September's Topic

Isn't that spatial?

I was at first apprehensive that my base assertion for this month's round table was perhaps a bit of a stretch given the open topic, but my motive is to push into a larger topic, whose larger, crazier assertion I will bury at the end of this post.

However, I'm thankful that a few of this month's contributors have wonderfully set the stage for my assertion this month: the only mechanisms that games have to explore the temporal aspects of games are spatial in nature. The course of "time" across a game is indelibly intertwined with the traversal of space.

Narrative influences affect the space of game. More often than not this can be seen as opening up new spaces to explore, or providing new reasons to re-explore existing spaces in new forms. (In the easy case, as most FPS games provide, the narrative and space are integrally intertwined and in fact the current design strategy of choice for FPSes is that the spaces themselves should tell the story. I don't think it is far to extrapolate from the FPS to more complicated narrative forms that there still exists a deep, inherent connection between the spaces of the game and the narrative of the game.)

It is increasingly rare that players are not offered maps, guides, and various sorts of route finders across the standard two and three dimensions of spatial travel. I find it fascinating that there are very few similar tools for mapping a player's path through narrative spaces and world configurations. At this point the sole tool at the disposal of the player, in most games, for both narrative mapping and narrative traversal is the venerable, but aging "save game".

In terms of tracing a player's progression through a game's narrative space, save games are rarely more than basic breadcrumbs. As much as games hand-hold players in two and three space, it is fascinating that in some genres save game-based breadcrumb skills are still what separates a good player from a great player.

The only games that I can think of that have kindly provided maps in the direction of the narrative are the Capcom games Shadow of Destiny and Dead Rising. Of course, both of those games needed maps for their narratives: Dead Rising ties its narrative events to real time and Shadow of Destiny has time-travel as an important element.

Certainly, I don't think complicated narratives or complicated real timings are the only reasons to map, or better yet provide navigation tools for, the narrative dimensions of a game. I think there is a lot of good room left for experimentation and exploration in spatio-temporal navigation. Walkthroughs are are cheap tourist maps from fellow tourists, and to "kill" them requires at least some experimentation here.

Other than questions about achievements, the only reason I turned to a walkthrough during Fable 2 was to check for navigation markers to explore alternate narrative paths. (Most of which were obvious in the Fable dichotomy-verse, but still...) Fable 2 was interesting in that it doesn't seem to allow you to clone your save games, to experiment in some of the boring, standard ways that even boring old save games normally allow.

I wondered why the game wouldn't (or couldn't) tell me which options I had already tried, which quests I had previously tried (or not) in my "past lives" on my account. I had similar thoughts when playing Mass Effect, whose huge discussion trees really beg for signs to let you know which of the vast many choices you've seen before. BioWare is content to let the majority of players see only a hair-thin line of the breadth of the amount of writing and voice work (etc...) that exists in their games. I, for one, would be interested in providing tools to experiment in that breadth, to navigate that breadth.

Here's the bombshell to think about, and which I plan to return to: whether or not you subscribe to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it absolutely applies to videogames. Videogames are multiverses unto themselves, and navigation is but one issue in these larger spaces that can be experimented with.