Tuesday, April 19

On Timing

Surly you’ve seen it at some point: that rapidly descending set of numbers pops into a corner of the screen, almost trying to hide as it ticks down the remaining seconds of your time limit like a gradually slowing heartbeat.  It can be a dreadful feeling, watching those numbers drain away.  Time limits easily add extra investment in the gameplay, it adds the necessity of speed to whatever challenges were already set on the player, and that sudden addition of difficulty can be a good surprise, or just annoy the hell out of your players.
Or, you could experiment with the very idea.  Time limits are a holdover from the arcade days, where the time left at the end of the challenge would award the player with extra points.  But after games went away from being about high scores and taking all of your mom’s hard-earned quarters, the time limit changed to being a challenge amplifier.  Because the mechanic was no longer about squeezing that money out of players, it started to be a bit more about experimentation.  Surprising  one of the earliest example of playing with the time limit mechanic came from a Spiderman game on the Genesis.
Spoiler: They both turn into giants and Spidey climbs
the Empire State Building like King Kong.
Spiderman VS The Kingpin gives the player a twenty four hour time limit to complete the game, shaving a couple hours for every death.  In the game, a bomb will go off at the end of the countdown.  Suddenly, the time limit becomes a gameplay mechanic and story element, which is almost always a good idea.  Since then, we’ve seen some much more interesting uses of time limitations.
Persona 4 (and Persona 3, haven’t played 1 or 2, since they haven’t been released in English) keeps track of the day of the year that the game takes place.  This doesn’t seem like much at first, but it does actively revolve around the Japanese school year and Japanese holidays, which is educational and interesting, so bonus points there.  The timer never indicates when the end of the game will come,  but the knowledge that a time limit is there does a wonderful job of making the player want to make the most of their life and the friendships they acquire.  Persona 4 doesn’t force the player to play the game a certain way, or within an actual time frame, since days last forever if the player doesn’t do an action that will end them.  Persona 4, however, does not handle its time limit perfectly.  Near the end of the game (and there at least three different endings, try to get the best one), time skips forward almost four months, just whizzing through the calendar with reckless abandon, which really caught me off guard, and was rather disappointing.  I’d grown amicable to my fake life, and I wanted to spend time with my friends, but the game denied me that possibility, in an act the game had never done before.  So, as an addendum to this and all things: Consistency is nice.
Another game one could look at for the same sort of time limit experimentation is, obviously, the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.  The three day time limit was a first for the Zelda games, and many players’ first interactions with a full-game time limit, or so it seemed.  Making such an uncommon mechanic not only prominent, but the focus of the game itself, especially in such a mainstream series as the Legend of Zelda, was a risky and off-putting move.  I love the game for it.
Time limits, from a writing perspective, are their own unique beast.  Trying to write one into a story is actually probably easier in video games than any other medium, since all one has to do is take the major conflict of the game and say to the player “If you’re not successful after this long, too bad.”  Take whatever the player is trying to do, since games are most certainly about doing, and make it have to be done within a certain time.  “The Archduke will conquer your country in seven months,” “the meteor will collide with the planet in 12 hours,” etc.
90 years, make your time.
The problem, then, is knowing how a player will react to a time limit being imposed on them.  I know people who flat out refuse to play Majora’s Mask because they wouldn’t want the timer hanging over their head, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same way when the game first game out.  Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a fair number of players are not happy to see a time limit pop up, it can feel like a cruel judge staring down at you, letting you know your playing is substandard.  So how do you make the time limit bearable?
Well, there’s obviously the Person 4/Spideman VS The Kingpin method (that needs to be the name of something else, a psychology treatment or something), of giving the player a huge amount of time, so they only feel the crunch when it gets down to… well, the crunch.  But with the shorter time limits, I think giving the player some fair warning of the impending nature is good, if you simply wish to keep them happy, but the element of surprise is a great way to snap the audience into investment in the game.  The Metroid series would be great at this if they didn’t do it in every bloody game, especially considering the placement.  Defeat the final boss, a grueling, seemingly endless battle… you stand proudly, if bruised, over the ruin of your enemy’s empire.  Then, almost casually, a few numbers slip their way into view, and your heart takes a wholesome, two-footed jump into you gut.
Speaking of those numbers, should a player always know the time they have left?  Persona 4 technically doesn’t tell the player, and that works quite well, but for shorter limits, and even game like Majora’s Mask, the knowledge of the time limit is crucial.  I’m becoming more and more of a fan of hiding information from players, but I’ll get to that in another article.  For time limits, at least, they should know what they’re doing, and those little numbers, while annoying, need to be seen.
So, to cap it all off, let me discuss one last thing: implied time limits, situations in which the players are told they have a fixed time to complete some task, but the game actually lets them tale as much sweet-ass time as they wish.  I have never thought these were good ideas.  Which is to say, it breaks the player from the game entirely.  If the time limit isn’t real, or doesn’t feel real, there is no added pressure, no increase in conflict, and actually provides a bit of a decrease when the player can sit back and say “Oh, well, I have all the time in the world.”  If you’re going to make the story have a time limit, make sure the player feels it, understands it, and, maybe a teeny bit, fears it.


  1. You might say this article was well timed: written after part one of another.

  2. I wish I could say I was consistently witty enough to have intended that. And part two will be coming in a little while. Thanks for reading!