Unified Games

The Classical Unities & Open-World Games

Essay - Unified Games

Paul Bills is an English student at Brigham Young University focusing on the connection between videogames and literature.


In recent years, the open world philosophy of game design has moved from innovative exception to nearly the norm. The idea of completely fleshed-out spaces that are fully interactive and explorable has gripped the minds of players and developers alike, and literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the pursuit of the biggest, most detailed open world game possible on current hardware. This development has seemed like a revolution in game design, but it is really just the ultimate realization of the literary and dramatic theories of the unities that have existed since Aristotle.

Classical Unities

The oldest theory of unity in narrative is that of the classical unities, a set of rules for stage drama first suggested by Aristotle in 335 BC and solidified by Italian and French critics in the 16th and 17th centuries during the Neoclassical movement. The three unities—time, action, and place—restricted the action of a play (almost always tragedies in these time periods) to a single day, a single plot, and a single place. Even among its own proponents, the unities were constantly in dispute. For instance, in John Dryden’s influential Essay of Dramatic Poesy, he summarizes the views of his contemporaries on the unity of time as “the compass of a Natural day” but adds that many also thought that the unity of time shouldn’t be just restricted to a day, but that dramatists should take care “that no Act should be imagined to exceed the time in which it is represented on the Stage,” meaning whatever happened over the course of the two or three hour play can only occur in two or three hours of the characters’ lives. Also, “place” was kind of hard to define—did that mean a single room, or a single city? Again, Dryden explains that some insisted that the place of the play should be no bigger than the physical space allowed by the stage, and the stage should represent the exact same place the entire time. While aggravatingly restricting, in their heyday the unities gave rise to some impressive and innovative tragedies. As the Encyclopedia Britannica says, by “confining the crises of their characters’ lives to a single setting and a brief span of hours, [these writers] produced a unique form of tragedy that derives its austere power from its singleness of concentration.”

Though surely not bound to the classical unities, plays since the Neoclassical era, as well as films, and TV have often kept to them either coincidentally or on purpose to increase their emotional impact. The film version of Clue satisfies all the unities, and the television series 24 is built on the premise of the unity of time in both its classical senses–both that all the action happens in a single day and that it happens in real time as each season unfolds over 24 hour-long episodes.

Open-World Games

In the age of videogames, open world games accomplish the goals of the classical unities in ways never before possible, even if not intentionally. Ever since the first Elder Scrolls games introduced and Grand Theft Auto 3 (Rockstar 2001) widely popularized the concept of a large 3D environment that is completely contiguous and deeply interactive in the sense that players can manipulate the majority of objects and subjects found within the world, hundreds of games have tried their best to follow suit and create a new kind of unity of place, one completely impossible to Neoclassical dramatists but with the same goal: detail and immersion. Just as Neoclassical dramatists wanted an audience to feel like they weren’t watching a stage but a real place by never upsetting the integrity of that space as a single location, many modern game designers want players to feel like they’re exploring a real, single, and whole place. As Jane McGonigal argues in her book Reality is Broken (2011), players are attracted to these worlds because the environments are “epic…vast, interactive spaces that provoke feelings of curiosity and wonder” (98). Every curtain drop and set shift reminds play-goers that they’re watching a stage, and every loading screen and level switch reminds players that they’re playing a game – cutting off those feelings of curiosity and wonder. Dramatists and game designers both came up with essentially the same bold solution to maximize immersion and maintain those feelings—don’t change the set, don’t cut, and don’t load. Nearly every review of GTA V (Rockstar 2013) makes some mention of two things: the enormous size of the contiguous game world that doesn’t require any loading screens, and its “insane” attention to detail. Both of these aspects provide some of the game’s greatest appeal (as Alex Taylor argues in The Independent, an even greater appeal than the game’s infamous violence) and it relates directly to the ideal of a unity of place that has existed in fiction since Aristotle.

More recently, open world games have extended their reach to a second unity: time. Most videogames—even open world games—not only ignore the unity of time, but completely reverse it or destroy it by altering time itself. The recently released Batman: Arkham Origins (WB Interactive 2013), for instance, supposedly takes place all in a single night, yet takes an average of 18 hours to play just the main storyline, with a good 20 more hours of gameplay possible in side activities. Most traditional linear games, if they pay attention to a sense of time at all, simply hard code which level happens at what time of day, and time only progresses as the player progresses from level to level. Other games like Braid or Prince of Persia use time manipulation as a primary mechanic. However, as open world games get more complex, time gets more and more direct attention in the games’ systems. In the most extreme case, the Animal Crossing series plays entirely in real time both by clock and calendar. The game reflects both the real time of day and season of the player, and even recognizes major holidays. In the same spirit of real time passing, recent open world games like GTA V and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Ubisoft 2013) include compressed-time day-night cycles (and even weather patterns) that play out as the player explores the open world. In the case of GTA V, a day plays out every 48 minutes of real time, as every 2 seconds of real time is one game world minute. Effectively, these games represent a new kind of unity of time that, while compressed, still binds the fiction to a sense of passing time that helps to increase the immersion into the fictional world. And as all this occurs inside a wholly unified place, suddenly both the unities of time and place are satisfied in ways that 17th century scholars never saw, but which nevertheless fit their theories.

Interestingly enough, while the unities of time and place seem to have weight to open world game designers, the very appeal of open world games is the lack of a unity of action. Here, the videogame medium leaves all other forms of entertainment behind and comes fully into its own. These games succeed because they give an illusory sense of complete freedom to the player to choose their own activities. Yes, there is often (but not always) a central story, but one of the biggest—if not the biggest—selling points of open world games is the wide variety of activities available to the player. In fact, many players choose to ignore the central story of the game and just want to play around in the world on their own, as was evidenced by the backlash to Assassin’s Creed III’s (Ubisoft 2012) long intro sequence and the company’s subsequent altering of ACIV the next year to allow open world gameplay right from the outset (see this review of ACIV). Clearly, to some people the point of these games is in the way they destroy of the unity of action with the appeal to do whatever they want, not stick to a single storyline. Taking away this sense of freedom would undermine everything open world games have accomplished with unifying time and place in their worlds. The irony, of course, being that this appeal is actually enhanced as the other two unities are more closely adhered to—the bigger and more complete the world and the more realistic the sense of time passing within it, the more enticing the promise to “go anywhere and do anything” seems to be.

The Old Dramatic Ideal

However, though the original unity of action may be destroyed by open world games, in many ways its ideals are still upheld. The original purpose of the unity of action–the unity Aristotle himself was most concerned about–was the imitation of a “complete” action. In his own words: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude … As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole.” The practical restraints of a stage play dictated a maximum duration and maximum space, from which the regulations of the first two unities were derived. The unity of action dealt with narrative restricted by those restraints, and thus Aristotle suggested a “whole” action as only one action taking place. But what happens when the restraints on space and duration are lifted? Then a “whole” and “complete” action of the “object imitated” must grow in proportion, and the unity of action grows to become not the study of a single action, but perhaps the study of a “whole” character.

While the variety of activities in open world games is often immense, each game provides only the variety available to the character(s) portrayed, and thus playing the game becomes a study of the “whole” lives of these characters. As Ian Bogost points out about GTA III in his book Unit Operations (2006), “Those who argue that one can ‘do anything’ in Liberty City are mistaken: the game constantly structures freeform experience in relation to criminality” (157). Side activities like tennis games in GTA V or tavern checkers in ACIV represent a unity of action because they represent a “whole” of their respective “imitated objects.” If we wish to know the “whole” of Michael’s life, we need to play some tennis. If we wish to see the “whole” of Edward Kenway’s life, we need to sit in a tavern and play a game of checkers. Thus, the unity of action seems destroyed by open world games, but in reality it is only expanded to fit the expanded scope of time and place provided by the medium.

Open world videogames are a new phenomenon, but they certainly owe credit to the powerful ideas of Aristotle and Neoclassical critics that came centuries before them. All three of the classical unities—time, place, and action—are satisfied in new and interesting ways by open world games, much to the same effect of the original classical unities, mainly, increased immersion and deeper emotional connection and impact. In that way, the open world game isn’t a revolution at all, but a late answer to a very old dramatic ideal.


Discussant’s Reply

Roger Travis is an Associate Professor of Classics in the Department of Literatures, Cultures & Languages of the University of Connecticut, as well as the Director of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in classics from Harvard College, as well as a PhD comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley.

Paul, your essay on the classical unities and open-world games presents a very welcome addition to the slowly growing corpus of scholarship seeking important roots of digital game culture in the classical world. I think the gesture of reading some of the most significant elements of games like The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto in light of the classical dramatic theory that goes back to Aristotle can help us make an important step forward in our resources for humanist critique not just of these games but also of a much wider range of games that afford players similar mechanics.

In the interest of moving the conversation even further along, I think it may be helpful to mention that Aristotle’s unities are symptomatic of the approach he takes towards art in general and drama in particular–and tragedy most particularly of all–an approach that arose in his effort to secure tragedy against the criticisms of Aristotle’s teacher Plato. Ever since, theorists have tended to flock towards Aristotle’s more optimistic view of things like tragedy and video games. I am convinced that tempering prescriptive Aristotelian concepts like the classical unities (and indeed such ideas a catharsis) with more descriptive Platonic notions of the relationship between mimesis (playing pretend, more or less) to the rest of culture can move us even further along than we would be able to go simply by accepting Aristotle’s idea that tragedy and digital games are a separate aesthetic sphere without ethical significance.

The Aristotelian prescription for an open-world game, as seen in the way you (following Bogost) analyses the closure of the possibility-space, gives us an experience that seems isolated from the rest of culture. Now that we have your argument, I would suggest that we should see what it means for the capacity of digital games for ideological critique.

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing, Inc. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Dryden, John. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Poetry Foundation. 1668. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Hamilton, Kirk. “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag: The Kotaku Review.” Kotaku. Gawker Media. 29 Oct 2013. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Kelly, Andy. “Review: Grand Theft Auto V achieves the extraordinary.” CVG. Future plc. 16 Sep 2013. Web. 21 Jan 2014

MacDonald, Keza. “Grand Theft Auto V Review.” IGN. IGN Entertainment. 16 Sep 2013. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Martjinn. “Day night cycle.” GTA Forums. 15 Sep 2013. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print

Sessler, Adam. “Grand Theft Auto 5 REVIEW! Adam Sessler Reviews.” Rev3Games. Discovery Communications, LLC. 16 Sep 2013. YouTube. 21 Jan 2014.

Totilo, Stephen. “Grand Theft Auto V: The Kotaku Review.” Kotaku. Gawker Media. 16 Sep 2013. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

“Unities.” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 21 Jan 2014.