Of Time and Consequences
Controlled flashbacks in XIII highlight the problem of flashbacks within a play environment; play is about present tense, and games are about making the right decision so that the future turns out how it's meant to.
Things and actions are what they are,
and the consequences of them will be
what they will be: why then should we
desire to be deceived?
-- Fifteen Sermons, vii. 16"
Of late I have found myself playing XIII on the Xbox. Ubisoft's game, which utilizes the Unreal engine, attracted some moderate attention when it was released because of its distinct comic-book style visuals. Interestingly much the same thing happened to Capcom's cel-shaded driving game Auto Modellista, though in its case the gameplay failed to live up to the expectations implied by the innovative look of the thing. Admittedly XIII got some better coverage (partly, I might cruelly suggest, because of the dearth of decent material available for Microsoft's giant box), but aside from some appreciative "oohs" and "aahhs" regarding its graphics, it similarly seems destined to vanish without trace, at least until a sequel (XIV, anyone?) appears. Which in my opinion is a shame, since XIII isn't just a pretty face.
The game awards the player the role of a suitably comic-booky, square-jawed kinda guy who wakes up on a beach without being able to remember anything. Subsequently he finds himself accused of assassinating the US President and hunted by various shady characters including the CIA and FBI. Cue enjoyably violent shenanigans involving much stylised murder and mayhem.
For consumers of all sorts of fairly complex narratives offered by other media, such a plot might not seem that original. Anyone vaguely familiar with the thriller genre will recognise the concept of an amnesiac central character, who, in trying to discover the truth, acts as a useful point of empathy for the audience since they, too, are trying to discover the truth. You might imagine that for players of XIII the plot consequently looks wearisomely familiar; but there are things this games does that are unusual in their exploitation of the video game form, and which tell us some interesting things about the operation of time within the video game.
As we know, the idea of passive consumption of a media text has largely been disregarded by everyone outside whey-faced conservatives with axes to grind about "declining standards". Scholars of film and television studies are instead quick to point to the active nature of an individual's engagement with texts like The Sopranos or the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Some approaches go further still, suggesting that the physiological responses involved in watching a television programme or cinema film make active engagement more pronounced still, that the largely unseen autonomous responses of our bodies are involved in an ongoing conversation with both our minds and the programme or film in question. The term "interactivity" becomes increasingly redundant in these terms, since all forms of artistic consumption might be seen as heavily interactive. (Incidentally, if you want some interesting insights and useful critique into the evolution and definition of "interactivity" then check out Espen Aarseth's 1997 book Cybertext).
Of course subscribing to an "affective" understanding of our relationship with media forms, whereby game and gamer are part of a "body of relations", isn't to deny the specificity of that relationship, but to understand it further. Yet until we can delineate exactly what is going on when we do push that button, wrench that joystick, or fire that light gun, we seem to be stuck with generalist terms like "interactivity" as a means of differentiating certain forms from others. In these terms, XIII suddenly starts to look impressively attuned to the strengths of an interactive medium. An amnesiac central character makes for an ideal avatar since, more than merely empathizing with the protagonist in a cinema film, in the context of a video game we actually become the protagonist.
Early on in XIII, having watched a suitably exciting opening cut sequence giving us some loose context for the thriller, and having only just awoken from our slumber on the aforementioned beach, we experience our first flashback. As we make our way across the sand, encouraged by a curvaceous woman in a swimming costume who's seemingly wandered in from Baywatch, we lose control of our character and find ourselves swaying giddily, before plunging backward in time. Suddenly we're aboard a ship, and rushing hectically around the deck, trying to get away before we're shot by a gun-toting assailant. His efforts are in vain, however, and suddenly we come to, back on the beach and we're being helped by the silicone-enhanced character we encountered earlier, before getting on with the bloody plot prior to more backstory arriving via the next cut sequence. Like the central character in Chris Nolan's film Memento, we remember a little at a time, gradually unraveling the suitably twisty plot in the process.
Formally the approach feels similar to that of the famous Saving Private Ryan-style opening sequence of Medal of Honour: Frontline, in which we find ourselves crammed into a landing craft en route for Omaha Beach, with enough agency to make it onto the beach but not enough energy to save any of the poor, dying souls around us. In the first flashback of XIII we get enough agency to run around the deck of the ship, but the outcome is painfully predictable (from our avatar's viewpoint) because this part of the game is on rails, we can't actually affect what's going to happen. Despite the curtailed agency, such merging of what would previously have been entirely non-interactive material with the play elements of games is becoming increasingly prevalent. While it probably doesn't presage the end of the cut sequence as a formal characteristic of narrative-based games (there are pragmatic, technical reasons why not), it does illustrate an interesting evolution in game design.
Flashbacks aren't totally unheard of in games, especially if you stretch a point: the narrator-led intro of the Sony Spiderman game, for instance, is kind of a flashback in the sense that the narration is happening in the present tense and the images are in the past. What's unusual is to see it see fully integrated into the gameplay as is the case with XIII, and even then there's a severe limitation placed upon our ability to affect events. The reasons why are interesting to speculate upon since they might provide us with some intriguing insights into the ongoing ludological and narratological debate in which, reductively expressed, the ludologists advocate the use of a "play" theory as a mechanism for understanding games, running counter to the those who believe it's possible to utilize existing narrative theory approaches drawn from literary or film studies.
The controlled interaction of the flashbacks in XIII highlights the major problem of using flashbacks within a play environment. Play is about the present tense, and games are about making the right decision so that the future turns out how it's meant to. As the journalist Steven Poole, the game designer and academic Gonzalo Frasca and the academic Jesper Juul have all observed, the problem with comparing games with narratives is that the outcomes of games are generally reversible, we play again. Whereas if Hamlet suddenly springs back to life Shakespeare's carefully constructed text takes on an entirely different meaning.
Whether this is a problem or not is debatable, since it's an incontrovertible aspect of gameplay and is, of course, part of the fun. A game that aims to prevent a coherent narrative experience, however, like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, presents us with an elegant way around the perennial issue of repeated oblivion. Each time our hero is killed, the narrator (and voice of our avatar) tells us something along the lines of "No, that's not what happened", suggesting that what we have previously experienced is an inaccurate account of proceedings. We then begin again, in the hope of recounting the correct version of events. This form of narrative framing fits well with the Sinbad or Arabian Nights feel of the game, the idea that what we're watching is indeed an epic story but that we might also be subject to some unreliable storytelling.
The approaches of XIII and Prince of Persia give us clues as to how video games might usefully start to employ a variety of techniques concerning temporal disruption common from film and the novel but largely unseen in the context of video games. Many games already engage in all sorts of ellipsis or extension of time: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for example, utilizes many different forms of time, from the "real time" we experience as we drive around the city, through to the rapidly progressing clock time, to the slow-motion engendered by passing through a slow-mo' symbol. Indeed, the game itself is posited as a prequel.
But maybe we don't need agency within flashback sequences. If they're there to provide backstory, why don't we just treat them like any other form of cut sequence there to provide useful plot or character exposition. God knows, exceptionally clever designers have enough problems keeping fairly linear storylines on track (such as the famous scene in the seminal first Deus Ex where your avatar's legs are gunned off only to be reattached in a subsequent scene). Except� hmm, imagine if, within a flashback you could change something that would have consequences much later in the plot, or even if you could observe your surroundings to gain some insight into proceedings that would later prove pivotal. Such experimentation is what makes the medium so exciting.
Of course, it certainly isn't desirable for every game to start engaging in Proustian jumps in narrative time because, as has been observed in these issues of Trivial Pursuit and in numerous other places, not all games have what we would recognize as narrative time. I have no desire, for instance, to start learning about Pacman's difficult childhood. But for those games seeking to blur the distinctions between narrative and play, and to exploit the possibilities therein, XIII and Prince of Persia give us some insights into how the form might evolve, the consequences of which could be enormous.