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The Virtual Life – The Tragedy of Time Travel In Video Games

by Javy Gwaltney on Jun 01, 2016 at 10:01 AM

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In this week’s Virtual Life, we’re delving into the tragic ramifications of messing around with time, so I’m chatting about Life Is Strange, Fallout 4, and the UK TV show Life on Mars. Spoilers abound!

There is perhaps no stronger desire among human beings than to visit the past and fix a mistake or undo something that's happened to them. In The UK TV show Life On Mars Detective Sam Tyler just wants to go home. Somehow stranded in 1973 after being hit by a car in 2006, he spends his time solving homicide cases while ping-ponging back and forth between searching for a way to return to the present and growing uncomfortably used to the ‘70s. The show is just as much about the painful and muddled yearnings of the heart as it is about being an enjoyable and paranoia-tinged story about time travel. After two seasons, Sam wakes up from a coma to find himself back in 2006, finally getting what he wanted from the beginning. But here’s the thing: often nothing is worse for us than getting our way. As Sam tries to readjust to the modern world again, he realizes he’s come to see his 1973 limbo as the real world, as a home he desperately misses. It's a bitterly ironic twist that ends tragically, but that's the genre in a nutshell.

Modern takes on time travel are almost always mired in tragedy; whether it’s the scattershot journey of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim as he comes “unstuck in time” and helplessly experiences the cruelties of the 20th century (and his own personal failings) over and over again, or the 2002 film adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with Guy Pearce’s Hartdgen unable to prevent the death of his fiancé no matter what he does. These are inversions of our expectations of time travel and what it can for us, of the assumption of power that goes along with the concept.

What would you do if you could travel back in time? A lot of folks would apparently smother baby Hiter but my hunch is that people generally have more personal matters to take care of. Me? I’d go back and rescind all dumb, awful things I’ve said to people over the years; I’d upend moments of cowardice where I didn’t take a chance on something potentially special, if only to erase shameful moments from my brain.

When you boil it all down that’s often the fantasy that time travel is selling: catharsis, and it is a fantasy because catharsis is a lie. There is no cleansing, no forgetting. You live with the things you’ve done or have had done to you, and that’s why I find time travel to be the most human and moving concept in science-fiction. When such a story is executed well, it strikes a balance between the fantastical and somber realism, acknowledging that we can’t go back but that it’s possible to move forward while carrying our shames, tragedies, and regrets, hopefully learning how to live with them day in, day out.

A slew of recent games have embraced the darker side of time travel to tell stories about characters coming to terms with their powerlessness and trying to make the most of it. Both Fallout 4 and Life is Strange feature characters whose lives have been dramatically altered by time travel and now have to deal with the chaos of that displacement.

Fallout 4’s casts you as someone waking up after centuries in cryosleep, their spouse dead, their child kidnapped, and a post-apocalyptic world waiting for them to explore. The story eventually descends into a by-the-numbers tale of warring divisions that ultimately asks the player to make difficult choices and enforce their philosophy upon the world at large. While the execution of that story is a bit of disappointment, there’s still emotional power in its bones because our character, unable to go back to the life they once had, has to cope by choosing what kind of person they’re going to be and by extension what kind of world they’re going to bring about. Do they cling to resentment and unleash their hatred on an uncaring universe, killing everything in their path? Or maybe they grow from the pain and try to make the world a gentler place for everyone through diplomacy, using violence only as a last resort and becoming a beacon for hope and justice.

In Life is Strange, Max Caulfield, already dealing with the multitude of social anxieties that goes along with being a teenager, discovers she has the power to control time. She also finds out that though she can occasionally use her abilities for good, like preventing someone’s suicide attempt, her powers come at a terrible cost. Max’s friend Chloe, who dies repeatedly throughout Life is Strange, seems like she’s destined to perish no matter how many times Max screws around with the structure of time, but the game’s twist ending gives us the ability to save her if we’re willing to sacrifice an entire town of people for her. It’s a heartbreaking twist that gives us the ability to use Max’s time travel abilities for fantasy purposes but it also shows us just how dark that fantasy is. Life is Strange, after all, constantly kills Chloe over and over again, so it’s pretty obvious that she’s intended to die in the grand scheme of things despite Max’s meddling.

However, the temptation to save her is strong, in spite of the cost. You’ve gone through hell together to get to this point. I wondered, Is it really worth it? Sacrificing her life for a town filled with people Max doesn’t even know that well? Ultimately, I made the selfish choice and traded many lives for hers, but I did it bitterly and without pride. I imagine that I will, much like Max’s character would undoubtedly do, revisit that pivotal moment in my mind many times and wonder if I made the right choice, likely coming away with a different answer each time.

That we have games that take subject of time travel and engage with it in ways that are surprisingly human is to the benefit of the medium and hopefully the kind of depth we see more of from games in the years to come.