Time Travel & Narrative

In my senior year at SCAD, I led the development of a project that I entitled Rift. I became very fond of that name. It is a simple word, but it has a powerful and mysterious connotation and I greatly enjoyed designing a logo with those four letters. Then, a month after we completed the prototype, you know who is announced and I no longer have a usable project title. While I will always refer to the initial project as Rift, as I continue to develop the concepts it explored, I will need a more general, less already-copyrighted name. I haven’t come up with one yet.

Most of the development I’ve done on “the project formerly know as Rift” has been in constructing the narrative and defining the rules of this fictional universe. Because the story takes place across multiple parallel and tangential universes, however, it is more of a fictional multiverse. I could also say that I’ve been working on establishing the history of the universe, but much of it takes place in the future (relative, at least, to where the story begins) so that description might not be completely accurate, either.

The story of Rift is told from the perspective of a young boy named Nathan who was still figuring out how his own world worked when a catastrophic event pulled him into a much stranger reality. The narrative follows this boy through different stages of his life as he attempts to reconcile his everyday reality with the surreal scenes and experiences he occasionally finds himself in. He is like a two dimensional flatlander who has been picked up into the third dimension and then dropped back into flatland. The story considers the effect this might have on a young child’s development. Even though the physical area of the Rift disaster was fairly small, the incident left the structure of time weak across many parallel and tangent universes. This allows the narrative to explore alternate versions of the protagonist’s development as the main character occasionally becomes “unstuck” in his location in the multiverse. Throughout the story the character comes across versions of himself that resulted from making different choices or who experienced different outcomes to events.

The interesting challenge I’m getting myself into is in making a narrative-based game that involves time travel. Making a linear game about time travel is fairly simple because you’re only taking the player on one possible path through the story. The major appeal of time travel fiction, though, at least in my mind, is the chance to travel back in time, change one event and observe the resulting timeline. Allowing any form of choice by the player, however, quickly gets you into some very complicated branching story lines.  What I’m interested in doing is allowing the player to, in essence, explore different paths of a branching story by traveling back to key points in time and altering events to observe the outcome.

I’m still not entirely sure how this type of gameplay would fit into the story of young Nathan, though. The responsibility of intentionally changing past events is probably something he won’t be ready for until he’s older.

Rift Dimensions

The Rift prototype a small group of SCAD students and I produced was the tip of the Rift iceberg. The game we produced was episode 1 of an epic journey across space and time and an exploration of parallel and perpendicular dimensions. The mechanics of time and dimensional travel are based around theories by Rob Bryanton in his Imagining the Tenth Dimension project. Rob’s model of the Omniverse, which incorporates the Everette-Wheeler Many-worlds interpretation, and observed effects of quantum physics like quantum superposition, allows for travel through time, alternate timelines, and other dimensions with differing laws of physics. Rift plays with the idea that humans from another dimension (an alternate evolution of humans) discover techniques for transporting matter and energy across dimensions. This allows the story to take the player through time, to alternative and alien dimensions while exploring concepts of theoretical physics and making them interactive.

Here is an excerpt from the Rift design document I have been writing. In this section I explain (rather briefly at the moment) the structure of the dimensions in the Rift canon. Note that these are my fictionalized definitions of dimensional space and are not representative of the theories proposed in Imagining the Tenth Dimension.

Dimension 1 | 2 | 3

These are the only spacial dimensions we humans can directly observe and navigate within (so far).

Dimension 4

This is a single line of time. We cannot perceive any more of the 4th dimension than a single 3D point along the 4th axis at any moment.

Dimension 5 | 6

The 4th, 5th and 6th dimensions describe potential states of 3-dimensional matter. Every possible state of our universe resulting from our initial conditions of the Big Bang is contained within these dimensions. Every point on our 4th dimensional timeline branches off into every possible new state this 3-dimensional point could take.  These branches of probable states fill the 5th and 6th dimensions and the 4th dimensional path of a 3rd dimensional object twists and turns in the 5th and 6th.

The farther one travels from their current point along the 5th or 6th axis, the more dissimilar the past and present circumstances become, compared to the traveler’s origin. Take a short hop along the 5th dimension and the traveler will find themselves in a time-place that shares the same 4D path up until 1 hour prior. At this point a single event had a different outcome, turning the 4D path in a different direction on the 5th axis.

Take a significantly longer leap across the 5th dimension and a traveler will find themselves in a time-place that deviated from the original 4D path a few thousand years ago.

Dimension 7 | 8 | 9

This plane considers all possible universes from our initial conditions as a single point. Deviation from this point in the 7th, 8th or 9th dimensions finds the observer in universes with different initial conditions. The farther a traveler deviates from his native point in this plane, the more dissimilar the dimensions will be.

Dimension 10

This plane is non-physical (as we know it). All matter in the lower dimensions is the shadow of the movement and activity in the 10th dimension. Some believe the 10th dimension is the source of pure imagination.