Time-travel in interactive storytelling

I’ve now played quite a range of story-based games (or games with strong narrative elements) either directly for my PhD, to gain more insight into a particular creators body of work, for my own pleasure or for a combination of all those reasons. One theme has come up with much higher frequency than I’d have expected, and I’m surprised I haven’t noticed it before, but perhaps Life is Strange has made me more attuned to that particular subject matter. Time-travel.

So, obviously there’s Life is Strange itself and Dontnod’s previous title Remember Me, which, although not about time-travel per se, Nilin’s ability to move back and forth within her enemies’ memories, altering significant events and thereby changing their perception of the present definitely has a temporal bent. There’s Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series with protagonist Desmond travelling back in time via the memories of his ancestors. Various Final Fantasy games make use of time travel, such as Squall and his allies being sent back 17 years in an effort to save the present in VIII or Cloud’s flashbacks to ‘being’ Zak in VII. Obviously there’s the time manipulation story platformer Braid and Beyond: Two Souls, which is another ‘not directly about time travel, but heavy with timey-wimey type stuff’ contender. In the indie sphere, I came across Aisle by Sam Barlow which again, while not directly about time-travel, has a story strongly rooted in memory and its sole mechanic requires ‘Groundhog Day-esque’ play in order to achieve a ‘good’ ending. Fifteen Minutes by Ade McT is more obviously on theme, presenting the player with a seemingly unfathomable time machine they need to figure out in order to avoid paradoxes and get their essay in on time.

This got me thinking about why time-travel and memory are themes games, and story-based games in particular, keep returning to. I think it’s related to Ernest Adams’ idea that mystery is the genre most beloved by games writers because it affords puzzles and gameplay outside of combat, and therefore opportunities for more interesting, integrated story-telling than the ‘wave of enemies, cut scene, stealth section, cut scene’ model of most blockbuster action-adventure games. (eg. Uncharted & Metal Gear Solid series) Allowing a player to manipulate time is essentially allowing them to choose their own story – it’s a distillation of the most basic idea of branching narrative in games. The player will quickly learn that their actions in the past impact the present (or future) – their choices become significant without the writer having to signpost how or why. This circumvents an issue that arises in a lot of story-led games – the player dithering over choices or feeling cheated by their outcomes because they weren’t aware how significant their choice was or what impact it would have on their overall experience. Obviously, this will still be a problem if their choices make no difference whatsoever, or have wildly different outcomes than they might have been led to believe, but it comes with a built-in understanding of and context to decision-making for the player.

I may later look at how these various approaches to time-travel affect the narrative (and player choice) more specifically, but that’s all on this for now.


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