meaningful non-linear narratives?

In the bookstore looking for an Alan Flusser book (for an art project, don’t ask), I browsed the computer game development shelf (huge! though it was all about graphix) and found this book by David Freeman about “emotioneering”. Yeah, it’s a cheesy title but the author wrote about something I had never explicitly thought about in muds: “creating meaningful non-linear narratives”.

MUDS generally are completely non-linear games, so you can do A, B, and C in any order, and if you can’t do them in any order you’ll be able to after you complete that sequence for the first time. I’m not talking so much about simply moving from one room to another but rather completing phases of a quest or clearing an area. So Freeman, the author, says that this is not a meaningful narrative in the sense that a story is emotionally meaningful, and presumably you’re trying to introduce meaningful content into your game, so how do you get around this obstacle of non-linearity?

Of course not everyone is sold on this idea (check out what they said at AntiFactory) but it is interesting to me. Freeman writes that what you do is structure your game so that each event could logically follow any other, though the meaning engendered by that sequence could change based on what the sequence is. C can follow B can follow A, or A can follow B can follow C, or A can follow C, and it all makes ‘sense’, that is, is meaningful.

In your typical quest you meet an NPC that gives you a mission, bring me back the frazzle-snozzle or whatever. You hunt down the frazzle-snozzle, killing a herd of gribble grobbles and snatch-mashers. You bring back the frazzle-snozzle and get a reward. If you were to find the frazzle-snozzle first you woudn’t have any reason to bring it back to the NPC, so finding it is no different than finding any other piece of eq. But if you meet the NPC first, then find it, then bring it back, that’s a meaningful narrative for you and your character.

In the ’emotioneered’ quest (emotioneering is such a stupid term) the game would construct a meaningful narrative whether you found the frazzle-snozzle first or talked to the NPC first. In the most simple case there would be some means of explaining the significance of the frazzle-snozzle when you found it, prompting you to return it to the NPC — a reverse quest if you will. I just played a perfect anti-example of this on 4 dimensions, where I visited a farmhouse and went out into the potato field, where I found a pair of glasses in a bucket. Inside the farmhouse I gave the glasses to the old maid. She then said she needed her glasses, so I went back to the potato field and got them again — I had done the quest out of its proper order.

So I guess I’m so not an emotioneer, but I’m all about meaningful non-linear narratives.


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