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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.

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

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

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

This seems as good a time as any to mention the concepts of mutable and immutable time travel. Life is Strange is a good example of the former, which essentially means going back in time to change the past will change your own fate and the world around you, while immutable means that what's happened will always happen, regardless of what you do. Most games deal with the concept of mutable time travel, and RPG classic Chrono Trigger is a good example of this, since this is another game that requires you to move backwards in time to affect the future, covering various 'epochs' of history.

Then there's a third concept of time travel that's all about multiple timelines, but that's extremely complicated and not easily explored in an interactive sense. Bioshock Infinite is a great example of this, as the key points of the plot towards the climax revolve around the various possibilities that spring from the key event of the Baptism in the past. This creates an infinite number of possibilities that continue to unfold, and online forums are full of theories and explanations as to what these timelines are and how these work.

Going back to the idea of small, controlled use of time travel, Dishonored 2 does this very well. In the seventh mission - A Crack in the Slab - you can use a timepiece to glimpse into either the past or future version of the manor you're in, travelling between the two periods at will. This can be used to get behind guards, access the inaccessible, and it's a fun and inventive way of letting you move between two different versions of the same space, both in terms of its style and the action. Another game that used a time travel mechanic that blurred eras together to great effect was Titanfall 2, and like Arkane the team at Respawn had the good sense to use it sparingly in one of the game's standout levels, switching the action between past and present and proving that the use of time-bending mechanics is often best when they're used with restraint.

The Future of the Past: The Art of Time Travel in Games
Life is Strange is one of the most notable games around with a time travel mechanic.

It doesn't have to be a grandstand setpiece either, as games have often toyed with the idea of using smaller instances of time travel that have no bearing on narrative, simply on gameplay. In combat, for example, games like Timeshift and Quantum Break have allowed you to pause, slow, and rewind time to produce some very spectacular moments in the heat of battle. It's not quite the same scale as things like Life is Strange, but they serve their purpose nonetheless.

The same can be applied to platforming too, as Ubisoft's Prince of Persia series famously shows, letting you rewind time if you make mistakes (as you can in certain racing games such as Forza Horizon 4, and while that's not really time travel as we've been discussing previously, it does let you wipe one big mistake from your immediate past, a trick we've seen explored in cinema and television shows quite a few times over the years), cleverly framing the experience as a retelling of a story that can be retold again at any time.

The same is the case with Number None's 2008 game Braid, as all mistakes could be reworked by rewinding the clock. It's essentially the same principle as Life is Strange in the sense that you can redo things that weren't quite right, and on a small scale like this it keeps things straightforward, even if you still have to use your smarts to progress. Super Time Force does a similar thing too, except with bullet hell chaos rather than calm and placid platforming.

One franchise that should probably get a mention here is Assassin's Creed, but there's one tricky element to this in that it's not strictly time travel. Instead, a piece of technology known as the Animus is used to enter the memories of the protagonist in the present day, recreating the past rather than diving straight back into it. This is a great way for Ubisoft to compartmentalise the two eras and keep each distinct and keeps things a lot less messy on the whole time travel front. The journeys of Ezio, Altair, and all the other protagonists are merely simulations and can be rewritten and controlled in a manner not too dissimilar to that in Prince of Persia.

Players can rewind time in Braid.

It's clear then that there are plenty of good examples of using time travel as a positive force in your games, but make no mistake, it's still not easy to do and even the examples above aren't executed flawlessly. Life is Strange often gets caught up in the many threads that the player can create, for example, and Bioshock Infinite can be incredibly hard to follow if you don't have a handy guide next to you showing what's going on.

A muddled timeline can be just one of the pitfalls of time travel in any form of media, but not every game has to have several branches in order to explore the concept successfully. Time travel can be controlled more tightly and can be more prescriptive in its approach, it can impact the mechanics and nothing else, or it can even just be used as a reason to visit cool historical periods and have a bit of fun where the consequences are kept to a minimum. There's seemingly no end to the different ways that time travel can be implemented in games, but the biggest issue is player agency. When we ourselves can work the webs of time and choose how we alter history, it becomes a lot harder to keep the leash on what can be confusing principles, and that's perhaps the biggest challenge that developers face.

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