Meaningful Nonlinear Re-Sequencing means that the player in a game can undergo a variety of experiences, or pursue a variety of tasks, in any order he or she pleases (thus, they can be "re-sequenced" in any number of ways, and so are "nonlinear"). These experiences and tasks, which can be re-sequenced nonlinearly, have meaning. By meaning, it's implied that the experiences and/or tasks have emotional content, and they feel like they hang together coherently as an emotionally engaging story or as part of a story.
But is MNR truly possible?
The Problem with Past Efforts
Pancaking Scripted Sequences is just one possible way to allow a game to be played in any number of orders. But one doesn't need to get nearly so fancy.
Almost all games allow players to, at one point or another, undergo a variety of experiences or pursue a variety of tasks that can be re-sequenced nonlinearly. For instance, as a player, you might, at some point in a game, have a choice of:
There are a thousand variations of the preceding. Games set in present time have their own versions.
While events and activities such as these can be re-sequenced nonlinearly, they aren't meaningful i.e., they don't evoke emotion (except perhaps fear when fighting a difficult enemy). Nor do they lead you through a sequence of experiences or insights that by any means constitute an emotionally gripping story, or even a piece of one.
A Fatalistic Argument
There's a fatalistic argument in favor of keeping events like the preceding meaningless i.e., without emotional content and not constituting a gripping story or part of a story. The argument goes something like this:
In a (non-game) story, if Ethan secretly yearns to kiss Britt, who barely notices him but eventually he does and she falls for him then this is meaningful (i.e., it has emotional content and it constitutes a coherent story or part of a story). However, if you were to reverse the order of events, so that first he kisses her and she falls for him, and then he later secretly yearns that someday she'll kiss him, it doesn't make sense.
Therefore, the only events that can be re-sequenced nonlinearly are those that have no emotion, such as something like the list of potential game experiences and tasks I enumerated a bit earlier. Otherwise, certain combinations of experiences or activities won't make sense.
I call such a viewpoint "fatalistic" because it assumes there's no solution. The result of stringing together activities and tasks that are meaningless is that huge nonlinear portions of a game might end up being meaningless. Don't get me wrong this isn't a condemnation. Chess, skiing, laying on a beach and getting a tan, or playing basketball might not contribute to an emotionally gripping story, but they all can be quite satisfying at different times.
However, this brings us right back to Chapter 1.3, "Why Put Emotion into Games?." If we're trying to increase games' demographic appeal and reach out to people who desire meaningful entertainment experiences (i.e., who watch films and TV but who won't play games because they're too "meaningless"), then this hurdle needs to be crossed.
Applying Meaningful Nonlinear Re-Sequencing to Games
Let's take a look at a hypothetical game example. In this game, you could undergo the following three experiences in any order, and they'd still be meaningful:
You can undergo these four experiences in any order. The story and emotions change, depending on the order, but in each case the story remains emotional and coherent.
Each order has its own unique flavor. If you experience (3) after experiencing (1) and (2) (these last two in any order), you live with the secret that you can talk to the Elders, something the villagers think is impossible. And you know the secret that you're the "awaited one," even though they're not totally certain about this.
If you experience (2) after experiencing (3) and (4) first (these last two in any order), then the Shaman's statement that the people always treated him strangely has a sort of tragic quality, for you know the reason. It's because he is made out of their own unconscious dreams. Obviously, there's something about their dreams they're uncomfortable with, and thus they view the Shaman with that same unease.
If you experience (2) after experiencing (1), then you find yourself holding a secret from the Shaman. He says his time is at an end, but you've already learned that may not be true, since the Elders have told you that you may be able to alter time.
If you experience (3) after experiencing (2) and (4) first (these last two in any order), then the villagers' statement that the Shaman made them uneasy is ironic, for you know that he was created out of their own unconscious.
Also, if you experience (3) after (4), there's a further irony. When you get to (3), you've got to wonder if, on some level, you're like the Shaman. You were both "created" out of the villagers' dreams. He was created literally, and you were "created" metaphorically i.e., created as a hero out of their need for one.
Let's change the order again. If you experience (3) before (4), the sequence will still be meaningful, but the preceding irony disappears. However, the irony that the people were made uneasy due to their own unconscious creation (the Shaman) still remains.
Each order of these four experiences is meaningful (emotional and coherent). The emotions you'll experience in all the different orders will vary, but all will be emotional. Even the story will shift a bit, but not so much that it mandates any new, alternative paths through the game.
Coherence is created in the MNR in various ways. One is some of the previously mentioned ironies. Another is your Character Arc (learning that you're special and have an important role to play).
A third method is by exploring themes, of which there are at least four in this brief example.
In short, Meaningful Nonlinear Re-Sequencing is indeed quite possible in a game. It can be done with both emotion and with coherence.
To me, MNR represents a sort of ideal. However, it's not always practical, or even the best solution in all cases.
MNR offers players experiences unknown to audiences of the linear media of film and television. It's a way of unfolding story (advanced and revealed through gameplay whenever possible, of course) that many people think is impossible, due to their assumption that storytelling can't be emotional or coherent if it isn't linear.
The difficulty linear writers might face in trying to create MNR is their linear training. The difficulty game designers are likely to have in trying to create MNR is a lack of understanding of all the different kinds of continuities that usually operate outside a player's awareness, but which MNR depends on to work effectively.
Unfortunately, these continuities often operate outside the awareness of game designers and inexperienced writers as well, unless they've been explicitly studied. These "hidden" continuities, critical to making MNR work, include elements such as:
to name but a few.
Game designers and developers still often pursue interactive storytelling in a sort of topsy-turvy, non-emotionally engaging, afterthought kind of way. Add the challenges of time, budget, and the need to create stories often in coordination with a large team, and I don't anticipate the widespread use of MNR in the near future. It remains a powerful technique, yet barely touched upon in today's games.
But the future won't wait. Games with a breadth and depth of emotion are needed and wanted. Meaningful Nonlinear Re-Sequencing can be a valuable tool in their creation.