Modern video games make use of time in a variety of different ways. The Super Mario Bros. series for example gives the player a certain amount of time to clear a level. If a player doesn’t finish that level before their time is up, they lose a life. There was no explanation to why this is from a story perspective and more a mechanic introduced to prevent the player from taking too much time to get to the end of the level.
More recent video games have things such as day and night cycles to try and create more alive worlds. If you stand in one spot long enough, the sun will set and the night will begin and for many games that makes small changes to the world. NPC’s may only show up at night, or you may only have access to certain areas during the day time.
Over the years though, for the most part with a few exceptions, most games wait on the player to make decisions that directly affect the world around them. For example, a player may be given a quest to rescue a character before dawn. Most games handle a scenario like this in one of two different ways. The first way is to freeze time. Regardless on how long it takes for the player to rescue that character, the event does not take place until the actual rescue attempt event is begun. The player can be given the main task of rescuing a character and then choose to complete various side missions that take time to complete, but no matter how long it takes them to complete them, the main rescue mission is still waiting to be completed.
The second way is to give the player a timer, telling them how much time they have to complete the event, before they fail the event and then are magically teleported back to the initial location of the event to attempt to repeat it again. Somewhat similar to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day where the player repeats the event until successful.
What I’ve noticed over the decades is most video games don’t use time against the player. Players are given an unlimited amount of it to work with. This allows them to move at their own pace. The game gives players objectives but the player is allowed to complete those objectives as slow or as quickly as they choose. From a game design perspective I don’t believe this is a bad thing or a problem with modern games, but just an observation.
But what happens when you don’t give the player an unlimited amount of time to work with. What happens when you give the player X amount of time to complete a task and if the player cannot complete that task in the time you give them, then there are consequences that the player must deal with. What if you create a world that has it own time and own events that will play out regardless of what the player does and does not rely on the player to play out those events.
In 2000 Nintendo released their second Legend of Zelda title for the Nintendo 64 video game console called Majora’s Mask which took place in the world of Termina. In that game, from very early in the game you had 72 in-game hours to complete the game before the moon came crashing down and destroying the world.
What stood out for me in that game was that throughout the world, events were happening that would take place no matter where the player was. You could spend 48 hours in that game working through a dungeon in the North and at the same time events would be taking place in the East, West and South. It was impossible for the player to complete every quest and collect every item in one 72 hour cycle, there simply wasn’t enough time to do so. No matter where you were, time was always moving. If you were looking to complete a certain mission but arrived at the area too late, you wouldn’t be able to complete the mission during that 72 hour cycle. In some areas it moved slower than in others, but if the player left the game on and did nothing for an extended period of time, eventually the 72 hour limit would run out and the world of Termina would end.
In the end Nintendo allowed players to turn back time, and start fresh at the beginning of that 72 hour countdown as many times as they like but saving key events so the player could eventually stop the moon from destroying the world. This design idea also allowed for players to complete any missions they were unable to complete because they were too late arriving at the event, or because they failed the event.
This is a concept I haven’t seen in video games for quite awhile. I believe, if you create a game where events will happen, whether players takes part in those events or not, it makes the world more alive. It makes the player ask themselves, what if I were quicker getting to this event, would I have made a difference? How would the overall story change if the player arrived in time or too late to prevent a major event from occurring, and what ramifications does that have on where the game takes the player for the rest of the players journey?
These are questions and scenarios that I want to present to the player in my next project. The amount of time a player takes to complete a goal may have drastic consequences down the line which makes the world the player is experiencing more alive. Don’t punish the player with death or restarts for not being at the right place at the right time, reward them by taking them down another alternate path.