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Time for Games!

How much time have you spent on a particular game? How much time have you spent in that game? While modern electronic games present your total playtime with a prominence making it almost impossible to avoid (especially if you're using a service like Steam), it hasn't been that long since the former question was entirely on the player to keep track of and the latter simply nonsensical. While some of this is a function of the way the Almighty Algorithm tracks us and our gaming habits, it's also a result of games having endings - something else that wasn't always present. Not that the ever-running clock exists solely to feed the gnawing hunger of a monstrous inhuman marketing machine, but it really is a useful factor in how we select games and try to fit them into our busy lives. Likewise, time passing within a game's setting is the result of the medium's development in general. The passage of time in Pac-Man's nightmare world of flashing lights, powerful (if short-lived) drugs, and ravenous spirits was simply measured in levels - there's no day or night in the maze, just as there's no escape... until you run out of lives. Many arcade games took place in the icy blackness of space where the passage of time would be invisible even with more advanced graphics. The level was the only chronometer a player needed. (Although a wristwatch could be handy if you were supposed to be home in time for dinner or wanted to keep an eye on how long you had until the arcade owner threw you out.)

At home, though, things were different, even in those early days of games mostly as open-ended as those in arcades, with the goal of getting the best score possible before succumbing to increasing difficulty or player exhaustion. To my knowledge, the first game with a day/night cycle (as we'd call it today) was Activision's Enduro (1983) on the Atari 2600. Like the weather changes in Robot Tank by the same publisher and released the same year (and, in this blogger's opinion, the finest game on the console), these environmental conditions are there to add both variety and difficulty to gameplay. They also have the effect of making the setting feel a little more "real," suggesting changes taking place beyond the involvement of the player or their enemies. It wasn't that big of a change, but it was a start. There was also the appearance of games with specific time limits, which, while not generally denoting the passage of time within a setting, did impose a complicating factor in the player's world, linking the two in a somewhat abstract manner.

Adventure games would present an alternate approach, where the passage of time could be tied to the player's completion of certain actions or puzzles, leaving the world in a sort of temporal null space until those actions were completed - neither frozen nor looping, just... not advancing. While it's certainly an odd concept when you think about it, this approach has become a major standard in electronic games, sometimes to a truly bizarre degree. The Yakuza/Like a Dragon games (and spin-offs like the Judgment series), for instance, operate on two levels simultaneously: one for the main plot and one for the substories. Not only do the levels feature very different tones from one another, but they exist in their own continuities, where days, weeks, or even months might pass during a substory sequence without time in the main story advancing at all. This is particularly funny if, say, you're told to hurry to the next plot point, but instead screw around running a real estate agency or cabaret club, racing model cars, or helping to find numerous lost dogs, cats, and fish... all while tense, ominous music plays whenever you're moving through the main map. But when you get to wherever the game wanted you to be, none of that time will have passed at all. In this case, the temporal separation helps soften the ludonarrative dissonance that gives the franchise its unique tone, but it's approach that can utterly wreck a game's pacing and narrative buildup when handled poorly. On the other hand,there are games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which takes something of an opposite approach: time passes while you mess around outside missions (which the game will dutifully note for you in the "Stats" screen), but, aside from the occasional one that can only be started at certain times of day, the missions that make up the game's plot remain patiently available - chilling out, if you will, rather than being totally frozen.

There's one big difference between the way time passes inside a game and the way it does for the player: the rate. While there are a very few games where time moves the same way it does in the real world, most accelerate the clock to varying degrees... after all, even the most dedicated gamers can only spend so much time on the hobby in a given day, and the mundanity of scheduling and wait times is one thing we play games to escape. (Unless that's something the game is going for, of course, the obvious example being Yakuza's precursor series Shenmue.) Beyond this, though, accelerated time fits the sense of exaggeration inherent to electronic games. It's a medium that tells stories of larger-than-life people (usually quite literally, if you compare the size of character models relative to their environment) doing larger-than-life things, so rapidity seems a natural extension of that. Oddly enough, though, accelerated time also serves a seemingly-contradictory function: it compensates for the smallness of game worlds relative to our own. Even the largest-scale game worlds are quite small compared with real-world locales, and they take far less (play) time to traverse. But if the game's internal chronometer (displayed onscreen or conveyed environmentally through lighting and other cues) is running faster, the artificiality of a smaller setting is obfuscated, at least to the degree where it would be distracting. Subtle, but a neat trick overall, and, adjacency to (and influence from) narrative film editing, an element unique to the electronic gaming medium.

If it's easy to to miss the passage of time in our own lives, it's even easier to miss it in the games we enjoy - something designers are usually aiming for. But if we take a moment to observe the bits of clever artistry that go into making these imaginary worlds feel real to us, we better appreciate the work  we're engaging with. And that's worth taking the time to do, whether it's sped up or whether it's frozen, whether we're learning to create our own works or experiencing them as an audience. Next time it's time for games, pause a moment to appreciate what it means to have time in games.

- B

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