Present Tension 2

In the vast major­ity of cases, the gram­mar of narrative-driven videogames places them in the past tense.

Let me explain that a lit­tle more. Grammar is the set of rules which gov­erns the way any given lan­guage con­structs itself and pro­duces its mean­ing. Thus when I say, ‘I mar­ket to yes­ter­day go the,’ it is strange to you because it defies the con­ven­tions of English verb for­ma­tion and word order. With some effort you might decode my mean­ing, but the sen­tence doesn’t lend itself to easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion. ‘I went to the mar­ket yes­ter­day’ works much bet­ter, with­out actu­ally chang­ing all that much in the sen­tence, because it aligns with your expec­ta­tions.

To make sense of the above sen­tence we must refor­mu­late the verb ‘to go’ into its past tense ver­sion ‘went’ (a process called con­ju­ga­tion). Having done this, the sen­tence aligns more suit­ably with the adverb ‘yes­ter­day’. So, in gram­mar small changes we make to our verbs (‘go’ becomes ‘went’, ‘do’ becomes ‘did’, ‘play’ becomes ‘played’) loudly con­vey mean­ing to the lis­tener, or reader. In this case the use of ‘went’ instead of ‘go’ tells us that what we’re dis­cussing occurred before the present time.

Most games have a story, or at least a sequence of events, along which we the player are guided. Imagine, if you will, the pro­ces­sion of events in a game being like the pro­ces­sion of words in an (admit­tedly very drawn out) sen­tence. As things pro­gress, more becomes clear. First we have ‘I’. Ok, the sub­ject is dis­cussing her­self. Then ‘went to’. The sub­ject is talk­ing about her­self and some kind of move­ment of her entire being at some stage in the past. Now ‘the mar­ket’, which gives us the des­ti­na­tion of the move­ment as well as assum­ing a cer­tain com­mon knowl­edge of just what this ‘the mar­ket’ is. We now have the sub­ject, the action and the object of the sen­tence. Our speaker could stop there and have a per­fectly gram­mat­i­cal sen­tence, but she blesses us with a lit­tle more con­text in ‘yes­ter­day’, just to give us a slightly bet­ter read on when this event took place. Gradually, word by word, the what, where and when of an event have been com­mu­ni­cated.

Likewise, the mechan­ics and nar­ra­tives of story-driven games, (which is really to say, most games) grad­u­ally con­vey more infor­ma­tion about the con­text in which their events take place. As with the sen­tence above, we will often first be intro­duced to the player-character, the sub­ject of events. Perhaps we’ll then be given some wider infor­ma­tion of what, when, where, how and so on. The options are as wide and var­ied as all the sen­tences of English. But an over­whelm­ingly com­mon fea­ture of videogames is that they sit­u­ate their events in the past. When you play a game you may, like the lis­tener to the sen­tence above, be expe­ri­enc­ing your first per­cep­tion of the event it por­trays, but the inter­nal sug­ges­tion revealed by its gram­mar is that the event is already a done deal.

Consider the hum­ble ‘Game Over’ screen, some­times sub­sti­tuted with ‘You’re Dead!’ or ‘Fail’ or the straight-to-the-point ‘Continue?’ What this mes­sage usu­ally sig­ni­fies is ‘You did it wrong’. There is a cor­rect nar­ra­tive in any given game; per­haps it’s, ‘Mario reached the end of the level and saved the princess’ and your ‘Game Over’ screen rep­re­sents your diver­gence from that pre-destined nar­ra­tive. The story does not go, ‘Mario got past the ris­ing fire­ball but his momen­tum sent him run­ning straight off a precipice. The where­abouts of the princess is cur­rently unknown’. Mario DOES save the princess, just as soon as you stop fuck­ing it up. In many senses videogames carry an under­cur­rent of mean­ing which insin­u­ates that their out­come has already hap­pened; it is past tense. Our job as play­ers is to grad­u­ally unlock new seg­ments of the story, not to cre­ate it for our­selves.

Of course, there are games that have actively played with this aspect of their nature. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is deftly set up as a story told by the Prince to Farah, his female love inter­est, after he trav­els back in time and vis­its her before the events related even take place. If the player diverts the nar­ra­tive from its nor­mal con­clu­sion, say by falling off a ledge or dying in bat­tle, the Prince’s voiceover cuts in to blame the diver­gence on his own mis­re­mem­ber­ing: ‘Wait, that’s not how it hap­pened’.

The Assassin’s Creed series’ Animus device is a sim­i­lar con­ceit in that it cre­ates a nar­ra­tive facade for the player’s mechan­i­cal fail­ures. The game’s avatar-within-an-avatar sys­tem makes a gamer out of Desmond, who inhab­its the bod­ies of his assas­sin ances­tors. Desmond has con­trol of the body of his pre­de­ces­sors but not of their des­tiny, which is already laid out in his­tory. Thus he, (and, by exten­sion, we) may act out their lives within the game’s bound­aries, but stray­ing from the set path by, say, pre­ma­turely dying or mur­der­ing inno­cents causes Desmond’s game-within-a-game real­ity to lit­er­ally frag­ment and drift away. ‘Altaïr didn’t kill inno­cents’ it might say. You’re not play­ing it how it hap­pened. You’re telling the story wrong.

When it comes to Dark Souls there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s get this out of the way – Christ it’s fuck­ing hard. Good, now we can talk about some­thing inter­est­ing. Dark Souls is dif­fer­ent, in a hell of a lot of ways, one of which is that its gram­mar places it firmly in the present tense. In it one can find an accep­tance, if not out­right encour­age­ment, of the fail­ure state most games seek to rewind and rewrite. The game’s infa­mous, bru­tal dif­fi­culty links into its ‘Prepare to die’ tagline to man­i­fest a game at home with the prospect of fail­ure and replay. Dark Souls pulls few, if any, punches. You will fail. You will die. You will try again. And again. And again. And even then you still might not get any­where. If you aren’t will­ing to accept those con­di­tions, this is not the game for you.

But if you are you’ll find that Dark Souls is fully, the­mat­i­cally, mechan­i­cally con­sis­tent in its approach. If death in most games is merely a facade for the player’s fail­ure to pro­gress cor­rectly, what are we to make of the fact that you start this game dead? Clearly it is out to shake up the estab­lished norm. Death in Dark Souls returns you to the last bon­fire you were at, an old school check­point sys­tem, but you will return Hollow, an undead ver­sion of your pre­vi­ous self. The check­point is a famil­iar gam­ing mech­a­nism, but your undead self is sug­ges­tive of the pre­vi­ous, liv­ing self; the nar­ra­tive after your death is the same one it was before. No over­writ­ing here, you are relo­cated spa­tially but not tem­po­rally. When you are revived at the bon­fire you’ll find your inven­tory as it was at the moment you died, what you used up try­ing to sur­vive has gone. Also gone are the souls and human­ity (essen­tially in-game cur­ren­cies) you had col­lected until that point, but they haven’t dis­ap­peared like a col­lected score, they remain with a blood stain where you died. The game forces you to med­i­tate upon your death, your fail­ure, and choose whether to return and face the har­bin­ger of your defeat or lose your ill-gotten gains. Learn or suf­fer. These fea­tures pre­clude the ‘go back and start again’ nature of the major­ity of story-driven games. In Dark Souls, death is expected and accepted. The famil­iar check­point trope of gam­ing mutates into a present-tense, per­pet­u­ally evolv­ing moment, with your avatar expe­ri­enc­ing exactly the same death and renewal as you. You do not restart, you regress.

But it isn’t so straight­for­ward. For you and I, time slips con­tin­u­ally for­ward as we bal­ance pre­car­i­ously on the ever mov­ing pin­point known as the ‘present’. Behind us a grow­ing expanse of used ‘presents’ make up the ‘past’, while before us stretches the unknow­able vari­ety of pos­si­bil­i­ties that make up poten­tial ‘futures’. While Dark Souls adeptly con­jures a liv­ing expe­ri­ence of the present it simul­ta­ne­ously prob­lema­tizes our sense of the in-game past and future. When one rests at the afore­men­tioned bon­fire check­points to regain health, heal­ing items and save the game, every pre­vi­ously defeated enemy respawns in its orig­i­nal posi­tion. Likewise, return­ing to a bon­fire after death also respawns the ene­mies. Boss char­ac­ters don’t respawn, but die by their hand (claw/blade/dark sorcery/slathering maw) and when you return you’ll find them back in their start­ing state. Atop the Bell Tower of Undead Parish you’ll bat­tle an enor­mous Gargoyle which, once fought down to around half its health, will break your heart as it is joined by its equally mas­sive twin. Die to them, return to the last bon­fire and make your way back to the rooftop and you’ll find one Gargoyle await­ing you, at full health, to be joined by his buddy once you’ve chopped him halfway down again.

Brendan Keogh has read Dark Souls as time­less, pur­ga­to­rial. Perhaps he’s right. In this world, the sun’s rays break through the clouds, but it never moves, never sets, never rises. Non-aggressive char­ac­ters sit and wait for… for what? How long have they been here? Minutes? Millennia? Their voices are weary, hol­low, mad. I myself have watched syrupy hours seep past with­out mak­ing any true pro­gress, only to burst through the bar­rier and dis­cover great stretches of new land­scape in min­utes. What mock­ery of the past is this, when the ene­mies I’ve struck down pre­vi­ously stand before me again? And what muti­la­tion of the future, when I know the very enemy who stands around the next cor­ner, hav­ing fal­len to his strike before? This game pro­ceeds so deeply entrenched in the present tense it deletes the very foun­da­tions of the past and future.

The rules sur­round­ing the tra­di­tional Japanese poetry form ‘haiku’ are nowhere near as strin­gent as they are stereo­typ­i­cally thought to be. A haiku need not be made up of three lines of 575 syl­la­bles, for exam­ple, but rather ought to be less than 17 syl­la­bles in total length. While the con­ven­tions sur­round­ing the struc­ture of haiku are flex­i­ble, more rig­or­ous focus is put on con­tent. To be at its best a haiku will usu­ally present a cer­tain image fol­lowed by a piv­otal shift to another image. This sec­ond image usu­ally com­bi­nes with the first to give a rev­e­la­tion or dis­cov­ery, an ‘Aha!’ moment. The con­tent of a haiku is fre­quently nature-based and usu­ally has a light-hearted gen­tle­ness which belies a med­i­ta­tive sense of injected mean­ing. Consider Bashō’s sem­i­nal exam­ple of the form:

old pond …
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

Now I don’t know about you, but some­thing about the scarce detail, the intense focus, the famil­iar­ity of the themes means some­how… some­how I can almost hear the ‘plop’ of frog on pond. Haiku cap­ture moments like a pho­tograph. Not an image laid out before us imme­di­ately, but more like a polaroid that grad­u­ally reveals itself as we watch. Essential to a haiku is its use of the present tense, which sit­u­ates it firmly in the moment it looks to relate and thereby drenches that moment with mean­ing. Indeed, the haiku ide­ally seeks to place its reader inside the very moment it por­trays. In the very best haiku you find every­thing and noth­ing:

Just friends:
he watches my gauze dress
blow­ing on the line.
– Alexis Rotella (After an Affair, Merging Media, 1984)

at the height
of the argu­ment the old cou­ple
pour each other tea
– George Swede

the ceme­tery fence
is unable to hold back
white lilies
–Jane Reichhold

The use of the present tense endows haiku with both imme­di­acy and per­ma­nence in a very sim­i­lar way to Dark Souls, allow­ing us a slightly dif­fer­ent view of Dark Souls’ own use of it. There is no doubt that the game seeks to por­tray a night­mar­ish vision, but while a sense of pur­ga­to­rial limbo is an aes­thetic result this is not the only out­come. Through forc­ing a focus on even small moments, the con­ceal­ment of its wider nar­ra­tive and a strong med­i­ta­tive under­cur­rent of replay, learn­ing and under­stand­ing, the game presents itself like a long inter­ac­tive haiku. Dark Souls’ dis­tor­tion of its past and future acts like the white­space around a haiku, delet­ing any sense of the before and after and liv­ing only for the moment within. As Brendan writes, ‘People have told me Dark Souls is about the jour­ney, not the des­ti­na­tion. I think this is more true than they real­ize. I can’t imag­ine Dark Souls even has an end­ing’. The game’s wide appeal in spite of its sav­age inac­ces­si­bil­ity speaks vol­umes for the sub­tle ways it envelops its player into the con­text and rules of its world. Its gram­mar is con­sis­tent and, impor­tantly, is manip­u­lated to ful­fil its artis­tic vision. When one steps into the bro­ken tem­po­ral­ity of this game, every moment becomes some­thing to med­i­tate upon, every enemy a puz­zle, every sin­gle step a part of the story. There is noth­ing but the moment.


Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

  • Doc Merlin

    Nethack is also firmly in the present tense. Its also an absurdly hard game. Death (unless you are wear­ing an amulet of life sav­ing) is final, and the game treats you very much in the present tense.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    I love the idea of tenses in a gam­ing expe­ri­ence; excel­lent arti­cle. I wrote some­thing a while back for the old OntoGeek about the preva­lence of nar­ra­tive resets inves­ti­gat­ing some­thing sim­i­lar — http://​onto​log​i​cal​geek​.com/​a​d​d​i​t​i​o​n​a​l​-​p​y​l​o​n​s​-​y​o​u​-​a​r​e​-​d​e​ad/. I think your insight about the present-ness of such a game is valu­able; it more closely mir­rors the actual expe­ri­ence of time, and the inabil­ity to go back. I’m a big fan of Braid, but some of the themes in that game (explo­ration of the wish to go back and change what you did, be a bet­ter per­son) are more prop­erly explored in a game like Dark Souls, where there is a solid state of affairs and one’s fail­ures are liv­ing real­i­ties, not just a frus­trat­ing mem­ory. Still, even Dark Souls doesn’t have much weight in char­ac­ter and the sort of choices that most of us live with; I’d still love to see a game that is seri­ous about a nar­ra­tive that can­not be reloaded, but that deals with wider themes.

    Really enjoyed read­ing this! Thanks, Jim.