Time, like most things, is a construct. But never have we been more aware of that fact than in 2022, which is simultaneously three years ago and six years from now. In light of occupying a strange, shifting period, this month we’re talking about time travel in games! What games do it well? What games do it poorly? And what can we learn from its inclusion?
What’s a game that you feel does particularly well with time travel?
Elvie Mae Parian: Not only is Chrono Trigger one of my favorite video games to this day, I think it’s an incredible example of how time travel is used as both a storytelling and gameplay mechanic in a successful way. The game does an excellent job of setting up the stakes, and it is not until deep into the gameplay that the player finally earns the ability to flexibly jump through the time periods they’ve traveled through. Only then can they really process the ramifications of the changes they catalyzed and influence the game’s ultimate conclusion. I think this is also one of the few games that I can think of that justifies its New Game+ mode in a very meta, clever way. Chrono Trigger suggests that your characters’ buffs and bonuses (generally included in most New Game+ modes) are due to all the time traveling antics, even though the world appears to be entirely reset. In fact, the game even hints that any New Game+ file you make is just another alternate timestream that still connects back to the main timeline in some way! Because of that, the game suggests the player use this feature to their advantage to play around with and experiment on all their other playthroughs.
Sara Davis: I played the first Life is Strange without knowing much about it, so I got to experience Max’s awakening to her powers at the same time that she did. I was so nervous and cautious at first, even just doing little rewinds, conscious of how many unpredictable impacts could spin out from reversing time. I loved that this game employed a time travel mechanic that emphasized the weight and responsibility of this power.
On a personal note—and maybe this is not appropriate here, or more appropriate for another question—but in Life is Strange, there is a possible timeline in which a classmate takes her own life, and I was unable to save her on my first playthrough. I had just lost a friend in real life and took my digital loss hard. Later, I had a friend who was curious to see the game, so I played it a second time in her company and made different choices along the way. This time, Max’s classmate lived. It was… pretty emotional for me. All this is to say, though, that replaying a beloved game is itself a kind of time travel—especially a game that is designed to offer different outcomes based on player choices. Replaying offers the solace that our choices matter, and that by changing our past actions, we can change the future.
Nola Pfau: I’m gonna show my age here, but remember Prince of Persia: Sands of Time? The conceit there was that he had a dagger which held the titular sands and could use them to rewind short bursts of time in order to make different choices. It was an extremely cool mechanic because it let you change your approach to different situations as needed. The later games were… not so good, because they were way too focused on combat instead of the fun platforming/exploration of the first, but still. That game always sticks in my mind.
Elvie: To add on to what Nola said, I definitely agree that the concept of Sands of Time was pretty cool, even though I never got around to playing that series. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Superhot, a more recent game title that uses the same mechanic, except in the form of a first-person shooter-slash-brawler.
Melissa Brinks: I’m glad that Sara already mentioned Life is Strange because while the game has its flaws, I did think that time travel was really well-done in that story. It carried weight, but it was also playful. That’s something I really value in a time travel story.
Since Sara kindly took care of that for me, I’m instead going to mention The Sexy Brutale, the worst-named puzzle game I can think of. In this game, you attend a masked ball (!) and must save the various ball attendees from their horrible fates. It’s tricky and fun, and the time travel allows for all kinds of story weirdness—in truth, I found the story a bit confusing, but that’s nothing Wikipedia can’t fix.
Zainabb Hull: Sara, I love that idea of replaying games as a way to kind-of time travel. I also went into Life is Strange with no idea it would have any fantastical elements, and I felt nervous about rewinding as it always seemed to drain Max and I worried about hurting her. It was only towards the end of the game that I realised the rewind mechanic would just automatically stop at a certain point.
It’s not strictly time travel, but I really appreciated the way time loops and glitches in Oxenfree. I had absolutely no idea what the game was about when I played it, and I revelled in the moments of horror and the feeling of trying to untangle a mystery. I’m trying to avoid giving too much away but how Oxenfree plays with time also ties into its replayability. It’s just… *chef’s kiss.*
What’s a game that does time travel poorly?
Elvie: As much as I enjoyed Fire Emblem Awakening, how time travel was handled in the game’s story felt like a careless hand wave. It ended up creating too many plot holes and bizarre questions over why all of your future children just keep getting zapped into this world without much explanation beyond it needing to further flesh out Awakening’s progeny mechanics. It is pretty funny, but if you think about it too hard, it doesn’t make for a great storyline—especially when it undid a lot of the serious parts of the game.
Similarly, Kingdom Hearts III is also another game that I personally believe has executed time travel as a story element poorly. Time travel is used as an easy solution, and it ended up doing a lot of the tragic events that have happened in the previous games a huge disservice. It did do a fun job of putting you through an epic gauntlet of everything you learned and experienced in the series thus far, but it was also just used as a magic wand to fix all the problems in one swoop by throwing Sora and friends back to previously visited places just to fix everything all over again—but different, somehow!
Nola: Tracer’s time-traveling in Overwatch is basically the same gimmick as Prince of Persia, but implemented worse.
Melissa: World of Warcraft, back in my day, had some extremely cool time travel dungeons called the Caverns of Time. I loved them! They were so interesting and covered some iconic moments in the game’s history. Except—and here’s why, despite loving them so much, they make me angry—they were buried out in bumfuck nowhere and there was no reason to do them. At least when I was playing back in the Wrath of the Lich King days, there was little reason to go to them unless you were gunning for achievements, and most people aren’t building up parties to do ancient dungeons unless you’re in the right guild. Eventually my level was high enough that I could probably have soloed them, but I played a rogue and it probably would have taken me ages. No, I’m not still irritated about World of Warcraft squandering excellent story, why do you ask?
Zainabb: Okay, one of my biggest and most irrational pet peeves is the time travel paradox. Blame it on my neurodivergent brain or my Virgo Sun, but I get frustrated and itchy when I’m given impossible time travel, like in TimeSplitters: Future Perfect. This game will always hold a special place in my heart—TimeSplitters 2 will always be my fave in the series, but Future Perfect was mechanically smoother, and I played co-op mode for so many hours with my brother as a kid. But the story features a paradox, with our protagonist repeatedly meeting his past or future self as he travels in time. He helps himself out of sticky situations that allow him to time travel and meet himself at other points in time in the first place.
Look, I know it’s irrational, and I’m sure there’s some quantum physics explanation that won’t make it any less frustrating for me to experience when told through a linear narrative. All I ask is that if you want me to think of time as a flat circle, you present me with a story that feels like a flat circle. Give me confusion, make it incomprehensible. You don’t need your past/future self to help you because you can just phase into another point in time. Commit!
Have you ever played with time travel mechanics in a tabletop game? How did it work?
Elvie: I have not played a tabletop game with time travel mechanics per se, but they are a huge element of a setting I have created—one that I originally made for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, but which has since been fleshed out so much that it’s basically now taken a life on its own. Thanks to the collaboration and input of other people over time, it is well-defined enough that it can be used within other systems. The original game we used this setting for only existed because an alternate-universe version was destroyed. Yeah, it’s pretty bleak and might seem confusing at a glance, but what is tabletop gaming unless you are making it up as you go along! (And boy, you can see all my love for Chrono Trigger come full circle here too.)
Nola: Recently in a tabletop game, our party was trapped in a time loop whodunnit, which was extremely fun, not the least because it was at a Faerie Birthday Ball, so our characters got to dress up and act like fools over and over since we were gonna get Groundhog Day’d anyway. I mean I guess we solved the mystery too, but also: fancy ball.
Melissa: I DMed that time loop whodunnit, and it was a blast to watch the players realize they were in a time loop, realize there were very few consequences, and shoot their shot with bonkers plans and hitting on NPCs. There would have been consequences had they dawdled too long—Astrolago Press is very good at setting up scenarios—but they managed to find the assassin before they started suffering the consequences. If you’re going to run that kind of thing, I recommend keeping some kind of incentive to get it done in mind!
If you could transport the characters of one game to another time period, what would it be and why?
Sara: Okay… hear me out, and please don’t forcibly escort me from the site, but it’s time to admit that I am a BioWare truther. I think that the Mass Effect series and the Dragon Age series exist in the same universe. I want to believe.
And I am not alone in this! There are pockets of fans who have point out Easter eggs like the Krogan head mounted on the wall in an Orlesian Palace or the Eden Prime scientist who says “Thank the Maker,” but the real fun of this kind of wild theorizing is trying to figure out how the two games fit together. Is Dragon Age the medieval past of Mass Effect or its postapocalyptic future? Either way, I can absolutely imagine Morrigan cooking up a time travel spell and manipulating her way into the heart of a space age court, becoming the right hand of Aria T’Loak. Or imagine the Normandy winging its way through a relay—who even knows how they work, anyway?—and landing on a far-flung planet where colonists have completely disavowed use of synthetics but a few still somehow retain biotic powers.
Nola: I would transport the Rabbids from Rayman to the moment of the Big Bang so that they were incinerated and we would never have to see them again.
Melissa: I have no answer of my own, only responses. Sara, I cannot forcibly escort you from the site because I thought that them being in the same universe was canon. Now that you mention it, it is strange that the Easter eggs don’t work in the way you expect them to (Dragon Age becomes Mass Effect), but I always just kind of accepted that they shared some elements.
Nola, you’re right and you should say it. For all I know, Rayman is a super fun series, but I won’t play the games because those horrible little creatures fill me with rage.
Zainabb: The Rabbids are like Minions for millennials.
Sara Davis is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She blogs about books, games, climate change, and other obsessions at literarysara.net.