Time blows my mind. One minute I’m a strapping young lad with my whole life ahead of me, and the next minute I’m a disillusioned nearly-thirty young man looking forward to my next cup of tea. So if that’s how I handle time imagine how I handle time travel.
Rather not well.
Which sucks because I like the idea of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. Travelling around having an actual causal effect on the world around you is, well let’s face it, exciting. Too bad it’s also impossible. Or is it? Actually best not think about it, I like my brain and the thought of little bits of it oozing from my ears doesn’t really tickle my fancy. Watching it as a third party however – that might be a bit of a hoot. Wait can I even watch myself die?
In a moth to a flame kind of way, despite having a fear of all streams of time – past present, future present and past future – I am drawn to media that depicts time travel and all of the perils that lie therein. And there have been some rather good ones. But the way time travel is treated in video games is seldom full of twists and turns and a real sense of causality beyond any binary changes to one or two, or a handful at the very most, variables. Even then the effect seldoms bleeds from one causal event to another, leading to worlds which are in some cases restricted to only a handful of end-game states even where there can be up to ten times more individual changeable events. This lack of interconnectedness leads to worlds which feel contrived and where it becomes obvious that time travel only exists to serve a narrative or structural purpose within the game. That’s awesome and all, but with a concept that can be so mind blowing, it is equally as frustrating to see the treatment of time travel not evolve beyond something that is surface deep.
So why is this? Why when we have the world plus more in our games these days are we confined to such a piecemeal look into one of the most interesting sci-fi concepts around?
It’s because time travel is simply the easiest way to present the player with a variety of environments, enemies and challenges without breaking the game’s narrative. I feel like I’m mentioning the PS1 pseudo classic Duke Nukem: Time to Kill every time I write something, but there really is no better example I can think of that uses the concept of time travel simply as a way of putting you into a whole stack of unique locales. Wild West? Don’t mind it I do. Ancient Greece? Don’t forget to bring a toga. It’s cool and interesting, or was at least when it was released way back in the late nineties, but it’s not clever and never makes good use of the fact that good old Duke can go back in time in order to change the future. Beyond a few scripted events at least.
And honestly you don’t need time travel to do that. Evoking the feeling of an era and a time long forgotten doesn’t require a TARDIS or even some wizz-bang portal, it just requires intelligent thinking. And when I think intelligent thinking I instantly think of Portal 2 because to put it simply, it is bloody clever. But not just in the way you first think of it to be clever, what with all the manipulating physical space to solve puzzles and the like. It is actually a great example of how the narrative and design of the game manages to send the player back in time without ever formally doing so, which is quite a feat. Using the long forgotten test labs of Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson, complete with 1980’s decor and office design, Valve were able to send the player back in time to not only capture a time and place long before the game is actually taking place, but to also add layers upon layers of depth to the present within the construct of the game world. Sure it’s not actually involving any time travelling but that’s just the point because it does the ‘different time and place’ thing better than games that actually have you stepping back into the past or the future.
But when time travelling games get it right, they get it right. Which brings me to Shadow of Memories, which for me serves as a bit of a benchmark in time travelling video games. The underrated PS2 classic served up a smorgasbord of choices for the player to make throughout time in a quest to prevent your own murder, that all seemed to have a broader impact on other characters and the gaming world throughout multiple layers of time. And to keep things interesting as you spend time in the past time still passes in the present. It is this complex treatment of timelines, spanning multiple centuries from 1584 to 2001, that makes this adventure game stand above the rest in the time travelling stakes. Sure the game wasn’t perfect, but it served to present the player with a cohesive where there were multiple points of cause and effect that served to (whether it was real or not) shape the world around you and give you a sense of agency in the outcomes of main character Eike’s actions.
It is frustrating that developers don’t think beyond the obvious when delving into the depths of time travel. Sure, Doctor Who boggles my mind sometimes with the seemingly impossible often being the outcome. But that’s what I want. I want time travel to present to me something I have to think about for a while and even when I think I’ve worked it out, being left unsure as to whether my understanding of the complex weave of time is actually the right one. I want to walk away from a game with that feeling I get when someone tells me the universe is infinite and ever expanding, the feeling where you just can’t even contemplate something so your brain just goes into overdrive. Because time travel, like the universe doesn’t make sense in most of our minds. That doesn’t mean that video games can’t try and make sense of it.