Non-Linear Narrative

Non-linear narrative is an alternative form of storytelling, although often considered inferior to linear narrative due to its loose ends and difficult to follow subplots, such as the review of Jean-Luc Goddard was labled ‘a destroyer of cinema’ in 1968 in an essay by American author Susan Sontag.  However this form lends itself well to modern media such as Sandbox style gameplay or even web browsing.  The decisions a user makes are influenced by their previous experiences and the information they have up to that point.

Sandbox style games allow the player the freedom to complete tasks in a non-set order, side quests and optional subplots will sometimes influence the final outcome of the story.  This adds to re-playability, and has contributed to the popularity of franchises such as The Legend of Zelda, Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls and the Fallout series.  Although these games give the player the opportunity to explore wide environments without too much constraint, there is only so much that a player can influence.

Emergent gameplay often does not depend on storylines, although a story may emerge due to the players actions, narrative is not the constraining factor.  For example, games like The Sims, Second Life, and World of Warcraft have far more long-term appeal due to the nature of the non-linear gameplay.  Users of MMORPG’s usually create an Avatar and can live an alternate life inside the game world.  These games echo real-life better than scripted games, as the player has the freedom to make his or her own decisions, rather than a set path.

In an article for Ezine, ‘Emergent Gameplay – Beating Game Developers at Their Own Game’ by Internet marketer Irsan Komarga says “The renewed focus on the emergent games mirrors the trend that is occurring within the greater media scene. With the advent of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, users have a new appetite for participating in entertainment in a custom way, not just following a script or observing as was the norm in the past. If someone wants to draw an ugly purple gothic skeleton and plaster it in their MySpace page, who is going to stop them? If a gamer wants to glue a plank of a main character’s hat, jump on a unicycle and knock an enemy out of a tree to win the level, who are we to tell them no?”

Games have always been held back by narrative, where narrative is passive, set by the developers; gameplay is active, giving the player control over how exactly to complete the tasks.  Some of the first games such as Pac-Man have no obvious storyline, yet it still endears to this day as a gaming icon.   More recently however, narrative has become more integral to game developers to engage an audience.  Limiting factors are being removed thanks to advancements in technology; however there is still a long way to go.  In a feature for Gamasutra, independent game developer Chuck Jordan says “The idea of story as conversation, with the audience actively engaged with the storyteller as the story’s being told, isn’t a particularly new one. And it’s not unique to video games, either. There’s an entire genre of traditional “passive” media — horror and suspense movies — that depends on this type of interaction to work at all. In fact, it’s so ingrained in the genre that a lot of really bad movies get it right without even thinking about it.”

The main thing about games that makes them different from traditional media is that they offer interactivity i.e. the ability to make decisions in a non-linear fashion, but still within a largely overall linear story.

However all storytelling is a non-passive experience, as discussed earlier, folk tales and legends have the ability to influence our culture and moral code.  Games allow the player to interact with the story as it’s being told, where books and tales allow us to imagine ourselves as the character or to be placed in the event, gameplay also allows us to do the same, depending on how a character’s personality translates, it not only gives us the opportunity to be the hero, web-slinging from the New York rooftops as Spiderman, or sailing with the Argonauts as Jason; but see their reaction to the events of the story and empathise with them during those events.  With Motion capture technology, having performed it myself, games offer a new medium for actors to translate a performance, making it more like a movie that you can play a role in, for example Andy Serkis as King Bohan in Heavenly Sword.

Games are predominantly about experience, whereas traditionally involves in re-telling past events.  Reading further into the article by Chuck Jones, he mentions how games can learn a lot from the Horror film genre.  “Horror and suspense movies are often compared to roller coasters or thrill rides. The narrative isn’t necessarily ignored, but it isn’t the main draw, either. Audiences are more interested in the experience itself.”

Horror movies typically follow a general pattern of rules and variations of these rules.  They engage the audience by allowing them to make predictions about who will get killed next and how; making use of the Hermeneutic and Proairtic codes.  One of the most interesting variations ended with the character recounting the story to the police turns out to be the killer, only having fooling the audience to believe they are one of the would-be victims.  The audience only learns this in the last few minutes of the film as we are led to believe their version of events.

Rollercoasters and other forms of entertainment not usually associated with requiring a narrative is also an interesting topic.  A documentary directed by Yehuda Goldman about Disney’s Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom Florida in 2006 follows the development of the ride in its themed area by the Disney ‘Imagineers’, the whole ride tells a story; as you queue up, you wander through buildings reminiscent of a  Nepalese village, converted by a couple of cheap-skates into a tour operating business; you then get to ride old mining trains, taking the ‘would be’ tourists up the mountain.  Such was the attention to detail, that the anti-rollback device was modified so that it wouldn’t emit the characteristic coaster click-clack-click sound and compromise the theme. Components were added to the coaster to make it sound like it was travelling on real rail road tracks.  The ride peaks when the track abruptly ends, revealing an angry yeti, to which you must beat a hasty retreat. Even the lighting was specially designed to showcase the dramatic setting of the 200 foot ‘mountain’ on which the ride sits.

What also fascinated me about the process was the animation of the ride’s star – the animatronic yeti.  It shows the scope of my industry and how it can be applicable in a range of unorthodox situations such as engineering.  Rather like sound in films and games, which direct the viewer/player as to the emotion of the on-screen events; the pace of the ride also gave Expedition Everest this narrative quality.  During the initial stages the ride is relatively relaxed until the tension peaking as the yeti can be heard.  As the Yeti appears, the track switches, sending the train backwards down a different passage to which you came.  Unable to see forward and with the gradients increasing, the pace increases to mirror the tension of your escape down the mountain.—Beating-Game-Developers-at-Their-Own-Game&id=4502325

One Response “Non-Linear Narrative” →
  1. See: and comment on it….

    Nonlinear narrative has existed throughout history but has often been considred defective or inferior to linear narrative. As far back as classical Greece, critics said that Homer’s Odyssey has fewer narrative “defects” than the Iliadbecause the protagonist is always present, and there are fewer loose ends. Even in the twentieth century readers and viewers have complained when a story is difficult to follow or when it it not resolved nicely. With Pulp See: Fiction, Quentin Tarantino allowed us to follow three stories that stopped, started, reversed and replayed themselves as easily as a VCR. With the advent of hyperfiction and hyperdrama, the timespace structures are infinite and also relative to the surfer who chooses to enter, leave, interact or even follow her own narrative. Just as Aristotelian dramaturgy reflected that culture’s views of time and space, our nonlinear narrative could reflect the discoveries of quantum mechanics and cosmology, using space as a microcosm or macrocosm, time that goes back to the future or winds around itself and timespace that unites the two in Einstein’s curved spacetime or Stephen Hawking’s black holes. The possibilities for nonlinear narrative are endless.


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