August in the Northern Hemisphere means we’re both in the hottest part of the year (in a year that’s already been scorching) and in the wind-down of summer. Speaking only for myself, I’m both longing for cooler, rainier days and already mourning the departure of the long days. What does any of this have to do with gaming? Well, I feel compelled to make each of my days count—meaning I need time management.

This month, we’re talking about time management mechanics in games. Do they make us feel rushed and stressed? Purposeful and focused? Let’s find out.

Generally speaking, do you like games with time management mechanics? Why or why not?

Cress: More yes than no. Games like Story of Seasons, Stardew Valley, and Pikmin have a running clock so you need to think ahead of time to get the most out of your day. The mechanic, in these examples, has a reason for being in the game lore so it makes sense to me why it’s there. Also, as someone who tends to be terrible at time management in real life, there’s a sense of accomplishment when I do well in a game.

Zainabb Hull: Thanks to my spicy bodymind, I can also suck at time management in reality, but also thanks to my spicy bodymind, there are few things that make me feel better than being on top of my shit. Games like Stardew Valley can be a bit stressful because I don’t like being reminded that time is a finite construct, especially when I’m new to a game and still figuring out the mechanics or what sort of gameplay works best for me.

Similarly, time management mechanics where you’re trying to do the most in a set amount of time, like in Cook, Serve, Delicious!, often end up undermining that sense of accomplishment Cress mentioned. But in a series like The Sims, where I can pause and micromanage to my heart’s delight, I love figuring out what I want to do for the day. Time management can help me focus when playing a game with open-ended objectives and helps me make my playing experience my own.

Melissa Brinks: Very, very generally speaking: I love time management in games. I’m a notorious planner and time-optimizer and games that let me scratch that itch are super satisfying for me. I’m all about efficiency—it’s why I love Cook, Serve, Delicious!, as Zainabb mentioned, and even all of the terrible mobile games I download about serving burgers or treating hospital patients as quickly as possible. These tasks aren’t fun to me on an individual level, but accomplishing them more quickly is very satisfying for me.

Screenshot of the RUSH HOUR alert in Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, Vertigo Gaming, Inc., 2017

When does time management add something to a game? When does it subtract?

Cress: In the case of sim life games, knowing the people around you have their own schedule can make the world feel more alive. Radiata Stories boasted a phenomenal 300 unique NPCs wandering about on PS2! If there are changes to the weather or events, the player needs to plan their time accordingly. Small adjustments like that can brighten the routine. Like, “Oh, it’s raining outside! I don’t have to water my crops and can explore earlier in the day!”

If it feels like I’m not getting much out of my day and it’s already done, then I think there’s an issue. I can get trapped in a rise and grind mindset and I’m not having fun.

Zainabb: I totally agree—as soon as I start feeling pressure to get as much done in one day as I can, then I know I need to step back from a game and consider if there’s a healthier way to play it. I find it super stressful if I know there are background timers that can lock you out of events or provide some kind of fail state, and I’m not a big fan of arbitrary time management—for example, in Calico‘s baking minigame, you earn better scores if you finish recipes quicker. I’m sure this appeals to some folks and there’s no punishment if you opt out, but I did opt out. For a game that doesn’t feature much time management elsewhere, and for a highly unrealistic cooking minigame, I prefer to take my time and enjoy the gameplay, and I’m not sure what the timer adds to the experience.

In general, though, time management can help me to feel more involved in the game world which is especially important in simulators like Cook, Serve, Delicious! that, unlike Calico, want to inspire the feeling of actually managing a cafe. In that game, I want to feel like I’m engaging in the process of cooking (just a more enjoyable version, for me, someone who finds real-life cooking exhausting, in part due to the time management required). And like Cress mentioned, NPC schedules and environmental events can really contribute to worldbuilding in larger-scale life sims—I always appreciate it when a game makes me feel like the universe doesn’t revolve around my player character, and having to adapt to other characters’ schedules and lives is a solid way to achieve that.

Melissa: Time management works best for me when the expectations are clearly communicated and the limitations make sense—though the season limitations in Stardew Valley might sometimes frustrate me because I can’t get everything I want to done in a day and in the season, those limitations make sense. I have to prioritize how I want to accomplish my goals because the world is designed that way, which means I’m doing that from the outset.

On the other hand, insufficient telegraphing of time management mechanics, or a lack of clarity about how to accomplish necessary tasks, is where the idea falls apart for me. I don’t mind a time crunch, but I need to know that the time crunch is happening, and I need to feel like any time wasted is due to my own skills (or lack thereof), not because I don’t have all the information I need to be successful.

A screenshot from Graveyard Keeper, staged in a woodsy tavern.

Graveyard Keeper, Lazy Bear Games, tinyBuild, 2018

What’s a particularly good example of time management in a game? How about a bad one?

Cress: Pikmin 4 has recently taken over my life and I whole-heartedly support the Dandori method! The Pikmin series has always asked the player to organize Pikmin troops in ways to maximize the amount you can get done in a day, and now we have a name for it! You may want to get a group of Pikmin to demolish a wall while you take out an enemy along the path. In the fourth installment of this series, we’re introduced to kind-rewind options so you don’t feel super stressed going about your exploration.

Introducing “Dandori Battles” and “Dandori Challenges” has further pushed Pikmin 4 into a speedrun territory of its hunting and gathering mechanics. I honestly don’t know why Nintendo hasn’t made online battle modes. Must be a Dandori issue.

Graveyard Keeper—often compared to Stardew Valley as a darker farming sim—gave me nothing but stress. There was so much I had to keep generating and crafting that even when I was able to get outside, it was dark already. Balancing a timed day and the amount of tasks the player can do, along with actually giving a reason to care about the events and people, is key to the enjoyment for me.

Zainabb: I adore the time management in Where The Goats Are, where you play an old woman—who moves extremely slowly—living alone on a small farm. You need to be mindful of how much you can physically achieve in one day but you also don’t have to achieve anything. The world around you moves forward either way and it’s not possible to avoid tragedy regardless of if you make a ton of cheese or spend all day inside. It’s a form of time management that wobbles the usual expectations of productivity that often accompany these mechanics.

Melissa: As Zainabb said, Where the Goats Are is a great example of how time management can be really effective in both a story and mechanical sense! One of the things I especially love about it is that despite the protagonist moving very slowly, time never feels wasted. Instead, all the individual choices you make feel even more imbued with meaning because she doesn’t have the limitless energy we expect from video game characters. It means something to choose making cheese or praying, whereas in another game prayer might never be something you choose because it doesn’t (to my knowledge) provide any mechanical advantage.

Time management completely falls apart for me when it’s brought in as a surprise mechanic. The best/worst example of this for me is in Mass Effect 3—the Tuchanka: Bomb mission, unlike most missions in the game, has a time limit. If you do three missions before tackling Tuchanka: Bomb, it’s an automatic failure with drastic consequences. But to my recollection, this isn’t telegraphed anywhere within the game. If it was, it might give players a sense of urgency—instead, it was the only time in the series I save scummed, because I was angry that I lost a bunch of resources by continuing to play the game as I had been playing it until that point and suddenly being punished for it.