by Frank Tavares
The idea of limitations in narrative was brought up some weeks ago, specifically regarding how medium or platform can limit or enhance a narrative. The example of Dungeons and Dragons was brought up, in the context of being a near-limitless narrative space. Through discussion, however, we showed how this is not entirely true. DnD has rulebooks, dice rolls, parameters within which there is freedom. During this discussion, I came up with a hierarchy of sorts in my head, where there was a scale of the most constrained form of an interactive narrative, becoming more and more limitless, with our actual life at the other end of the spectrum, representing true limitlessness. Upon further reflection, I think that this hierarchy is incredibly flawed and an inaccurate way of looking both at narrative and at life.
There is no way to really quantify “limitlessness,” so to speak. Even in an open world game, there are numerous limitations. In Skyrim, for example, you have the option open to you to do a plethora of things with the physical space. You can go into any village and go on a killing spree, if you wish, or jump off a waterfall into a river, or climb to the top of almost any mountain you can see on a map. You can make changes to the narrative as well, choosing to side with either the Imperial army or the Nord rebels. You can even find and talk to companions. But, I would argue, you can’t have any kind of meaningful relationship with those companions. You don’t affect their lives in an important way. If you look at almost any game by Telltale, this is the primary goal: to have a cast of characters in which your choices and relationships have a lasting impact. But most would put a Telltale game on the far more limited end of the above spectrum, in comparison to Skyrim. In a Telltale game, almost everything is scripted. You have different paths, but each path is constructed for you. So, how do we define limitations? Do we define it by the emotional capacity for variability or the opportunities to interact physically in a world? When discussing Choose Your Own Adventure novels, many talked about how it felt as if none of those choices mattered or were important, and others thought that the sheer vast differences in possibilities made them less limited. There is no right answer. Limitations come in different forms and are interpreted differently by different people. So thinking of those limitations as a spectrum makes no sense. All narratives are limited, though perhaps in different ways. And life itself is no different.
The initial assumption that real life would be the prime example of limitlessness was also deeply flawed. There’s an almost limitless number of limitations in life, both conscious and subconscious. There’s the expectations of our parents, or of society. There’s the habitual patterns that we fall into, and rarely choose to break. There’s limitations placed on us by society based on our identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, class, and others. To be able to claim life is limitless is both a display of privilege and of a lack of self-reflection. Such a claim can only be made by not looking closely at the unspoken forces that govern both our own minds and society, as well as how we interact with those forces. Looking at video games as an example of interactive narrative allows us to better think about these concepts, since these limitations are manifested in more easily identifiable ways, allowing us to better understand reality through analogy.