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A Condemnation of Time

A discussion of how to tell a linear story in a medium that is inherently nonlinear.

Nathan Savant

January 8, 2020

17 Min Read

Time. What even is it? 

This idea has been at the crux of much of my research for the past few years: Telling a story to a player is a linear act, but allowing the player to control the main character forces nonlinearity into the equation. And yet at the end of the day, all narrative is linear.

To reconcile these competing ideas, I wrote a couple of different articles recently. One was about nonlinear story structure and the other was about applying that to the world map of your game. These two articles discuss a concept of structuring your story by section rather than by specific time. This is a concept that’s been floating around in my head for some time, but which crystallized a few weeks ago when I finally sat down with The Outer Wilds.

(Spoilers for the general ideas and construction of The Outer Wilds later in this article. I won’t talk details, I promise). 

The Outer Wilds is a game about exploring an area during a specific amount of time. You explore and get reset back to the beginning and start exploring all over again. What I found fascinating about the game is that because everything resets, they designed the game around player knowledge. As you play, you learn, and beating the game is just a matter of learning the right things. You can open the game for the first time and beat it immediately, if you know what to do.

This style of design strongly reminded me of the campfires concept I mentioned in the first of my two articles. Realizing that cascaded this knowledge through the second article, and made me ask a question:

What is the purpose of time?

In a film, you must design around time because seconds matter. Your audience is sitting in a theatre for a short time, and your goal in a film is to tell the best story in the most efficient way. Now… when was the last time you’ve played a game that lasts for exactly one hour and thirty minutes, regardless of who is playing? 

As far as I know, such a game doesn’t exist. I believe that’s because we all understand that the interactive nature of games divorces games from the concept of linear time. Not to say that time cannot be used in games, but rather that on some level we all acknowledge that games should not be beholden to time in the way of other media. This belief in hand, I took a closer look at games that DO use linear time to great effect.

Consider the recent PS4 game, Control. The Ashtray Maze is a strictly linear experience, and man! That section was such a rush! But my experience with that very section brings to light the problem with time. You see, I died at the end of the Ashtray Maze. I screwed up and got killed by a particularly nasty enemy at the end of it. Unfortunately, this section is strictly linear, so in dying I broke the pacing, and by the time I had run through it again and reached its conclusion the magic had all gone. Imagine, if you will, watching a film for the very first time and you hit the climax and it’s a HUGE scene with explosions and shiny lights and whatever sorts of bombast you find the best and most entertaining. Now imagine that the moment that scene reaches its apex, you sit on your remote control and it skips back to the beginning of the scene and there’s no button to skip ahead. That’s what happened to me in Control. 

Now, I love Control. I do. I think it’s Game Of The Year material. The design crew behind that game is INCREDIBLE. The quality of that game just lends all the more strength to my assertion here that time, as a concept, is busted. Because in the example of my unfortunate death, what could the designers even have done differently? (Seriously. I'm asking. Feel free to comment below, just finish reading first, please)

So if not time, then…. What?

Well, that’s where Outer Wilds comes in.

Despite being ABOUT time, Outer Wilds is not designed around time in its interactions. There’s no section where you listen to someone talk for a minute and a half, or wander through tunnels for three minutes and forty seconds. They could have easily done this sort of thing, they certainly come very close to it with some of their puzzles, but the worlds you explore are instead designed around rules. The best example of this rule-defined playing space is an area that is only available at a specific part of its orbit. Effectively, it’s a door that’s only open at a specific time, and thus a clear example against my point here, except that it doesn’t actually matter when you go to this area, as long as it’s while the door is open. At no point are you forced into a specific sequence. Three minutes and forty two seconds into your playthrough of Outer Wilds you can be at any number of locations, doing any number of things. That’s the distinction I’m trying to make here: Time is one element of a system, it’s one rule you can use, but in making a game you are inherently breaking from time as a design constraint. If your player wants, they can stand outside in the rain for four straight hours and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that (unless you put a timer on the game, of course, but that just breaks in other ways).

Ok, now let’s create an example story. There is a door in your game. Let’s say that this door can only be opened by a particular word of power that has been locked away for eons and it is up to the prophesied hero to find this word and reveal the ancient secrets. 

In a film, you control the specific events leading up to the moment this door is unlocked. In Act One the hero discovers their quest and sets off on an adventure meeting lots of quirky characters along the way. In Act Two the hero meets Tim The Enchanter who controls the beasts of the great forest and uses dark magic to stand in the hero’s way. Tim forces the beasts to chase the hero who jumps into a cave only to find that the other end of the cave leads to an underground river and lo and behold, on the other end of that river there is a hidden door that unlocks with the poem the hero’s grandmother read them as a child! What a coincidence! Each scene of this film gives us a bit of information that hopefully sets the stage for the later events in the story. The hero reaches the door only after every necessary piece of information has been conveyed to the audience. If the film is done well, this moment happens exactly as the final piece is conveyed. 

In a game, however, the structure is a bit different. You can’t really know how long it’s going to take the player to meet all those quirky characters in Act One, and you certainly can’t know how long it’ll take them to find the hidden underground cave, or even if they'll find it at all. In most modern video games what we do is to emulate film. You put the door in a cave and the cave is at the end of a forest path, and it's all just a long line cleverly hidden. It’s a bit like riding a roller coaster, and the designer just tries to make sure that the monsters jump out at exactly the right moment. By limiting the possibility space around your players’ choices, you regain control and you can make that linear corridor extremely compelling. You end up with something very much like the Ashtray Maze.

In Outer Wilds, you instead take the independent elements of this story and put them in an open space. You make a world full of quirky characters and you assume the player will surely meet some of them. In our magic door example, you make a dark forest within which evil creatures roam. You make an underground river at the end of which is the ancient door. You make all of this and then you point arrows to draw attention to it. You give the quirky characters voice lines that suggest a hidden river beneath the forest. You create evil beasts that chase the character towards the cave’s entrance any time they chase the character at all. You make the cave more interesting than anything else around it and you subtly design the terrain to emphasize the cave. If all else fails, you give the player a spell that tracks a mysterious magical power directly to the underground cave, but by whatever means you can, you get them to that cave. At no point, however, do you take control away from them. At no point do you force them down a linear forest path. At no point do you succumb to time’s influence because you know that to do that is to give up what makes interactive narrative unique. 

Now you may see exactly why this methodology hasn’t been immediately adopted by the entire games industry. Linear stories are much easier to tell and we understand the rules there. So let’s define some of the new rules we need, shall we?

At this point I’d like to revisit my pizza graph, but we need some pieces, and one additional concept, first. Conveniently enough, Outer Wilds has prepared all of its pieces for me in an easy-to-read package deal!

Notice the groupings, each topic of research in the game is given a color and each of the clues about that topic are grouped together. You can find them in all sorts of orders, some of them require others be found first, but most are freely available as long as you go to the right place. The last relevant concept for this article, is the idea of throughlines. The idea, in short, is that there are multiple throughlines that shape any given story. You learn about what’s happening to the character, you learn about their relationships, you learn about the world around them, and you learn about how all of this affects the world as a whole.

The story of a film is built around these throughlines. You can read a thorough breakdown of this concept here if you need a deeper understanding. I bring up throughlines, because Outer Wilds’ plot threads here are loosely analogous to the concept. Your goal in Outer Wilds is to explore the mystery of four seemingly disparate objects that turn out to all be related, in much the same way as it’s revealed that a Pixar film’s characters are all reflections or comments on some aspect of the journey the protagonist is undertaking. 

Imagine, if you will, this same structure applied to characters. In Finding Nemo, Marlin meets the forgetful, lonely Dory, a cool turtle named Crush, a hungry shark named Bruce, and a number of other characters. If we were designing an open-world video game version of that film, you can imagine how this exploration-based model could be used to allow the protagonist to get to know the side characters in a free form way. You can also, hopefully, imagine how this same structure applies to story beats in general. 

Outer Wilds allows you to discover specific objects, but you could just as easily map concepts to this same style of graph. The important thing is that the game shows how to do this nonlinearly. We can explore the planets freely and you can run into each element at your own pace. If this were Finding Nemo, each character might come with a set of traits you discover. We could have a moment where we find out Dory is forgetful, another moment where we find out how determined she is to find her family, another about how lonely she is, and another about how much she wants to just be accepted. We would make a larger number of these beats than the film might use, and we scatter them across the regions of our game, allowing players to come across them naturally. Much like in Outer Wilds, the trick to this strategy is to have a target for each of these plot points. As in the throughlines concept, all of these optional story beats must reinforce the central plot. Dory's character traits don't matter unless they're compared to Marlin, and the cannon we see in Outer Wilds means nothing unless we learn what it was pointed to and why.

So once again I return to my question: what is the purpose of linear time in storytelling? It exists as a by-product of the media everywhere but Interactive Fiction, but what benefit does it give those mediums? Well, it lets you control the flow of information. Time serves as a lock to keep us from learning certain things until we're ready for them. Pacing is making sure that people get information only when they need that information. So if time is a lock, then pacing is a key. If only games had some concept of charting locks and keys to keep players confined to a specific section in an open world.

Mark Brown has done us a huge favor with his explorative video series, Boss Keys. In it, he charts the nonlinear progression of exploration games like Zelda and Metroid. His charts show everything you have access to at a specific time horizontally, and then you open up vertical rows as you find keys. 

Outer Wilds works very much like a Metroidvania, but instead of unlocking new abilities, you unlock new information, each new piece of information letting you think and predict and theorize about where to go next. What that means for us here is that we can use the Mark Brown chart to plot each beat found in Outer Wilds, and keep in mind the comparison to narrative throughlines as you read these next few graphics. 

Now, I want to clarify immediately is that I’m not concerned with making a chart that’s accurate to the game (I think you can probably bypass every one of these locks if you’re lucky enough). What I'm using this graph to show is simply that you can make this graph at all. Even if the locks and keys in this chart aren’t 100% solid, and you can sequence break any of them if you get lucky, or are just particularly clever, the chart here still demonstrates the design intention. The designers made a game where you start off with a huge open field of information, and that information allows you to progress through to some information that is quite hard to access without the information that comes before it. 

All of this finally brings us back to the pizza graph. The elements we've charted to Mark Brown's graph all adapt here 1:1, because what is Act One other than a lock needing a key? The story leads us slowly through the act and once we've got enough information to continue with the story, we'll find the key and unlock that door and progress down our vertical graph into a new space exactly the same as if that key were an upgrade in a metroidvania (and hey, maybe it is).

“Act One” is the section where you don’t know anything, and you wander the solar system at random collecting clues. The first “Gate” is the moment you find one of the keys that unlocks some of the information you need to get further into the game. “Act Two” is the part of the game where you’re actively tracking down specific information, chasing down leads, sure that if you go where the last clue suggested you’ll find the next piece of important information. The second “Gate” is when you’ve solved all of the game’s puzzles and you’ve realized what you must do next. “Act Three” is the part of the game after the game stops recording your progress, which is why it’s an empty band of red on this image. This is the climax of the game as you experience a sequence of linear storytelling that leads you to the final conclusion and eventually the credits. (I'll link the pizza graph article, just in case anyone's confused)

This entire concept is mapped to a world map in my region-based narrative article as well. 

Now that we have our plot points all charted out by act or section or any other metric we find to be useful for our production, we can overlay this whole thing on top of a world map. In the case of Outer Wilds, I probably wouldn't bother doing this for the solar system as a whole, but charting each planet in this way might be useful. However, since those planets are 3D, I'm gunna pass on doing that for this article. Instead, let's take that Outer Wilds pizza graph we just made and pop it over the top of a 2D world map just as an example.

In this example I’ve pretty arbitrarily chosen placement because I don’t actually have a game I’m trying to make. Read the aforementioned article for the nuance, but for now suffice to say that you can plot out various events that can happen when you enter the area surrounding each dot on this map. In this particular representation, the whole map is “Act One” from the previous graphic. Within that are specific regions for all of the “Act Two” elements, and a larger region for “Act Three”. This would play, in-game, like an open world with more linear spaces like you might find in the caves of Ash Twin, or like a Dark Souls region, or a Zelda dungeon, or even like the linear sections of Control, if you really must ignore all my preaching.

Realistically, if I were trying to recreate The Outer Wilds in a 2D map like this, there wouldn’t be any orange regions at all. There’d only be a big, open map and the big locked off section on the top left, and maybe each individual “Act Two” dot would have an orange ring around it to denote that it was locked away in a miniature dungeon of its own. But that doesn’t read as cleanly from a distance, so I decided to spare you the confusion until you got to this part of this paragraph and now I’ve confused you all over again. You’re welcome. 

An open world game with more linear sequences naturally builds pacing into the fabric of the game. Moving between open and linear narrative forms gives players a nice gameplay contrast to keep them hooked, and it allows you to control the locks and keys the player needs to progress. All of this is done without ever needing to do a time-based corridor with a specific sequence of events. By following this concept, you free your game from the shackles of time and move us all towards a bright and brilliant future where games don’t need to disrupt gameplay just to tell you how sad your middle-aged white protagonist is doing today. 

That’s it for this article. I hope this concept is clearly communicated, but if you have questions or comments feel free to leave them below. And if you find this technique useful, I'd love to see what you do with it in your own games. 

Thanks for reading!

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