Time Travel. We’ve been tripping over time in games for 35+ years. It’s a precious commodity for sure, something that for each of us we never gain more of, we just continue to lose it. We’re obsessed with the idea of going back in time whether it’s to see what it was like ‘back then’, or to alter something in the past to see what happens in the future.
In an odd flip-side to the concept of time-travel, we don’t seem so fussed about what’s to happen in the future. Maybe the idea of the end coming too soon scares us all a little. And of course, it’s less fun when what you do in the future doesn’t change anything in the past.
Depending on whose concept of time travel you follow of course.
What I wanted to do here is take a look at how the idea of travelling through time has been used in video games, both actively and passively, and I’m sure you’ll recognise a LOT of the titles involved!
What I mean by ‘passive time travel’ where games are concerned, is that the game provides you with the plot of your character travelling through time, but doesn’t actually let you control it yourself. So you may play a game like Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, which features the titular Crash and his sister Coco travelling through various eras in time, trying to gather up the very crystals which the evil Dr. Cortex plans on using in the present day to take over the Earth.
Time Travel is never controlled by you in the game, you’re merely afforded the opportunity to choose in which era you want to play. You can play in Arabia, a futuristic New York, World War I, plus countless other periods, but again, whilst the game is a good one, it’s simply you playing a character who’s getting through different skinned versions of similar levels.
One of the most popular arcade games of all time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, follows the same route, but it’s a VERY linear one. The evil Shredder wants to cause mayhem, steals the Statue of Liberty, and proceeds to send the hero turtles through different time periods to try and off them. Like Crash, you have no control over where the story is going but get to fight in prehistoric times, on a pirate ship, and in a futuristic New York (again??).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very hard thing to implement a functioning version of time travel into a game, and some decide to just go down the route of using it as the fuel for the story. Ape Escape is another example. A fantastic and very innovative game at its time of release due to it being the first PS1 game to use the dual-shock analogue controller, it allowed you to go capturing runaway apes through different time periods. You could have removed the time travel element here and still be left with a great game to romp though.
Ape Escape, Crash Bandicoot 3, Turtles in Time, they’re all fantastic games not because of the time travel element which is central to their storylines, but because they’re just bloody good games which are fun to play through. You can get on with it as you’ve no doubt played other similar games to them, and the time travelling storyline is really a fun aside whilst you get stuck into the kind of game you’ve always enjoyed.
When games do decide to let you do something with the idea however, boy do things get interesting…
Who has it right, Braid with its immediate various ways of manipulating time to its advantage? Maybe Lucasarts got it correct when they decided to allow you to travel to the past and future through toilets? How about the kid with the ocarina who plays a tune and gets to redo the last 3 days all over again? No matter how you look at it, we love twisting time and witnessing the ever-changing consequences of our actions.
Braid was a mind-blowing game at it’s time of release, and is still a fun play-through to this day. You’re able to rewind time to fix mistakes you may have caused, but it’s not always that simple in Braid. Later in the game you’re afforded the ability to rewind time and yourself whilst everything else remains in the exact same spot. Fast-forwarding time becomes a necessity later on as well. Sometimes time only moves forward when you do, and backwards when you do. There’s even the power to create a ring which slows time down for those closest to it.
The variety of puzzles in the game is welcomed by these abilities as you never feel you’re replaying the same one at any time, but are also not limited to how much you can use them. Time becomes the ultimate factor at the end of the game when you find yourself privy to one of gaming’s greatest plot twists and it comes at a moment when you’re least in control of it. If you’ve never played Braid before, how I envy you for being able to do it for the first time ever.
Majora’s Mask is unlike anything else in gaming. Groundhog Day indeed. Nintendo effectively gave you Ocarina of Time 2, but twisted the world on it’s head in such a way that whilst looking exactly like its predecessor, plays almost nothing like it. Living in a world which has 3 days left before the moon comes crashing down, Link is able to slow down time, speed it up, and even reset everything that happened in the last 3 days so you can redo the story over again.
What sounds pointless becomes a real trip as you suddenly realise that the deeper you get into the world of Termina by reliving these same 3 days over and over, the more you learn about its inhabitants and everything that surrounds them. Learning characters everyday routines allows you to influence their actions with the long-term aim being to receive new items and masks. Slowing time down means you are able to easily accomplish certain objectives which would have been more difficult at the game’s usual speed. No other Zelda game ever came close to matching the originality found in Majora’s Mask, and it’s all down to Nintendo deciding to give this time travel ‘thing’ a whirl, and absolutely nailing the concept in one fell swoop.
Day of the Tentacle probably features my favourite use of time travel in gaming however. What Lucasarts did with time travel here can be enough at times to REALLY batter your grey matter, and yet it ultimately comes about due to the ideas they brought to the already (at the time) massively popular point ‘n’ click genre.
The story is involved enough without me retelling it, but essentially 2 of your 3 playable characters are transported to the past and future, with the 3rd remaining in the present day. To work your way toward the games goal, you need to have all 3 characters working together, but whilst they’re all separated. A little confusing, but once you figure out the first few the puzzles, the innovation really begins to shine through.
For example (and if you’d like to avoid some gameplay spoilers, move on to the next paragraph!), there’s a point in the game where to be able to move the 3rd character Laverne along a bit further in the future, you need her to look like the tentacles who are currently ruling the Earth. She has no costume for her to do this, but she can send back an image of the tentacle to the past where our 2nd hero Hoagie can give the diagram to a seamstress, who in turn rewrites history by making the American flag out of this new image. Bernard in the present day can then go and pick up the newly re-designed American flag / dress, and send it to the future where finally Laverne can use the ‘flag’ to get around without raising suspicion as she now looks like the tentacles.
There are LOADS of puzzles like this in the game, and while sometimes they can get a LITTLE bit ridiculous, you never feel like the game is screwing you over, and just using your head a little bit more will lead to you solving the problem at hand. Something about DotT made it stand out amongst all the point ‘n’ click games which had been released to this point, and we haven’t forgotten it ever since, leading to the remaster which was released earlier this year.
I didn’t talk about Chrono Trigger, Sonic CD, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, Life is Strange, the other Zelda games which use time travel, and the countless other classics out there which let you turn the page on time (or at least let the plot do it for you). I’d love to, but then I would go on writing and writing and writing and… i’d never get that time back. We’re not so lucky in real-life to be able to have the ability to go give ourselves our last hour back. The fact is, you ask someone about time travelling in games, and they’d be hard pressed to immediately have any come to mind which are bad because the best ones are the ones that have stood the test of time.
So to speak.