Remedy’s Quantum Break is now out, and here are some other great time manipulation games to check out as well.
The reviews are starting to roll in for Quantum Break from all around the Internet, and you can check out ours here. Reception to is has been all over the place so far, but we loved this story of a man who, as a result of an experiment gone horribly wrong, gains the ability to manipulate time in various ways. I’m a huge fan of games whose mechanics play around with time. Think about some time when you made a really big mistake, or said something really dumb. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have the power to shift time and have a do-over?
Due to the inherent interactivity of video games, a popular application of time is to give players control over the micromanagement of second-to-second action. Here are some notable titles from the recent and distant past that have used time manipulation in clever and memorable ways. Consider it a way to…pass the time.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
This Ubisoft classic is thought of by many as the perfect blend of platforming, time mechanics, and storytelling. As a series that I replay from time to time, it’s hard to disagree as it is a wonderful trilogy…sorry, quadrilogy. As the titular prince, you use an ancient dagger you’ve found in order to reverse, slow, and freeze time in order to even the odds against enemies and sometimes difficult platforming sections and traps.
What made the time manipulation such a masterstroke of design here was that it allowed series developer Jordan Mechner to build elaborate and challenging 3D environments without having to worry (as much) about frustrating players who repeatedly make mistakes and fall to their deaths. This basic mechanic was also used in two follow-up titles, Warrior Within and the Two Thrones, and then nearly a decade later in Forgotten Sands. In each of them, the basic time manipulation remains, but with some added fine-tuning to make the combat more varied and fun.
This whole series is available on Steam or GOG and they’re usually on sale for next to nothing, so do consider checking them out if you haven’t already. Confession time: I even think the much-maligned second entry, The Warrior Within, is very much underrated (but that’s a story for another day).
Here’s a very recent entry where a time manipulation mechanic is used to breathe some fresh life into an admittedly stale genre. Superhot is a first-person shooter in which your character can be killed by a single bullet. The clever trick that gives you a chance however, is that everything (enemies, objects…everything) only moves when you move.
My first reaction to hearing about this was that it sounded kind of boring. Upon trying it out though, I quickly realized that the opposite is true. By being able to control all time and movement in this game world, it conveys the feeling of being in the eye of the storm while smack dab in the middle of a firefight. It also makes every single decision you make count. Think about that; every single move you make could be the difference between navigating a path through a hail of bullets or making that inevitable march to swiss cheese town. In some ways, the action in this game feels almost like XCOM in how it gives you all the time in the world to plan your attack, but punishes you mercilessly for the slightest mistake.
Since the jumping-off point of this article is the release of Quantum Break, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the game that put Remedy on the map in the first place; the legendary Max Payne. In some ways it’s a hard one to come back to; so many other games copied and built on what it did first that it’s important to go in with the contextual understanding that Max Payne did it first.
The time manipulation tool that we’re talking about here is of course Bullet Time. Popularized in The Matrix, and in a thousand movies that tried to copy The Matrix in the early 2000s, this mechanic enabled players to slow down the action in order to make an impossible fight seem possible. Not only did it serve to assist Max when going up against overwhelming odds, but it also encouraged a particular type of play-style. Because using Bullet Time slowed everything down, it made combat easier but also a lot more exciting by just diving in. There are few video game-related feelings as distinct as standing outside a room full of enemies who are bickering with each other and waiting for you to come diving through the door, raining Hell upon them in a fury of bullets and recklessness.
Remedy made an excellent sequel to Max Payne in 2003, and Rockstar developed another one years later in 2012. While they each are still great games for a number of reasons, the initial ‘wow’ factor of the original’s mechanics remains a singular experience in gaming.
When you first start playing Braid, it looks like your run-of-the-mill 2D platforming game. Suddenly you make a mistake and expect your character to die (as you do), and something remarkable happens.
You then realize that you have the ability to rewind to any point previously within that level to correct any mistakes you’ve made. I remember getting through that first level back when I first played Braid and thinking to myself, “Well this is the easiest game in the world.” What I didn’t understand at the time was that it was only the beginning. With each new section, this game layers on new time manipulation mechanics; connecting your movement with everything else, creating stasis bubbles (no doubt an influence on the ones in Quantum Break), and even partnering with your own shadow to defy the laws of physics and solve puzzles that upon first glance seem impossible.
While Braid is extremely clever with its mechanics, where it truly stands out is in how it uses them to comment on larger themes of regret, loss, and the limitations of control. In this game, the concept of time manipulation
Life is Strange
This adventure game was a bit of a surprise hit last year, and it tells the story of a teenage girl who discovers that she has the ability to rewind time. Where Life is Strange diverts from the other games described here is that while Max’s time powers are used for puzzle solving, the real thrust of the story is in exploring the consequences of her use of these powers on the world and the people within it.
Over the last decade, much has been made of how video games have attempted to introduce a sense that a player’s decisions can have lasting effects on how a story plays out. Life is Strange is one of the few games that takes a serious and deep look at that phenomenon beyond just the mechanics, and evokes a sense of pause in the player not just about whether you can use those abilities, but whether you should.