Essay - Topological Time

Recently my research has taken a turn towards Michel Serres and his complex, topological conceptions of space and time. In “Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought,” Steven Connor lucidly describes Serres’ work across a range of subjects and texts. In a subsection entitled “Ethics and Topology” Connor offers the following summary: “The reason for preferring a vision of topological time to a system of linear time is because the latter is founded on and sustained by violence. Linear time is formed out of the monotonous rhythm of argument, contradiction and murder.” What follows is an extension of this criticism to linearity in video games, especially those titles that seek to criticize the very mechanics of linear gameplay, such as Far Cry 3. The overarching claim here is that video games are not violent for their content but for their very structure, for their portrayal of time as successive, and inherently progressive.

Topology

To begin, let’s first explicate topology and examine linearity in games, before returning to Serres. Topology, broadly stated, is the study of geometric spaces regardless of size or shape. Instead, we have innumerable potential forms and structures, each a transition from another mathematically bound instantiation of the same object. Topology is not about discontinuities, and so tearing and reforming is disallowed here. Rather, the aim is to study the bounded potential of an object, as when dough is folded, again and again, in on itself, bringing into contact previously remote regions (this metaphor appears frequently in the work of Serres and Bachelard before him). What does this have to do with a game like of Far Cry 3? I’d like to suggest that time, considered in topological terms, allows us to perceive the iterative, violent, and cyclical nature of linear game design. But before we can make this apparent we need to more clearly distinguish between topological time and linear time.

Linear Time/Topological Time

In a conversation with Bruno Latour, Serres described the flow of the Seine as the basis for classical linear time, which moves along from beginning to end in a smooth, sequential manner. But such a perspective overlooks the river’s “countercurrents or the turbulences” and so “Yes, time flows like the Seine, if one observes it well” (Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time 60). Connor succinctly paraphrases Serres here by stating that “to see time as linear is to mistake the means of measuring time for time itself.” On that note let’s consider media as tools for measuring other objects. Marshall McLuhan claimed that print is a linear medium; the eyes move from one word to the next, line after line, such that even though events may be unfolding simultaneously, they do so in a thoroughly linear fashion. Film, as a series of images presented in succession, is also thoroughly linear. Note that, like McLuhan, I am distinguishing between what we understand to be taking place in the mediation (content) and how that mediation is presented to us (medium). For instance, a film like Rashomon, with multiple perspectives, may suggest a non-linear structure but the fact remains that events nevertheless unfold in a fixed linear sequence. Events build up, causality accrues momentum, and time for the observer unfolds in a linear fashion. Nevertheless, it is difficult to perceive linearity as problematic without a counter example. Enter Serres’ topological time. Keeping in mind the metaphor of dough folding in upon itself, connecting distant points of the same structure, topological time suggests that time can fold past, present, and future in upon one another. The history of an object, say a person, still restricts the manner in which events can be folded but this is not a linear restriction. In a sense, linear events unfold, topological events merely fold. With my reading of media here, this would commit print and cinema to unfolding, and thus the ethically dubious linear time (exceptions are certainly available via the avant-garde, such as John Cage’s mesostics and his aleatory poetry, such as 2 pages, 122 words). However, Steven Connor, as committed to Serres as he is, is not convinced of the human capacity to process the non-linear:

“Just as there are no ‘out-of-body experiences’ that are not experienced in terms of the body (as floating in mid-air, or passing through tunnels, for example: who has ever reported becoming a gas or a glass of water), so there are no imagings, topological or otherwise, of the workings of time which do not depend upon the background assumptions of linearity and irreversibility. The tape recorder makes it possible to imagine time slowed, reversed, looped, granulated, because it retains the idea of a line or sequence.”

But is the tape recorder the best metaphor here? Hardly. The computer, however, offers a more persuasive account of non-linearity. While it’s certainly debatable whether a system which is largely composed of linear processes is in fact capable of presenting non-linear processes, that conversation will have to take place elsewhere. However, I do maintain that the study of computers has been stymied by metaphors of print and cinema. What’s more, I think as a metaphor, the computer, with its multiple, concurrent processes, is the closest approximation we have to topological time. Now, games scholars, I imagine your ears perked up at the notion of literature and cinema co-opting the study of another medium. It is known, and sometimes celebrated, that the production and reception of games is thoroughly coded in the language of print and cinema. But as it turns out, computers are so thoroughly saddled with tropes and techniques from these media that the very (temporal) processes executed by the software have been encoded with the biases of these other media. Indeed, video games have a convoluted history with linearity, such that in mainstream discussions, the term linear has gained a pejorative connotation, as in ‘I couldn’t get into that game, it was too linear and I didn’t agree with the choices made/presented.’ This, in part, reflects the emergence of ‘sandbox’ games where players have a greater degree of freedom to pursue their gameplay desires (but this too falls short, as we will see). Other developers have taken to openly criticizing linearity and in some cases this also involves criticizing the violence that typifies contemporary video games.

Ethics of Unfolding

In a recent interview, Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer on Far Cry 3, offered some candid remarks on his intentions for the game. Yohalem views Far Cry 3 as a commentary on the disconnect between narrative and gameplay. On the one hand there’s the drive to save your friends kidnapped at the opening of the game. On the other, there’s the objective-based missions that repeatedly sidetrack the resolution of the narrative. For Yohalem, the in-game missions constitute loops, such that:

“The end of this game is all about what you as a player are…Who you want to be in the face of these gameplay loops. Throughout this whole game we took you through all of these loops, and at the end we point them out to you. Citra [an ally throughout the game] literally says it, that she’s going to erase your save game, and she says if you want to win, you’re going to complete the final tattoo [a sign of progress in the game]. So the question is, do you want to win? Do you want to go through these gameplay loops.”

Recall that [in the word's of Steven Connor -Ed.] for Serres “Linear time is formed out of the monotonous rhythm of argument, contradiction and murder.” Yohalem sincerely believes that Far Cry 3 demonstrates the absurdity of these ‘loops,’ of repetitive, objective-based ‘progress.’ A key component of his criticism is that the player only experiences events from one perspective. And if players only took the time to consider alternative perspectives, the main character would be exposed as the delusional, colonial figure that he portrays. And here our example of Rashomon comes to mind for the issue is not a matter of perspective but of progression, which we’ve tied to linear forms of media and, potentially, to violence. And in this respect Yohalem couldn’t be more obliging: “My argument is that the player is an actor, and the game is the director.” But what if games aren’t like film? And what if for lack of a better metaphor games are telling the stories of another medium? And, finally, what if there is an ethically-grounded exigence to create games that tell their own, non-linear stories? Consider the driving force that pushes the player in the following remarks from Yohalem. Here he is describing a scene where the player must torture his own brother to maintain his cover as a member of the militant force on the island:

“Sure, you aren’t trying to save the world when you’re torturing your brother, but you are trying to get through this scene so the game you paid for keeps progressing. And that’s the same reason you might simulate torture in a game where there’s some loose plot about preventing a terrorist – it doesn’t matter that Jason’s intentions are personal, we’re only ever doing it to turn the page, and the point gets lost. In neither is the real world in any peril – there’s only the concern that we don’t get to see what happens next” [italics mine].

Again, the metaphor of a linear medium surfaces, such that to progress, in a novel, a film, or a game, is to move through waves of successive events or images or objectives. More specifically, in the current of mainstream games, gameplay flows relentlessly onward. But as Serres noted, the Seine moves in many directions.

Ethics of Folding

Let’s return to the passage that started this whole discussion, only this time let’s consider Connor’s reading of Serres in its entirety:

“The reason for preferring a vision of topological time to a system of linear time is because the latter is founded on and sustained by violence. Linear time is formed out of the monotonous rhythm of argument, contradiction and murder. Hegelian dialectics claim to use contradiction to give momentum and direction to history, but Serres sees only tautology and deathly repetition in this process. Seeking to defeat one’s opponent, or slaughter one’s enemy succeeds only in putting one in their place, as a future victim to be defeated or slaughtered in one’s turn. This world of endless conflicts, upheavals and usurpations is, for Serres, ultimately static. All analytic thinking, all thinking which distinguishes and separates, which aims to effect a clean break with the past and a pure leap into the future, detoxified, unencumbered, shriven, is complicit with this violence. The linear time which seems to be a product of these antagonisms is in fact blindly, savagely autistic, an endless trampling of the mud of the battlefield.”

Now let’s apply that, wholesale, to video games. Not only are mainstream games ‘sustained by violence,’ but all linear gameplay is complicit in this model of progress and succession. Not only is every (linear) game narrative guilty of the cycle where to “defeat one’s opponent, or slaughter one’s enemy succeeds only in putting one in their place, as a future victim to be defeated or slaughtered in one’s turn” but the very linear processes sustain a blind faith in progress through violence. Yes, even games critical of violence, even ones that believe they have transcended or shucked off violence nevertheless perpetuate this process: “All analytic thinking, all thinking which distinguishes and separates, which aims to effect a clean break with the past and a pure leap into the future, detoxified, unencumbered, shriven, is complicit with this violence.” To restate the thesis above, violent video games are not violent for their content but for their very structure, for their portrayal of time as successive, and inherently progressive.

Lingering Questions

What would a game based on topological time look like? Doesn’t the mind inherently narrativize experience in a linear manner? For the former, I’m not sure just yet, but I suspect that it involves the separation of cause from effect, such that the player does not immediately, or perhaps ever, perceive the outcome of his or her actions. Undoubtedly, the core mechanic of many mainstream games is the creation of causes and the appreciation of their effects. But if we were to dissolve the bond between cause and effect, between behaviour and reward, not only would this disrupt the violence of linearity, it would reflect an environment where the actions of an individual are not immediately perceptible. For as we have seen, the seemingly inconsequential actions of individuals the world over, aggregated over time, have enabled the events of the past to fold into the present, giving us the form of an ecological crisis, and a reshaped future as a result. It follows that a game where actions have unknown consequences is less about ‘Who should I shoot?’ and more ‘Should I pull the trigger?’ This may seem obvious in regards to a game so clearly ‘violent,’ but as we have seen, violence is in the structure more than the content. As for the mind being inherently linear, I certainly hope not. But I’m not sure we can answer that question until we immerse ourselves in media that are inherently nonlinear. My own creed, following McLuhan, maintains that media act as cultural metaphors that enjoy widespread recognition for their structural qualities. They enable new connections to be made across a wide audience by their very saturation of that culture (consider the mind as a computer and you’ve already begun this process). It’s not that we cannot think certain thoughts without certain media, but we can’t vocalize or express those thoughts (locally or globally) without the shared experiences brought about by mass media. In other words, a non-linear game has the potential to offer us a powerful new metaphor for an age that desperately needs an alternative paradigm of progress.