An interesting article from the ever-insightful Philip Pullman in the weekend’s Guardian, expanding on the idea that use of the present tense in contemporary fiction is excessive, and likening it to the overenthusiasm for the hand-held camera short in the current cinema. In particular, I was struck by this statement:
I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.
It got me thinking about games and tenses. By definition, all gaming happens in the present tense – the player is creating the action in the moment – and gaming narrative frames are similarly immediate. There are some notable exceptions – Prince of Persia: Sands of Time takes place as a story being told in retrospect by the player, Heavy Rain plays with flashback and arguably therefore tense, and Margaret had several other examples from her encyclopaedic game brain – but by and large, the narrative framework for a game experience is: scene is set – bad thing happens – you do stuff – overcome bad thing. A present-tense hero quest. At most, you might get an intro scene showing the hero in some kind of impossible scrape that then rewinds back to some point before – there’s modest pleasure in playing through to arrive at that point and going beyond it (Secret of Monkey Island 2, Uncharted 2), but it’s not as pleasurable as the examples Pullman cites in his article.
I’m curious to explore what games in multiple tenses might be like – how a game might play out where the ending is known at the start, where the player plays out what usually happened, what might happen later. One interesting reference point for me is my experience of A Small Town Anywhere. This deserves a much longer post (which I’m plucking up the courage to write, as it reflects terribly upon me), but in brief – with the game’s help I built myself a history which threw me into conflict with another player. I played the game with all my might, won, only to discover a much larger game had been unfolding around me. I had been blind to this larger story, so focused was I on my personal goal, and only when it was too late did I realise the scale of my failure and the urgency of my situation. The game ended, and the future – a devastating, terrible future, in which I played no small part – was unfolded to us. The game shifted from past, to present, to future – without disrupting the present-tense action of my play.
What this seems to suggest is that games might be able to happen in multiple narrative fields – that the player might be able to pass from present to past to subjective future at will, and that those choices might be interwoven with a story robust and flexible enough to accommodate these shifts in perspective. Something I’d like to develop further, of that I’m certain.
Picture: Shams of Tabriz as portrayed in a 1500 painting.