I need examples of multi-threaded narratives in film and video games.
September 11, 2009 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Looking for multi-threaded narratives in film and video games, such as Pulp Fiction or Go.

I'm looking for examples of films that have multi-threaded narratives, particularly ones where the narrative lines loop back to their starting points or intersect with each other. Two examples are Go and Pulp Fiction, where we follow one character's storyline, but it intersects with other storylines or characters that are presented elsewhere in the movie. So we see Jules and Vincent in the background during the opening sequence of Pulp Fiction, when Honey Bunny and Pumpkin discuss holding up the diner. Or in Go, where we see the gay couple at the checkout stand while following the erstwhile drug dealer's storyline. So far as other examples, I have Timecode (though really something different), Run Lola Run (sort of), and Rashomon (sort of, but the whole notion of each character telling the story in flashback mediates the plot device more than I want). I know there are more examples out there, but I'm drawing a blank.

Extra bonus credit if you can give an examples of video games that attempt the same thing.

Believe it or not, this is a work-related question, so I guess I must have a really awesome job.
posted by ga$money to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Magnolia by PT Anderson.
posted by scarykarrey at 7:50 AM on September 11, 2009

Kill Bill also does this. If you pay attention to her list or targets, you can see that things are definitely out of order as presented. Off hand I seem to recall that in the opening scene with the knife fight, when she checks her list O-ren ishii is already crossed off.
posted by utsutsu at 7:50 AM on September 11, 2009

you're casting a very wide net here. and i'm not sure whether you want ensemble narratives (in which case pretty much anything by Altman, or, hell, the Marx brothers, would suffice) or whether you want stories told out of strictly chronological order (where episodic TV a la Veronica Mars is a great ally). or something else...? 'multi-thread' describes most long-form narrative; dependent upon secondary, tertiary [...] century storylines, which, when well-written will fold back either implicitly or explicitly into the central conceit toward a unified whole.
posted by mr. remy at 7:52 AM on September 11, 2009

The Wikipedia page on nonlinear narrative has a lot of examples, although it is a slightly broader concept so it includes things like flashbacks that only have one thread.

One unusual example is how the sequel The Bourne Ultimatum overlaps with the prior movie The Bourne Supremacy and changes the meaning of one of the scenes in that movie.
posted by smackfu at 7:55 AM on September 11, 2009

Best answer: The game Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy in the US) is a great example of this, and often credited with pushing game narratives forwards.

At the start of the game, you play as Lucas, who goes into a trance and kills someone. Then the game switches to you playing as the detectives who are investigating the case. It's a superbly executed idea: you're playing both the hunter and the hunted.

It's a shame the game goes totally off the rails at the end, chucking in just about every conspiracy theory ever. But I think it's a perfect example of what you're after.
posted by hnnrs at 7:55 AM on September 11, 2009

Courage Under Fire
posted by sharkfu at 7:57 AM on September 11, 2009

posted by fire&wings at 8:00 AM on September 11, 2009

['nonlinear narrative,' for my two cents, is an overly-broad non-distinction applicable to pretty much anything told in a tense other than present indicative... ]
posted by mr. remy at 8:00 AM on September 11, 2009

Amores Perros
posted by vacapinta at 8:00 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Agreed that this a wide net, but if you're talking ensemble cast AND non-linear movies 11:14 fits the bill (and feels so inspired by Pulp Fiction and Go that you feel Tarintino or Doug Liman should get some sort of credit.

That said, I found this list on non-linear titles on IMDB when I went looking for 11:14 (could remember the movie was a time but not what the time was -- this made searching difficult) and it covers a lot of the same and may be helpful
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:01 AM on September 11, 2009

Best answer: What you're specifically asking for, as I understand it, is where we are following Storyline A, but in the background of Storyline A we see a scene that later forms part of Storyline B. A great example of this was short-lived cop show Boomtown, where multiple, simultaneous plotlines often intersected.
posted by Electric Dragon at 8:01 AM on September 11, 2009

A lot of Guy Ritchie movies have multiple storylines. Lock Stock and Snatch are two examples I can think of off the top of my head. I recall Layer Cake being similar.
posted by electroboy at 8:03 AM on September 11, 2009

Also Robert Altman's Short Cuts also matches will with the examples you gave.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:03 AM on September 11, 2009

Roger Avery, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction, also wrote and directed an adaptation to Bret Easton Ellis's Rules of Attraction, which you should definitely check out.

And, you didn't mention Memento, but I don't know how close that is to what you're looking for, as it's not multi-threaded as much as just in reverse.
posted by General Malaise at 8:03 AM on September 11, 2009

Best answer: I'm looking for examples of films that have multi-threaded narratives, particularly ones where the narrative lines loop back to their starting points or intersect with each other.

Take a look at this plot diagram for Primer, then.
posted by jedicus at 8:08 AM on September 11, 2009

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" might fit that bill...
posted by bunny hugger at 8:12 AM on September 11, 2009

posted by biffa at 8:16 AM on September 11, 2009

Oh man, I'm so angry I didn't think of Rules of Attraction! It's one of my most favorite movies ever.
posted by scarykarrey at 8:17 AM on September 11, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry if the net seems too wide. Let me try to clarify. I'm not looking strictly for ensemble narratives, or for "non-linear narratives" per se (which is a term that I have some misgivings about from a theoretical perspective, but that's a topic for another day). I'm specifically looking for movies and video games that set out to pursue more than one character's narrative arc, and those narrative arcs interact with each other directly over the course of the movie or game, but do not become joined with each other. For example, I'm not interested in a movie where it starts out following two characters, they meet and fall in love, and then the movie follows them as a pair together for the rest of the narrative. I would be interested in that movie if it starts out with two characters, follows one character for a while, then jumps to the second character, and we realize the first character's narrative has passed through this one in some way. Say, the first character goes to a McDonald's, accidentally leaves a phone number on the table, and the second character picks up that number thinking it's a contact for his super serious spy mission. Each character goes off on their own trajectory and hijinks ensue. We might return to the first character's narrative, which could be about something completely unrelated and the characters might never intersect again. This is still a little vague, and that's okay, since I'm really open to all sorts of examples. I just want to avoid clear miscues like every ensemble movie ever made. There need to be clear narrative arcs that intersect and impact each other, but are not leading to the same conclusion. To my mind, a movie like Best In Show is on the edge of qualifying, because even though it has multiple plotlines, those plotlines don't really intersect or impact each other all that significantly.

Eh, the more I try to qualify this the murkier it seems to be getting, so in the hopes of not derailing my own thread, I'll stop and see what people come up with.
posted by ga$money at 8:21 AM on September 11, 2009

Crash and Paris je t'aime are two recent ones I can think of, but also.. Back To The Future 1, 2 and 3! :)
posted by wackybrit at 8:21 AM on September 11, 2009

Response by poster: Electric Dragon has it exactly. Thanks!
posted by ga$money at 8:21 AM on September 11, 2009

You basically want to see people in the background then later realise they are integral to a different plot in the movie?

L'Appartement mentioned above is a decent example.
posted by fire&wings at 8:28 AM on September 11, 2009

I think one or both of the Half-Life expansions Opposing Force and Blue Shift did this. As you played through them (as a soldier or security guard respectively) you'd see Freeman doing his thing from the original game.
posted by permafrost at 8:33 AM on September 11, 2009

Best answer: Oooh, my favorite type of movie!

Short Cuts

Movies that do this only a little bit (the narrative somewhat rejoins at the end, but not directly):
True Romance
The Ice Storm
Layer Cake
Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels
posted by iamkimiam at 8:33 AM on September 11, 2009

Response by poster: One more "clarification" to Electric Dragon and fire&wings: it doesn't have to be a character from Plot B in the background of Plot A. It could also be that the character from Plot B leaves an object, sets a series of events into play, etc., that then becomes a part of Plot A.
posted by ga$money at 8:37 AM on September 11, 2009

Definitely "Vantage Point", as the movie "rewinds" itself several times and looks at the same scene through different character's perspectives.

Most time travel movies.

Video games - it's been a while since I've played it, but Chrono Trigger, probably
posted by backwards guitar at 8:43 AM on September 11, 2009

Sin City fits this to a tee.

The Fountain has multiple storylines that have recurring themes and archetypes (and actors).
posted by mkultra at 8:44 AM on September 11, 2009

The Simpson's episode Trilogy of Error does this (and references Run Lola Run).

The film Sliding Doors uses a trick that is almost the exact reverse of what you're looking for--the central character comes to a point, and then the rest of the film shows two different possible ways her life might have played out after that point, interweaving them simultaneously as the film goes on.
posted by K.P. at 9:17 AM on September 11, 2009

The Three Colors trilogy: Blue, White, and Red.
posted by hermitosis at 9:20 AM on September 11, 2009

Love Actually!

Also, you're basically describing the TV show Lost.
posted by yawper at 9:21 AM on September 11, 2009

Does it have to be film or can television shows be counted? If so the flashback sequences in Lost have tons of subtle and not so subtle connections between the characters before they "knew" each other before they get to the island.
posted by mmascolino at 9:24 AM on September 11, 2009

Day of the Tentacle has 3 narratives throughout time.
posted by Lord_Pall at 9:32 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If for video games you will also accept computer games, Pathologic seems to fit the bill. You play as one of three characters trapped in a desolate Russian city during a plague, and you see the ones you don't play wandering about engaged in their own business, which may seem mysterious to you at the time. If you later replay the game as one of the other characters, you get to find out what it is they were up to before that you didn't understand. For example, if you play as the Bachelor you'll find the Haruspex has killed someone, for reasons you cannot fathom, and if you play as the Haruspex you'll have to kill someone for what are presented to you as perfectly sensible reasons, and then the Bachelor confronts you about it...

If you're interested, Rock Paper Shotgun has a three-part overview starting here. And if you can stand the Awfulness, there's a current Let's Play going on at Something Awful.

I've never actually played it, as I own a Mac, and am lousy at FPSes anyway. But I really want to.
posted by sineala at 9:36 AM on September 11, 2009

How about Hero?
posted by gregr at 9:41 AM on September 11, 2009

Almost but not quite? Dead Again has a story unfolding as the film goes on, half in the present and half in the distant past (with 2 different pairs of characters in each time being played by the same two actors), with the two stories in 2 timelines eventually becoming relevant to one another.
posted by K.P. at 9:42 AM on September 11, 2009

Does time travel count? Because in the game Gradius V, in one of the early stages you encounter another ship JUST LIKE YOURS that asks for your help destroying a particular boss. Kind of a strange occurrence, but you continue playing... and then at the end of the game you get to the same boss and realize that it will take two ships to destroy it, and the solution is obvious: bring it back in time to your earlier self! The game developers even secretly recorded your every move while playing through that level the first time, so you can really fight along side "yourself".
posted by steveminutillo at 9:47 AM on September 11, 2009

Similar to the Gradius V example, the indie game Cursor_10 uses overlapping "narratives" as the central game mechanic. You play through it once, and then the second time through, you play alongside and with your previous playthrough to accomplish objectives.

The XBLA game Braid did this to an extent, too. Neither example is plot, but definitely involves instersecting and overlapping timelines.
posted by Durhey at 10:13 AM on September 11, 2009

Traffic sounds like what you're looking for. Also, Slacker is nothing but intersecting stories. Stay, while not exactly multi-threaded, seems like it might also fit.

I haven't seen these, but Mystery Train and Miller's Crossing keep coming up on "if you like THESE, you'll like THESE" lists.
posted by cereselle at 11:08 AM on September 11, 2009

The Metal Gear series has a very multi-threaded storyline and jumps around in chronology.

Also, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
posted by Herschel at 11:19 AM on September 11, 2009

Ooooh, and Planescape: Torment, in which the main character is an immortal who struggles to remember his past, Memento-style.
posted by Herschel at 11:22 AM on September 11, 2009

What about Final Fantasy 8?

Or Futurama?
posted by Who_Am_I at 11:37 AM on September 11, 2009

Suikoden III does this: you play three separate plotlines doing their own thing, eventually converging into one metaplot. (I and II are strictly monoperspectived.)

Final Fantasy VI has segments of diverging plotline.

Halo 2 does this...I think. A Covenant leader has his own plotline, but the XBox 360 RRODed during that campaign. :/
posted by spamguy at 12:34 PM on September 11, 2009

For video games, Folklore does this, you play as two different characters who have their own intersecting adventures. I never got more than halfway through the game because it kind of bugged me to play through the same areas twice in a row, but when the plots did intersect it was very cool.
posted by yellowbinder at 1:39 PM on September 11, 2009

I'm seconding Mystery Train, it basically did what Pulp Fiction did five years later. Really amazing film.
posted by hnnrs at 2:05 PM on September 11, 2009

Perhaps not exactly what you're looking for, but an interesting example that might be worth considering, the 1993 movie Twenty Bucks followed the life of a $20 bill as it was passed from character to character.
posted by KatlaDragon at 2:28 PM on September 11, 2009

Yep, Mystery Train.
Pretty literally follow that guy for a while, then he walks past the camera and we're following this guy. Night on Earth is like that too.

Also Yuva.
The movie starts with a shootout on a bridge, then goes back a few days to show the completely unrelated stories of the shooter, the victim, and the witness, then forward to show how the shooting changes each of their lives. Fantastic movie. For those who think all Bollywood is like this, well, not so.
Salaam-e-Ishq is another multi-threader, following six (six!) couples in and out of love. A mainstream big-budget entertainer, you might say, and a lot of fun.
(No subtitles in the linked clips, but you don't need them.)
posted by Methylviolet at 8:48 PM on September 11, 2009

The absolute pinacle of what you're talking about, I think, is Michael Haneke's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. Thirteen characters who have absolutely nothing to do with each other but who, for 5 minutes or so one day, completely due to chance, all end up in the same place where... something happens that effects all their lives. They didn't know each other in advance, they do not interact in the place of "meeting" and they do not continue their relationship after the meeting.

At least, that's the way I remember the story taking place. Haven't seen it in 15 years.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:37 AM on September 12, 2009

After thinking about it a bit, I'd also have to suggest Haneke's Code Unknown and, to a much lesser degree, Time of the Wolf.

You can read about some of Haneke's work here.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:02 AM on September 12, 2009

Happiness? (a sublime film to boot)
Seconding Final Fantasy (thinking here of VII / US III)
Half Life / Half Life: Blue Shift / Half Life: Opposing Forces? (same narrative from different perspectives)
posted by davemee at 5:09 AM on September 13, 2009

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