Tis the Season: Time-Based Content in Games


In the base­ment of the Solomon Wayne cour­t­house, in one of the old cells, hear­ken­ing back to when the cour­t­house was in prop­er use, a man sits alone, bab­bling to him­self. If you talk to him on any of twelve spe­cif­ic days through­out the year – hol­i­days, of course – he will recount one of his rather grue­some exploits from his career as a day-specific crim­i­nal. Julian Day, the Calendar Man, serves no essen­tial func­tion in the game Batman: Arkham City, but his inclu­sion is a pret­ty effec­tive use of an oth­er­wise unused rogue in Batman’s gallery, as well as a hat-tip to one of the more impor­tant Bat-ventures, The Long Halloween. Also, the achievement-hound in me is tan­ta­lized by the Calendar Man, for his pres­ence, and the achieve­ment sit­ting at the end of all twelve vis­its, has elon­gat­ed the life of a great, if no-longer-current, game.

Many games have day/night cycles, and these often affect things in the game world like shops being closed or NPCs being unavail­able. But more often than not these changes are depen­dent on a sep­a­rate inter­nal game-clock that can be manip­u­lat­ed by the PC by sleep­ing or trav­el­ing, for exam­ple. Though it does a lit­tle bit more to make the game-world seem like a bit bet­ter of a sim­u­lacrum, it can have the jar­ring effect of real­iz­ing that (as is the case for my char­ac­ter in Skyrim), you have slept sixty-seven hours of the past one hun­dred fifty-seven days with­out suf­fer­ing any ill effects1. Though these inter­nal clocks open up pos­si­bil­i­ties, they have the strange effect of mak­ing the game feel like more of a micro­cosm than it already is, divorc­ing it from any kind of syn­chronic­i­ty with real life.

There are some games, how­ev­er, that man­age to sync up with real­i­ty. Games that uti­lize the now-ubiquitous inter­nal clock on the con­sole (or in some cases PC) are able to keep track of the pas­sage of time in a way that I wish more games would. This mechan­ic of time-sensitive events in games is hard­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but it’s one of my per­son­al favorites. I like the feel­ing that the game knows what day or time it is, and even though I live in a world where it’s some­what com­mon­place (though not uti­lized as often as I’d like to see) I still find myself get­ting excit­ed like a lit­tle kid when­ev­er I dis­cov­er it present in my games.

My first expo­sure to this kind of mechan­ic was in the Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal gen­er­a­tion. For those of you who’ve for­got­ten, this gen­er­a­tion intro­duced a clock mechan­ic which the play­er would set at start, and the time in the game world would change to cor­re­spond to real-world time with three dis­tinct stages (morn­ing, day, night). Certain Pokémon would be only catch­able at cer­tain times of day, cer­tain events (such as the Bug Catching Contest) were only avail­able at cer­tain times of the day, and cer­tain NPCs would give you spe­cial items on given days of the week. At the time I thought all of this was the absolute coolest thing ever. My lit­tle mind was blown at the thought that time could actu­al­ly mat­ter to a game, and could impact its world in a real way. It made the games feel so much big­ger than the sums of their parts. Plus, with the then-just-released Gameboy Color, the ever-changing color palette of the world felt more alive than I’d before seen (also the look of the game dur­ing night­time was just too cool). Damn, those were great games.

It would be remiss of me to skip over the Animal Crossing series. Animal Crossing took this kind of fea­ture and went wild, tak­ing full advan­tage of the GameCube’s inter­nal clock2. Whereas the Pokémon games sim­ply recre­at­ed times of day and sim­u­lat­ed a week­ly sched­ule, the Animal Crossing series made a world that was depen­dent on the time and date, which made room for things like hol­i­days and sea­son­al changes. All of these sub­tle touch­es made the world feel much more dynam­ic and, you know, alive. It made play­ing the game feel spe­cial, because as the year pro­gressed, things changed. But it also made the game feel like more than just a game. The game, and the player’s expe­ri­ence, felt a lot big­ger with the knowl­edge that as the sun went down out­side your house IRL, it was going down in the lit­tle town of Buttville (for exam­ple) as well.

The Metal Gear Solid series, one of the few firmly-established big bud­get series of semi-recent years unafraid to take gen­uine risks, also toyed with the notion of time-sensitive game­play. The most bor­ing exam­ple came in MGSIV, where Drebin, the some­how ubiq­ui­tous arms deal­er, would have sales on Sundays and Wednesdays. Exciting stuff, right?

It was even more excit­ing in the pre­vi­ous game, Snake Eater, where, in addi­tion to the food you scav­enged to stay alive spoil­ing if you didn’t eat it fast enough3, gloss­ing over the fact that you can expe­ri­ence a hal­lu­ci­na­tion (a hack-and-slash zom­bie fight­er) if you aban­don Snake in his dark­est hour and let him rot half-blinded in a Russian prison (Read: save/quit the game imme­di­ate­ly after the tor­ture sequence in Groznyj Grad), the game gave you the oppor­tu­ni­ty to beat one of the boss­es by out­liv­ing him. By either sav­ing the game and pick­ing it up a week later, or, if you’re impa­tient, set­ting your clock for­ward a week, you could over­come The End, the Father of Modern Sniping by let­ting him die of nat­ur­al caus­es (he’s real­ly old, folks).

These sorts of mechan­ics, which go deep­er than sim­ply giv­ing our in-game avatars Santa-hats for a week or so out of the year, give us a rea­son to savor good gam­ing expe­ri­ences. This is a good mechan­ic because it gives us a rea­son to keep engag­ing with games we might oth­er­wise leave as they are sur­passed or given sequels because they are kept alive and inter­est­ing by the depth and life that a clock gives them. As the clock runs, the game changes. Some places or peo­ple (or Pokémon) might not be avail­able at cer­tain times, which dri­ves us to keep play­ing in order to Catch ‘Em All, for exam­ple. I still remem­ber with great fond­ness the ten­sion I expe­ri­enced as my Eevee got ready to evolve; because I des­per­ate­ly want­ed an Espeon, I had to make sure it didn’t hit the appro­pri­ate level in the evening (and for those of you who played Pokémon as lass­es or lads, you remem­ber how hard it was to put those games down).

Because we live in a world of instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and the YouTube Attention Span, there are nat­u­ral­ly many who will fid­dle with var­i­ous set­tings of the games or con­soles to get all of the con­tent right NOW, dammit. My Game of the Year for 2013, The Stanley Parable, has one achieve­ment that unlocks if you don’t play the game for five years. Like all of these time-sensitive events, you can bypass it by push­ing your computer’s cal­en­dar for­ward by that long. I, how­ev­er, always refuse to cheat the sys­tem in this way, as it defeats the pur­pose of the mechan­ic. Rarely are the time-sensitive bits of these games cru­cial to progress through them, and mess­ing around to get all the spe­cial things feels, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, like cheat­ing. Technically I wouldn’t be break­ing any rules to manip­u­late the game in this way, but doing so runs counter to the inten­tions of the design­ers, who inten­tion­al­ly made cer­tain fea­tures appear in accor­dance with the pas­sage of time, which to date moves at a very inten­tion­al, lin­ear pace.

Speaking of pac­ing, draw­ing out the appear­ance of these fea­tures does more than just give you an excuse to revis­it Arkham City through­out the year. Tying these parts of the game direct­ly to an actu­al clock, and there­fore mak­ing them depen­dent on the slow march of time, adds an addi­tion­al bonus that might not be obvi­ous. It forces you to slow your expe­ri­ence of the game down not only to savor the occa­sion­al treat, but also to give you a chance to breathe. Christine Love’s visu­al novel Hate Plus (and the pre­vi­ous Analogue: a Hate Story) is a work as excel­lent as it is heartwrench­ing. Though Love styles her­self as a maker of “…games with way too many words in them…”, her games can be burned through in a few hours. They can be, but the effect is a lot like read­ing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf straight through in an after­noon, which makes you feel like you just slammed back a pint of anthrax. In other words, these games are much more bear­able if you take breaks peri­od­i­cal­ly, which Hate Plus mer­ci­ful­ly forces you to do.

In Hate Plus, you are an inves­ti­ga­tor who is on a per­son­al space­craft with only enough room for you and one (or two, if you cheat) AI designed for a much larg­er ship. The AI requires a lot more power than your pid­dley lit­tle space boat can han­dle, and so you can only ana­lyze a few of the doc­u­ments you’ve sal­vaged from the pre­vi­ous game at a time4, so you must pause every once in a while to allow your ship to recharge. This takes twelve actu­al, legit hours, which, as it turns out, is how long you have to wait to con­tin­ue the story. When I first dis­cov­ered this time limit, I was a bit like an excit­ed dog strain­ing at a leash, but as I kept read­ing (Oh God, but these games get sad…) I became increas­ing­ly grate­ful for the enforced breaks in the story. Sometimes it real­ly is good to, as Nintendo has been telling us since the Wii-days, take a break.

The time-dependent mechan­ic has fall­en by the way­side of late because of the afore­men­tioned YouTube Attention Span. In a world where the most prof­itable, block­bustingest games oper­ate on an annu­al release sched­ule, the thought of con­tent that only unlocks if the play­er plays at cer­tain days/times is com­plete­ly off-message. Take the exam­ple of Call of Duty; for a series that start­ed in World War II and last year reached dogs and space, any­thing that would hin­der the momen­tum of the gravy-train is exact­ly what they want to stay away from.

As devel­op­ers are more con­cerned with get­ting more of your monies, lit­tle fea­tures and trap­pings like the ones dis­cussed above fall out of favor, and gam­ing suf­fers because of it. Granted, they’re still mak­ing Animal Crossing games, and the afore­men­tioned Arkham City came out in 2011, and while many games these days cre­ate engross­ing, entic­ing worlds, rarely are we enticed back by the marching-on of time itself. As I said, games that encour­age you to poke around them long after a sequel or anoth­er project from the same devel­op­er fly in the face of con­ven­tion­al wis­dom. It’s no longer in the best inter­est of devel­op­ers to encour­age replaya­bil­i­ty, or more accu­rate­ly, sus­tained playa­bil­i­ty, at least for big­ger titles with annu­al release sched­ules.

These days, replaya­bil­i­ty is sought through ran­dom­iza­tion, keep­ing the game fresh by mix­ing it up and not allow­ing it to con­geal. Animal Crossing was born of an era where keep­ing the play­er engaged over many months and even years was the goal by giv­ing them end­less depths and vari­ety, and the mar­ket seems to have decid­ed that this isn’t as good a model as sat­u­rat­ing the mar­ket with the same game over and over. That isn’t to say that the end­less sea of Roguelikes with sim­u­lat­ed “retro” graph­ics are bad, in fact I like some of them a great deal, but we do seem to be in the midst of a glut.

One thing that can be said about time-sensitive con­tent is that we never real­ly got the chance to see it reach glut-status. There have only been a hand­ful of games with them, and they seem no longer in vogue. Lamentably, their time has come and gone, and they are noth­ing more than a bygone nov­el­ty out­side of the Animal Crossing games. Fortunately, though, the nature of these mechan­ics means we can still enjoy these games like we used to, until of course their inter­nal bat­ter­ies run out.

  1. As with most things, Fallout: New Vegas did this bet­ter with its Hardcore mode, about which this arti­cle is not. []
  2. Animal Forest, the orig­i­nal ver­sion released for the Nintendo 64, includ­ed a clock inside the car­tridge that pro­duced a sim­i­lar, if lim­it­ed, effect. []
  3. Except for ramen. Ramen is for­ev­er. []
  4. Trust me, my intentionally-vague expla­na­tion is not doing Love-senpai’s game any jus­tice. Play them both! Then play her other games! []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.