Monday, September 26, 2011

thatgamecompany sucks at making games

I've been trying to get more information about what the core leaders of the studio named thatgamecompany had in mind when it came to video games. There's a variety of material to browse, and one source I found interesting to check out, since rather easy to go through and simple to understand, was a short video.

Here is something interesting. Pay attention from 1:26.
Some anon from SuperHyperTurboWhatever asks Kellee Santiago, co-founder and president of TGC, the following question about Flower:

Why is it a game? Why is it not a meditation tool?

Santiago's "answer" is most revealing:

Well, because we approach our projects, erm, from a creative standpoint. [cut] From that starting point, erm, will lead to something totally unique and different and why we don't start necessarily with mechanics, we start with this idea like with Flower [cut] the feeling of being in a huge field of flower (something) what that's like, and it feeds the art direction, it feeds the music which through mediums like film, we know how to do that, and there's that added component of interactivity, so we really view it as a complete experience with all those elements working together to... to communicate concepts through the medium of video games.

If there's something that hasn't struck you yet, then let me help you get it. The point is how painfully obvious it is that she cannot explain why their product, Flower, is a game to begin with. The same actually applies to Flow and, soon enough, Journey.
There's just a basic admission that interactivity, and only interactivity, was an added component.
However, interactivity alone doesn't make a game.

The reason behind her failure to explain why Flower is a game is because it's a poor one from any gaming perspective. It's an interactive experience with a pinch of what may pass off as rules.
There's basically nothing about complexity, mechanics depth and any form of real challenge.
That they wanted to make a relaxing experience is a good thing, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that they made a game just because they call themselves thatgamecompany.
They didn't.

They are going backwards, with visuals taking way too much importance over what makes a game memorable and enjoyable on the long term, which is quite ironical considering how the highbrow plebe loves to spit at the GPU monkeys for their sole love of amazing graphics that make their latest overpriced hardware melt down.
The playing experience is so poor that it turns out to be a superfluous addition; "an added component" as Santiago would say.

Well guess what? You don't "add" such an element, as an after thought, in order to obtain a real game. Mechanics are not the pinch of salt you add at the last minute in your recipe. It's a core part of what you're brewing. It's an essential and primary asset of what defines a functional game.

The very fact that they were more concerned about the musical and visual experiences rather than the playing is all the proof we need.
She was asked a very simple question. Why is Flower a game, and not a meditation tool? Yet, of all that she said, she fatefully and precisely ended describing a so-called meditation tool, if you can call it that. Even the mention of interactivity didn't cut it. It would seem that she just doesn't understand what makes a game at all.

What baffles me most is that she's already been given enough spotlight and some soap box to stand on so as to lecture people now! Essentially, a non-remarkable exercise wherein she parrots what she's read on Internet and the few bits borrowed from Rules of Play. Why the hell is she even given a microphone to waste people's time with such useless matters?

Flower could have been a great game if there had been real play mechanics in it, all those pieces that do engender subjugating gaming experiences. But flying across some random landscape left and right, then doing a 180° turn and going the other way while colliding with petals and flowers... what the hell is that? Their quest against violence is ludicrous! The envelope is all about pretense: you could have made a game where you're flying above a green landscape and collecting energy cores that would let you grow powerful nodes that expand your empire, with the same triggered elements of growing structures and others being destroyed, and the "message", if there had to be one, would have been completely different without changing anything from the scant mechanics. The varnish cracks so easily, it's quite pathetic.
In a sense, she and her friends didn't think the game. They merely followed a social trend and wanted to bring this pollution to the gaming industry.

My opinion about these people will change the moment they'll stop pretending making real games, and from the moment the press will stop praising them for what they are not. Then, and only then, I may show them some respect for the artistically creative minds they seem to be.
Until then, let's continue hurling feces at 'em.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nonsensical Interactive Boredom (NIB)

That's all there is about Ernest Adams’ article titled The Designer's Notebook: Sandbox Storytelling.
The more I read about him, the more he just looks like a fraudster to me, a self appointed theorist on game design and video games as a whole.

We have this return of the "emergence" boner. This time, it’s not about something as vague as gameplay, but about story. The claims is that a story has to emerge from a game on its own. The concept is already stupid if only for the fact that assuming what Adams describes would be interesting, it is fundamentally impossible to produce such a thing in any reasonable amount of time, unless you develop the game at Foxconn (and I'm not even sure about that either).

Back in 1995 I gave a lecture at the Computer Game Developers' Conference in which I identified several problems with interactive storytelling. I reprised those ideas a few years later in a Designer's Notebook column called Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers. At the end of both the lecture and the column, I suggested that instead of trying to tell stories, we should build worlds in which stories can happen -- worlds in which players live a story of their own creation. The industry didn't have a term for it at the time, but what I was proposing was sandbox storytelling.

In sandbox storytelling, the idea is to give the player a big open world populated with opportunities for interesting interactions. The player isn't constrained to a rail-like linear plot, but can interact with the world in any order that he chooses. If the world is constructed correctly, a story-like experience should emerge.

Suppose the player has just moved into Rome. He can join any group of supporters, just as we can support any sports team today -- but with a difference: the factions often rioted, and there were bloody fights in the streets. What this means in practice is that an NPC who belongs to the faction that the player chooses is an ally, but if the player replays the game and chooses a different faction, the same person is an enemy. No need to write two stories or design the character twice; drama naturally emerges from the situation itself.

OK. You should, if possible, if bearable to your senses of self preservation, force yourself through his article.
His theory, if we can call it that, is full of holes. Let's go through a couple them, shall we? (It doesn't matter if you're overweight, they're so large anyone can fit through.)

I suggested that instead of trying to tell stories, we should build worlds in which stories can happen -- worlds in which players live a story of their own creation.

The meaning is simple: authors shouldn't try to present any strong narrative, and get rid of meticulously conceived tragedy. Well, regarding the later, video game authors haven't really gotten there yet, but there's hope, although it's largely a topic that runs in parallel to the making of a game. The narrative, after all, is always an option to the creation of a game, and the mere presence of enthralling agon will amply suffice.
Now, perhaps it is not obvious to Adams, but it's been known for quite some time that in the hope of allowing the audience to attain catharsis in classicism (and even beyond), you needed to have a well-knit story, and no one builds such a story out of the blue, on sheer fruitless whims, by counting on randomness and no emotional drive.
Let's also be clear here : there have been very few games that could claim having taken a player by the hand to the point of reaching the typical theatrical catharsis. This because in general stories suck.
Besides, the narrative needs to be dissociated from the mechanics. Stories are only there to provide a reason for a series of challenges to occur, no matter their nature. Many games completely do without them. In essence, stories barely have anything to do with a good game since they're only achieved through cutscenes, perhaps because the true purpose of a good game is not to provide a deep and enthralling story, but top notch level of interaction, and one could make the point that players are more entitled to play games with good mechanics rather than with good stories. In fact, we have about 30 years of video gaming to prove that.

Let's just repeat that once more: a great game could easily completely do without a story at all.
The mythical video game catharsis, the one wherein you'd be deeply concerned about the fate of the avatar you control, has yet to see the day, and it's rather easy to figure out that this could only happen if the full range of human emotions were allowed to be channeled through an avatar you'd control. Which means an advanced form of virtual reality, which is absolutely not needed for a good video game, and certainly not attainable anytime soon.

Let's contemplate this situation for a moment and ask ourselves if the emotions we'd feel about something in the game would be the result of game mechanics, or the mere reproduction of real life narratives which the complex game would allow to happen in a virtual reality, therefore defeating the point of doing it in a game, since aside from crunching the head of a giant dragon or racing down a cliff on the back of a rocket, which you can't really do in real life, all that would further the triggering of human emotions would be interactions which already exist in the normal world, the physical one.
Let's be clear. Adams is not a visionnaire. He is just confused about the distinction between a fake reality and a good video game. That is all.
You may spend a lot of time building up the XP of a character (like through mob smashing and random grinding) or try to avoid Pacman being eaten by some ghosts after more than a hour of play, but all you will be in the end, once the avatar gets its butt owned, is just pissed off.
That is all.
If you ever were to fall in love with some video game character, that would only happen because of cutscenes, which precisely defeats the idea that it's the game -a bunch of clever mechanics- that makes you interested in the character.

The problem is that E.A. is asking for a true story, for drama and tragedy, with a spin : such material should not be the fruit of any author, but of the machine.
Essentially, what he wants is a virtual world so rich of intricate commutations and interesting people to interact with that you can actually start an interesting story out of nowhere, at any time.
This has more to do with losing your own real life in a maw of evolved The Sims clones than playing video games, and it greatly disregards the fact that an involving story requires a certain (read high) degree of mastery in story telling, which machines won't have in any foreseeable near future.

I can't tell how I get tired of designers chasing that pink unicorn, be they talking about ever growing story branching or emerging stories.
If they continue that way, at some point, real video games will clearly form their own older category of highly interactive and competitive entertainment and we'll see the rise of blurbs of interactive drama or something similar, perhaps best titled Nonsensical Interactive Boredom.
I can easily tell you that we're also nowhere there yet, and I'm not sure to be willing to get any closer anyway. Competition is essential to gaming, not storytelling.

The industry didn't have a term for it at the time, but what I was proposing was sandbox storytelling.

It's not an accident that what we find the most in sandboxes is cat mess.

In sandbox storytelling, the idea is to give the player a big open world populated with opportunities for interesting interactions.

Interesting interactions don't require a story, even less creating dramatic ones.
Hence GTA. Pick a plane and here you go. No "meaningful stories", just exploration, mindless experiments and plain unadulterated fun.

The player isn't constrained to a rail-like linear plot, but can interact with the world in any order that he chooses. If the world is constructed correctly, a story-like experience should emerge.

He means a shallow one, for sure. He already knows that the main problem is one of manpower and time. How the heck can he even ask for any such rise to happen next year?
Clearly, he is no visionary man, he's just a lunatic with no grip on reality.
This is not anticipation!
A man who anticipates the evolution of a current system or society also shares a strong pragmatic view of the current world as it is and doesn't expect more of it than can actually be obtained. He thereby knows that what he's looking for is a projection in a far away time.
Ernest Adams is not that man. He's saying that developers should do it, despite acknowledging that it's currently impossible, in such a way that it's presented as a counter argument from the opposition more than a truth.
The obvious effect is that it conveys the idea that it's a mere opinion, one that he doesn't agree with.

Not everybody thinks sandbox storytelling is a good idea. The year after I gave my lecture, Bob Bates gave his own lecture at the 1996 CGDC called "The Responsibility of the Author."

One of the things he said was, "[Open-ended environments] may be fun to explore, but they do not fulfill the obligations of a story. There is no beginning, middle, or end. There is no pathos, no human drama, no greater truth to be gleaned from the hard-fought battles that the characters wage."

Bob recommended that we use a linear series of open environments instead -- what we now call a multilinear or foldback story, in which the player is compelled to go through certain choke points in the plot line.

What Bob probably was too polite to say is that Ernest Adams was just sprouting gibberish.
Also, here comes the foldback bit I wondered about.

However, Bob was assuming that in an open-world environment the player would have to go find the plot, and all she would get is a disconnected series of events. I think Bob was expecting that the plot events would be tied to specific locations, and if the player could experience them in any order, they would have to be unrelated to each other.

At least, Bob's plot would be his plot, the one that he took some time to properly build, the one which he could tie some precious cutscenes to. A plot which can hope to be complex enough because the human mind is quite superior to a machine in this domain.
Crafting a decent plot requires being capable of abstraction and passion. When did you see that in a chip-set, again?
So tell me, mister Adams, how do you expect a machine to deliver?
I guess he doesn't, but won't admit it. That would ruin his position and most likely hurt his feelings and his reputation.

He goes citing the shortcomings of GTA in that department (a linear story in a sandbox game) and then speaks of The Sims:

The Sims offers sandbox storytelling after a fashion. It gives you a world with a lot of stuff in it, and simulated people with varying personalities. As the player, you can make them interact and generate a (somewhat) story-like experience. Because the Sims don't speak English, most of the storytelling goes on in your head, but that's all right. You can make your own machinima, caption or record voiceover for it, and upload it to YouTube.

First of all, there's something terribly disturbing about this statement. It just sounds like he's wishing video games to become like some real TV crap festival. Let's have some meaningless bots simulate absurdly boring and pathetic plebe-issues of daily life. Let's create some depreciating tension out of thin air.
Secondly, he's making up the story in his mind because there's nothing complex enough going on in the "game". He has to add his own substrate of drama so to get something interesting out of this chain of non-events.
What makes him think that anything more complex could possibly happen, even if characters could somehow speak English like a human could?
How can't he realize that if he wants to get something remotely enjoyable, he'll need AIs capable of making jokes, saying "I love you" for real or hating you... and we may not want to get to the point of a machine hating you, do we?

Computer role-playing games give the player a big open world, but rather than providing a single story, the world is full of quests -- essentially, disconnected subplots. I love Western RPGs, but they don't have quite the same feeling as a story with one plot. They're more like the legends of Hercules, or any other ancient hero who appears in several unrelated stories.

So how do we make an open-world game in which the player can roam around, yet still feels as if he's taking part in a story? First, as I said, we have to abandon the idea that the player will experience the plot entirely through exploration.

Easy. You make him the hero and have him stick to the story. Otherwise, you're just a random pawn who will get squished in the background of some random battle and your death will be of no importance on the main plot.
In fact, isn't it funny how he is asking for a compartmentalized main plot now? I thought the stories had to build themselves!
Can't he make up his mind?

Now you'll excuse me for the rather huge chunk that follows, but I think it's quite golden:

In the typical adventure or role-playing game, all the plot events are player-dependent; they don't happen until the player finds them and makes them happen. By using constrained environments, we can make sure that the player finds them in the right order. The problem with a plot consisting entirely of player-dependent events, as I explained in the original lecture, is that it feels mechanistic: the whole world just sits around waiting for the player to do something.

If you make the plot entirely player-independent -- that is, it goes forward no matter what the player does, even if he does nothing at all -- then the player tends to lose the game a lot. He's not where he belongs, or he hasn't done what he needs to do, when the dramatic climax occurs.

The trick in sandbox storytelling is to build the plot with a combination of player-dependent and player-independent events.

Keep things flowing no matter what the player does so the world doesn't seem static, but don't make it flow so fast that the player gets behind and loses the game (unless the plot is about finding a time bomb). Put a moderate degree of pressure on the player to act, but reduce the pressure if the player is on the right track.

In a sandbox, exploration itself can't advance the plot -- so instead, use a combination of the passage of time (that's the pressure) and player activity: meeting people, solving puzzles, making decisions, overcoming challenges. Change up the pace from time to time.

Sometimes James Bond is exploring at his own pace (he's master of the situation) and at other times he's desperately running away from bad guys (they're masters of the situation). Then he gets away from them or shoots them and he becomes master of the situation again. Of course, not every game has to use a lot of pressure. You can let the player have a very relaxed experience if you want to.

In itself, it is not stupid, but am I the only one realizing that it's going literally against what he advocated for at the beginning of his article, and isn't it an admission that Bob was right, minus the time-flexible main plot?
You know, this whole topic about how the story should emerge all by itself?

On the other hand, if you want to push the player through the story, then you have to ask why he's just wandering around. If he's wandering around because he's lost or confused, that's your fault.

OK, no more emerging story I guess. If the story can emerge in a free-roaming game, how the heck can you get lost as you can actually start a new meaningful and fantastic story at anytime, anywhere?
Sounds like backpedaling, but isn't really, as you'll see next. It's just a silly contradiction, one he's bizarrely never called on in the comments section (nearly 30 comments of drooling arse lickers).

The designer Chris Bateman wrote a chapter called "Keeping the Player on Track" in the book that he edited, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames. In the chapter he talks about funneling: various tricks for helping the player find the "spine" of the game. In an open world you can't use the landscape to forcibly funnel the player back to the plot, but you can leave various signs and clues around. Get the book for more information.

Did someone say funneling? Sounds intuitive. So tell me, guys, why do you keep going with confusing terms such as "multilinear" or "foldback"?

Another question people sometimes ask is, "In an open world, how do you prevent the player from seeing something early that he's not supposed to see until later?" The question is rooted in the assumption that everything that the story needs will be physically present in a static game world from the beginning -- as it usually is in adventure games and Western RPGs, where the story is mapped to locations.

But we're not mapping the story to locations, we're mapping it to time and player activity. The answer is simple: don't put an object in the world until it needs to be there. In the Grand Theft Auto games you can't destroy a car in Mission 1 that will be needed in Mission 3, because the car simply isn't in the game world at all in Mission 1.

You obviously don't want cars suddenly popping into existence in front of the player's eyes, but you can bring a car out of a (formerly) locked garage. The player can't be in more than once place at once, so you can do all kinds of things behind his back.

Right. We're not making a location-based narrative, even if we know the car will have to come out of somewhere that's necessarily... somewhere, and we also know that you'll have to drive it somewhere else, either to pick someone else in particular or to crash it into some local drugstore that's the lair of a drug lord.
Adams has just invented the story that takes place nowhere. It doesn't matter if the object isn't right there off the bat. It will be there anyway. Look, just like in classicism, when things pop into the one single place of action at given moments of time. Location is important in a good narrative, and the more work put into the choice of the location and its aspect and relation to the characters or the plot, the more powerfully it serves the plot.
Besides, if you want to make your mission rather epic, I suppose you'll probably go look for picking up a plane instead, which rather narrows the places where you can find one, and I suppose that if the plan is to crash one into some tall tower, preferably the tallest one to crack the score, choices will suddenly appear to be very lieu relevant.

Now, you want to see what kind of extremely exciting stuff we should start to put into games? The sort of quests that should appear anywhere?

Find the buried treasure.
Find the buried treasure before somebody else does.
Find the time bomb.
Find people rather than objects.
Police procedural.
Infiltrate a large open area from any direction.
Escape through hostile territory from somewhere in the middle to the edge.
Root out the criminal gang.

Most of which will suck big donkey balls if there's no decent story attached to them, no stellar plot to drive each phase of such missions. Otherwise, that's just going to be absolutely tedious. Just like in MMORPGs. Of but I guess that's exactly what he wants after all.

To make an experience story-like, you have to avoid too many repetitive or random (unrelated) events. (See my column Dramatic Novelty in Games and Stories for more about that.) If you read a thriller set in World War II, it doesn't consist of shooting an endless parade of identical Nazis; every situation is unique. This means that your sandbox has to be full of all different kinds of things, not just a lot of the same thing.

This is probably the strongest argument against sandbox storytelling: it's expensive and a lot of work. But unlike rail games, if you construct the world carefully enough, the game will be highly replayable. Different paths through the world will offer different experiences. Nor do they need to have the same objective or ending.

Yeah, at some point in time, swap Soviets for the Nazi.
Mmm, nice.
Just as I said, what he's looking at is nothing more than the miserable quests you get to complete in MMOs, even those that pretend being different and richer like in the latest KOTOR.
And of course, the guy is just giving you a list of very obvious quests to add to your boring game so as to increase its replayability; that is, to increase the repetition of drama-less menial tasks.
Seriously, what do you think could make the game that replayable? Changing the skins of the NPCs? Changing the quantity and some attributes of the enemies of a given zone.
No thanks, I'll pass that kind of replayability.

For several hundred years the people of Rome gave their allegiance to one of four factions that supported chariot racing. The drivers wore colored clothing so people could tell them apart, and the factions were named the Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens.

Suppose the player has just moved into Rome. He can join any group of supporters, just as we can support any sports team today -- but with a difference: the factions often rioted, and there were bloody fights in the streets. What this means in practice is that an NPC who belongs to the faction that the player chooses is an ally, but if the player replays the game and chooses a different faction, the same person is an enemy. No need to write two stories or design the character twice; drama naturally emerges from the situation itself.

Unbelievable. He almost managed to sell me the concept of switching sides so some random NPC now belongs to the enemy faction, so you can kill him.
No, just kidding. What's so ground breaking about that? Isn't the problem that he's also imagining a story that will never happen, just like he did for The Sims?
How will allying yourself to that guy or killing him become an interesting, say *cough* meaningful *cough* story if there's no intricate plot to support and heighten your decisions?Oh wait, the CPU is going to do it.
Ernest Adams should stop being a cyberpunk addict and get back on good ol' Earth.
Not to say that this kind of stuff has already been made in countless games.

Oh, by the way, did you notice? The story emerges.
Yes, it's that time again.
I guess he just can't decide if there has to be a main plot which the player is free to ignore because it sucks and finds it more amusing to ride horses through forests and windows, or if the plot is supposed to grow out of thin air.

That's just not serious.

There was a famous film noir called The Naked City that was later adapted into a TV show. At the end of the film, and every episode of the TV show, the narrator said, "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Try building your own Naked City, and see how many stories you can get in.

Poor Ernest. If only each episode of The Naked City had ended reminding him that each story was written by someone, perhaps we wouldn't be reading such painful nonsense...

Now go watch any of the following movies: Nirvana, Avalon or The 13th Floor, for starters.

Street Fighter Real

That's some powerful ultra.

Foldback story - yeah whatever

Today I've learned a new term.
Foldback story.
I've done without it for years in the industry, and yet I'm supposed to have missed something fundamental.
I wanted to learn more about it and after a few strokes on my keyboard, grand master Google sent me here.

Inn the chapter on “Storytelling and Narrative” in Fundamentals of Game Design (pages 194-204), Adams & Rollings categorise stories as linear, or non-linear. Non-linear stories further subdivided as branching or foldback stories.

So, there it comes from. Adams' & Rollings' FoGD (too bad they added design, otherwise the acronym would have been most accurate).
If you don't understand it, don't be afraid, it's normal. The name of a principle, or even ideology, is supposed to give an idea of what it is about; what the heck are you supposed to guess by "foldback" pray tell?
You know, when you fold back, you generally get a feeling that it's going to involve something moving backwards, which is quite problematic from the perspective of general storytelling in video games, wherein stories not only often times prove to be linear, but also going forward.
Why not try something like, err... the Squeeze Theory?

The foldback story structure is build around a series of key, inevitable events through which a story must progress. In many games, user interactivity allows the player a certain amount of freedom in how they make their way between inevitable events, before folding back to the inevitable events. Foldback stories support a degree of “replayability”: that is, they are capable of keeping the player engaged if they play the game more than once, by allowing them to find a different way through it, even if they know the ending. Where a potentially unknown outcome is essential for maintaining player engagement, the final inevitable event may provide a staging point for several different endings.

Ah, so they used the verb that describes what the story essentially does at a point in time as the name of the principle, as an illustration of the distance put between the player's decisions and the main story, which goes through a series of inevitable stages. The "back" part is completely unnecessary and actually spoils the pure meaning of "fold" when used alone. Not only that's a silly mistake which could have been easily avoided by a mere glance at some random dictionary, but I guess "funnel story" was just too obvious eh? Or "grow-shrink story" you know, as it expands and contracts; and just for that, there's like a good many analogies to pick. I mean, there's like a gazillion far more intuitive terms than foldback.

We can (must?) be even more vicious. Consider for a moment the amount of time allotted to the mental brewing that precedes the revolutionary idea behind the identification of the narrative pattern. We all know that it must sound very clever, and so let's outdo the clever.
See, the idea of folding back presupposes going one way and then the opposite way. However, it all depends on your reality, your world of reference. Let's assume you're some entity living in a two-dimensional environment. Then, some omniscient being decided to wrap the fabric of your reality and made that plane you lived on return to its original point, like if you were to bend back the corner of some table cloth. You'd still move forward, but from a higher dimensional perspective, you'd also be returning closer to the story's spine, its "center", or core.

Sure thing, we could use an example with you living on a line (in one dimension) and some omniscient being having that line split into two lines (something which only can only happen in two dimensions), without you noticing that you suddenly branched "away" (onto another line). Only for that auxiliary line to fuse with the main line later on (and so everything returns to normal, although you, one-dimensional creature, didn't see a difference). In two dimensions, you'd have moved away from the main line, then approached the same line later on to merge with it.

This is the only way to actually project, geometrically wise, the concept of a story that keeps going forward while the story itself folds. If this sounds too complicated, it's probably because it has no intuitive value at all, where the lay man will merely see anything folding back as a contrived return to the point of departure, which is certainly not the idea that the term is supposed to convey, which is refocusing on the main story while never having stopped moving on!

The foldback concept could only make a glimpse of sense if the main story was paused and nothing could go on until you'd actually return to the very moment that main story was paused, so as to resume it. Then, of course, the whole concept of the story folding back would be meaningless and still erroneous. The story would not fold back because it would have precisely been immobile the whole time.
In other words... PAUSED!
The kind of stuff that happens so many times in free roaming games, like the GTAs. Very few games actually allow the player to follow two distinctively different paths, both story-wise and space-wise, while having the possibility or the obligation to return to the same must-pass-through storyline-check later on.

And this brings me to the next part. The reality of games forcing you through very specific (key)holes at a given point in time is one of checkpoints; and how lovely would that be to use such a widely known term among gaming circles!
The idea with checkpoints is that you can't just move forward until you precisely go through checkpoints.
Some games may guide you towards such checkpoints while you keep playing no matter what, when other ones would let you do whatever you want, like wandering around some and even allowing you to complete side quests, but ultimately leaving you unable to go any further through the main story without willingly conceding your recently obtained -yet relative- liberty, waiting that you return to the checkpoint and step through it, even if it means returning to a specific point in space from where the next step in the main narrative can finally occur.

Besides, if you want to make this fancier, you can always try to boost your sex appeal at some nerdy party and impress the ladies with the lovely notion of mirrored-time-synchronous waves, where one signal regularly crosses the path of its inverted-polarity sibling, to form a figure which should basically look like that:

Please notice the obvious bonus effect of implanting suggestive imagery into the subconscious of your next female conquest (so you think).
Let's also understand that it looks sciency and abstract enough to fit inside some random game theorist's consecratory (read potentially superfluous) book.

Oh, did I talk about the stomach analogy? You know, the one that really fits the whole concept of story lines actually merging at some point, like if they were shoved through one single obligatory hole?
Or what about that one: