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April 01, 2005

Discussion: Einstein's Dreams

Einstein's Dreams

Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams is not a novel, even though that is its subtitle. It is more a collection of sometimes philosophical, sometimes romantic, always thought-provoking meditations on the nature of time, mildly wrapped in the idea that these are things that Einstein himself was dreaming of when he wrote his seminal paper way back in 1905. There is so little of this part (a few pages at beginning, midpoint, and end) that Einstein hardly figures into it at all. It might as well be called Lightman's Dreams though I suspect that would have sold fewer copies.

In any case, in its form it highly resembles an Italo Calvino 'novel' such as Invisible Cities¹, a group of thematically connected thoughts in the forms of chapters. Although the idea of Einstein having these thoughts gives it a frame to hang on, the little vignettes about time are the great reason for its being.

Of the books I've read lately, this one is the most structured like a videogame. You can certainly think of each concept as a level, for example, but an understanding of time being your ultimate quest, perhaps. Time is a thread through this book, and each chapter a knot in it.

I can just see the levels now: Road of Time, City Where Time Sleeps, The Shifting Sands of Time, Time Is An Arrow. (Hrm. I wonder if those Prince of Persia guys read this book.)

It's a short book. I'd probably read it again if I were doing a game with a clear central theme, just to get my brain turning on how to deal with variations on a theme. An acquaintance who has recently completed his very excellent game, Psychonauts² used to fill up notebooks with ideas that all surrounded the stuff he was doing, just brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming. This book seems like that sort of thing -- a group of ideas that came up out of a brainstorm, then polished into a bunch of wonderful little gems.

We did something like that near the end of Star Wars: Republic Commando, a brainstorm that is. We got everyone on the team, including our test team, and dragged them off to a space we rented somewhere offsite and picked everyone's brains for hours. I was one of the moderators (we had four groups, and we wanted to make sure everyone was communicating and that we got the info back together to present to the larger group after, hence moderators). It was great. There were some wonderful ideas that came out of that -- but mostly, the benefit was how much it re-energized the team, made them go that little extra mile for the last months of the project. We tried to focus people on things we could achieve in the final months of the project, polish stuff, areas that were really deficient -- but we didn't shoot them down over stuff that wasn't really able to be fit in scope.

I think one of the things that came out of that was the "communication" between enemies -- in an attempt to make the Trandoshan mercenaries seem a little smarter. There are times where it really works³, and they really seem a little smarter.

Anyway, we've gone a bit far afield from the original topic. But what I'm getting at is that just letting your mind flow and make associations can come up with some good stuff. This book is a great illustration of that, or at least, I imagine it is. Any game developers out there do this?

¹I use the term 'novel' loosely because Calvino bends it so much, which is a huge amount of his charm.
²Yes. I am doing the web equivalent of name-dropping.
³Which, emergent gameplay, god, the number of blog entries one could write about that.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 1, 2005 08:05 PM


We do a lot of brainstorming at the beginning of the project; it ends up on the wiki as a big pile of lists.

Posted by: Jamie at April 2, 2005 12:16 PM

Let me ask some further questions; how much of that do you actually use? Do you find it useful, as the design guy? How do you use it?

Looking back, I can remember that we did some of this at the beginning of JSF. But I can't really remember whether anything that came out of that actually got used. Which is why I ask.

Posted by: Brett Douville at April 4, 2005 08:07 AM

Well I just stumbled across this article, I am using this book as the inspiration for an indie game contest I entered at school. The book fit very well with the 3 themes of the contest. Seeing your article makes me think I might have picked a good source of inspiration after all! I just wanted to say thanks for the major motivation boost.

ps. Please make November 11 arrive sooner, I can’t wait to explore Skyrim.

Posted by: Lehr Jackson at April 19, 2011 04:39 PM

I wish you luck with your contest, Lehr. Einstein's Dreams is a terrific read -- if you've enjoyed it, consider giving David Eagleman's _Sum_: Forty Tales from the Afterlife a read as well, it's similar in scope and approach by providing a diverse selection of accounts of potential ways we might exist after death.

As for November, well, it'll be here before you know it. It certainly feels like it's fast approaching to me...

Posted by: Brett Douville at April 19, 2011 06:26 PM

I finally got a chance to check out the book by David Eagleman you recommended and I must say thanks for the recommendation. It was quite the interesting read.

It took me a while to get to it because I just couldn’t wait till Skyrim’s release to get my hands on it and got a QA position on the project. Hopefully the long hours will pay off for everyone’s Dragonborn experience.

Posted by: Lehr Jackson at November 9, 2011 10:11 PM

Glad you could join us, Lehr, and thanks for your help :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at November 19, 2011 02:33 PM