Chronotope of the Encounter and RPGs
The chronotope of the encounter is a key aspect of Bakhtin’s theory of chronotopes. He uses encounters himself when discussing the road and the adventure novel to distinctly set apart moments “action” from moments of journey. The encounter serves a plurality of functions for the adventure novel especially: the hero’s progress is often more accurately described in encounters than time or space. When discussing how much of the plot of The Hobbit Peter Jackson’s first The Hobbit film covered, we do not say “the first ten months of the journey” or “24 miles into the journey.” Rather, we mark The Hobbit’s passage of time by the encounters: the film covered the Trolls, the meeting of Gollum and the escape from the mountains. Indeed, time on the road in an adventure novel feels timeless: “a week journey” often suffices to cover a week of the characters’ lives in three words. The story takes on flesh when the “suddenlys” occur: when an encounter springs on the heroes from the sidelines of the road, and impedes progress.
Bakhtin would have been unable to foretell just how important the concept of chronotope would be to the discussion of video games down the line; nonetheless, the chronotope of video games is arguably a more rich area of analysis than the chronotope of the novel. Consider the encounters of the modern video game: you do not track how far along through a Legend of Zelda game you’ve finished by how many miles or years Link has experienced. Contrarily, Link seems to experience no time as the player dawdles about smashing pots and entering competitions instead of saving Hyrule. We mark time in encounters – the most recent boss fight, which is often started by Link entering an arena and then being startled when the boss “suddenly” appears. The music quickens, and the space takes on flesh: you’re trapped in one space, you learn its intricacies. You feel the passage of time, because you’re doing one activity for longer. The encounter is the core marking mechanism in a video game.
In the creation of Kypros as a world, this concept of the road, the encounter and the journey offer interesting challenges in the establishment of a rich world. In video games, the world essentially freezes when the player is not facing it: no time passes in villages the player is not currently exploring. The player can stand without entering commands for years and the threat mere minutes away from destroying the world will never actually finish the job it’s poised to do. The world only takes on flesh directly around the player, and the that is only if the player gives it time to do so before zipping to the next path.
But the encounter is the key to the fantastic experience: how can an event seem extraordinary and supernatural without pensive reflection, without it occurring as a sudden, unexpected encounter. Video games are inherently adventurous by player-necessity: there needs to be goals and progress, at least in the current commercial climate. How do you have the fantastic encounter, which merges in spite of the expectations of time, space and logic when the medium itself calls for adventurous encounters, where the only passage of time is felt? Imagine, for example, if time passed freely in a village. The old died, the young aged, etc. But then there was an old witch living in the middle of the desert, who seemed to last for generations. If this is told to the player, that’s one thing… but if the player could experience it themselves it would be an entirely different affect. Imagine spaces that the player is made intimately familiar with: is forced to investigate thoroughly earlier on, but then returns to find it inexplicably changed. Or, a creature enters this familiar space and violates its boundaries. These encounters, with the spectacular emerging in opposition to the flesh of the mundane, will be at the heart of Kypros’s world.
It’s hard, because in many ways when you design a game world you’re essentially painting with blood and grass juice on a cave wall. In a few hundred years, the tools to create proper video games – the equivalent of modern paints to our struggling cave artist – will exist. The difference between us and our ancient friend is that we’re aware of how limited our tools are. The limits of the medium of video games far outclasses the artistic limits of great game directors. Imagine if S.T.A.L.K.E.R. worked perfectly and accurately reflected the hopes of the development team? Or if PS:T conformed entirely to the Avellone’s vision? I think using concepts like chronotopicity artistically helps mitigate some of the technical failures of our tools, and in Kypros the chronotope is a formal, artistic consideration in development.