As Delio Pera pointed out in his recent interview with Josh Sawyer (read it if you haven’t already), we here at Gather Your Party have been talking about the bizarre distortions in time that seem all too common in the world of video games. In most modern AAA titles, players are often given an indeterminate period to think carefully about the next series of cinematic yet binary choices. It’s hardly a modern phenomena either. In old side-scrollers, the enemies of the world were often tied to triggers that ran once they and the player occupied the same screen. This was a gameplay consideration though since Super Mario Brothers would be a lot easier if you could simply hop on a ledge and watch an entire level’s worth of enemies simply skate by. Still time itself is handled in a very peculiar manner for video games. Aside from the occasional ticking-clock levels (of which I’ve seen very few of lately), everything in games today seems to go at the protagonist’s speed. I’m not saying it’s always a bad thing, it’s just odd; and the more I think about it, the stranger it seems that something so intrinsic to the human experience is warped so profoundly in pieces of art that are often lauded for their immersive qualities. Take the following examples:
The Mass Effect Trilogy
As you can see above, Mass Effect 2 embodies this strange conception of “video game time.” After the first few missions, there is not a single time-sensitive event in the entire game (with the noted exception of whether or not you want your crew to die). Shepard is completely free to romance, lollygag, and shamelessly promote his brand on the Citadel in spite of a looming galactic invasion and the disappearances of numerous human colonies. The problem of time is further compounded when from a narrative standpoint, many of your squad’s loyalty quests demand a degree of urgency. The issue with Miranda’s sister being hunted down by her father really seemed like something that demanded immediacy yet there was not a single consequence or sign of protest from her when I chose to go dancing on Omega. Even beyond the compartmentalization in the story, Mass Effect’s gameplay often betrays the sense of urgency that the story demands. Sure, there’s the occasional mission timer, but all too often you’re able to idle around in the midst of a war zone without even pausing. I’m not saying that this is necessarily bad, it’s just odd that when gaming seems more and more transfixed on the idea of survival and resource management that time is left aside.
I’m not talking about any of the sequels here either. Fable represents one of the strangest conceptions of the passing of time I’ve ever seen. Contrary to its lofty aspirations, the original Fable’s story moved forward in a linear and predictable fashion. You’re a hero with a destiny, your parents are dead, there’s an evil sword, etc. Through out the game you grow in experience and power but here’s where things start to get weird. The experience points you invest in your character are tied directly to his age. Every skill point you invested advanced your age roughly 0.7 years according to the character screen. It was fairly cool to see a young hero mature into a grizzled veteran over the course of the story. The problem here though is that aside from a few world events you take part in, time doesn’t seem to move at all. Even essential NPCs remain the same age as you bare the ravages of senescence. It was a good step forward in showing the inevitability of aging, but one of the most important things about how we deal with time in the real world is that it effects everyone equally.
The Elder Scrolls
If you’ve been on the internet at all, you’ve probably read plenty of comics that lampoon the odd passage of time in the 3 most recent Elder Scrolls Games. There’s something mildly amusing about the hero of Tamriel standing in one spot for twelve hours waiting for a shop to open. That’s not really what bugs me about the games though. Like Fable and Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls series has a very player-centric portrayal of the passage of time. Each title presents the player with an impending crisis (the Blight, the Oblivion Crisis, and the return of the Dragons) but ties the progression of said crisis to the player’s progress in the main story. While freedom is a cornerstone of the series, the presentation of a ticking-clock in the main story seems contradictory to this design philosophy. Even after a player completes one of the many guild quest-lines, NPCs do very little to remind them of the earth-shattering events that should be unfolding any day now. It would be stupid to remove the sense freedom of the Elder Scrolls, but for once I’d like to see them create a central plot that doesn’t revolve around time-sensitive issues.
I’m not going to sell Bethesda Softworks short though. If you were one of the folks who read absolutely everything in Morrowind, you’ll probably remember the implied meta-plot of the game. This was covered extensively on Falling Awkwardly, so I’ll just give you a brief run down of Morrowind’s self-aware approach to the issue of time. A Warp in the West, Where Were You When the Dragon Broke, and several passages within The 36 Lessons of Vivec all reference the role of the “immobile warrior” (the player character) in shaping the game world. He’s known for cutting “sleep holes in battle to regain his strength” (pausing to drink potions, turning off your computer and picking up where you left off) and several other self-referencing feats. There’s mention of NPCs dying one day and then waking up again at the beginning of that same day and living peacefully (as a result of the player reloading a save). Why Bethesda didn’t choose to uphold the standard set by Morrowind’s lore is a mystery to me. Maybe I’m just not on the level of some of the scholars out there. It’s good to know that there are developers who are aware of the temporal problems of the medium.
After taking a look at the way video games address time, I’ve come away with one strong conclusion. Time is a resource like any other in a game. Players are often asked to manage experience points, ammunition, and even their virtual bodily needs but only a select few games have placed the necessary emphasis on the cost of inactivity. There have been plenty of recent games that have held dichotomous scenarios in front of players but these only mimic the passage of time; isolating it to discrete events instead of a natural continuum. Maybe when technology gets to the point where it can track the many variables of a living world, we will see a game that underscores the importance of time well spent.