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Why don't games play around with time more?

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I am a lonely little probe, sent deep into space, for there’s a menacing anomaly on the space-time horizon and I must investigate it. I have journeyed for hundreds of years. Are my creators still alive, is their civilization still alive? For I exist outside of their cycles of life and their experiences of time. I last. It’s why I was sent here. I drift, listening and scanning planets to hear what they have to say. And sometimes they speak back.

This is the opening concept of a very small, very short, free Itch.io game called Lone Signal. It’s a game that doesn’t do much, it’s mostly text, but what it does do is ask you to consider death and how we deal with it, and it’s poignant in that regard.

But it wasn’t so much the pondering on death that grabbed me as the significant passing of time. To all of a sudden be told I had – my probe had – ‘slept’ for 400-odd years shook something inside me. Probably it’s because I can’t, as a human, understand time passing on that scale – it’s so far beyond what I will experience that I can only try and imagine it. That’s why it was so striking to be told, matter of fact, I had already broken a fundamental truth about who I am and what I can do.

Lone Signal. It’s a simple game, but sometimes simple games leave space for powerful ideas to come through.
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And it made me wonder: why don’t games play around with time more? We don’t have to be human in them. We don’t have to be constrained by the timelines we, every day, live within. Yet, even when we cast players as fictional beings we’ve created to explore these ideas of immortality – beings like elves and vampires – we’re still, it seems, shackled to telling stories within human lifetimes. Why?

Incidentally, I know there are many grand strategy games where hundreds of years go by, games like Total War and Crusader Kings, but they’re not really the same thing. They’re not as up close and personal as the experiences I’m thinking of.

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The closest a game has come to something like this, that I can think of, is Xbox 360 JRPG Lost Odyssey. The main character, Kaim, was one of a few immortals who had lived for a thousand years. He’d lost his memory, though, obviously, so he’d have these memory dream sequences where his thoughts would come back. And these were the stars of the game. They really lent into the philosophical exploration of immortality and what it would be like to live for a thousand years.

One of those dream sequences from Lost Odyssey.

What I wouldn’t give to see something like that done with a Lord of the Rings elf, or with a vampire in any number of vampire games. It’s the kind of thing Anne Rice leans on in her Vampire stories all the time – Interview With a Vampire is almost all Louis pondering his nature and his immortality.

Though I’d also like games to go further than just having characters recall their many years. I’d like to actually see them. I’d like us, as players, to experience what we cannot as humans and see that vast passing of time. We’ve seen glimpses of time-forwarding mechanics in games like Dragon Age 2, which is something I bang on about a lot, but when it works so well for a choice and consequence game, like RPGs so often are, then why not?!

But it doesn’t have to be an RPG. It doesn’t have to be limited to a person or a being. You could be a probe. The point is, games can go bigger and wider than humans can. We don’t have to be limited to being like ourselves in them. Why not, instead, show us something completely new?

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