As an artistic medium, the video game is unique in its ability to play with time.
Painting and photography, for example, don’t excel at representations beyond those of frozen moments, pieces of reality to be considered in a still form. Certainly, a number of painters—the Cubists for example— have attempted to play with the form to allow it more versatility in representing process and progression. However, many viewers need to be instructed that part of the point of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) is that the fragmented images of the woman in the picture represent a body as it moves through space and time—not something that the typical painting aspires to.
Likewise, in The Vision Machine (Indiana University Press, 1994), Paul Virilio recounts that the sculptor Auguste Rodin complained that photography was a rather unrealistic form of art because it failed to capture time when mirroring reality. Rodin argued that his own later sculptural works managed to do so by including distended bodies with figures seemingly not proportional because they were “moving”, very much in contrast with the precise and proportional figures represented in his earlier works.
On the other hand, both literature and film are two mediums that cannot (for the most part) help but include time in their representations of reality. Books are always moving forward; a plot must advance, as it is almost trapped in the momentum of time itself. The reader is constantly moving the pages in order to advance in the text. Likewise, films tend inevitably towards conclusion, movement itself speaking quite directly to the progression of characters not only through space but also time. Barring the occasional flashback, the linearity of beginning at the beginning, moving through a middle, and then eventually concluding enforces a rather strict vision of time as constantly progressive.
Certainly some films do play tricks with time, occasionally making the effort to throw off the chains of a progressive model of time by playing around with the placement of events or the ability to change characters’ experiences. Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (1998) allows its protagonist three chances to solve a particularly thorny problem for her boyfriend in 20 minutes by shooting three different alternative routes for Lola to take over the course of her “run”. Strangely “video gamey” in its doling out of “three lives” for Lola, the film rather uniquely allows the viewer to consider and then reconsider and then reconsider again how altering decisions can affect an outcome. This “restarting” of plot defies the forward momentum of time by pondering temporal events as malleable enough to force new options to emerge if reconsidered from another temporal vantage point.
Some similar effort at changing the way that a viewer sees the ramifications of choices is also present in Quentin Tarantino’s infamously temporally convoluted Pulp Fiction (1994), in which a typical linear plot is thrown out altogether by presenting a series of stories with some overlapping characters that take place in a shared setting that do not necessarily unfold in front of the viewer chronologically. Tarantino appears to not merely clip apart chronology of the stories of Vincent, Jules, Butch, et al. in an at all arbitrary way, though. Frequently it is useful to know the consequences of an action and decision in the film before that consequence actually takes place. Knowing that Vincent Vega will die at Butch’s hands, as Tarantino reveals to us in the middle of the movie, makes Jules’s speech to Vincent at the end of the film (an event that occurs earlier in time than Vincent’s death, of course) about taking advantage of the “miracle” that saved both their lives (which occurs in the earliest parts of the film) that much more compelling. The viewer knows that Jules is “right” because we already know what will happen to Vincent later in time, his fate pseudo-prophetically revealed mid-movie.
Now, while these interesting examples of movies that manipulate time in a useful way exist, they are certainly the exception and not the rule. Some viewers find these deconstructions of time in a medium that is typically about driving the plot forward disconcerting and confusing. Video games, however, are rather uniquely suited to “plays” with time. Unlike the static images in many of the visual arts or the comforting linearity of textual and cinematic narratives, games have always included temporal disruptions and events that are essentially “do overs”.
The plot of Super Mario Bros. (1985) is one that is expected to be interrupted regularly, with its protagonist frequently suffering a nasty end under the feet of a trampling turtle or over the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit, only to be returned slightly earlier in time in order to be retried, to be reconsidered, to be altered again and again and again. Like Run, Lola, Run, games feature the ability to constantly challenge the forward momentum of time, rewinding (as it were) to reconsider the best route to reach a more optimal solution.
Consideration of this constant temporal displacement allowed by multiple lives, continues, and the reload of saved games (a kind of bookmarking of time itself), however, is rarely in and of itself that interesting. These restarts do frequently teach the player things and hone skills, but all too often these “rewinds” in the plot are mere obstacles that need to be pushed through or that enforce practice at playing well, rather than moments of real reflection on the player’s part.
What I mean by this is that many a gamer has died in an encounter with an end-level boss only to respawn at the beginning of the battle to quickly fight it in largely the same way again. A better timed button press here or better dodge of an incoming attack there may mean the difference between success and failure, but little is learned besides something along the lines of: muscling through a tough challenge will eventually equate to victory; more simply, persistence pays off.
Prince of Persia
The games of Jordan Mechner, on the other hand, have a curious fixation on time and failure (or death) as an intentional mechanic and theme. What got me thinking about Mechner’s more methodical approach to time and its manipulation in a game world was curiously not his most famous game, The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003), but one of its predecessors, The Last Express (1997).
While I had played the Prince of Persia trilogy and its 2008 reboot as well as earlier Mechner games like Karateka (1984), it was only recently that I had the chance to play through the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful The Last Express. I was surprised to see that the idea of being able to deliberately “rewind” a game was a mechanic that Mechner was already playing with prior to the appearance of the 2003 Prince. This mechanic is, of course, worked directly into the plot of the Prince games, but I was surprised to also see it applied to a less obviously fantastic setting and plot like that of The Last Express.
Narratively, a kind of mystery or thriller, and mechanically, a hybrid of something like a Choose Your Own Adventure with aspirations of being a point-and-click adventure, much of the plot of The Last Express is actually fairly realistic. It is a kind of historical fiction set just prior to World War I enlivened by a murder plot, arms dealings, and the subterfuge of spies all interacting on a fateful trip on the Orient Express. The player takes on the role of one Robert Cath, whose rather murky, but clearly sketchy background is revealed in fits and starts over the course of the adventure. Cath finds himself embroiled in the surprising death of a friend, which launches him into an investigation of that friend’s death and of a mysterious artifact over the course of several days spent traveling between Paris and Constantinople.