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 5−7−5 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
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:
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
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.
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.
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://ontologicalgeek.com/additional-pylons-you-are-dead/. 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.