Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Price of Time

A couple of weeks ago, I said I’d be talking about time in JRPGs, and one of the particular issues I picked up on was this: “Plot developments that are tied to player progress can seem preposterous coincidences.”

When plot events in a game are tied to triggers based on player progress, whether that’s beating a particular encounter, arriving in a particular location or just talking to the right NPC, that connection can be pretty obvious. Sometimes this is fine, but often it centres the player characters, and through them player action, at the expense of effective storytelling.

Tales of Vesperia, for all its subversion, never quite escapes this. The first half of the story is characterised by coincidences – every other town you arrive at gets attacked or otherwise disrupted within minutes of your arrival – and despite the characters joking that protagonist Yuri must be ‘cursed’, it’s impossible to miss the underlying artificiality of the plot structure. Nor does this crack in the façade feel as planned, as deliberate as other things the game does; Vesperia fails to provide contrast by handling its triggers better elsewhere.

There are ways around the problem, though. Final Fantasy XII is at its strongest when confronting this head-on. It has to be, given its theme of the insignificance of the individual. It would be strange to spend most of the plot declaring Ashe inconsequential only for the grand schemers of the world to wait on her every move.

So, for the most part, FFXII does something a little different. You spend much of the game out of touch with events, travelling on foot through the wilds[1]. The plot triggers are generally associated with your arrival at the end of the journey, whether you travel to defeat or just to meet a plot-relevant NPC. When you arrive, what you feel is not that you have caused something to happen, but that you have missed something happening and must struggle to catch up.

When you return to Rabanastre after escaping prison near the start of the game, it’s the kidnapping of Penelo. When you arrive at Mt. Bur-Omisace after travelling across half the world in search of support for Ashe’s royal claim, it’s the replacing of the kindly Emperor Gramis with his merciless son that removes all hope for parlay. Later, arrivals at the Imperial capital Archades and the summit of the Pharos lighthouse are similarly recontextualised.

The exception to the pattern is after the first long journey in the game – here, you’re swooped down on by the Imperials right after subduing and recruiting the powerful spirit that guards Ashe’s inheritance. Why? Because for a brief moment, holding that inheritance, the characters are globally significant. Then the Imperials take it off you and destroy it.

This symbolic disenfranchisement of the player is very FFXII, but doing things this way doesn’t have to be so stark. The key is not that things happen without the player involved (though that helps) – it’s that things happen without a precisely-defined moment. The plot develops while you travel, however long that takes. Even if a specific timestamp were to be given for the event when you’re told about it (‘three days ago’, ‘last week’), the fact that different players will have taken different amounts of ‘real-world’ time to get from trigger to trigger establishes ambiguity.

Plot developments can only seem temporally coincidental if they can be tied to specific moments[2]. The ambiguity of the translation between play-time and narrative time can be used to break these ties and make the narrative feel much more (for want of a better word) organic.

There’s also the brute-force solution, of course: the Majora’s Mask approach. Games like MM and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII keep the clock ticking throughout. Events happen at precise moments whether you’re there or not. This is, in a sense, the most realistic way of presenting time.

But it has costs, at least if you want to tell a conventional story. Narrative triggers must be stretched, pulled out of shape, or repeated, to prevent the player missing them altogether. It’s telling that both MM and LR let you supernaturally manipulate time – without that affordance, the games would be unnavigable.

What FFXII shows is that the structure of in-game time can contribute powerfully to the meaning of the events portrayed. Temporal structures need not be neutral, invisible systems for the delivery of cutscenes; and they need not function based on an analogue of real time to do so.

[1] There’s something to be said, I realise now, about the relationship of this narrative device to the communicative intensity of the modern world. I’ve felt for a long time that this is something that fantasy narratives will struggle (or are struggling) to adapt to, and I’ll probably return to this theme later.

[2] This is actually tautologous, but I couldn’t think of a better way to put it.

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