Nikolay Dybovsky of Ice-Pick Lodge:
Enemy Is on My Back!
Of the Role of Time in the Gaming Process
(Report from Russian Game Developers’ Conference 2006)
I will begin with a minute excuse. This report was written back in February (2006, Interpreter) but I kept on coming back to it from time to time to mend and add something. And every time all that I had written astonished me so much that I started over and over again. Last time I did it was exactly the night before I was to report, so here it goes again. I guess the topic itself is such that it takes over the thought and dictates from the very beginning. That is why this report turned out to be somewhat fragmentary.
I decided to address you as my colleagues, people that earnestly desire to truly understand all this. I will just share my observations that I managed to make and I won’t make any structured conclusions. This thankless toil I have prepared for you.
I will now shortly explain how this theme emerged. Last year I spoke on a theme that was called On the Threshold of the Bone House, or as Game Becomes Art. It was claimed therein that the game is a new form of thinking, a new form of human activity, a new form of art, a language most adequate to the contemporary reality. I said that the game helps the human, unlike all other pieces of art, survive the rite of passage in the best way. Some kind of a bone house that a youngster came in being yet a boy and there, in the course of some kind of game-like and conditional trial, but not less effective and frightful one nevertheless, he was turned into warrior, or hunter. Thus his relationships with the society, with the world, and the Cosmos achieved a whole new level.
This is the same thing that later, and in a way lesser form, got used to by the antique drama that was by nature an exhausted, weakened but still, ritual. Ritual that through catharsis, or purification, by changing the human nature through suffering brought him to a new step of difficulty and a new level of comprehension.
I claimed then that the player, in our case – more than in any other situation, be it reader, spectator of a play or a movie, the player is an immediate participant of things happening. He is not only an observant who empathizes, even if he most intensely empathizes, identifies himself to the things that are happening before him on stage or on screen. He is also a participant of this act more than anywhere else. The very nature of the game insists that it be so and not in a different way.
The role of the player is to actualize this metamorphosis with his own hands. It happens either with the player himself or the gaming world that he interacts with. But then, of course, more severe conditions are applied to that world, to its composition and construction. Because in the end the metamorphosis of the world that is being done by an immutable player has to reach him as well.
I said then that this construction implies, first of all, some instability, non-equlibrium, some instability that is tolerated in a catastrophic, tragically acute way, so that the person entering this instability can’t help leading it to at least a propinquity of harmony, order, and Cosmos. And that that is where the artistic mission of the player concealed. Because the player is not a consumer but exactly a co-author of the game. That is, the game is an instrument that, no matter how many times you sat yourself down before this game, each time will be an effective experience to you, as much as from a rollercoaster. However many times you’ve ridden it, the effect that you reached in the first time will be felt.
After that a squall of questions fell on me. There have been many letters that generally contained this idea: all that you were saying, mister, is very nice of course and very fair too, but it is impossible. That is, all these things you’ve told are some good-natured fantasy that may be a very good pole of dreaming, craving, and claiming, and it is good that you’ve shown us this pole, good that you’ve given pledge of allegiance to it, but the game will never be that. They said that the game is a commercial product, a commodity. Why pretend? All is clear. All these marvels are nothing but dreaming about sorcery, magic that still is congenial with all of us for we, more than representatives of other professions, are children inside. You desire for marvels? Well, let’s dream of marvels together.
That got me mad. Also because I’m talking about things that are not good natured but evil ones, because to my mind, that is the most helpful reaction. In my opinion, all sorts of approval and support are pleasant but not effective. I got mad and decided to show that these techniques exist. More than that, there is no practical use saying that the task needs a more structured solution, and that it will take several decades before best minds get hold of it, designers, producers, and some random geniuses that flash like supernovas. They do not know anything, do not study anything but just explode, deny all these theories and witty talking and just do what they need to do. I, by the way, hope that such genius will emerge soon. I am positive that this may happen in the next few years, in our time. But that is not what we are talking about here.
So I just decided to show an elementary trick. I thought, hell, why not? These tricks are many. Some even worked in Pathologic thatin its turn, succeeded, at most, fifteen or twenty percent of what it was meant to.
Thus I decided to dedicate this report to the most simple, as I thought at that moment, trick. A trick that would most graphically demonstrate an absolutely killing effectiveness unexpected even by us, the developers. Let me tell you about Time. Here it is, all around us. You can feel it. It is some fundamental measuring of our being. Who needs time to be explained to? What could be simpler? It is easy to explain to a three-year old.
Comrades, that’s where I was sorely wrong. I crawled into that bone house and haven’t got out ever since. Time turned out to be a thing most frightful, scaringly complex. And, since the Games Developers’ Conference is already here and it is already April, and I have to tell you something, I will at least tell you in what condition I am now. How far I got inside that bone house and how close I am to the exit.
At this point I will briefly tell what will not be present in this report. There will be no analysis of existing games. There will be no such specific game-designer’s detailed sort of analysis of what kinds of time there are in the game, the more so, I believe that most current games deny time altogether. And those conditional, in a bad sense of the word, all those molested, unreal, made-up forms of time, its crude imitations do not deserve to be called time at all. Because at its best, it is just a kind of factor that provides for contest. But Time as a fundamental category that makes the man most fully cark things that are happening – I saw it only in The Last Express, perhaps.
I will not curse the industry and current tendencies that treat this category in such weird way, while it, as it would seem, just cries to be used more actively. I think you will agree that gamest today crave to freeze or eliminate time. I understand why this is happening, for time is a dangerous, evil and uncomfortable thing that kills a person literally before or eyes, and that makes the consumer suffer. Players, as consumers, are being provided with a cozy comfortable life. It sells.
It is not for the first time that we are making this mistake.
In 1986, Sir James Lighthill, who was President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Mathematics, spoke before the whole humanity on behalf of the scientific community with an astonishing claim. Sir Lighthill said that, speaking for all scientists of the world, he tenders an apology for the fact that the scientific thought has been fooling the educated humanity for three hundred years, creating a wittingly false concept of the world. What he meant was a scientific paradigm based on the laws of Newton, Leibniz and all that system of knowledge that supposed that the world is determined, reversible in time. Most likely, the physical model is implied, as biology can’t deny the arrows of time, it inevitably comes to them. He meant physics, namely. That is in the West. In the Orient, of course, everything is very different.
The era of determinism created the sensation that the world was being controlled by the humans. It created the feeling that the arrow of time didn’t exist, and that any state may be reversed to the parent state. That any system is a linear, orderly thing.
Sir Lighthill declared that, since the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics emerged, the following discoveries completely denied the expedience of the former scientific paradigm.
The world became non-linear. A whole new series of works emerged that cursed and swore all the former system of knowledge, and all this was done so fiercely that Kapitsa* and Kurdyumov** recently released a series of justifying works.
(*Pyotr Kapitsa, 1894-1984, Soviet scientist, Noble Prize in Physics laureate;
**Sergey Kurdyumov, 1923-2004, Head of the Applied Mathematics Department in the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Science. Int.)
Anyway, scientists acknowledged that the world is non-equilibrium, not linear, nor stable. And it is tragically unstable. Are you feeling common aspects? And all this fatal instability of the world (that is, as we will further see, not as fatal as it is interesting) emerges due to one circumstance – the arrow of time.
What is the arrow of time?
Hawking*** distinguishes three arrows: thermodynamic arrow that turns space into chaos with a frightening systematicness, thus increasing entropy. The psychological arrow, that is, the perception of time that exists in all of us. And, lastly, the cosmological arrow. This one is the arrow that describes the development of the Universe. It is conventional now to suppose that the Universe expands; but there are people that believe that it may be crunching, too. Anyway, I’ll drop this glass now and we’ll see if it comes back… No, it doesn’t return to the table. Here, Hawking writes that when we suddenly see the broken cup coming back to the table, this will mean we’re witnessing the turning point in development of our Universe. It expanded and expanded, and now it began to crunch.
(***Stephen W. Hawking, 1942-, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA, British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author, Int.)
The arrow of time allows us to tell the past from the future.
The arrow of time is not the absolute time that Hawking, specifically, claims to be some illusory system that allows enumerating each occurrence. So that if all people had very precise watches, the same period of time would pass between two such events. No. There is “imaginary” time, there is individual time, but it will suffice that all of you sense the same time as I do. You do not get younger with time. Pitifully, we all are moving towards some predictable end.
But there is another kind of time that I would like to recall with connection to all this talking about Game as the bone house, about this initiation ritual that give rebirth as long as culture, art and pieces of art exist. They connect the human to a system called the archetype. The mythological consciousness is still relevant, although it satisfies me less and less lately. Only few years ago I was an absolute adept of myth. Myth, namely, a system of knowledge, fundamental perception that allows explaining virtually everything. But that is a very deceiving trap, not less deceiving than the above-mentioned determinism.
Myth denies time, does not perceive it as a line. Although myth supposes some consequence of occasions it can also tell the future from the past, but it denies the arrow of time. Myth acknowledges cycles. Cycles that concentrically revolve, one inside another. We cark cycles time after time, the change of day and night, rise and setting of the sun, the change of Fall to Winter. This system of cycles, due to archetypicality of the mythological conscious, allows us to perceive cycles of ever increasing dialysis, up to the cosmic scale. Myth always implies eschatology, that is, end of days, cosmogony, as the beginning of time, eschatology and cosmogony again. The circle is not always complete, and that brings hope.
Whatever tongue-tied my speech may be, I believe you have noticed how astoundingly these situations repeat each other. How strange it is that this picture of the world that scientists recently came to resembles so much the picture of the ideal game that we blindly fumbled just recently. Well, at least we at Ice-Pick Lodge. I was always shocked that it was fumbled in such a strange way. That this unbalanced, non-equilibrant system that I imagine the ideal game to be, that demands for the player to intrude to turn chaos into cosmos, resembles the picture of world so much. And the necessity of time in the game, - how close it is connected to the necessity of the arrow of time that scientists came to, thus creating numerous problems that makes their work ever so difficult. I will stress this again: the Game really appears in its most ideal and adequate form in this light. Firstly, to better mirror the contemporary world; secondly, having walked through the game to perceive the world right. I asseverate that the game as it currently is vitally demands for irreversible time. It is better to use the word irreversibility. It is more precise. In former works this exact aspect was stressed. Irreversibility is the cause of instability.
From my point of view the game must incarnate the task of synthesis of times. The cyclical time, the time of archetype, cannot be conveyed in game. The cyclical time is real without that anyway. We don’t have to imitate the change of cycles in the game. We have all that inside us. There is a child within us that remembers the myth, therefore it will inevitably work. Its function is simple – to make a symbol work as a symbol. So that we would have this tiny local game world that is being built inside, this constructed by us, encoded with bugs, poorly drawn tiny local cosmos plugged into the real cosmos. So that every element of the drawn game would turn into an element of the real cosmos, and that our actions within the game would sustain in the real cosmos.
If we include these things into the game they will start to work. Some say we succeeded with this in Pathologic, although I do not think so. Anyway, these symbols work.
The arrow of time in the game must be for real, because the game’s arrow of time must ideally overlap our arrow.
I remember when we were contemplating what our next game was to be like there were ideas that a man live five hours until the end of the world, and without an opportunity to save. Exactly five hours, not a second more. This situation, in my opinion, is very interesting and quite rich.
If time in a game converges to a point, then life lived before the game lastly converges to zero. If we take everything I’ve depicted, we will have not a triangle but a semantic rectangle. And if we connect cycles to this, the rectangle then turns into a trapeze.
Now, to the aim of this report. Why time is enemy? To call time an enemy is as stupid as to call space an enemy. Now I am talking specifically about the trick. I suppose that game is a conflict of reason that precipitates the man into dangerous and scary conditions from which he then may exit as a winner or loser. In the game, in this conflict the enemy is fake. It is like as if you entered a boxing ring just to face a mannequin. Yes, you will have your victory. But, this is not an enemy. How can you take the victory for real if you have fought with a mannequin! Even if it was a virus.
When we were making Pathologic, I wanted to create not a graphical polygonal enemy but a diffused one. I said in an interview that pestilence, this disease was a metaphor of pure evil. However, it still was an AI. We were weeping over this. We wanted to introduce the real evil into the game but in the end it all came to artificial intellect. This is not evil, not an enemy, a worthy opponent. This is like kicking the dead horse.
I believe time to be that exact entropic process that systematically turns the cosmos into chaos, breaks the cups, kills people. This is the real enemy, the enemy worth fighting with. And, how can this enemy be defeated? I don’t know. But the key is concealed right there, that, as Prigogine**** wrote, all non-equilibrium systems are irreversible but, theoretically, local victory of cosmos over chaos is possible. Local turning chaos into cosmos is possible. So when Prigogine is writing about change of paradigm he says it is possible specifically on the account of local victory. The game theoretically can make this local victory of cosmos over chaos feasible and help the player do this. For the player is not the reason for the conflict. It is also understandable that the arrow of time always works against the player. Not exactly an “enemy” but an opponent, without doubt. Time as a friend does not exist.
(****Ilya, Viscount Prigogine (Belg.), 1917-2003, Russian Belgian chemist and physicist, a Noble Prize in Chemistry laureate, noted for his work on complex systems, non-equilibrium systems, chaos and irreversibility, Int.)
So let the player be in the very center, the very core of cosmos, in the game. And the game is some kind of mechanism, some labyrinth that he enters and won’t exit. This labyrinth places the player in the very heart of the Universe, and then his every deed sustains in all levels of this Universe. That’s when the player’s victory can become an astonishing, true victory.