Playing With Time

Braid (2008) an indie game by Johnathan Blow gave the protagonist Tim the ability to rewind time. It’s the same ability as that of the magic dagger in Prince of Persia, Sands of Time (2003). Tim could rewind time whenever he wanted, to undo any (often fatal) mistakes. Unlike the magic dagger of Sands of Time, however, Tim’s ability wasn’t limited by charges or duration. He could zip back in time (or forward, even fast-forward) all he wanted.

All the time-kissing Tim could want. In fact, I think the whole time thing was about undoing a terrible falling out Tim had with a princess. It was complicated.

The early levels of Braid present as a typical 2D platformer, albeit one with some very difficult, even impossible sequences. At least they would be impossible if it weren’t for the ability to rewind and correct instantly, which made the sequences impossible to fail. Literally. There was no game-over state, since Tim could always rewind.

In Sands of Time the time mechanic serves as merely an undo feature. In a flawless play-through, a player would never once need to rewind a blunder. In Braid, the rewind ability is essential to resolving some of the puzzles. With later levels more factors are added to the time mechanic to present a stronger, more versatile ability and puzzles that required it. By enabling the player, designer Jonathan Blow was able to, in turn, depend on the player being able to overcome challenges in level design.

In the movie Edge of Tomorrow (2014, Tom Cruise) aliens have invaded Europe and seem unstoppable, and soldier William Cage (Cruise) is stuck in the middle of a doomed beach assault, except that whenever he dies, the day resets to when he first wakes up. It’s Groundhog Day, except rather than Phil seeking self-improvement for its own sake (and seducing women), Cage’s purpose is to save the human species from an alien invasion.

The premise sounds like plenty of shooters, and this is no coincidence. The basis of the movie, the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill was inspired by the save and respawn features that are present in many first- and third-person-shooters. Few games require that the game be played from start to finish in one sitting, rather they allow the game to be saved and continued, either to allow the player to take breaks, or to resume if a mishap led to a fail-state (such as death or game-over).

This continue-from-checkpoint ability started as an extradiegetic mechanic (much like the pause and resume functions in media devices and games). Games are entertainment, and real-life (hunger, fatigue, work, family) sometimes intervenes and takes precedence. But over time players started using save-game functions as a game-mechanic, itself. Saving their progress more diligently while in riskier territory in anticipation of surprise hazards.

What followed was the quick-save.

Half Life was one of the games at the beginning of the quick-save era, and Half Life 2 was near the end. First person shooters customarily came with quick-save and quick-load functions, and the difficulty of the games was ramped up with the expectation that players would use these abilities regularly in play. Half Life 2 was an early game that would auto-save frequently (essentially quick-saving for the player), and as games were made with porting to or from consoles in mind, quick-save as a game mechanic got phased out in the industry.

A few games still have quick-save mechanisms, but play seldom depends on them for navigating through troublesome areas.

And like other time-mechanics quick-save is useful for time-kissing and other time-infractions of propriety.

Image: Col. Jack O’Neill, USAF (Ret) violates Col. Samantha Carter’s personal space, sensibilities and military decorum moments before the terminus of a time loop in the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity.

Edits: because Aaaargh! So many mistakes!

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