Videogames As Time Travel

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Some people play for fun, others for diversion, competition, exploration or escape. Videogames may be many things to many people, but just lately I've realized they are scratching an itch I abandoned long ago - when I gave up the dream of inventing Time Travel.

I got hooked - and how- by Back To The Future,but after many viewings all I came away with was frustration - with all the great expanses of time to explore, Marty gets the time travel equivalent of a chore list.


1. Ensure own existence
2. Bring Dad back from dead (secure socio-economic wellbeing of USA if time)
3. Rescue Doc from ravenous schoolteacher

PS: Do not, repeat DO NOT BOFF MOM

He doesn't get to DO anything. All he does is run around, a heaving mass of cultural paradoxes in his wake, luckily avoiding the catastrophic destruction of the timespace continuum...or his immediate family.
I could do so much more with Time Travel! Honestly. The movies were almost a waste of the entire concept.
It was settled. 
This is what I would do with my life.

So as a youngster walking through the world I would occasionally wonder when my future self would appear. I had no idea what would happen if I met myself, grown-up and travelling in time...we would probably just stand there and be incredibly smug at each other. 

I play games because they're fun, a relaxing diversion, occasionally artistically impressive and frequently engaging. Lately though, I've been feeling a hat-tip to those old desires to see other times and places and explore them. Now that a slew of recent games have made me realize this, it's obvious that I've always loved this about games.


Hard to believe, but this is the first time I felt like I was exploring a world out of time; the sound effect snippets were enough with- of legionaries beating their swords on shields, or the creak of a sail rope on a trireme - were very evocative. Civilization II was addictive as balls regardless, and I remember starting an enormous map with one city, no technology and a cup of  breakfast coffee, happy in the knowledge that I would be growing a nation there all day.
Civ 2's Best Exploration Vehicle
The next time I had that feeling was with Hidden and Dangerous. A shooter with tactics and supernaturally observant enemies, it was the first WW2 game I ever played, and it leapt around the theatres of that war and presented them with enough variety of detail and terrain that it sucked me in.


Hidden and Dangerous

It's at this time, game-wise, that the 'burden of proof' switched. From evoking times past to presenting them, my wannabe time-traveler was of course right there with all the other gamers cooing over the 'amazing graphics' and how it 'looks just like a film'. Let's just say that with any fantasy, be it a novel or a movie, there is a willingness to suspend belief in some measure, and that games of this era just required more than most other media, as they attempted to make this switch from the iconic and abstract to presenting an explorable alternate environment in three dimensions.

Then started the love affair with the Grand Theft Auto series...while GTA 3 was more geographical travel than time travel, Vice City mined that seam wide and of course the soundtrack didn't hurt...speeding around a neon-lit 1986 Miami in a sports care to Corey Hart's 'Sunglasses at Night'...this is exactly the sort of thing Marty McFly should have been doing, if he hadn't started out in 1985 in the first place. 

convertible strip.jpg

You can say what you like about the Grand Theft Auto games (most people do) but they took a quantum leap over the competition in terms of sheer volume of environmental detail. Seagulls wheeled overhead, and behind them in a blue sky, a passenger jet came into land somewhere else in the city...when not being run over, the passersby stopped to chat amongst themselves and the radio kept up with events in the game. The plot had you tearing up the tarmac whizzing back and forth across the game map, guiding you through each district of the city, and yes, the world was amazing, but some missions felt like they existed only to show off how great the game world was (which was pretty great).

Amid the slew of Playstation 2 games I played, one, which seemed to walk and talk like a Grand Theft Auto clone, but took a traditional linear game and put it in a sandbox style context - not one filed with side missions, collectibles and sardonic media crammed with pop culture references, but one that was simply more complex, detailed and vibrant than it needed to be to fulfil its role as a background. It must have been the product of some serious effort by the developer, but it wasn't gaudily shown off or exploited. It gave a wonderful feeling of luxury to the game, and I fell in love with it.

M1 Garage.jpg

Mafia was set in a fictional American city in the 1920s and 30s. Its cars were awfully slow with crappy suspension, and quelle horreur, they absolutely refused to bounce off each other if when you crashed. The amazing music of Django Reinhardt played on the in-car radios, which took a while to warm up, as though they had glass valves. Policemen fined you ever so politely. It was -just enough- like stepping into another era. I played it until I got stuck in the sadly absurd autosave system and the sound of seagulls around the harbor where I was stuck drove Krissa up the wall.

And now? It's just bananas. Titles on modern consoles scratching the Time Travel itch have more details, more environment activity and sounds, all of which are extremely gratifying. The sounds of a busy market in the Holy Land during the Crusades in the first Assassin's Creed game, or the canals of Renaissance Venice in the sequel throng with people going about their own business, talking about local bargains and gossip, along streets with great architectural detail and verisimilitude...and slightly over-amped weather and climate doesn't hurt.

Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption applied the latest facial and motion capture animation techniques to the faces of horses to ensure an uncanny accuracy of portrayal, and their reputation for quality control and period research means there's an extra layer of integrity to the gritty realism. Tip your hat to a policeman on a dusty street in the old west? Why not.

RDR Blackwater tip.jpg
It may not be time travel, but maybe it counts when a certain environment doesn't exist any more...RDR is a game about place as well as time, and I love its weather, its cactus and wildlife (even if the appreciation is something along the lines of 'Wow would you look at the detail on that cougar! The bugger it's killed my horse') 

RDR View.jpg
Recently as well, a new Mafia game came out, set in the 50s. The gameplay may have been lacking, and it was criminally short, but for the time-travelling kid inside me, there were moments that had both him and me gawping at the screen.

And there was no Under The Sea Dance to get to. I had all the time in the world to explore.


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