US: 10 Feb 2009
As inevitable as the pun may be, there’s something about the little flash game, Time4Cat, that is, itself, rather timely. Having just relocated myself for graduate school and spending inordinate amounts of time unpacking, assembling furniture, commuting, attending orientation, attending classes, doing readings, and going to a day job, it feels like there’s not enough time for anything this month. For many student-aged gamers, I’m sure it feels much the same way. And therein lies the charm of Time4Cat.
Set at an atmospheric crosswalk, you play as a small white cat collecting food as you dodge pedestrians and bicyclists. There’s a very Braid-like twist involved though, as the cat effectively controls time. When you move, everyone else moves. Stop, and the entire busy downtown intersection stops on a dime.
While playing, you become aware of a two-tiered time sense. One is real time, mostly expressed by sound and the countdown clocks hovering over food drops. These advance whether or not you’re moving, reminding the player that there is an objective progression here. The other sense of time is player dependent, allowing you to dictate temporal perception in a very interesting way.
A friend that I showed the game to put it down after a minute or so, upset at being hit by a pedestrian. “I would rather it be a person getting run over than a cat being stepped on,” she complained. I was puzzled. Sure, the in-game manual uses the term “stepped on” too, but the ramifications of animal cruelty seemed rather overblown. Barely touching a pedestrian means an instant game over. I argued to my friend that it was less about death as it was about the cat’s time-sense converging with the pedestrian’s, a Schrödinger-esque quantum waveform collapsing the moment it meets outside observation. Not death, but the demystification of a traditionally supernatural animal.
Then my cat got run over by a bicycle and I revised that position.
In terms of gameplay, the game uses mouse movement and the left button as the sum of its control mechanics. Working on a laptop as I do, I’ve often found frustration with these kind of games. Another flash title which recently caught my interest, Together (Armor Games), was basically unplayable for me for this very reason. So I was pleased to discover that Time4Cat not only plays perfectly on a laptop but might even excel with the trackpad.
Gameplay action is, as mentioned, dictated by movement. The game layers in obstacles slowly to get you well accustomed to each level of difficulty before ramping it up again. Because the ability to pause and reflect is available at any moment, you have to work deliberately at getting yourself cornered. For those times, you can use an item to briefly push pedestrians outside the immediate area. The ability is effective and dramatic without being overpowered, something I quite enjoyed seeing. Nothing takes you out of a game faster then elements which seem disjointed or at odds with one another. This one, on the other hand, really seems to compliment the subtle tone of its other mechanics.
Overall, the game manages to be an engrossing little distraction, a deviously unassuming timesuck even though it should in theory be easy to pick up and put back down. That a game about time should, itself, become an issue of time management is probably appropriate. While not exactly possessing the addictive replayability of, say, a Robot Unicorn Attack or Canabalt, the more meditative and ghostly nature of Time4Cat definitely gets into your head and stays there.
I have another theory about it, in fact. Like G. Christopher Williams recently observed over at the Moving Pixels blog (“Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game ‘Endings’”, PopMatters, 28 July 2010), the failure-only trajectory of arcade-styled titles like this one creates, maybe inadvertently, a fatalistic proto-narrative. The cat will die. It’s mostly a question of when. By lending it a time dilation element, Time4Cat really does become about delaying as well as causing death.
There are annoyances about the game, of course. The short ambient soundtrack gets distractingly repetitive before too long, and the precision needed to scooch by some pedestrians can be hard to judge. Push spheres are also dropped far too rarely, or so it feels like. And, well, at the end of the day, it is a game about a cat getting potentially creamed by a bicycle, so your mileage may vary.
I’ve noticed so far that of the games that I’ve reviewed here, all have been rather brief puzzle-platformers. It’s not that I have anything against longer games—indeed, I had a couple of RPGs lined up to review before real life intervened—but there’s something uniquely satisfying about taking a small experience like a browser game and unfolding it into something larger. I found it honestly rewarding to elongate or compress Time4Cat‘s moments to my liking, even if that ate up my lunch break in a hurry. Oftentimes it seems like smaller games such as these indie titles have the freedom to play with ideas of experience that larger worlds don’t. That they’re so readily accessible also makes them all the more appealing.
Bottom line: Time4Cat is a good momentary distraction. How long that moment lasts, however, is up to you.