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  • Knowing The Difference Between Time And Progression

    [08.21.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi
  • Video games take time  - time to play, time to create. And all the while they inhabit their own chronol construct that's entirely separate from both the game's creation and play. Narratively though, games only move in one direction, even if mechanics allow them to do otherwise.

    "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time." - Leo Tolstoy

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    Progress in games is an idea often illustrated by two methods. One, the time the player has put into the game and thus advanced the story. And two, how powerful the player character has become. Time played and the amount of the story completed aren't mutual in most games. The increase in the number of open world games and those considered games-as-a-service or free-to-play games as so many offerings on mobile are means that "completion rates" are an inadequate measure. Take No Man's Sky, Destiny 2 or Clash of Clans for example. All three games are difficult in their own right to say when they end though each has their own progression mechanics.

    Even how powerful a character is and what gear they have isn't always a good means of determining how far along a player is in a game. Especially if there are loot crates or other methods to overcome gameplay progression or time systems. Rarely do such things affect the narrative. Rather it can be bypassed all together or simple ignored as is the case with games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Rainbow Six Siege. There may be story to the world, but it's not told through traditional narrative. Instead it's relegated to lore, cutscenes that occur outside of gameplay, trans-media iterations and other methods.

    Neither of those is the topic of today's episode. What I want to focus on is how games' narratives are affected by progression mechanics. Throughout this series I've spoken about the need for failure - how it's more interesting narratively, heightens the odds a particular character is up against, and is paramount in creating change. The problem is that failure can be something hard for game designers to reckon with their need to empower players.

    What Is Progression

    Progression is about moving forward, not necessarily to some clear goal, but away from the starting position abilities, looks or location that a character and the player found themselves in at the beginning of the game. Games like Halo, Mario and Diablo II illustrate the traditional means of progression. As characters progress through the game levels they move away from their starting locations, gain new abilities and generally become more powerful. This says nothing about the player's ability, but that too in all likelihood has increased adding to the sense of progression.

    Progression doesn't have to be entirely linear as long as there is some change occurring. That's why games like Path of Exile, Tomb Raider, and Destiny 2 offer players the choice of what to develop even as they continue to progress in a recognizable manner. Yet these games take players back to the same areas again and again, though they do so with new and more powerful abilities being able to access additional aspects of that particular play space or take on different enemies.

    Narrative progression in these games is generally not as closely tied to the player character's development but rather their location within the game world. Some gating may occur as particular enemies cannot be accessed or overcome without certain abilities. But it's not a requirement. Through all of this there is the progression of time. Many games these days have a counter for the amount of time spent on them, and if they don't then services like Steam, Xbox Live, or Playstation Network will track the amount played. Time, abilities and location as a means of marking progression all create problems for writers, storytellers and narrative designers. Namely because the hold them to only telling a linear story.

    Older mediums have been playing with progression and time in exciting and perplexing ways that video games have yet to do. Catch-22 repeats the same scenes again and again from different perspectives. Pulp Fiction sets scenes out of order, and How I Met Your Mother not only set entire episodes out of order but would retcon its own story. Each of those mediums - novels, film, and television - can do that because they aren't also concerned with a player's progression. The audience still proceeds through them in a linear fashion, but without any concern for the impact that has on a characters power.

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