James Borda

Glitch In Time

A multi-threaded narrative that evokes the emotional catharsis of a traditional linear story within the free-roaming landscape of a 3D computer game. Players inhabit the minds of four different characters as they uncover a world-shaking mystery.



Neither game nor film, Glitch In Time draws from the strengths of both media to create a new kind of narrative experience. Built in the Unity 3D engine, the story takes place in a virtual landscape that players can negotiate freely; but unlike a traditional game the experience is shaped around the revealing of character through dialogue and interior monologue. Jumping between characters with the click of a mouse, the player experiences each person's point of view and eavesdrops on his inner thoughts. Personalities clash, but there is a larger mystery to be solved. Where is the Captain? Why has the AI gone silent? And why has the barren terrain burst overnight into a lush, green garden?

Glitch in Time began as a cloud of related images, technical questions, and thematic ideas.

It's always hard to tell a linear story to describe a fundamentally non-linear process, and describing my research is no different. At the same time I was researching emotional experiences in video games, theories of narrative structure, and dimensional theories of emotion, I was already seeking the in-game assets that would create the environment and shaping the story in my head. All of these pieces built upon each other.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project was how explicitly it revealed the limitations that form places on content. The story developed partly through my negotiation of the technical and temporal limitations of the 3D environment, at the same time as I built the environment to suit the story.

For example, I was concerned that it would not be immediately apparent to the players that there was an exterior to explore. So I decided to place one of the characters outside from the beginning. This then required a plausible story reason for her to be out there, and so her character developed which had knock-on effects in writing her relationships with the other characters.

Another example is in the gameplay dynamic. I had originally envisioned the player as a disembodied figure who could voyeuristically drop in on the activities and conversations of the characters. I soon realized that it would be much to labor-intensive to animate all that, so I instead fell upon the idea of letting the player enter each character's mind and control them individually, which required much less animation.

Scripting was very difficult, in that it required a much larger volume than I originally planned for. This was partly compensated for by having the actors improvise their dialogue.

For environmental design, I used as many free online resources as I could. For example, the Unity animation tutorials came with a charming robot model, so I soon realized that I could incorporate the robot into the story as the 'friendly face' of the facility's AI overseer.

I also had to learn lots and lots of new features in Unity, particularly how to handle in-game video and character animations.

It's always hard to say with something very new. I hope it will appeal to people who like literature, science fiction, games with a subtle, emotional touch, those who enjoy exploring virtual environments, those interested in unusual narrative forms, the indie game community, lovers of classical music, philosophers who wonder about the relationship of humans to increasingly autonomous technology...

User Scenario
The experience opens as a dream sequence. Before a montage of images from the game, they hear one of the four characters' internal dream monologues.

There are only two dynamics in the game: the user can left-click to awaken from a dream or, once awake, to speak to another character. He can right-click or hit the spacebar to jump from one character to another. So it is possible to experience the point of view of all four characters.

In an ideal scenario, the user alternately listens to the dreams, awakens each character, enjoys exploring the environment and witnessing each characters' inner thoughts and conversations, finds the robot, and sets off the final story beat when the robot reveals the secret of all the strange things they've been observing.

The experience in built in the Unity 3D game engine. The dialogue was recorded using voice actors.

I got an object lesson in the exponential increase in writing required to support non-linear storytelling. I learned a lot about using the Unity engine, and about time limitations, and about my own stubborn nature (with very little time to go, I nevertheless insisted that I have a working demo that included the full narrative arc, and not just a sample scene. I felt strongly that the impact of the work required the full story).