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The Contradiction Of Linearity
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The Contradiction Of Linearity

October 7, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

This was a silent revolution. It opened up the video game experience to people who had little interest in competition or sports. They wanted to live through a story. They wanted to be a pawn. Or "the lead actor in an action movie", as we lovingly thought of them. We were still making games, but more and more people experienced them as stories.

We were okay with this evolution. Not just because, thanks to the increased audience, video games were making us more money than ever before. But also because, by that time, our attention had already shifted towards storytelling. All we needed to do was inject points in our story where we asked the player to do things.

This is where the actual game happened. We stop the linear progress of the story and replace it by the linearity of a game challenge -- a challenge that the player needed to win before he could continue. This the last testament to our heritage of competitive game design.

Or did we demand victory because all of our stories were centered on an invincible hero protagonist?

We have accepted the fact that some people find our challenges too hard, or not challenging enough (in the sense of mentally stimulating or inspiring), because the very vocal hardcore minority of players, who have been with us from the beginning (proverbially speaking that is, because they tend to be mostly teenage boys), really enjoys the competitive element.

But this means that we are kind of stuck. On the one hand, we are stuck with stories about conflict and heroism that grew out of our juvenile gaming fantasies.

And on the other, we are stuck with interactive designs that require victory, which actively prevent our audience from experiencing the immense virtual worlds and sophisticated characters we build -- the production of which becomes ever more demanding in terms of effort, skill and money.

So much beauty, so much effort, so much depth... but largely inaccessible to a broad audience.
(Gears of War, Crysis)

Despite of the limited potential to expand its audience, the game industry might find a way to survive in this impasse. But it seems like an awful waste of a perfectly fine medium. Especially considering that a different approach to game design would open up the medium to everyone.

Nonlinearity and the Moment

In hindsight, often many of the most impactful discoveries in history seem so obvious that it astounds us that nobody had come up with them earlier. I think the same will be true for interactive entertainment. The solution to the frustratingly unhappy marriage between competition and narrative in video games is quite obvious. It is enclosed in the very words that we use to describe the medium: "nonlinear" and "real-time". In practice, both words mean the same.

The word "real-time" tells us that our art form is not a sequential one. Our medium is about what happens right now. It's a medium of the moment. We have far more in common with painting and architecture than we do with literature and film. The former capture a moment, freeze it in time, on canvas or in stone, for us to explore at our leisure. Not just any moment, of course, and not any old place. They capture a carefully chosen moment and a very specific place in a way that can be deeply subjective.

Experiencing real-time media is much more like exploring a painting than following a movie. In Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus there's a seemingly infinite amount of details for us to explore. On the other hand, the meaning of Curtiz's Casablanca relies completely on its narrative thread.

Nonlinearity may be an unfamiliar concept with regard to our technological media -- print, radio, television, and cinema are all linear forms. But it is by no means alien to human existence. In fact, linearity is rather rare, and only really exists when carefully constructed.

We never really find ourselves in a situation where there is only one thing available for us to do. Or where there is only one reason why we're here, or only a single motivation to go somewhere else. Most of the time, there are multiple things to do, multiple reasons, multiple motivations -- some of which we may be aware of, others not. Even doing nothing presents us with a myriad of ways in which we can do nothing.

But we don't experience such a situation as a multitude (of choices, or of reasons) however. That's a theoretical construction. As experience, the moment is indivisible. It is us in the cosmos. Life is not a "series of interesting choices". Most of the time, we "just do things". And it is only in retrospect that we can see how we made choices and how one thing lead to another. And even if we consciously make a choice once in a while, we can never predict the real impact of this decision. The nonlinear nature of the moment is very familiar to us. It is an essential part of life.

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