other option than to restart.) Ironically, in programming, such an endless loop is considered an error.
It's really not that hard. Just allow the player to choose whether they want to do a particular activity or not. This prevents a lot of frustration and negative sentiment. Plus, more importantly, it allows everybody to access your entire game! (Mission 57 in Assassin's Creed 2 with photoshopped "SKIP" option.)
I believe this small intervention will teach us a lot about real-time entertainment. Because it will allow the player to potentially remove the two linear elements (games and movies) from their experience. Even if skipping a cut scene or a gameplay sequence doesn't automatically make a video game nonlinear, being able to do so, will allow many players to truly begin connecting with the glorious worlds that the developers have so painstakingly created. And by carefully observing their in-game behavior, we will learn how to design for this new medium.
Computers have made their impact on society thanks to their capacity for nonlinear processing. Yet our computer-based entertainment remains largely linear, gridlocked in competitive and narrative structures. Stories have turned video games into a medium. But now it is time to take the next step. We need to embrace the real-time nature of this new medium and explore its potential for nonlinear entertainment, enlightenment, wonder. I believe this is the key to the maturity of video games as a medium and its break-through to the audience at large.
A new artistic approach is needed to unlock the power of nonlinear entertainment. Writers need to stop thinking in prose and drama. The real-time medium is a poetic one. And game designers need to broaden their attention to the full spectrum of interactivity. We need to become painters of situations, architects of worlds, poets of the infinite, designers of the moment. Our time is now.
This article owes a debt of gratitude -- and the inspiration for its title -- to Professor Cécile Alduy's observations and statements regarding the status of story in contemporary culture, as expressed in her blog posts Against Narratives, Against Narratives II and Against Narratives III.
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