Past Present, Future Present and Past Future

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.


  1. I always thought Shadow of Memories looked like a pretty interesting concept – I’m surprised that the same idea of travelling back and forth in time to prevent a tragedy hasn’t been used more often in games to be honest. Was it actually any good though?

    1. Absolutely it’s fantastic. Sure it’s now 11 years old and it had it quirks even back then, but as you say it’s something that hasn’t been done nearly enough, and on that alone it stands up as a great adventure game. Some of the fondest memories I have of that era are that game – consider that high praise!

  2. Great post! I’m guessing by the picture of the TARDIS and you mentioning “timy wimy stuff” that you’re a fan of Dr. Who? 🙂 haha! Congrats on being FP. 🙂

  3. I thought you brought up some good points and thoroughly enjoyed reading your post! 🙂 There is so much potential in time travel related plots and narratives that just isn’t used, and I’m glad that you brought this up.

  4. mmm Portal 2.

    I wish I had a portal to my own private island in preistoric times o something exciting like that. HOWEVER: I don’t really like bugs or humidity or being eaten by prehistoric creatures, so the island would just be where I kept this REALLY nice bathroom that only I could use.

    Excellent post, sir! My imagination is all astir, now….

  5. You’ve really made me think now! Why don’t games actually do something really interesting with time travel, something that could actually change the ending in a drastic way every time you play?
    A great post with excellent points! I salute you sir!

  6. Not gonna lie – when I saw this on FP, I clicked on the link before I even read the title, just because of the picture of the TARDIS. I have hunch other Whovians will probably do the same. 🙂 However, I did read the article and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not a gamer myself, but my husband is, and I’m often fascinated by the work that goes into creating those worlds. Time travel has such fantastic possibilities; I hope someone does take up the challenge and use it to its full advantage, because that could create one awesomely complex story! Good work.

  7. I think why time travel hasn’t been more fully explored in game narratives is that there is a sizeable chunk of the gaming audience that doesn’t give a damn for the narrative — for them, the story is just there to give you a breather or a chance to top off the Mt. Dew while the cutscene plays. ” If I want a story, I’d read a book” . . . and that’s why the biggest thing in gaming is the annual cookie cutter Duty-fest each fall. An emphasis on story has pretty been relegated to the RPG genre, and even that nowadays often just boils down to seeing what kind of epic loot and powers you can grind your ultra-customized way to.

    Without the narrative, and the ability to explore how changes in the past would alter the present, it’s just an excuse to shoot / stab / punch adversaries from a different time period — Roman centurions or cowboys instead of Nazis / terrorists / aliens.

    It would be awesome to see an actual time travel game, something with the open world of GTA, but with the ability to go back and alter the past and threfore change the present / future gameworld, as well as the story itself. Nice post!

    1. While I am always a sucker for a good gaming narrative, the beauty of a well-crafted game is the blending of something as complex and interesting as time travel right into the game play and world interaction without having to narrate it second by second. For example, take the simpler sorts of time travel style interactions in games like Prince of Persia or Braid.

      I think the bigger overall issue is a problem with scope. Significant time travel can massively increase your art budget alone, not to mention some of the ramifications of balancing medieval game play when you jump in with your nuclear bazooka from the future. You can make up for this with a well executed narrative and story direction, but you still wouldn’t have quite the same sandbox feel that I think we would all love to see.

      The best thing about Doctor Who is that sort of campy/impossible made possible, freedom to go anywhere and do anything element that makes every twist and turn in the timeline its own adventure. I am not sure how you would ever come close to really capturing that.

      1. I agree absolutely when you’re talking about a narrative that involves multiple centuries with vastly different art directions and the like. That is an almost impossible proposition at this stage.

        But imagine a game thats scope wasn’t in how much time it covered, but the amount of manipulation that could be done within that time by your character OR even more interestingly a number of characters. 5 minutes where the scope was the interaction between a large number of dependent variables could make for an interesting sandbox and an intriguing narrative.

      2. True. I am sure there is something that could be done, but I have a lot of trouble imagining it.

        The best I can think of is a Minecraft-esque game where the world ‘autosaves’ at a regular interval, which can then be loaded into as a different instance of time which can in turn effect all ‘autosaves’ after it.

        I think that might be the sort of base I personally would like to start off with.

  8. Powerful, intricate, and/or complex stories are rare in video games I think, largely in part because story is not the primary feature of a game. If a game is fun, but the story sucks, the game stills succeeds. If the game sucks, but the story is incredible, the game fails.

    The biggest obstacle though is the new gamer base. They are dumb. Away from the video games these are often perfectly competent and intelligent people, but for whatever reason the moment they pick up a controller they turn off all rational thought and problem solving skills. They are perfectly capable, they just don’t want to put in the effort to solve even basic puzzles, explore an open-ended world, or comprehend the depth behind a well-thought out time-travel story.

    Ah well, good article. Makes me want to play Chrono Trigger again, and also to check out Shadow of Memories. The premise intrigues me.

    1. I’m gonna go ahead and apologize for the “they are dumb” comment. The PC-gamer in me got through the censorship filter… Sorry >_> I don’t believe consoles gamers these days are dumb, I just love teasing them.

      1. The mere fact that you mentioned Chrono Trigger means that you could’ve said the most horrendous things in the world and I wouldn’t have heard it. The beauty of selective hearing.

  9. This is such an amazing feature story. Time fly so fast,, but what left in our memories either bad or good…remember that it all happens for a reason…check!! check!!

  10. Your post reminds me of the game “Titanic:Adventure out of Time”. This game was fascinating because the choices that you/the main character makes affected history in the future.

    It would be fun to travel through time, though. It would be fun to solve some historic mysteries.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  11. Thank you so much for suggesting these five things. I will be publishing these on ?? on the blog Please have a look when they are up. I would love you to spread the word about my blog using facebook/twitter etc. Maybe some of your friends would like to contribute. Thanks again and keep in touch. David.

  12. Excellent article! And I’m glad to see someone giving Time To Kill it’s proper due. It was a woefully underrated game. I still enjoy cranking it up on my PSone Portable.

  13. Gaming makes the impossible (time travel) possible. So does Dr Who, which has to be the best SF TV ever made. Largely, to my mind, because it doesn’t *quite* take itself seriously.And yet they got it right about time travel – you see, everything moves in space. So if you travel through time and want to go to the same geographical location, you also have to travel through space. The TARDIS is the perfect time machine! And boy, do I wish I had one.

  14. Going slightly old-school here, but there is Zelda: Majora’s Mask which requires re-doing work over the same 3 days to save the world from being smashed by the moon. Epic, complex, and interesting.
    A good timey-wimey game.

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