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Mistakes. They happen quite often in our day to day lives. Perhaps you said the wrong thing to someone, and your relationship with them is thus hurt. Possibly you prioritized one thing over another, and it came back to bite you in the butt. Maybe you just wish you remembered to actually do something, but you forgot. What's that thought that goes through your head at moments like these, that happens most likely everyday of your life? "I wish I could do that over again". Conversely, though, maybe you want to know an outcome of an event you can take now in the present, and think "I wish I knew what was going to happen". Both of these wishes can be fulfilled in one simple yet, as of now, unobtainable wish: time travel.
Into the unknown.
Time travel is my favorite sci-fi element, because I think it can work wonders with a medium's story. Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies, and if you look at my top 100 list, you'll see a good number employ some form of time travel. After pondering today's topic of discussion, my mind fell back to this favorite concept of mine, and well, I think it's time to dive into it. I've decided to explore how video games have explored the concept, in various ways, discuss what's worked, how it's been used in gameplay and story, as well as more unique uses of it. And, as the title implies, I'll be looking at going into the past, as well as into the unknown future.
There are, for the purposes of this blog, two forms of time travel: indirect, and direct. Direct is basically what you are thinking of as time travel: someone using some ability, or device, to move between periods of time, where they are mentally aware of the act that they physically moved between times (well, sometimes, unaware, but they can at least learn). What, then, is indirect time travel? It's what I'm going to discuss that you most likely didn't expect from this blog. Let's look at, for example, a premonition. Sure, the character isn't time traveling physically, but they are aware of an event not happening in their own time, as well as is the player. The same may be said of flashbacks. I will not, however, be looking at the progression of time, in a game like, say, Animal Crossing.
Here's the best example.
First, though, we'll look at direct time travel, since that's easier to understand, and will work as a better segway into indirect travel. Probably the most famous example of direct time travel is Chrono Trigger, the SNES JRPG from SquareSoft. In in, for those unfamiliar with the game, the party moves through several various eras of time, from the present, to the end of time, to the prehistoric age. Besides being the most famous, Chrono Trigger is also possibly the most early example of time travel being used in a video game. I can't think of any other game that did so before really, and if it did, was a minor use, and not on a grand scale like Chrono Trigger. The game's paced well in that you get to spend enough time in new time periods before moving on to another one. In this way, you get to see how the world has changed over time, as you can explore the entire Earth in the game.
This first form of direct time travel is more focused on traveling over long distances, and is mostly focused on displaying different, exotic periods of time. By having such a large time period, the game's story becomes more focused on the world itself instead of the characters making the journey, I feel, because you see the world evolve and change more than the characters, comparatively (in Chrono Trigger's case at least). I couldn't really think of many other examples of this first form, save the little room in Skyrim that has you going back in time to when Skyrim had actual greenery, and also in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time, as the intro shows a future with the world dark and dying, radically different from the present. However, the second form of direct time travel is one that's more personal to the character traveling, and involves traveling over a significantly shorter period of time.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has time travel over 7 years, where Link moves between the time before Ganondorf takes over Hyrule, and to when he's old enough to be the Hero of Time. Something unique about this instance is that while Link travels, when he moves forward, he's actually just staying in a sort of sleeping state, until he's old enough. As far as he's concerned, though, it's instantaneous. Because the game takes place over a 7-year transition, the story is more about Link than Chrono Trigger is about Crono himself, and it also has most of the same characters, instead of having ancestors and descendants of certain characters. This isn't a bad or good thing, story wise, it's simply a different kind of story.
Another game that features this form of direct travel, and is criminally underrated, is Radiant Historia, for the Nintendo DS. A game that I call this generation's Chrono Trigger, Radiant Historia has time travel over a period of about several months, sometimes having days in-between points, sometimes entire months. However, there are two separate timelines to travel between, and they involve basically all the same characters. The fact that the characters are more developed than those of Ocarina of Time shows that possibly having a more narrow time jump can let characters be developed more, though that's just a little tidbit of speculation on my part.
"I shall consume...all...WAIT, NO, DON'T PLAY THAT OC-I shall consume...all..."
Going back to Zelda, what many think of as the most unique entry in the series, Majora's Mask, incorporates a large amount of time mechanics. Link can make the three-day cycle speed up, slow down, and travel back to the beginning of the First Day. This lets him interact with everyone in Termina, though they won't remember him if he resets time back to the first day. Because the cycle is only three days, Link is a center-piece to all the events in the game, and he can see all the changes in the world firsthand. This means that there's a level of personality and closeness to Link not seen in Ocarina of Time. This method of time travel is certainly a unique one, and I don't really know of any other games that have done it, except a similar system has apparently been implemented in the upcoming Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
Looking at direct time travel, what it can do is have the character have a more direct connection with the player. When the player is experiencing the new time at the same time as the character, you get to experience that awe and wonder and mystery that the character feels. While this isn't completely untrue for indirect travel, it is something that isn't always there, unlike direct.
"The future doesn't belong to you!"
Let's start looking at indirect means of time-travel. I mentioned premonitions when I first talked about indirect means, and my first thought was Xenoblade Chronicles, one of my favorite games last year. In in, the visions the protagonist Shulk has actually have meaning inside and outside of battle. While allowing the characters to anticipate moves by the antagonistic Mechon, it also lets the player block incoming attacks from the enemy in battle, as well as see future sidequests. The party is learning about events not from their own time, but doesn't travel to those times to learn about them, so it's an indirect form of travel. In this instance, I think that the indirect form is well developed.
In some other games, such as, again, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time, premonitions are used solely for story purposes, and not gameplay. This is where indirect is set off from direct time travel, because with direct time travel, you're exploring what can seem like an entirely different world, and that affects the story. Most of the time, those premonitions don't affect gameplay.
One way that they can affect gameplay though, is flashbacks. In the Ace Attorney series, there are a couple cases where you play as a different attorney than the main protagonist, in a flashback case, in order to learn certain details story-wise. However, you are playing as a different character, and it's not like the actual Phoenix time-traveled back to see Mia's case, so that's indirect, only seen by the player. Similar are the flashbacks in Alan Wake: Wake isn't going "oh, I remember this", it's just a plot device, but it's not like Wake actually traveled back. This time travel is indirect, only for the player.
Someone went through the timelines erratically.
My other favorite game from last year, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, also has time travel in a different way, which is the final thing I'm going to look at, and functions differently from premonitions/flashbacks, and thus acts as a different form. The player moves through different points in time, as well as key decision points, and doing this, shows different points in the story, while Sigma isn't the one doing actual time travel, and it's really the player moving back and forth. Another similar title is a flash game, called No One Has to Die, which is focused on making decisions, and you simply re-experience parts of the game, and time travel back to before the fire in the building spreads.
While I think both have their own unique ways of doing story-telling, I think I actually enjoy both forms of time travel equally, because they both have their own place. While direct can create more awe and connection with the character, indirect can create unique experiences that throw you off and see different perspectives from the character. Anyway, I think I'm going to end this off here. If you've enjoyed time travel being used in a video game, feel free to leave your comments below!