Subjectivity and The Garden of Forking Paths

[Spoilers for The Garden of Forking Paths]

Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths ends in a tragedy. The death of Stephen Albert seems at once fated, yet coincidental. His death was due to an unfortunate coincidence in names, yet it seemed that fate brought the killer to him. Our protagonist Yu Tsun’s arrival was expected and anticipated. The garden they spoke of was a creation of his ancestor. These are not the hallmarks of coincidence.

A surface reading might suggest that this is an arbitrary framing device for the real subject of interest: the concepts underlying the Garden of Forking Paths. The story, however, is constructed with purpose. It traces lines through the philosophies of fate and luck, through the history of wars and cities, through the lives and deaths of figures real and imagined, interpreting them through the lens of the titular garden. If our universe is the garden, then fate and luck are but illusions – interpretations of the consequences of the forks in the path that we have witnessed. Albert had to die. Albert did not have to die. War was avoidable. War was unavoidable. There is no contradiction. There are many paths, but we can bear witness only to one.

For Ts’ui Pen, the garden is non-Newtonian. It rejects determinism and the ever-fixed causality of the Principia Mathematica. It embodies and foreshadows the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that would be conceived years after Borges’ authoring of this story.

Despite the implications of the garden, Borges’ story remains a singular narrative. This may seem to be a constraint of its medium, but it is really a constraint of human consciousness. We are not capable of simultaneity or omniscience. This remains true even for interactive narratives. The interaction merely implies choice. It does not mean all narratives are simultaneously canonical to the reader or simultaneously experienced by the reader. In a moment of meditativeness, Yu Tsun almost feels the presence of the ‘multiverse’, the many forms of himself and Albert in conversations veering off in different directions. However, he is pulled back into his own world by the shadow of Captain Madden. Our own identities, fears and motivations, veil us from the many forks in the garden.

Miegakure is the Japanese garden design philosophy where no single location reveals the entire garden. The Garden of Forking Paths is non-Newtonian, but it is also Miegakure.

This is the inherent contradiction of interactive narratives. They set out to construct multiple trajectories of a fictional future, each trajectory revealing new truths and ideas, but we are frequently only capable of witnessing one path through the narrative. Are multiple ‘play-throughs’ a requisite for an interactive narrative to have a truly complete dialogue with the audience? Will all play-throughs be read as equally valid?

In late 2019, I finished the last episode in the episodic narrative adventure game Life Is Strange 2. The game features multiple endings dependent on choices you make throughout the game’s episodes. Upon concluding my play-through, I quickly went onto YouTube to search for videos depicting the other endings that I did not get.

While watching these endings do help somewhat in fleshing out the game’s themes and ideas, they do not have the same emotional impact on me. I am watching these endings play out in isolation. I did not make the choices that led to them. I did not experience the journeys of these parallel worlds. Even if I played the game again, the subsequent play-through would not have the same importance and subjective canonicity as my first play-through.  I experienced one journey that I can call my own. There are others like it, but this one is mine.

Does this not hinder the ability of the interactive narrative to fully deliver its themes and messages? Is the expectation of multiple play-throughs or continued engagement with the text perhaps unreasonable in an age of over-saturation in media? How can the branches in the narrative be given appropriate weight and importance if readers will all form their own subjective canon? These are pertinent questions, and the answers not simple or obvious.