“Narrative”, as it is perceived today, is the decision to chose one out of the many branches of a “branching story” and present it as the idealized “original work”. In a sense, it means to fix the outcomes at certain decision nodes in favor of a “best” story, and to restrict players to “play out” only one out of many possible scenarios: the one with the “halo”. We did this often when we were kids: We took our ball to the playground and kicked it around while we were imagining to dribble around the Maradona’s and Pele’s in our minds and scored in last minute that one goal that would bring us the World Cup and make us the hero of our nation. The ball is round, yes, but we never wanted it to be “too round”.
Narrowing down a possibility space to an idealized scenario is what we call “linearity” today. We’ve grown suspicious towards the word “narrative” because in today’s belief, a “narrative is linear”: In a “narrative” decision nodes are carefully decided and connected in a way that makes only one ideal scenario emerge. However, it seems to be a mistake to call this linearity for all the other scenarios that are left out wouldn’t have been less linear than the one that was favored. A better word to name this could have been essentialism: to refrain from embracing multiplicity and possibility and idealize singularity and determinism; to privilege one variation as the “original” and mark all other variations as being of a lesser nature. Isn’t it the artist himself who often defines his own artistic drive, practices and creativity on the grounds of this “original”? While he could have presented his work at many different stages and in a great number of variations, he picks one moment of what is a process and accepts all other moments to be rendered into “sketches” of the “original”. This is probably one of the most telling acts that makes visible the artist’s aleniation to his own labour in the light of the “original” as an instiution of art and a favored label of the industry.
Presenting only one stage out of the many stages in the creative process as the “finished” work, the “original”, has been for centuries a practice that is deeply rooted in our culture. Ironically, the game industry follows this practice and presents to us a certain development stage of a game as the “original”, as “that” game. But which one is “that” game really? The one that is presented as the “finished” one? We know that this can mean anything. What more evidence is then needed to lay bare the arbitrariness behind such decision? While on one hand the modding communities and the open source trend open a door to reveal the arbitrariness behind the notion of the original, on the other hand we also seem to witness a kind of orgy of the original. The multitude of games within a game finds us in a fragmented way (for example in the form of increased sequelization), every “deviation” being presented to us as another “original” in the app stores. This can be traced back to the logic behind the game business, which can only make use of the “product” as a unique, seperate, stand-alone and “finished” object. The game designer has therefore no other choice to decide at some point which stage or variation of his work will be presented as “that” game. In fact, he has changed his creative processes as to make his labour to aspire to a product or a series of products: the “original”s that will be displayed on the front page of the app store as the “latest” hit.
Today’s art and popular culture criticism suffers, as it did in the past, from mistaking the restrictions of the “original” as an art institution and the modes of production in the culture industry for the nature of the artistic forms themselves. The traces of this confusion can be clearly seen in game studies: what it perceives today as the “problem of linearity” in the novel and in film, is merely the impact of industrial practices build around the notion of “originality”. Although it should be dropped as useless and misleading divide, the distinction between linearity and non-linearity somehow helps us to make visible the restrictions that have been historically put on modes of consumption in literature. What we call linearity should be seen in its historical context, as the preferred mode of consumption of the industries in the past. However, this is probably the only thing in which this distinction is helpful. Otherwise it just causes the responsibility of the institutions in the past in fostering “linearity” to be taken from their shoulders and being put on the shoulders of the “object”, “narrative” itself, now stripped from its historical context, and put as the scapegoat. Non-linearity, on the other hand, has turned a buzzword that presents the same institutions attempts to turn games into products and champion on “originality”, as progress, as an achievement.
The chance that bears itself today through the digitalization of games is that this may play a part in making the arbitrariness of the “original” visible, and allow narratives and storytellers to free themselves from the confines of the mode of production and consumption of the mainstream industries. Game researchers, however, need to revise those of their concepts that remain within the discource of “originality” if they want to play a pioneering role in this. A first step for this is to stop to see “linearity” as the nature of narratives and realize that linearity is rather a result of the mode of production of the culture industries and the way in which literature has become institutionalized. Narratives and games are the same thing, the “narrative” of the industry, however, is a “game” bereft of its possibility space, a bonsai, if you wish.