Gaming in the past tense

20 September 2010 | 9 comments

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 meĀ 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 discoverĀ  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.

9 comments on this post.

  • On 21 Sep 2010, Dom Camus said:

    Roleplaying games fairly frequently play around with ideas which could be considered tenses. These range from the straightforward – running “preludes” to establish the background for each character is considered quite standard in modern games – to the crazy complexity brought on by running games themed around time travel!

  • On 21 Sep 2010, glamgeekgirl said:

    That’s a really interesting perspective, haven’t really paid attention to tenses in games! I think Monkey Island 2 was the first game I played that broke its own timeline like that. Certainly has its appeal, but isn’t easy to pull off.

    Assassin’s Creed also takes place in different tenses, but I felt (like I wrote on my blog) that the past tense characters had more depth than those of present day, which took its toll on my enjoyment until the very ending… haven’t yet played Part 2, will see if it uses that potential better.

    I’m curious to see if Dragon Age 2 will work, with its plot being told by other people than the PC… basically flashbacks, but I don’t know if the “present” will even feature the hero of that past…

  • On 21 Sep 2010, Anonymous said:

    It’s only a small, short experiment, but Daniel Benmergui’s Storyteller has three times shown simultaneously, so any change made in the first will instantly affect the other two.

    http://www.ludomancy.com/blog/2008/09/15/storyteller/

  • On 21 Sep 2010, Alicia Dudek said:

    I agree that games as narratives have all the right and ability to play with time and tenses, but as with real life we can only live and play in the present. In your daily actions even when you use the story devices of flashbacks and so on you are imbuing the past with a present day tinge by relating them to someone right now, ditto with the future. It seems to be the same with games, you can only play in one time, hence whatever time you are playing in is experienced as the present. Imagine if a game was built with multiple time tiers and players had to coordinate in real time across the whole game time line. One player’s actions in the past (but played at the same time as everyone else) affected the working of another player, and that would create game design challenges I cannot even fathom. Then we would have a big innovation in games by playing with time and tense perspectives and having various ones running concurrently, as if we could all be masters of our own wormholes.

  • On 21 Sep 2010, Tom Armitage said:

    (I’ve got something big and chunky to write, but in the meantime) –

    Achron is, in some ways, exactly what Alicia is suggesting; it’s a crazy RTS where time is as important as space. So: you can make stuff happen in the past, shift back to the present, and watch it have an effect. So as well as controlling the space of the map, you need to keep an eye on the timeline to see what’s happening both in the past and future.

    The videos on the site explain it a bit better.

    It is somewhat bonkers, but it at least makes an interesting attempt to make a game about past/present/future from a mechanical, rather than narrative, perspective.

  • On 21 Sep 2010, Vee Uye said:

    I’ve recently been replaying Halo: ODST and what I find most compelling about that game is the narrative structure. You start off as a PC known only as the Rookie, who lands in the middle of a battlezone, is knocked unconscious and wakes up several hours after the main narrative action has occurred. While playing as the Rookie, you spend these sections piecing together ‘the past’. When you uncover major clues, you then play sections of the game’s backstory, if you like, through the eyes of various team members.

    However, I do feel that there’s a difference between narrative tenses and game temporality. As an earlier commenter mentioned, action unfolds in the present, and the nature of games is interactivity. Player’s are active participants in the narrative. As soon as a NPC narrator takes hold, and story is relayed in the past tense, the player is no longer in control and is merely passively receiving the story. Cut scenes are often a good example of this.

    That said, I’m currently playing Alan Wake and episode 2 has just opened with a ‘three years earlier’ section. Maybe this game will change my mind.

  • On 22 Sep 2010, Gary Siu a said:

    I think ChronoTrigger stands out with it’s time interactions. Although the majority of gameplay happens in the present tense, the fallout from the actions have a lasting impact which you can explore with the time travel mechanics. You often hop back to the past to accomplish things in the future. Also most of your crew are from different eras which shapes their perspectives.

  • On 26 Sep 2010, Tassos Stevens said:

    Hey Alex

    Finally catching this post after our conversation about it earlier this week. I will blog myself about the tenses in Small Town and stick the link up here when done. But the nutshell was that we struggled in the scratch (=playtest, gaming chums) with presenting it in the past tense – what happened in this small town – a history where the outcome was already determined, because it took away the agency of players. The nutshell was cracked by transforming into the future conditional – what will have happened if the small town had been like this, the historian’s experiment. It was crucial as well that we were running for 4 weeks and therefore repeating the experiment 21 times, so that history played out again and again.

    And please do write more about your own experience through Small Town, to ‘fess up only reflects well on you. Very interesting point you make here, that because your focus was poured into one personal game you didn’t see the bigger picture until it was too late. If it makes you feel any better, I’d certainly say that if you had switched roles with your opponent, very likely it’dve turned equally dark. It was that game between you, rather than you as players, that drove you all off the cliff. It was an extraordinary town, that one, a perfect storm of crackling plot. Thanks for playing as well as you did.

  • On 26 Sep 2010, Tassos Stevens said:

    Oh and also meant to add… in narrative improvisation – where you are in effect playing a story – you’re taught to tell it present tense because it helps make more action happen.

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