Time, Space and Narrative

The Clock Tower in Majora's Mask

Generally, we tend to think about things like narrative, history and storytelling in terms of time.  Many forms of media favor this kind of temporal logic.  When we watch a movie, we sit down and watch as the story unfolds before us in real-time.  This is not to say that filmmakers are locked into a simple one-to-one relationship with time in the real world.  Early on, filmmakers figured out ways of manipulating our perceptions of time, using techniques like montage and even simple cuts to convey the passage of large amounts of time in a few seconds, or to take a single moment and let it linger on the screen.  Nevertheless, the passage of time in the story world is linked to the passage of time in our own.

With videogames, however, there is a different paradigm in narrative progression.  A few weeks ago, Emily Bembeneck posted an interesting article on Play the Past about the importance of space in our perceptions of videogame narrative.  Indeed, a number of videogame scholars have noted the relationship between space and narrative within the virtual space of a game.   Artist and media theorist Lev Manovich has stated that in many games, “narrative and time itself are equated with the movement through 3D space, the progression through rooms, levels, or words.”1 I would suggest that this tendency toward spatial logic is a characteristic of videogames as a medium.

So what exactly does it mean to equate movement through space with time and narrative?  In her article, Emily gives the example of the game King’s Quest VI.  As in most point-and-click adventure games, the gameplay focuses around exploring different areas, collecting items and interacting with characters.  As she points out, players generally mark their progression through the narrative by “where” they are in the game.  The further the player has moved from the starting room, the further along she is in the story.  Further cues are provided by changes in these spaces.  Is that cloud of fire still hanging over Death Mountain?  Is there a vine hanging from the Cheese Bridge?  Is it still raining outside?  All of these environmental changes signal to the player that time has moved forward within the game world.

While this spatial logic of narrative progression is certainly not the only way that videogames can convey a story, it is a method that they are particularly suited for.  Moreover, this makes videogames a medium specially suited to helping us look at things from a different perspective.  Emily has already mentioned how spatial thinking applies to archeology, but there are many other fields in which such a perspective could be productive.  Indeed, with the “spatial turn” in the humanities, many scholars over the years have begun to shift their mode of thinking away from the temporal and toward the spatial.

While I definitely think that there’s a lot of really interesting possibilities for taking advantage of spatial thinking in game design, I also think that there’s a lot of untapped potential for temporal thinking in games.

“But wait!” you say, “Aren’t there at least as many real-time games as there are turn-based games?”


That’s not exactly the distinction I’m trying to get at.  I’m not merely talking about how the game progresses from one moment to the next, though that’s not an entirely unrelated question.  The question I want to know is what underlying game mechanics drive the player’s perception of story and narrative progression.  Even though a game might have real-time action, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the story and the game world itself are being driven by temporal game mechanics.  Take a game like Half-Life 2.  It’s certainly no coincidence that Gordon Freeman’s journey to the citadel always takes him about three days, nor is it a coincidence that he always ends up in the creepy town of Ravenholm after dark.  Obviously, there is no way to visit Ravenholm during the day, because the night sky is part of the map itself.  The player’s perception of time is dependent upon her movement through the various virtual spaces of the game, designed spatially to convey the narrative of Freeman’s three-day journey.

When talking about time-driven narratives, I should also note that I’m not necessarily refering to time-themed narratives.  Time travel is a fairly common theme in videogames.  In some games, like Final Fantasy or The Lost Vikings, it makes little difference to the gameplay itself.  In others, like Day of the Tentacle or Chrono Trigger, the game mechanics revolve around the ability to manipulate causality by interacting with the world in different time periods.  However, all of these games still rely on a primarily spatial logic when it comes to narrative progression.  If you never move your character, time never really passes.  Once again, time is functionally equated with movement.

So what does a game with a temporal logic look like?  An extreme example of this kind of design is Animal Crossing.  Perhaps the most unusual feature of Animal Crossing is the fact that time in the game world is synched to the real world through the console’s internal clock.  Thus, even when you’re not playing, time is effectively still passing in the game world, the effects of which can be seen the next time you play.  The grass will have grown, trees will have fruited, and residents of your town may have even moved away.  In Animal Crossing, you don’t need to move to have the game world progress and change.  In fact, you don’t even need to leave the game running.

Night in Hyrule Field

Of course, if filmmakers aren’t limited to a one-to-one relationship between real-time and narrative-time, game makers are even less constrained.  Many designers have experimented with temporal mechanics in more creative ways.  Perhaps one of the best known examples of this is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  It was the first game in the series to feature a day and night cycle that was independent of player movement (although time only passed this way in certain areas of the game world).  While the game as a whole followed a much more spatial logic, the day and night cycle was not wholly an aesthetic feature.  Nightfall in the wilderness heralded the appearance of monsters and signaled town to raise its drawbridge.  Although this was rarely more than a momentary inconvenience for the player, it gave the game world a sense of life beyond the player’s interactions.

This experiment in temporal thinking was taken to new levels in the game’s sequel, Majora’s Mask.  The passage of time became universal, even passing while the player was in a dungeon.  It was also no longer just the monsters that responded to the passage of time.  Many of the character in Majora’s Mask move about and interact with each other without being prompted by the player.  Much of the game revolves around discovering what these NPCs are doing and trying to intervene in order to shape the outcomes of these events.

A Mugging inMajora's Mask

The potential of this kind of design first struck me when I first ran across one of the local shopkeepers getting mugged near the city gate.  The thief took ran off with his stolen goods and escaped before I had a chance to do anything.  My input as a player neither initiated the event, nor did it really effect the outcome.  Although I did eventually manage to go back and stop the robbery (Majora’s Mask is another time travel game, after all), the fact that these events happened on their own made it feel like the game world was populated by actual characters, rather than merely animated signposts, as NPCs often are.

Again, the relationship between videogames and narrative is much more complicated than a simple scale between temporal logic and spatial logic.  They are not mutually exclusive and they are not the only ways of telling a story.  Still, the more that we’re aware of these mechanics as designers, the more we can use them to take advantages of videogames’ inherent strengths as a medium.


1.  The Language of New Media.  Lev Manovich.

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