An Ethical Approach to Temporality in Games
This is a pre-print version of an article published in Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, Volume 10, Number 2, 1 June 2018, pp. 115-133(19)
Time is a much-explored topic in game studies, as are questions of historical accuracy and ethics. However, an ethics of time in games remains relatively unexplored. This article takes an ethical approach to theorizing game time, drawing on French philosopher Michel Serres’s distinction between linear and topological time. Serres argues that conceiving of time linearly commits us to the belief that progress itself is a deterministic and oftentimes violent series of upheavals. Contemporary videogames that play with time seem to exemplify this. Games like Braid, Assassins Creed, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time have players manipulate time for the explicit purpose of reproducing a singular narrative, compelling players to synchronize their decisions with a violent, linear series of events. In this article such games are contrasted with more temporally topological titles such as Her Story, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Life is Strange which deconstruct linearity and demonstrate the ethical affordances of non-linear game temporalities.
Keywords Time, ethics, violence, Michel Serres, history, media theory
Philosopher and futurist Marshall McLuhan once observed that when it comes to media, ‘The beholder must collaborate in creating the illusions of space, as of time’ (1960, p.26). McLuhan made this observation in his Report on Project in Understanding New Media, a research paper commissioned by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. The report would later form the basis of another text by McLuhan, Understanding Media. But whereas the latter reflects McLuhan’s penchant for aphorisms and enigmatic statements, the report offers remarkably straightforward insights into the ways in which media influence our perceptions. Take the above remark, for instance, which simply asserts that media invoke and augment our conceptions of space and time. In watching a film, for example, the viewer conceives of the cinematic world as something that extends beyond what is depicted on the screen. In these moments, McLuhan argues, the audience is collaborating with the film—and by extension the film makers—to create an illusory sense of space upon which the mediation—and whatever messages it conveys—relies. The same holds true of time as well. When a film cuts between two scenes—such as a pedestrian crossing the street and a car careening out of control—the viewer conceives of these two disparate events as co-existing not only within the same space but at the same time. McLuhan would later express these observations in the aphorism ‘the medium is the message’ but the underlying sentiment expressed in his report remains: different forms of media give rise to distinct conceptions of space and time.
What, then, can we say of videogames? When players collaborate with a game—and by extension game makers—what conceptions of space and time are produced? Could videogames be used to elicit a sense of space or time that has previously been unmediated? If so, what avenues of thought might this open up and what conversations might it foster? The answers to these questions are complex but they can be distilled. Videogames can and have produced unique conceptions of space and time. Games such as Antichamber (Demruth, 2013) and Monument Valley (Ustwo Games, 2014), for instance, have depicted non-linear, non-Euclidian spaces, allowing players to virtually experience that which simply could not exist in the physical world. Time, too, has often been the muse of game designers. From early nineties titles such as Day of the Tentacle (LucasArts, 1993) and Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995) to morecontemporary games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Ubisoft Montreal, 2003) and Braid (Number None, 2008), audiences have plenty of opportunities to play with time. But unlike the non-Euclidian spaces of Antichamber and Monument Valley, games that represent time have relied heavily on a linear, cause-and-effect paradigm. Whereas a hallway in Antichamber might join two spaces that could not be physically connected, temporal games such as those mentioned above conceive of time as inherently linear, something to be sped up or slowed down but not necessarily folded or bent. This linear temporality resurfaces in game studies where scholars have primarily focused on the capacity for games to compress, reverse, or extend time but rarely to bend or break it. Thus, if games have unique temporal insights to offer us, they remain largely elusive.
The goal of this article is to make such insights more tangible and concrete, both philosophically and practically. This is achieved by introducing the concept of topological time to game studies and game design. Topological time, as defined by the French philosopher Michel Serres, involves forming thoughts and ideas outside of conventional historical progression. Conceptually, topological time recognizes that the linear sequence of events that make up historical accounts can and sometimes do constrain us from discovering novel possibilities and outcomes not part of the historical record. In this way our depiction of time takes on an ethical dimension as it can lead us to view history as a contiguous, even necessary sequence of events as opposed to one of many divergent possibilities. For gamers this is perhaps most clearly reflected in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. In these games players are reliving the past lives of assassins and their goal is to synchronize their actions—namely, assassinations—with those past experiences. To stray from that path is, in the game’s language, to ‘desynchronize’ from history, something that the game treats punitively by triggering a fail state. It follows that while a player might recognize the ethically dubious role of playing judge, jury, and executioner, they have little recourse by which they might act on that ethical position. Rather, their goal is to synchronize with the past, no matter how bloody and violent it was. When games approach history and (game) time in this way—as something to be re-played and re-produced—they forestall the realization of alternative futures, limiting play to the imitation of the past, rather than allowing time and history to become something gamers play and think with.[i]
For Serres the linear depiction of time is especially problematic in the context of violence, conflict, and war which, under the linear paradigm of time, might appear as unavoidable, justified, and even necessary. To be clear, Serres’s criticism is not of violence itself per se but rather that the portrayal of history as a linear series of events—as opposed to one of many divergent possibilities—persuades us to conceive of violence itself as a viable and perhaps even obligatory means of resolving conflicts. Thus, for Serres the issue is not, say, that the Allied forces fought back against Hitler and the Third Reich; rather it is the portrayal of the Second World War itself as a logical, even necessary conclusion to a seemingly intractable series of events that is problematic. Consider that when we look at history textbooks we see the record of events that led to World War II; such accounts foster conversations on what did happen, not what could and perhaps should have happened (such as more proactive forms of resistance leading up to the rise of Nazism and a stronger local and global response to anti-Semitism). This limited depiction of time dissuades us from recognizing and imagining alternatives, including non-violent means of resistance that could, if known and applied, have helped in the past and may yet be of use in the future.
Contemporary videogames exemplify this linear logic in several ways, most notably when they situate gameplay as a means of replaying the past without simultaneously allowing players to rethink it. For instance, in the original Call of Duty you play as various soldiers in the Second World War. Your goal, ostensibly, is to work towards the end of the war and, ultimately, the obsolescence of conflict and violence (just as those in the First World War before you fought in the ‘War to End All Wars’). However, in the game this outcome is achieved by re-enacting a historical series of battles; as a player you are collaborating not just in the creation of space and time but in a particular historical moment where violence is the only means left of engaging with the world. When history is portrayed primarily or exclusively in this way it suggests that violence is not only essential but also progressive—it is both how you advance in the game and how the Allies advanced in the war, creating the impression or perhaps the illusion that a violent confrontation was the only logical and necessary conclusion to the events that preceded the war. This is, however, ethically questionable. Note, for instance, that your goal in Call of Duty and other World War II themed games is not to prevent the rise of Nazism and thus avert the atrocities committed by them; rather you’re situated explicitly in a particular time and space so that you can reproduce acts of violence in the name of historical progress.
It is against these linear conceptions of temporality and history that topological time proves useful and there are several examples of games that make use of this concept, such as Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015), Life is Strange (Square Enix, 2015), and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000). For instance, at the outset of Majora’s Mask players are presented with a problem that cannot be resolved in the time given to them. Instead, they must utilize their ability to bend time to explore many possible outcomes and ultimately prevent a catastrophe. Unlike games such as Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft Montreal 2007), where you replay particularly bloody parts of history and thus reproduce acts of violence, manipulating time in Majora’s Mask involves folding together actions and events from the past, present, and future in order to discover novel, oftentimes peaceful resolutions.
In the context of game studies, topological time adds to the on-going conversation on games and temporality by complementing the well-theorized but primarily linear concept of game time. In terms of game design, topological temporality encourages designers to view both the game’s narrative and its mechanics as heuristics for guiding players towards the discovery of outcomes and methods that minimize harm. Conversely, this approach discourages designers from creating games where violence is a foregone conclusion. Lastly, topological time asks us to consider the depiction of time itself as an ethical issue; that is to say, there are ethical implications in having one’s audience collaborate in the (re)production of space and time, especially when such mediations depict a violent series of events at the exclusion of other, more peaceful possibilities.
In what follows the concept of topological time is unpacked and explicated before being applied to the study and creation of games. Before proceeding, however, it should be noted that the point here is not to condemn any particular game or series. Our culture encourages us to conceive of history as a linear phenomenon and it is not my aim to hold designers and scholars accountable for not critiquing this. Rather the goal here is to demonstrate how our linear cultural conception of time can and often does dissuade us from pursuing non-violent and conscientious practices. In taking this approach I am building on Roland Barthes’s recognition that play involves the discovery of practices that reproduce meaning. ‘[T]he text itself plays’ he writes. ‘[A]nd the reader plays twice over, playing the Text as one plays a game, looking for a practice which re-produces it…’ (1977, p. 162). Topological temporality, I argue, allows us to play with time in a non-linear manner, encouraging us as players to look for practices that re-produce meanings that exist outside of linear, historical continuity, and thus free from the logic that misconstrues history, and its many violent conflicts, as inherently progressive. Videogames have been singled out here because when we collaborate with them there is potential for novel, even topological conceptions of space and time. This is perhaps unique to the videogame medium and yet designers and theorists rely quite heavily on temporal metaphors from other media which impose a linear paradigm on the player to the detriment of the game’s ability to prompt ethical reflection.
2. The Flow of Time
In a conversation with Bruno Latour (1995), Michel Serres recounts his topological theory of time in which past folds into present to yield novel insights for the future. When Latour presses Serres to clarify his distinction between historical, linear time and the rather obtuse concept of topological time, Serres replied with the following illustration:
If you take a handkerchief and spread it out in order to iron it, you can see in it certain fixed distances and proximities. If you sketch a circle in one area, you can mark out nearby points and measure far-off distances. Then take the same handkerchief and crumple it, by putting it in your pocket. Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed. If, further, you tear it in certain places, two points that were close can become very distant. This science of nearness and rifts is called topology, while the science of stable and well-defined distances is called metrical geometry.Serres, 1995, p. 60
He goes on to argue that time can be conceived of in the same manner. That is, moments separated temporally can come into contact with one another in generative and emancipatory ways. We can see this in Serres’s own work when he takes a Hellenistic philosopher in Lucretius and merges his ideas in toto with contemporary philosophy and science. Such an amalgamation runs counter to the interceding history that separates Lucretius from the (supposedly) more advanced scientists and scholars who have come since. Indeed, from a certain perspective, Lucretius is woefully outdated, his methods outmoded by centuries of more rigorous science and more informed models. Serres refers to this notion that time advances ever onward in a series of successive and progressive events as the linear, historical conception of time. Reciting the poet Apollinaire Serres states that ‘Beneath the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine’ (1995, p. 58). Only to remark that ‘[Apollinaire] hadn’t noticed the countercurrents or the turbulences…Yes, time flows like the Seine, if one observes it well’ (1995, p. 60).
It is this question of observation that Serres wishes to interrogate and it is a subject that serves as a point of criticism throughout his work as he strives to merge the sciences (with its typically linear, historical sense of progress) with the social sciences and humanities (which can be less stringent when it comes to temporality and the import of findings and observations). In particular, Serres is drawing attention to the relationship between observation and measurement. He remarks that: ‘People usually confuse time and the measurement of time…’ (1995, p. 60-1, emphasis in original). As Steven Connor observes about the above passage, ‘to see time as linear is to mistake the means of measuring time for time itself’ (2004).
One of the ways in which we measure time is through media. For instance, it is through the metaphor of a tape recorder that Connor expresses doubt about the concept of topological time. He writes that,
Just as there are no ‘out-of-body experiences’ that are not experienced in terms of the body (as floating in mid-air, or passing through tunnels, for example: who has ever reported becoming a gas or a glass of water), so there are no imagings, topological or otherwise, of the workings of time which do not depend upon the background assumptions of linearity and irreversibility. The tape recorder makes it possible to imagine time slowed, reversed, looped, granulated, because it retains the idea of a line or sequence.(2004)
Connor raises an interesting question: is topological time inconceivable as evidenced by our media, or is our media imposing linearity, thus making topological time difficult to conceive of? Something Connor overlooks here is that if you were to take the magnetic tape out of a cassette you would have a ribbon that can be folded and twisted in on itself, bringing temporally distinct points into contact with one another. This metaphor becomes clearer if we think not in terms of the magnetic audio tape but of the visual film strip. Topological time would be like a strip of film twisted and crumpled, such that temporally distant frames can be overlaid on each other, such that to look through one (time) frame is to see another (time) frame at the same instant. In this way, to quote Serres, ‘Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed’ (1995, p. 60, emphasis added). The notion here isn’t to suggest that those two moments existed simultaneously but rather to demonstrate the possibilities afforded by liberating one’s thoughts from the realm of what has been, as though such events determined what must be. There is something intellectually provocative, for instance, in considering a character who died in the first act of a film folded into the third act. How might their presence have changed the narrative? What other outcomes failed to materialize because of their absence?
This, of course, does little to resolve the issue of media being supposedly incapable of actually representing topological time. Neither the crumpled audio tape nor the folded film strip can be ‘played back,’ for instance. The tape recorder would seize, the film projector would breakdown. In either case we cannot see topological time play out nor can time itself be easily played with. [ii] But rather than see this as evidence that time is ultimately linear, I see both an opportunity for media criticism and a chance to advance an ethical approach to time in videogames.
This ethical approach to game time begins by recognizing that it is not that topological time does not exist as such, but rather that certain kinds of media cannot ‘play’ topological time. Cassette tapes and film reels are, after all, media typified by ‘play-back’—that is to say, they are already a product of the linear conception of time. To truly test Serres’s hypothesis one would need to look at a medium more amenable to representing the world topologically. I suggest here contemporary computer hardware and software.[iii] More specifically, I believe that videogames provide instances of topological temporality. This can be illustrated through a number of examples, including the game Her Story.
In Her Story players are given access to an old desktop computer that contains, among other things, a series of police interviews with a person of interest in a homicide investigation. However, due to data corruption the interviews themselves can only be viewed as a series of disjointed clips. Players access new clips by searching for words contained in the interview transcripts, prompting the software to produce a subset of clips in which the word appears. The implied goal of the game—for it is never overtly stated—is to try and determine who was responsible for the murder by reviewing the disjointed video clips.
From the perspective of topological time Her Story is notable as it retains references to linear, filmic time, but in a way that has players folding frames and scenes in on one another in non-linear, ludic ways, revealing distinct meanings in the process. In a manner of speaking, the data corruption on the drive reflects a corruption of linear time but rather than tasking the player with discovering the correct sequence of events, Her Story—both in its mechanics and its content—resists such a reduction. In terms of mechanics this can be seen in the way that players are given access to all of the video clips at once via the search feature. There is no definitive beginning nor end point here nor is there a subset of terms that the player must choose from; rather, players are free to identify what they feel is most relevant, choosing words that appear in previously-viewed clips or by trying to guess which search terms are likely to return the most informative footage. Mechanically speaking, Her Story embraces topological time by negating the criteria of linear temporality—i.e. criteria that would suggest that meaning is made by reconstructing events as they occurred chronologically—and instead it encourages players to view the footage in terms of its non-linear relationships, fostering the discovery of meanings that reside outside of a linear perspective.
This resistance to linearity is reinforced by the content of the videos themselves. As players work topologically, folding different continuities and possibilities together in search of meaning, they learn that the person of interest is actually two people: Hannah and Eve Smith, identical twin sisters. This duplicity further complicates the possibility of assembling a definitive timeline as the game repeatedly calls into question just who is being interviewed—Hannah or her sister. In fact, the existence of twins suggests that even if one could reconstruct the linear order of the clips it would not resolve the central question as the identity of the speaker, and her story, is ambiguous and potentially untrue. Rather, to channel Barthes, the meaning of the Text—which involves searching for a practice that reproduces that meaning—is found by folding frames, events, and performances in on one another.
Her Story belongs to a history of games that play with time and continuity. In fact, one could argue that gameplay itself seems to draw on non-linear relationships. For instance, consider when players reach an undesirable outcome—such as when a party member is killed, or a hostage is injured, or a city is destroyed—and thus they reload the game to an earlier point to pursue a different outcome. In these instances players are utilizing foreknowledge of future events that exist in the player’s past, which they then fold into the present in order to realize a distinct future. Thus, it is worth asking whether game time is inherently topological. Answering this question will lead into a discussion of the predominant theories of time in videogames, as well as several examples of videogames that explicitly play with time. As will be shown, those theories and games overwhelmingly rely on linear conceptions of time and media, making games like Her Story and other temporally-topological games all the more remarkable.
3. Videogames and Time
Videogames have a well-established history of playing with time and game scholars have documented and theorized these instances (Mateas & Zagal, 2007; Nitsche, 2007; Aarseth, 1999; Juul, 2004). In this section I examine some of those theories in light of the above distinction between linear and topological time. What will become apparent is that linear time is the dominant structure in contemporary videogames, as evinced by the numerous game-time theories. Even those videogames that appear to operate outside of linearity, such as Braid, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and Assassins Creed, are in fact fastidiously linear. However unlike other forms of media (with the notable exception of hypertext), linear time in videogames is not a constraint of the medium but one imposed by design.
From the numerous theories of time and videogames I will draw primarily from Mateas and Zagal’s ‘temporal frames,’ which emerged from a survey of both videogames and videogame scholarship on temporality. The authors identify four frames: real world (marked by events taking place in the ‘physical world,’ e.g. the real-world hours that pass), gameworld (time as represented in the game world, e.g. day-night cycle), coordination (the time that coordinates events, players, and NPCs, e.g. a turn-based counter), and fictive (the time in which a game is set, e.g. historical period, the lifetime of a character, etc.).
These temporal frames can be read in light of Serres’s critical interpretation of linear time. For instance, Mateas and Zagal describe time in the following terms: ‘The concepts of cycle and duration are two of the most fundamental relationships established between events in any temporal frame. A cycle is a sequence of repeating events, that is, a sequence of events in which a subset of the world repeatedly re-establishes the same state’ (2007, p. 849). They go on to note that duration is a matter of counting cycles and that ‘In the real-world frame, such counting is facilitated by temporal measuring devices (clocks)’ (2007, p. 849). Like Connor’s commentary on Serres and the tape recorder, I believe that the use of a clock here risks ‘mistak[ing] the means of measuring time for time itself’ (2004). In other words, the clock is one kind of metaphor for describing time. And as a metaphor it is rather restrictive, imposing notions of cycles, repetitions, succession, and even, as I will discuss momentarily, violence.
The prevalence of the clock metaphor is apparent in the equation of ‘any temporal frame’ as being fundamentally about cycles. More specifically, Mateas and Zagal explicitly connect the first three frames with cycles or rounds. For instance, real world time is clearly associated with the cycle of the hands moving around the clock. In terms of gameworld time, the aptly named day-night cycle reifies the cyclical metaphor. Coordination time is less rhythmic but still nevertheless cyclical. For instance, spending action points to move a character might mean that turns occur at uneven intervals but nevertheless there is a structure coordinating a back-and-forth exchange or cycle between players.
This means that if non-linearity is to be found anywhere in this framework it would be in fictive time. For example, fictive time can be less stringent, including flashbacks, alternate timelines, and the manipulation of past events that impact those set in the future. But in looking at similar accounts of time and narrative, such as Brenda Laurel’s ‘flying wedge’ (Fig. 2), fictive time is largely understood to move progressively forward towards a singular, definitive outcome.
In fact, this is true even in those instances where players are given a degree of control over time, as in the case of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Braid. In Sands of Time the game involves the titular prince recounting the events that the player is performing. When the player deviates from the linear narrative, such as failing to make a jump and falling to one’s death, the Prince interrupts to say, ‘‘Wait, wait . . . that is not how it happened. . . . Now, where was I?’’ and the player character is reset to that moment before the synchronicity with the linear narrative was disrupted (for more on this topic, see Drew Davidson’s ‘Prince of Persia: The sands of Time: The Story of Playing a Game.’). In addition to this linear fictive temporality, the mechanics of the game give players control over the flow of time, but that control is based on the metaphor of the clock or tape recorder. Players are given the ability to pause, slow, and reverse time, all operations predicated on the cycles of the clock or the linearity of magnetic tape. In this way, a game like Sands of Time actually exhibits many of the criticisms Serres has of linear time in that it compels us to repeat or replay the same stories and histories over and over, no matter how violent or unethical that history may be.
In addition to the ability to reverse and speed up time, Braid allows players to interact with past and future temporalities. But as the title indicates, these time-lines are entwined into a single, linear narrative. And this too is a game about violence, as players are working backwards through the emotional and at times physical abuse the main character has inflicted on a ‘princess.’ In fact, it could be said that Braid represents a temporally novel way of telling a very worn-out narrative cycle. In the game players are initially led to believe that the princess, as she is known, is being kidnapped by the ‘villain’ (see Fig. 3). However, the end game sees this scene played in reverse, revealing that the ‘villain’ is in fact the archetypal hero and that the player character is the villain. No matter how the story is told (forwards or backwards) Braid tells the same narrative cycle, that of the damsel in distress.
In speaking of topological time in relation to games the closest existing analog is what Espen Aarseth (1999) refers to as negotiation time. Negotiation time refers to the time during which the player is developing his or her facility with the game; it denotes that time spent replaying various sections in order to develop the requisite skills or knowledge needed to progress through the game. Aarseth goes on to characterize negotiation time as a kind of problem solving temporality—it is the process of working through aporias (i.e. challenges or apparent barriers) in order to arrive at epiphanies (i.e. resolutions). That is to say, games present the player with challenges (e.g. different arrangements of pieces on a chess board), which, in turn, instigate negotiation time, during which the player works towards a solution or epiphany. In a videogame version of chess, for instance, the player might reload and replay a particular scenario in order to achieve a more suitable resolution (i.e. trying various strategies to win the chess game, then having an epiphany upon discovering a particularly effective strategy). It is in respect to this folding of past attempts and present situations in order to arrive at novel outcomes that negotiation time is similar to topological time.
What distinguishes the two is that topological time seeks those outcomes that are non-violent and that exist outside of a linear, deterministic series of events. This distinction can be made clearer by looking at Nitsche’s (2007) application of negotiation time to Laurel’s ‘flying wedge’ (see Fig. 4). Here each letter ‘a’ represents a return to an earlier point in the game, as prompted by either the death of the player-character or by the player reloading the game. It’s noteworthy that each return occurs along the same timeline and that the overall trajectory of events moves towards the same seemingly necessary outcome.[iv] Playing with time here, then, is largely a means of reproducing the various probabilities thought to be possible when one is pursuing a singular outcome. Under such conditions there is no room for reflecting on the outcome itself. Rather the player simply performs those practices that reproduce the Text, without questioning what the Text means, just as the Prince-as-narrator in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time cares only if the player reproduces the story accurately, not whether the story should be told differently. In the next section this predilection for reproducing the past as— opposed to rethinking it—has numerous implications, including the normalization of violence as a form of progress.
4. ‘War, always war’: Linear Time, Violence, & Gameplay Loops
In the wide-ranging interview with Latour mentioned above, Serres describes a ‘horrible coming-of-age’ (1995: 4) in which ‘Violence, death, blood and tears, hunger, bombings, deportations, affected my age group and traumatized it, since these horrors took place during the time of our formation—physical and emotional’ (1995, p. 2). He says that ‘Between birth and age twenty-five (the age of military service and of war again, since then it was North Africa, followed by the Suez expedition) around me, for me—for us, around us—there was nothing but battles. War, always war. Thus, I was six for my first dead bodies, twenty-six for the last ones’ (1995, p. 2). The seemingly endless cycles of war and violence experienced by Serres inform his critical observations on time, leading him to suggest that a linear perspective on history has committed us to viewing repetitive acts of violence as a sign of progress towards overcoming violence. That is to say, in a linear paradigm in which each moment succeeds and in a sense supersedes the previous one, the repetitive cycles of violent conflict are obscured by the aegis of succession—after all, if time is linear, how can there be cycles? How can time repeat itself if it moves ever onward? From this perspective, linear conceptions of time don’t simply forget the past but they relegate it to something that has been overcome, something we’ve moved past.
This commitment to the linear progression of time precludes the recognition of alternative outcomes. Indeed, as Maria L. Assad (1999) writes of Serres’s linear time, it ‘is the historical time of human relations with its inherently violent cycles of renewal that strive ineluctably toward a unitary goal at the expense of possible variations’ (1999, p. 40). It’s hard to think of a more fitting description of a typical videogame where the unitary goal of saving the princess or defeating the villain obscures the cycles of violence that players must enact in order to achieve that goal at the expense of possible, non-violent variations. Gamers can likely recall an array of popular games—from Dark Souls (2009) and Grand Theft Auto V (2013) to XCOM (2012) and Uncharted 4 (2016)—in which they were compelled to re-spawn or re-load the same sequence again and again and re-enact the same acts of violence in order to defeat a round or wave of enemies. At no point is the goal to break the cycle of violence; in fact, players return to the past so that they might better perpetuate that cycle.
One game that allegedly grapples with the iterative, cyclical nature of violent videogames is Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2012). In this open-world first-person shooter game you play as a young man stranded on a remote but scenic island where roving gangs of a private militia patrol the lush forests and sandy beaches. These soldiers have kidnapped your friends and your narrative goal is to rescue them. However, much of the gameplay involves shooting, stabbing, exploding, and otherwise killing the soldiers who occupy the numerous outposts and military bases scattered across the island.
Despite the violent game mechanics, Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for the game, asserts that Far Cry 3 is in fact a critique of violence and repetition in mainstream videogames. In an interview conducted shortly after the game’s release, he offered some candid remarks on his intentions. Describing the gameas a commentary on the disconnect between narrative and gameplay, Yohalem notes that on the one hand there is the drive to save your friends kidnapped at the opening of the game, while on the other, there are the side-missions that repeatedly sidetrack the resolution of the narrative and the quest to free your captive comrades. For Yohalem, the side-missions constitute ‘loops’ that players become caught up in. He characterizes the ending of the game as a critique of these loops, stating that,
The end of this game is all about what you as a player are…Who you want to be in the face of these gameplay loops. Throughout this whole game we took you through all of these loops, and at the end we point them out to you. Citra [an ally throughout the game] literally says it, that she’s going to erase your save game, and she says if you want to win, you’re going to complete the final tattoo [a sign of progress in the game]. So the question is, do you want to win? Do you want to go through these gameplay loops.Yohalem 2012
If we take him at his word, Yohalem believes that Far Cry 3 demonstrates the absurdity of these ‘loops’—of repetitive, iterative notions of ‘progress’ through violence. In Far Cry 3 these cycles are represented both by side-quests and by the numerous outposts that populate the island. Each outpost is a slight variation on the common theme of guards protecting a building, and more often than not they proved to be a welcome diversion for players from the main objective. For Yohalem the predilection players had with the outposts exposes their perverse nature; these players would rather engage in repetitive acts of violence than pursue the presumably more ethical goal of rescuing friends that are held captive. But in a game where the only meaningful way of interacting with the world is through destructive weapons (as opposed to words or the capacity to build or create), players can hardly be blamed for pursuing ‘inherently violent cycles,’ to borrow Asad’s phrasing, as such tools themselves provide a ‘unitary goal’—i.e. violent conquest—’at the expense of possible variations’ (1999, p. 40).
Indeed, Yohalem’s loops call to mind not only the issues associated with linear, historical conceptions of time, but with the cycles that Mateas and Zagal associate with time frames in games; they are repetitive sequences that mark the passage of time. Repeating such cycles creates the illusion both of progress and of overcoming adversity through violence, all without calling into question why violence is the only possible course of action. Yohalem, like many working in the first-person shooter genre, seems incapable of imagining what the game would look like without firearms and explosions to animate the world and mark the passage of time; this is owing, in part, to his commitment to the temporality endemic to other media. He pointedly notes that, ‘My argument is that the player is an actor, and the game is the director.’ But this metaphor counters the supposed ethical critique embedded in the game. If players are being directed, who is ultimately responsible for the actions they take and the paths they follow? For instance, there is a moment in Far Cry 3 where the player, disguised as one of the enemies, must torture his own brother, who has been captured and is now strapped to a chair in a prison cell. Yohalem describes the intended purpose of this moment,
Sure, you aren’t trying to save the world when you’re torturing your brother, but you are trying to get through this scene so the game you paid for keeps progressing. And that’s the same reason you might simulate torture in a game where there’s some loose plot about preventing a terrorist – it doesn’t matter that [the player-character’s] intentions are personal, we’re only ever doing it to turn the page, and the point gets lost. In neither is the real world in any peril – there’s only the concern that we don’t get to see what happens next.’Yohalem, 2012, emphasis added
Yohalem’s remarks are steeped in the language and metaphors of linear media and time. He conceives of the game as a relationship between director and actor and he believes that players are always trying to progress—in this case, through violence and torture—because they seek only to ‘turn the page’ (evoking the linear format of the novel). But, of course, if you conceive of videogames as simulacra of films or novels then the progression myth—the idea of repetition and linear succession as a form of progress—is what designers will invariably produce and players will invariably re-produce.
When designers approach games as largely linear media, they can and frequently do reduce the player to a passive participant, one whose role is to merely perpetuate an oftentimes violent sequence of events, just as one who reads a history text can only reproduce the conflicts and battles as they were recorded. In either case there is no cause to consider what could have been different, no moment to reflect on alternative possibilities. As a result the player shares little responsibility for what the game, ultimately, represents, even when they are participating in the production of said representation. To put this in Barthes’s terms, if games encourage us to find practices that re-produce meanings—i.e. practical ways of interpreting the (game) world—then the inability to find conscientious practices—i.e. ethical ways of interpreting the (game) world—is itself a moral limit imposed on the player, one that forestalls the realization of peaceful and non-violent solutions to the problems we face.
5. Breaking the Cycle: Majora’s Mask and Non-Linear Gameplay
One game that embraces topological temporality—and in so doing encourages players to seek out conscientious practices—is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Those familiar with Majora’s Mask will recall that the general structure of the game is, on the face of it, linear and cyclical. After the mischievous Skull Kid steals Majora’s Mask—a powerful artifact once used for ritualistic torture—his pranks begin to grow ever more cataclysmic. In fact, his misdeeds have caused the moon to begin descending and in three days’ time it will collide with the planet. This gives the player seventy-two hours of game time to overcome any challenges or barriers and retrieve the mask that has corrupted Skull Kid. As a narrative frame, the seventy-two hour limit ideally captures the constraints typically associated with linear time. In fact, most action-themed videogames situate themselves within similar narrative and temporal frames, using the limited time available to justify the extraordinary use of force and even violence. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
But it is here that Majora’s Mask deviates from conventional linear game narratives. This deviation is apparent from the outset as the challenges before the player are so numerous, the barriers so imposing that the end of the world cannot be stopped in the time allotted to the player. Given the linear passage of time, there are simply not enough days to procure the skills, strategies, and items needed to prevent the (seemingly) inevitable destruction of Termina. It follows that if there is a hero’s quest to be told here—with its requisite good overcoming evil—it has to be one unlike those bound to linear conceptions of time and narrative. In fact, the story of Majora’s Mask is told primarily through topological time as players bend and fold different points of time together to realize new possibilities. This is accomplished through various means but primarily 1) through the statues that allow players to revert time back to the first day and 2) through the Ocarina of Time, which can be used to modify the passage of game time. What Majora’s Mask makes clear is that the practices that one finds in linear hero’s quests are different from those situated within topological narratives. The latter create distinct ethical affordances that not only circumvent the narrow thinking imposed by linear time but also open up the discovery of non-violent and conscientious practices.
For example, as players modify how time and events unfold in Termina there is an accompanying change to the characters and conversations that the player is exposed to. Some characters are inaccessible in the initial linear narrative sequence, for instance, while others change their dialogue based on the order of events. In order to complete one particular side quest, for instance, you need to first rescue an elderly woman from being robbed at midnight on the first day. This simple act provides access to an item on the third day that enables the user to stay awake for extended periods of time. Taking this item back to the first day allows you to join up with the elderly woman and stay awake throughout the night as she regales you with Termina’s mythology. In these moments Majora’s Mask allows players to not only accrue knowledge of the past, present, and potential future but to apply that knowledge in creating novel outcomes, oftentimes deepening the their cultural understanding of Termina or by resolving conflicts and disagreements. This reaches its apex in particularly complex quests like “Anju’s Anguish.” Here Anju’s fiancée, Kafei, has disappeared and you are tasked with finding him. Completing this quest involves bending and folding various playthroughs together as players utilize items and knowledge gained across various and competing timelines to track down Kafei. Resolving the quest provides you with the Couple’s Mask, an item that signifies the unity of two persons in marriage. Wearing the mask in front of the mayor allows the player to resolve an argument that spans all three days in which the game takes place as it reminds those involved of what’s important during such trying times—love and family.
Through quests like these Majora’s Mask encourages players to contort and distort time, thereby opening up new realms of social interactions and novel ways of resolving the numerous issues that trouble the land and its citizens through discourse rather than through brute force. Structurally speaking, Majora’s Mask presents social interaction unlike most other games—it is not static dialogue intended to move the story along a linear trajectory, but rather a more dynamic space in which play can, and frequently does, reveal new possibilities that emerge only through playing with time and sequence itself. Players can transfer this insight to the real world by recognizing that just as the inhabitants of Termina are at any given time but a single manifestation of a plurality of possible outcomes, so too are people in our everyday lives. Such a recognition is itself a conscientious practice, a way of interpreting people and their actions and choices with compassion for the oftentimes convoluted circumstances that shape and condition us. Majora’s Mask encourages its players to seek out such a practice and reproduce it in the game world.
Furthermore, games like Majora’s Mask suggest a rethinking of the ‘flying wedge’ in which possibilities, probabilities, and necessitates are explored through play. In Fig. 4 I have merged Laurel’s ‘flying wedge’ with Mateas and Zagal’s terminology regarding real-world time (RT) and gameworld time (GT). The below image demonstrates a gameworld time span of fifteen minutes, divided into five minute intervals. The real-world time here is also divided into five minutes intervals. The outcomes begin to diverge at a save point at the gameworld time of five minutes (GT5). The player then pursues one outcome (perhaps a particular path or strategy) for five minutes (RT5 – RT10) before recognizing an undesirable but seemingly necessary outcome and reloading the gameworld to the five minute mark and pursuing a different outcome. Following Laurel’s distinction, each choice realizes a discrete portion of the overall potential of the game. In Barthes’s terms, each realizes a practice that produces a different meaning of the game.
The above representation can be thought of topologically in that there is a folding or interplay between two distinct real-world time intervals—(A) RT5 to RT10 and (B) RT10’ to RT15—that exist contemporaneously in the GT5-GT10 interval. Here temporality (A) can be as simple as moving a pawn in a game of chess and realizing that that move, several steps later, left a key piece exposed. Upon seeing this mistake the player might reload to an earlier save point, and, with the foreknowledge of (A) in mind, pursue a different strategy, resulting in (B). A game like Majora’s Mask, however, would create a considerably more convoluted diagram. After all, the game’s design has players covering far more of the field of potential than most other games. Recalling Laurel’s original diagram where gameplay moves from what is possible to what is probable over time, the repeated folding of time and space in Majora’s Mask develops what the player perceives to be possible and even probable as they work to avoid the seemingly necessary outcome presented at the game’s opening. Such is the latent promise of exploring topological time—to extend beyond the seeming necessity of one violent outcome and instead discover new, more conscientious possibilities that become increasingly probable. In this regard, another game proves an insightful illustration of topological time and its heuristic affordances— Life is Strange.
6. Time is Strange: Topological Time and Life is Strange
On the surface Life is Strange sounds like many of the aforementioned time-bending games critiqued above. In the game players are given the ability to reverse time and linear metaphors of rewinding and fast-forwarding permeate the interface. However, the possibilities and probabilities Life is Strange explores differ widely from the likes of Sands of Time or Braid. These differences begin with the setting. Life is Strange centres on Max Caulfield, a high school student attending a prestigious art school with aspirations of becoming a professional photographer. At the outset Max gains the ability to rewind time and throughout the course of the game players use Max’s time-bending ability to explore various branching decisions and even alternate histories. The manipulation of time here is not figured as a means of reproducing a violent and bloody conflict, as it is in Sands of Time. Nor is it a means of solving a particular series of puzzles in order to recreate a traumatic past, as it is in Braid. Rather, the time bending mechanic in Life is Strange is used primarily to explore social dynamics and complex interpersonal issues. At numerous points the player is presented with a series of choices that impact the outcome of the narrative, choices that relate to cyber-bullying, revenge porn, disability and quality of life, sexual orientation, and personal intimacy.
Crucially, Life is Strange does not provide clear cause-and-effect feedback on the player’s decisions. For instance, seemingly irrelevant choices like whether or not to save the class bully from getting splattered in paint or to erase a nasty message written on a dorm door impact the player’s ability later in the game to persuade the bully to divulge crucial information, while the small act of erasing the message plays a factor in the attempted suicide of a classmate. In Life is Strange playing with time is largely a means of exploring the impact various words and decisions have, oftentimes allowing players to discover more conscientious practices in the process. This is reinforced by Max’s shy, introverted personality which leads her to question many of the decisions she makes. Frequently she asks through an inner monologue whether she’s made the best possible choice no matter what decision is made. In fact, Max’s indecisiveness and the general uncertainty of the player’s choices reflect the game’s larger concern with ethics, time, and history. One of the recurrent metaphors in the game is the butterfly effect, which emphasizes the sizeable impact of small events over distance and time. Throughout Life is Strange Max struggles to come to terms with her own potential butterfly effect—in this case, the possibility that her actions may inflict more harm than they prevent. Unlike conventional game protagonists, Max is deeply concerned with mitigating harm and she is preoccupied with achieving the best possible outcome without knowing what that is or if it is even within her power to realize.
In this way Life is Strange is a promising foray into the ludic representation of topological time. The ability to bend time is given the proper weight and ethical importance needed to prompt players to reflect on their decisions and question which path is the most amenable to doing what is right and just. The difference here is between ‘how do I get there?’ and ‘where am I going?’ Far too often players are constrained through linear conceptions of time and narrative to ask only how to get from start to finish; the inclusion of topological temporality allows players to question where they are taking the game world and its characters and whether that destination is truly necessary or merely one of many possibilities.
When we engage with media we are collaborating in the production of space and time (McLuhan, 1960). Within such mediated spaces and temporalities we find practices that re-produce meanings—ways of interpreting the Text that arise through and are situated within our interaction with the Text (Barthes, 1977). In the medium of videogames space and time are particularly malleable, such that we as players can play with time and in so doing look for conscientious practices that re-produce meanings that exist outside of linear, historical continuity. By engaging in such instances of topological temporality, games can liberate players from the logics that conceive of repetitive, iterative violence as a form of progress.
This ethical possibility is contrasted with numerous games, including those that explicitly play with time, that reduce play to a series of repetitive, cyclical, and oftentimes violent acts that re-produce a particularly harmful series of events. When players are prevented from exploring a game through topological temporality—as they are in Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed, Braid, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and other similar games—they are precluded from realizing more just possibilities, more peaceful histories. In such instances players share a diminished responsibility for the game’s ethical argument; it is one thing to condemn a player for replaying a violent, brutal history when other outcomes are possible, but it is another thing entirely to admonish the player for replaying a past made immutable by design.
Conversely, by allowing players to play with time, with cause and effect, and with history they become more deeply involved in what the game ultimately represents, giving them a greater shared sense of responsibility in the outcomes they helped realize. This ethical approach to game time—based Michel Serres’s critical interrogation of linear time—demonstrates that just because something unfolded one way before does not commit us to repeating that narrative, to replaying the past precisely as it played out. In fact, it stands to reason that if we are to ever escape cycles of violence, then we must strive to think beyond them, if only to show that it can be done, that things could have been different. As perhaps the most effective medium capable of exploring such temporally-distinct possibilities, games have a crucial role to play in helping show us the way.
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[i] In ‘The Tyranny of Realism’ (2014) Shaw takes a similar approach to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. What distinguishes our approaches is that Shaw looks at the developer’s commitment to historical fidelity as a constraint, whereas I am interested in how conceptions of time itself as inherently and exclusively linear inhibit ethical considerations.
[ii] There are, of course, exceptions to made, especially in relation to avant-garde artists who have played with cutting and reforming tape and film. Nevertheless, the linearity of both the tape player and the film projector requires a linear progression.
[iii] To argue this point effectively, however, extends well beyond the scope of this paper. One would need to account for how numerous linear processes could, in fact, instantiate non-linearity. Furthermore, there is a history of conceiving of the computer as a linear, filmic medium (see Manovich, Language of New Media) that would also need to be addressed. My hope here is that I can provide proof of this thesis by way of example by looking at computer videogames and their representations of time and space.
[iv] To clarify, I’m not critiquing Nitsche, Laurel, or Mateas and Zagal here; I think they are accurately describing how time plays out in contemporary videogames. However, in light of Serres’s distinction between linear and topological time, it’s worth contextualizing such approaches to game time within this novel, ethical context.