Published on December 31st, 2012 | by David Chandler10
Stop the clocks: Timers in game design
On the morning of the second day in June, 1910, Quentin Compson hears the ticking of a pocket watch and recalls his father’s words when he handed the timepiece to him: “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.”
Embittered by his recollections, Quentin shatters the glass face of the watch, only to hear the persistent ticking of gears and machinery. He spends the rest of his day trying to elude time’s constant presence. His quest, of course, is one of vanity–that old battle his father says is “an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
There is a distinct possibility that this scene from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (paraphrased here in my much cruder prose) and the presence of time in video games has never been linked, but it’s a mistake I wish to rectify–at least that’s my intention. For Faulkner, time as manifest in Quentin’s pocket watch represents the tension felt by an adherence to the past (specifically the guilty history of the American South) and the inevitable move toward modernity. For gamers, the ticking clock is a source of fear, something to be conquered or to outrun. It’s often the central antagonist, more dangerous than a horde of zombies or a legion of walking mushrooms.
The first time I became aware of the timer as an antagonist, I was playing Super Mario Bros. on my sister’s Nintendo that she got for Christmas over two decades ago. I cannot recall the specific level, but I apparently had played it so carefully that I forgot all about the clock in the corner of the screen. While planning my next move, I was shocked to hear the pace of the music quicken. I panicked and ultimately make a fatal mistake.
What I remember most about the moment was the way my pulse quickened in time with the music, the way a previously ignored countdown timer heightened tension, the way my opponent shifted from a kidnapping mutated turtle-dragon to the all-consuming jaws of time. I lost that day, but I never forgot the lesson I learned: the clock waits for no player.
While Super Mario Bros. made time’s passage an explicit part of its game design (one that I, in my inexperience, had overlooked), games have more recently incorporated timers more organically. A mission in X-Com: Enemy Unknown had my team of operatives disarming a bomb by moving across the battlefield hastily–and at times sloppily–just to buy myself some more time before it explodes. A similar mission in Far Cry 3 had me racing toward a checkpoint to rescue kidnapped freedom fighters. Even in The Walking Dead, I felt the pressure to make snap decisions as the game warned me that the situation called for action rather than deliberation.
These systems and others like them are standard fare for organic timers, but a few games have tried more novel (and more complex) methods to build a sense of tension and urgency. The most brilliant of these I’ve played is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
In this most non-Zelda-esque of adventures, the young Link finds himself in the land of Termina where he hears a frightening rumor that the moon will fall in three days. Link spends his first few hours reacquiring his Ocarina of Time which gives him the power to turn back the clock 72 hours, finding the world relatively unchanged save for a few more items in Link’s inventory and a better idea of how the world works. Then the player and Link set out again to help a doomed world delay its inevitable fate.
The brilliance of the game’s design slowly unfolds as you become accustomed to using the Ocarina to manipulate time (making it move faster or more slowly) and by the game’s constant reminders that the world is driven and derided by the hands of a clock. The HUD always keeps the player abreast of thehour, and the gigantic moon looms larger in the sky with each passing day, even causing the world to quake and rumble should Link be alive on the eve of the world’s ending. The game’s central hub, Clock Town, prepares for the Carnival of Time, and you can monitor the townsfolks’ schedules to intervene in their lives, changing them for the better until you perversely reset the world to the Dawn of the First Day as if nothing happened at all.
In this aspect, the game becomes a beautiful exercise in futile sadness. If you help people, you are rewarded in some superficial way (a mask, ruppees, or some other trinket) that may help you on your journey, but their fictional lives return to a time before you ease their pain–at least until you finally exorcise the malevolent presence that controls the Moon and free the world from its doomsday entropy. Termina is a world you want to fix because, like its denizens, the player is stuck in a world out of time, feeling the constant pressure of being worn away by gears of an ever-present tolling clock.
Majora’s Mask’s insightful game design was a revelation for me in terms of how I conceptualized time in video games. In games, we need the clocks and the timed puzzles to provide for us a proxy of a real-world system of measure by which we can gauge our successes and failures. When the clock strikes 00:00, the trap triggers, our opponent wins, the world ends. But aside from the mechanical function relating to gameplay, they provide simultaneous symbolic meanings of inevitability, permanence/impermanence, or numerous others the designer or player wishes to impose on it.
Perhaps most powerfully, a timer in a game provides a tangible connection to a digital world in a way that makes us not so much remember that time is ever present, but to forget its effect. Time in digital space is, at best, a simulation of real time, a method to manufacture tension through a false sense of urgency. After all, there are no real world consequences to letting a moon crush a digital world or failing to rescue a survivor in a fictional zombie apocalypse. Yet, if these disasters are set to a timer, we feel the need to help people more urgently, to move with greater economic dexterity, to plan carefully and quickly, to operate with haste and precision. We gain that “reducto absurdum of all human experience” because a timer provides us with a chance to best our oldest and most persistent of enemies.
“Clocks,” Mr. Compson (or Faulkner) reminds us, “slay time…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Appropriately, we race against digital clocks in order to maintain our illusion that time is something to be measured by falling numbers, an increase in musical tempo, or a simple bar across the bottom of the screen. We play games built on time mechanics because they make time an enemy to be conquered, burying the haunting truth of time’s eventual triumph beneath the descending numbers of a countdown.
On the last, cold night of the year 2012, I drink with some friends in a bar in New Orleans. We laugh and smile and, as always, enjoy each other’s company. We reflect on the time we’ve spent together and apart over the years. We reminisce about our time in college, our recent weddings, and the events we’ve witnessed as we’ve grown older. We toast each other and ourselves under the lights of a haunted city with a tragic and beautiful history–a place out of time. And we all wait together to celebrate the end of one year and birth of another, measuring optimism and inevitability against the ticking of a thousand clocks.