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Clockwork Games and Time Loops

There’s a handful of games where time is taken very seriously. In this video, I look at the design, challenges, and opportunities of what we might call “clockwork games”.

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Outer Wilds: a game of curiosity-driven space exploration | USC Digital Library

Learn, reset, repeat: The intricacy of time loop games

Games shown in this episode (in order of appearance)

The Gardens Between (The Voxel Agents, 2018)
Metro Exodus (4A Games, 2019)
Assassin’s Creed: Origins (Ubisoft Montreal, 2017)
Far Cry New Dawn (Ubisoft Montreal, 2019)
Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady Studios, 2015)
The Last Express (Smoking Car Productions, 1997)
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000)
StarCraft II (Blizzard Entertainment, 2010)
Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019)
Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)
Dead Rising (Capcom, 2006)
Dead Rising 2 (Capcom Vancouver, 2010)
Dead Rising 3 (Capcom Vancouver, 2013)
The Sexy Brutale (Cavalier Game Studios, 2017)
Elsinore (Golden Glitch, 2019)
Minit (JW, Kitty, Jukio, and Dom, 2018)
Vision Soft Reset (Mark Radocy, 2019)
12 Minutes (Luis Antonio, Unreleased)
Deathloop (Arkane Studios, Unreleased)
Hitman 2 (IO Interactive, 2018)
Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2016)
RimWorld (Ludeon Studios, 2013)
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Kojima Productions, 2015)
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011)
Rage 2 (Avalanche Studios / id Software, 2019)
The Swindle (Size Five Games, 2015)
Persona 5 (Atlus, 2017)
Just Cause 4 (Avalanche Studios, 2018)
Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, 2018)

Music used in this episode

The Gardens Between soundtrack – Tim Shiel (
Outer Wilds soundtrack – Andrew Prahlow (
The Sexy Brutale soundtrack – Cris Velasco (
Minit soundtrack – Jukio Kallio (
Deus Ex: Human Revolution soundtrack – Michael McCann (
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask soundtrack – Koji Kondo

Other credits

Groundhog Day © Columbia Pictures

Contribute translated subtitles –

Video transcription:

Hi, I’m Mark Brown and this is Game Maker’s
Toolkit.Most video games have a very strange sense
of time, if you really think about.There are day and night cycles with sunsets
and sunrises.And some characters go to bed when it’s
dark and get up when it’s light.But in general, time stands still – with characters
stuck in a bizarre stasis until you make somekind of action.So the bad guys of Gotham City will dutifully
wait for Batman to finish up his side missionsbefore causing anymore carnage, and kidnapped
characters will sit tight until you get aroundto rescuing them.But there are a few games that decide to do
something different and actually simulateevents in real time – with characters moving
on schedules, and events playing out automaticallyat set moments.I want to call these “real-time games”,
but that’s a bit confusing.So let’s call them clockwork games, instead.And it turns out that there are some striking
benefits to this approach.Over the summer, I played through Outer Wilds
which is an interstellar archeology game whereyou bounce between planets in a rickety wooden
ship, seeking answers about your miniatureuniverse.And what makes this game truly special is
the way the entire solar system is constantlychanging as time goes on.Take this pair of planets, which is known
as the hourglass twins.At the start of the game, the Ash Twin is
covered in a thick layer of impenetrable sand.While on the Ember Twin, you can explore a
network of underground tunnels.Over time, though, the sand shifts from one
planet to another, permanently closing offthe tunnels on Ember – but revealing a bunch
of towers on the surface of Ash.Likewise, the planet of Brittle Hollow starts
off intact, but slowly disintegrates as itgets sucked into a black hole.And a wandering comet makes its merry way
around the solar system.This has some fascinating ramifications.For one, as the Outer Wilds devs have said,
this adds an extra dimension to explorationby making “when” players explore just
as important as “where”.You can’t only think about the world in
a spatial sense, but also have to considerit in a temporal sense as areas you want to
explore might be blocked off by the time youreach them, while others might not be accessible
until much later on.The other advantage is that it makes the world
feel natural and dynamic, because the worldis always changing.Of course, open world games do see changes
– Megaton can be wiped off the Capital Wastelandin Fallout 3, and Tarrey Town can be built
from the ground up in Breath of the Wild.But these things always happen in response
to choices and decisions that you make.Instead, by having things follow a clock,
the world moves on regardless of your choices,progress, or even your existence.If Outer Wilds wanted to capture the cosmic
indifference of the universe, following aclock was definitely the best way to do it.Another series that works in real time is
Dead Rising.In these games, or, at least, the good ones
– you’re constantly watching the clock,as events happen at specific times – and will
go on without you if you’re not paying attentionto your watch.Some events are missable – like survivors
who call out for help, but get eaten by zombiesif you’re not fast enough.Others are more critical, like how you need
to give Stacey a top-up of Zombrex every 24 hours.And so, despite being a game about brain-eating,
undead monsters, Dead Rising manages to makethe clock your most nightmarish monster.Time pressures add a sense of urgency and
peril to proceedings because you can’t justget around to saving survivors when you feel
like it – you’ve got to get to them now.And choosing to save one person over another
actually has consequences, because there literallyisn’t enough time to save both.This turns time into a valuable resource,
which must be carefully managed just likeammo and health.Darting into a shop to explore for resources
might be a smart move, or it might be a time-wastingdetour.And learning routes, shortcuts, and memorising
fast-travel points can really help you maximiseyour minutes.Every decision you make matters because you’re
always spending your most precious currency: time.The thing about making a clockwork game, though,
is that time can’t exactly go on forever.Developers can’t just endlessly simulate
events and character schedules.And certain events simply can’t be missed
if you want to create a coherent story.And so most of these games have some kind
of fixed end point.After playing Outer Wilds for 22 minutes, the sun goes
supernova, and destroys everything in sight.In Dead Rising, Frank’s helicopter will
return after 72 hours – 6 hours in real world time.And in Majora’s Mask – which is perhaps,
the quintessential clockwork game – the moonwill crash into the earth in three days time
– about an hour of real world time, on thedefault speed.And at that point, the most common thing to
do is to take inspiration from the movie GroundhogDay and just make time loop back around to
the start.Hi, I’m Mark Brown and this is Game Maker’s
Toolkit.Time loops can be a very clever gameplay system.Take The Sexy Brutale, which is a murder mystery
game that is set in a hotel that runs on predictableclockwork schedules.In the very first part of the game, Reginald
Sixpence is shot and killed with a rifle,by a mysterious masked man.But when time loops back around, you can plop
a blank cartridge into the gun – providingthe knock-on effect of saving Sixpence’s
life.So the loop becomes a key part of the gameplay
structure, as you learn information over repeatedviewings of the murder, and then throw a spanner
in the works by manipulating the scene atthe exact right point in time.The time loop presents a clockwork puzzle
to solve, which is all about learning a sequenceof events, and then using that information
to your advantage.A similar system exists in the Shakespearean
clockwork adventure game, Elsinore.Here, you play as Ophelia and over the space
of a few days, Hamlet kills your father, anda mysterious assassin ends your life.Luckily, time loops back around.And this time, armed with foreknowledge of
what’s going to happen and a handy timelinemenu screen, you can convince and manipulate
characters to do different things.In this loop, I gave Hamlet evidence of his
mother’s infidelity, and his uncle’s murderousconfession – which ended with Hamlet being
killed in a duel against the king – and myfather’s safety.It’s not just the clockwork puzzle that
endeared me to the game, though: I realisedthat the safety net of the time loop gave
me the freedom to experiment with all sortsof approaches and ideas.Because if they didn’t quite work, well,
I’ll just try again in a few minutes – andmaybe with some handy new knowledge to use
in future playthroughs.In other games, the loop is something to be
mastered and maximised.In Minit, the time loop is the shortest of
all: just sixty seconds, and definitely notlong enough to complete an entire Zelda-like
adventure game.But by creating new start points, finding
new tools, opening up shortcuts, and speedrunningacross the map, you’ll eventually be able
to finish the game within that minute-longloop.Similarly, there’s the under-the-radar Metroidvania
Vision Soft Reset, where you’re given just20 minutes to save a planet from destruction.Here, checkpoints act like bookmarks on a
timeline: instead of fast travelling aroundthe map, you’re actually rewinding time
to earlier moments in your adventure.Some stuff comes with you, like new abilities
and passwords.Other stuff, like extra heart containers,
don’t survive the rewind, and must be pickedup anew if you want them.Part of the thrill of the game is carefully
maximising the creation of new bookmarks.For example, at one point in the game i ventured
deep within the planet to power up a machine,and then worked my way back up to the surface.All in all, the round trip left me with just
12 minutes to spare, which would make therest of the game a bit of a tight squeeze/So I did it again, this time racing my way
to the machine and back, now with experienceand a filled-in map to help me.I got back with 16 minutes on the clock, and
saved a bookmark with plenty of time to spare.That felt pretty good.When it comes to designing one of these loops,
a key question is length.Outer Wilds designer and producer Loan Verneau
has said “we wanted to keep things shortenough [that] failure and death did not feel
frustrating, but we also didn't want the playerto feel like they were constantly on a time
limit”.Also, if players are expected to build a mental
model of the timeline, it needs to be relatively short.A short timer should also be combined with
a compressed world size – so no matter whereyou go, you’ll find something interesting
within the time limit.Minit is carefully designed so that everything
is reachable within a few seconds, leadingto a densely packed world that spills off
in all directions.The time loop is certainly a handy mechanic,
then.It wraps a nasty design problem up with a
rather attractive bow, and creates cool newconsequences for the player with clockwork
puzzles, freedom to experiment, and temporalmastery.These are some fantastic games, and more are
on the way, such as the one-room mystery game12 Minutes, and Deathloop – which comes from
the developers of Dishonored.But a time loop is, ultimately, a contrivance.It’s a gimmicky solution that calls attention
to itself in a very loud way.And while I think that’s fine, it ultimately
won’t work in every type of game, or fitevery type of narrative.And so, I’m left wondering if we can create
more clockwork games, but without the loop.Well, one idea is to use smaller, less obvious
loops that don’t rip you out of the simulationwhen they repeat.Hitman levels are made up of lots of small
loops, with characters on repeated schedulesthat might take five or ten minutes to repeat.This gives a pretty convincing emulation of
reality, but without the messiness of a completelevel-wide time loop.And another solution might be to investigate
systemic and randomised events that aren’thandcrafted by the developer, and therefore
can go on forever.Things like the weather effects in Zelda and
MGS 5 provide that feeling of time movingon, outside of your control.Likewise, traffic patterns in open world games
and characters in simulations all use simplerules and interconnectivity to create the
illusion of reality, without the need forabsolute clockwork choreography.See this video for more on that.But for something more radical, let me tell
you about a section in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.At the beginning of the game, you’re told
that you need to hop on a helicopter and whizzoff to an office block to save some hostages.Now, you’d be remiss for thinking that those
terrorists will happily wait around foreverand won’t do a thing until you get there.That is how time works in most games, after
all.But, actually, no.If Jensen is a bit, uhm, busy and waits around
for too long, most of the hostages will be lostSARIF: "Eight people Adam.Eight good men and women whose only crime
was to come to work today.And those so-called pro-human purists slaughtered
them.”Letting the hostages get killed doesn’t
lead to a game over of any sorts.But your inaction does change the story and
your relationship with other characters – ifonly a tiny bit.And so maybe this proves that it’s okay
for games to be serious when they say thatyou only have a certain amount of time to
do certain tasks – provided that the punishmentfor not getting there in time is simply a
change in the story to reflect your inaction,or perhaps just leads to you missing some
content altogether.And here’s the thing: modern games already
have so much filler content, that I don’tthink it would matter much if some players
completely missed it because they were toobusy doing other things.So imagine a Batman or Spider-Man game where
crimes are taking place in real-time, andas a superhero you’ve got to make the call
of which criminals to chase down – and whichones you’re going to have to miss.Of course, such a system can’t be implemented
lightly.Time limits are understandably controversial
among players, for the way they put pressureand stress on your shoulders.And for many, the idea that game content can
be missed goes against the completionist natureof slowly and methodically completing every
task on a map.So I understand if this sounds like the worst
idea imaginable.But still, given the unique advantages of
clockwork games, perhaps time could be themissing ingredient needed to spice up these
samey and static open world games we keep seeing.Lemme know your thoughts in the comments below.Hey, thanks for watching. Tell me about your
favourite clockwork games in the comments.Did you know that you can support GMTK when
you buy games on the Epic Game Store by usingthe creator tag GMTOOLKIT?You don’t pay a penny extra, but Epic gives
me some cash, for some reason.Everybody wins! But, like, you know, mostly me.


game design,time loops,groundhog day,outer wilds,dead rising,sexy brutale,minit

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