rambling

Time, That Thief

Time can be a strange concept. Some days it feels like it passes by faster than usual, with hours flashing by in what seem mere moments. Other days it slows to an agonizing crawl, every elongated minute digging ragged knuckles into your brain. It hurts and it feels weird.

I write of time for several reasons, one of which is my poor handling of the hours I am given. I make promises just to break them, it seems. I don’t know if people actually expect me to stick to some schedule here, but it’s probably become obvious to anyone spending any kind of time reading my haphazard posts that I do not write like clockwork. I said way back when that I want to write one post a week, and I’ve fallen away from that. Let’s amend things, shall we?

I won’t make any more promises. I’ll write when I feel up to it. I get the feeling that some weeks, I’ll skip writing entirely. Other weeks, I may be ready to crank out two or three posts. My poor handling of time, and my whimsy in ignoring it more often than not, is only one of the reasons I’m writing about time today.

The other reason is that time helps us ground ourselves in some kind of world or reality that we like to call authentic. The days and nights make more sense to us when we can break them down into hours, minutes, sometimes even seconds. The usage of time as a foundation or a crux isn’t limited to the real world, oh no – time is also used, and even explored, in video games.

I have the sudden urge to wax poetic about Chrono Trigger, but that’s not why I’m feverishly typing at 1 A.M. No, I’ve been playing another down-and-deep, you’ve-gotta-devote-dozens-of-hours-to-this sort of role-playing game. Okay, enough fucking around: I’ve been playing Octopath Traveler again. I’ve been playing it a lot. Ever since I said that I wouldn’t buy any more games until I finish the ones I have, I’ve been sitting in front of my tv for hours at night, with a Nintendo Switch pro controller in my hands, while I delve into caves and ruins to fight super bosses and even pixelated deities in my quest to rid the land of scoundrels, beasts, and ne’er-do-wells.

The other day, as I reflected upon my on-and-off again gaming habits, I realized something: sometimes, time has a way of matching step with our pastimes. “But what the hell does that even mean, Chris?” Well, secondary voice in my head, let me explain. Some video games eschew “realistic” timing systems altogether and, for all intents and purposes, play out during an indefinite day or night, depending on the developer’s and/or writer’s preferences. A scant few games embrace real time systems, following our 24 hour clocks as close to the second as they can get; Animal Crossing, one of my favorite series, is noted for this real time feature. Then there are games that leave wiggle room, or use time systems that can be controlled a little bit by the player. Bethesda tends to use a system that follows hours, days, and months much like the real world, but sped up so ten minutes of real-world time equates to an hour of game-world time. In their games, however, you may perform activities which pass the time – waiting, resting, or sleeping, for example, allow the player to pick a number of hours and pass through them quickly.

I didn’t pay much attention to this, not at first. I just never slept and ran from place to place as days and nights went by in a surreal haze. When I started role-playing in Skyrim, though, I started paying attention to the things that made the game more immersive: clothing choices, sleeping habits, food and drink, the works. I tried to have my character sleep at least eight hours in every 24-hour period. I would have him eat and drink. When I found a bed for the night, I would have him take off his armor and wear pajama-esque clothes. I was way fucking into it.

Let’s jump back to Octopath, though. This is a sprawling adventure which entangles the stories of eight unique characters and covers an entire continent’s worth of regions and cities. In short, the game takes up a lot of time.

Yet it doesn’t follow any set time system. Sure, the game clocks how many hours, minutes, and seconds you spend playing it, but this passage of time doesn’t affect the daily rhythm of the game’s people or locations. This wouldn’t bother me, necessarily, but there’s one component of the game that seems perfectly suited to a time system: the inns.

See, to heal your party of adventurers while in a town or city, you may choose to rest at the inn. It is assumed you pay for a room (or maybe even separate rooms) because the game prompts you to confirm a payment of the game-world’s currency to “spend the night.” Wait, what? Night? In most cities, it looks like it’s daytime, like, all the time. So now I have to stretch my imagination and say that oh, well, no matter what time I arrive at the inn, I pay to commandeer a part of the establishment until the morning after a night passes. There’s a whole attempt to mesh the healing system in the game with the sleeping habits of real-world people, and it would be really cool, if the rest of the game played by the same rules.

Am I nitpicking a bit, here? Sure. It’s just that plenty of video games do this sort of thing. I’ve been in countless video game situations that demand a sense of urgency, such as a rescue mission or a quest to stop the big bad from opening a portal to Hell, only to find myself using valuable time to heal, or sleep, or eat, or whatever.

Does the video game want me to win? Of course. It’s entertainment, at its core, so it’s not gonna say “You lost this time because you chose to sleep at the inn and heal your party in the middle of a dungeon dive.” Sometimes, though, I think a game that plays with time mechanics like this may be really entertaining. Maybe even compelling.

Imagine it: you’re in the midst of chasing down a gang of bandits who stole the town’s valuables, and you’re low on health and healing items. For some reason, though, you have the option to warp back to town and rest. So you do it, to get refreshed for your fight with the bandits. Only, you know, you took time to rest; those bandits escaped. Now the town is out some money, some people may not be able to afford rent or whatever costs of living they have to pay, and your reputation with the town goes south. Now you get to choose whether or not you make finding those bandits your life’s mission; if you don’t, maybe you can choose to root yourself in the town for a while and work off the debts of the people you failed. Maybe there are even more choices – you can even choose to walk away if you want, angering the townsfolk you promised to help and letting the bandits go free.

I’m basically sketching some rough drafts here, but doesn’t it sound kind of neat? A video game that treats time way too seriously, but in a way that offers choices, consequences, and lessons. Shit, in Octopath, there were definitely chapters which involved taking care of seriously ill people. They probably needed 24 hour care. Yet in the middle of all this, I could go to the inn and rest for a night. Game breaker? No. Immersion breaker? Yes.

And yet, the game is a blast to play. I didn’t buy Octopath Traveler to experience some messed up real time adventure simulator that would punish me for compulsively healing my party. It just so happens that I slept at the inn one night and thought “Wow, how messed up would it be if the time I spent here detracted from some other objective of my adventuring group?”

There are ways that the length of Octopath Traveler works well with my personal on-and-off gaming habits. I assume that a continent-spanning adventure would require weeks and even months of travel and effort. I’ve had the game since the end of November, 2018. So I’ve been playing it, off and on, for half a year. When I run into a character several towns over and my party reacts as though it’s the first reunion in weeks, it actually is the first reunion in weeks. I’ve spent months traversing the world of Octopath Traveler, just like all eight of the characters I compel through the adventure. The beginning seems like a far off memory, and it is. I kinda like it.

So those are a few of my wacky thoughts regarding video games and their handling of time. I didn’t really think too hard about this post before I wrote it; this was basically my stream of consciousness riding fast across the page. Er, across the screen. You know what I mean. I say this because I hope the read wasn’t too rough for anyone. I know it’s good to polish pieces of writing, but sometimes I just want to let everything out. So there it is.

Next time, I’ll ramble about another of my favorite Game of Thrones characters. You thought I forgot that whole plan? Fuck nah. SPOILER ALERT – I miss my boy Theon, and I cried for him, but I’ve got some other characters I’m watching real closely.

Anyway, until next time, keep on truckin’ and chucklin’.

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