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