Non-Linearity in Interface

I find the most approachable way to think about interface theory with any substantiality to be by comparing computer interface to other pre-existing methods of presenting information. As Johanna Drucker points out in “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory,” all such tools for presenting information, digital or otherwise, can be considered interfaces. Interface is a delivery method, carrying information to the reader’s brain, but it is also more than that in the way it shapes, and allows or asks us to shape, the pathways of information it presents.

Drucker compares digital interfaces to comics interfaces by way of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud lays out six types of transitions from frame to frame in terms of the shift in information; he proceeds to evaluate which are more and which are less common in his own medium, but Drucker finds the non-sequitur transition, the most rare in comics, to be all too common on the web. The key distinction between digital interface and comics interface is the non-linearity of the former, which naturally facilitates those non-sequitur transitions. A huge point of McCloud’s is that our brains will always find the meaning in any frame-to-frame transition, even in the non-sequitur, which plays a huge role in how we interact with the web.

The web, however, is not the only non-linear digital interface worth examining. In games, the dynamic of interface is highly similar to what we find on the web because of the non-linear presentation of information. But game interface tends to, depending on the game, differ in one fundamental way from how web interface works. Drucker characterizes the non-linearity of web interface by the lack of any central narrative for the viewer to follow. The tightness with which Drucker links non-linearity and lack of narrative, then, makes an even more interesting conversation out of games that do seek to convey narrative in a non-linear medium.

We may consider narrative to be linear by nature, as Drucker certainly does. This leads to many narrative games being highly linear, which becomes a common point of criticism in some cases. Other narrative games, however, loudly call into question the notion that narrative must be linear. Narrative events may occur in disparate orders. They may occur differently or not at all depending on the choices the player makes.

Non-linear storytelling via player choice is often talked about in terms of clearly non-linear games such as Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead. I would posit, however, that non-linearity is a part of every game narrative, however small. In many of the more linear games, these variations in the narrative appear to be simply variations in gameplay. But the two are not–or at least, should not be–separate. When the game is played differently, the story plays out differently.

At some point, however, non-linearity always breaks down. If you watch a recorded playthrough of a game on YouTube, you’re watching a linear video or playlist. If you browse the web for an hour, you can check your history to find an ordered list of the websites you visited. This is the paradox of non-linearity: we can only experience it in a linear fashion. The ultimate meaning on non-linearity is the degree of uncertainty of what that line will contain. Digital interfaces are the means by which that line is drawn.


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