Here’s a weird idea I’ve been playing with: A concept of narrative dimensionality.
First, take a painting, or a photo, or even a description of a room. This is a moment, frozen in time. It may imply a greater story, but it never changes, never moves. This is, narratively, non-dimensional, a single point.
Second, extrapolate that picture or description into a continuity. This creates a film or a story, which changes over a given span, usually of time, but always contains the same events at the same intervals. This is one-dimensional, a line, which can be traversed. Any point in the continuity can be described with a single time code or page/character number.
This continuity is rarely perfect in terms of presentation: Tedious parts get edited out of novels and films, implied action occurs between comic book panels and edited scenes, and even at 24 frames a second small bits of action get lost. That’s not important: To us, the narrative is a continuous unbroken thread.
It is an illusion – It is the illusion of fiction.
Extrapolate this out a layer. What does a two-dimensional narrative space look like? A continuity of possible stories, any of which might be experienced individually depending upon how that space is navigated.
Isn’t that rather like a video game? They set up the worlds and the rules which govern them, set up the elements which can comprise a story, and leave it to the players to find whichever story they may within the narrative space presented. A space comprised of an infinite spectrum of possible stories…
Well, no one said they all had to be good stories.
Interactivity isn’t strictly necessary. All of the potential stories could still exist within the game, controlled by an AI or a random number generator or a thousand monkeys, but interactivity is the viewport through which we can see the narrative space and explore it ourselves.
What would a three-dimensional narrative space look like? A world which is spanned by an infinite number of navigable story-spaces?
Is that the world we live in now?
What would a fourth dimension look like?
This may all be pointless sophistry. This may be a waste of time and resources. It’s fun to think about anyway.
It’s simple enough, as well, to project a higher dimensionality narrative space down to a lower-dimensionality space. We do it every time we put a Spelunky run up on Youtube. We do it every time we post a screenshot. We do it every time we make an autobiographical game or look at an old photo. Each of these is a frozen representation of something that used to exist in a higher order narrative space.
What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, we can conclude that Roger Ebert did, after all, have a pretty good point: There is a qualitative difference between a static narrative and a set of narratives which comprise a narrative space. The flaw in his reasoning was declaring that this limited a game creator’s capacity to be artistically expressive.
Why, indeed, we can be expressive on a whole other axis.
We are just getting started.