Interaction and Time

[This article has also been published on gamasutra.]

Discourse Time and Objective Time

Player input is not part of a game’s ongoing discourse until it has been processed and given back through audio-visual or tactile output. In that sense, a player is bound to the narration of his own actions by the game discourse. Only when his decisions are given back to him  can he articulate these, and make sense of them in the context of the rest of the game universe that is being narrated to him.

Based on this understanding of the relation between the player’s activity and the game’s discourse, we may distinguish between two concurrent time frames during gameplay:

1) On one hand, we have the discourse time of the game, that is, the pace and order in which the game narrates the events that take place in the game world.

2) On the other hand, we have the player, living in the objective time of the real world, whose input, unless processed and given back, is not part of this ongoing game discourse. 

These two time frames are mediated through the video game medium: Input and output devices, “throughput”, memory, processors etc.

Putting Time Frames Against Each Other

In terms of perception, interpretation and reaction to screen events, players are subject to the pace of the discourse.

Games with increasing speed in the narration of events are an example in which designers put the discourse time of the game against the objective time of players. At some point the player will simply not be able to cope anymore with the speed in which the discourse narrates the events, and the player will have difficulties to respond to the narrated feedback of the choices he makes in his own objective time: the blocks in Tetris, or the chain of balls in Zuma will move to quick to cope with.

Such games are designed so that they arrive at a point at which the illusion of real-time starts to get distorted due to the impossibility of synchronization between the actions of the player in objective time, and the representation of events in discourse time. But the distortion will set in in small portions, hence being unnoticed for large parts of the game, and reach its peak just short before defeat, which, due to the immersion that has been achieved already, will feel like a climax to the action, and not the extreme incompatibility between the two time frames, that it actually has become.

Sometimes Time is On Our Side

While in a lot of arcade games designers prefer to put time frames againts each other, in many other games, designers allow the players to adjust the discourse time to their pace in objective time.

In games like The Sims, Railroad Tycoon or Sim City, we may slow down the pace of the discourse to a level that we feel is convenient to carry out our actions without feeling we miss out something from the ongoing discourse, or we are even allowed to bring all events, except our own actions as players, to a halt. In such a state of halt, the discourse would only narrate the player’s actions, and the rest of the game world would stand still.

On the other hand, the same type of games allow us to increase the pace of the discourse in order to quickly go through sequences of the game that we believe do not require any of our modifications: When all family members are put to bed, The Sims goes over to high speed mode, until one of the familiy members wakes up, or until we feel the need to modify something. In Railroad Tycoon it happens that during a recession there is nothing else to do than to wait until the economy gets back on track, so we just can “skip” this part in high speed, until we have enough funds to start carrying out operations again.

The Virtues of Delay

Whereas many games stick with a “real-time” representation of player input, we observe that even games that care to maintain this illusion, make effective use of delay. For example in The Sims, the orders we give to in-game characters under our control, are not carried out immediately, and it is often the case that due to orders given in quick succession, we will create a pipeline of these. In other words, my order to prepare breakfast  may started to be carried out by the in-game character minutes after I’ve given it, or I may cancel it before it is being carried out. Combined with the pace of the ongoing discourse about the actual events that take place in the household, this strategy of delay, creates grounds for interesting gameplay, forcing the player to constantly review previous decisions in the light of the actual situation. The game, again, puts effectively against each other the events that have been carried out in two different time frames.

Another very successful example, with much more implications in regard to the relation between the players objective time, discourse time and delay is Braid. Just like in The Sims, previous decisions become the subject of actual gameplay, but the depth of the re-writing of previous decisions growing immensely.

Conclusion: Beyond the Interaction Paradigm

The dominant convention in the game industry is to use the medium’s capacities in order to create a number of illusions: The illusion of immediacy, the illusion of agency, the illusion of real-time gameplay, the illusion of interaction. In other words: most games will be designed in a way that fosters the feeling that our actions as players happen here and now, that our use of controllers and interfaces in objective time feels identical to their audio-visual and tactile representations in the ongoing game discourse, that as players we forget that mediation takes places, and that we can immerse ourselves into the game with the help of all these.

In our current understanding about games, the word interaction stands for this type of experience.

However, I tried to show that there is more to it than just here and now. Thinking beyond the interaction paradigm that earns us game developers our daily bread may allow us to discover more about the possibilities of the video game medium.


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