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The Future of the Past: The Art of Time Travel in Games

We take a look at some of the games that have shaped our understanding of time travel.

If Back to the Future has taught us anything, it's that time travel is a tricky business, which means not only a boatload of trouble when you mess with it but also a can of worms when it comes to making a story out of it. From Doctor Who to Life on Mars, films and TV have been battling with the idea for a while now, and making various entertaining narratives out of toying with the fabric of time.

Not everyone can tackle the concept as well as Marty McFly's '80s adventure though because there are a number of elements to deal with. What's more is that in games specifically you're given the chance to interact with the story in a number of ways, and so player agency makes handling all these different scenarios that bit tougher. After playing From Software's time-hopping VR game Déraciné, then, we decided to take a closer look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of time travel in our wonderful world of games, and find out where the pitfalls lie.

Déraciné is the game that inspired us to write this article in the first place.

It's probably best to start off with Déraciné since it's fresh in our mind's eye, and one of our main criticisms of this wonderful VR game is that its ending gets a little muddled. By using a magic stopwatch (of course) you move backwards and forwards to see how the fate of the game's schoolchildren play out, which mostly works in a linear fashion that allows you to keep going in a logical order. However, towards the last hour of the game that tried and tested setup goes out the window.

Instead you're left to experiment by travelling back and forth between two points at will to see what will work, and the reason this concept becomes so tiresome is because you're left to wade through long loading screens and repeated scenes in order to try again until something pays off and you're able to progress in the story. Frankly, it's a boring trial and error approach to time travel, one which gives the player agency to move between different points while at the same time restricting them into one set path, which would've been more helpful to know from the beginning.

Steins;Gate is another game that gives you the chance to go back into the past, and this too offers a linear experience with trial and error mechanics. With the chance to end the game prematurely with a 'bad' ending (as we've seen in other visual novels like Zero Escape), this isn't so much a case of repeating the same thing over and over again, but figuring out when to answer the smartphone you use in the game in order to change the flow of time. Not answering at the right moment can lead to drastic consequences, because - without spoiling anything - you're giving up on the future in a sense.

Speaking of learning from your mistakes, you also have games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which take the Groundhog Day approach, if you will. The repetitious timeloop setup isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the time limit means that once you've reached the set number of days available (as in Dead Rising) you ultimately have to travel back in time and redo most of your progress. Sexy Brutale is similar, as you play through the same period of time again and again, viewing scenes from a different perspective each time in order to uncover a mystery in a murderous casino.

Steins;Gate toys with time, and lets you regularly go into the past.

Perhaps it's safer to use time travel in a more restrictive sense? For example, games like Singularity have shown that a more direct approach to time travel, in which it becomes a compulsory part of certain branches of the plot and can't be toyed with freely, can work well. This has less wiggle room, but it's more of a guarantee that you can keep control of timelines and make sure nothing becomes muddled or confused later on. Without spoiling too much, at key points in the plot the protagonist Renko has choices regarding whether or not to go back in time to save the life of Victor Barisov, each of which has huge consequences as expected, and the game's Time Manipulation Device makes all this possible.

And that's without even mentioning the games that use time travel as a premise, rather than a mechanic. Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time (vintage, we know) opens with the message that you're being thrown into the past and then puts you in various time periods without giving you a choice, again simplifying things and removing the chance of the player affecting the various time periods with their actions as they move through things sequentially.

Since we're on the topic of retro games, who could forget the classic adventure game Day of the Tentacle. For those who aren't familiar with LucasArts' seminal work, this quirky point and click adventure takes place across three different periods of time, with characters interacting through the ages and where the things that you do in the past then affect the present and future. By linking the three characters together things are once again contained and controlled since the options of what you can and can't alter are limited to a manageable number of variables.

These examples are obviously linear games, but more open experiences like Ocarina of Time have also benefited from making time travel as simple to use as possible since it's only at certain points of the adventure that you can use it. The danger with giving the player the freedom to use the past to influence the present is that these strands can become tangled really quickly, and it takes a lot to keep these in check and make sense, especially with alternate timelines. Once time travel becomes more complex as a mechanic, it becomes more dangerous to utilise in a logical way.

Ocarina of Time lets you time travel in simple and easy-to-understand ways.

If the player is to have free rein over when they use time travel, it's often a lot easier to use it in small portions at contained times. Take Life is Strange, for example - while there are a lot of consequences to your actions in the overarching story, with choices you make having drastic and sometimes unintended consequences later on, for the most part, you can only rewind a brief period of time at any given instant.

What this does is it allows you to change the smaller details, like how you respond during a conversation, and the markers on the timeline at the top of the screen keep tabs on what you can and can't alter. It's a neat way to give the player control over their little decisions while also giving it weight later on as these things have a butterfly effect, going on to cause big changes. We first saw the origins of these ideas in Remember Me, where you could alter people's memories, but Life is Strange takes them a step further.