Time manipulation is a common theme in games. Ever since The Matrix popularised the slow mo dive (and let’s be honest, John Woo has already beat them to that idea) games abound that slow down, pause, speed up or otherwise modify time within the game.
The main ones that come to mind for me are those like Max Payne or Braid, which use time as a specific game mechanic. But almost every other game – especially action games – control time to accentuate actions: after a crippling punch to an enemy in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, after the killing stab in Assassins Creed, after a Spider-sense avoidance move in…well…any Spider-man game ever. Slowing the action down just for a moment can give the player a real sense of the damage they’re causing, or the misfortune they’ve just avoided. It gives them an extended moment to savour some part of the gameplay. Time manipulation used as a spice like this is something I’m very much a fan of, and really creates a feel of sublime polish in a game.
On the other hand, there’s a tendency to overuse time control like this. Especially in art-centric games – like any made by the fantastic studio I’m working for – there is often a tendency to want to “slow down, truck in, and play a cool animation”. It’s easy to think that a slow-down will be more enjoyable if the player can get a better and longer view of the action. And when the animations to be shown are as awesome as the ones the artists at Klei tend to come up with, it’s tempting to want to get a better look at them.
But in my opinion, this is no longer paying regard to the fact that the game is interactive. It always annoys me when cutscenes take away control of my character, but the change of view and fullscreen nature of them tend to give me the hint that I can at least use this time to mash the keys trying to find the skip button. But when I can see my avatar and I can’t move him, it frustrates me beyond all belief. And yes, being stuck in a slow-motion, zoomed-in animated sequence has taken away my control. Controlling time to show things off works best when used sparingly, and even then only very quickly. Deus Ex or AssCreed don’t slow down an entire animation – just certain bits for almost imperceptible amounts of time to accentuate actions.
However, the real reason I started writing this blog post is to praise another game that handles time control incredibly well: creating the ‘cool factor’ of big hits and slow-down without getting in the way of the player. That game is Batman: Arkham Asylum.
It’s easy to overlook at first, but during combat the slow-motion happens before any hits are landed. And it’s related to how close the goons are to hitting Batman first. If they haven’t even considered throwing a punch, then no slow-down happens at all and they get a full-speed knuckle sandwich. But if both the goon and Batman are just about to land a hit on each other at the same time, the game slows down until I’m expecting “Eye of the Tiger” to start playing. And as a player, that feels amazing!
The way that the slow-motion is affected not by my actions, or the animations that are playing, but by the context in which I perform my actions and animations just feels right, and it allows players to craft wildly different experiences and playing styles. Watching one of my friends play, I realised he was somewhat more of a guerilla fighter, throwing off a single hit before moving on to the next goon – his fights seemed so fast to me, under his guidance Batman flew from baddy to baddy, only slowing down occasionally to knock them out, or when the slow-motion would kick in by chance. It made such a difference to my own style: trying to get as many hits in on one guy before I was forced to split my attention to deal with an incoming punch, a style that gave me a lot of slow-motion moments where I would sit on the edge of my seat, hoping I had thrown the punch fast enough to stop the goon from hitting me. And when I realised how much variation the developers at Rockstar had managed to add by such a simple but well-placed use of time manipulation, suffice to say I was impressed.
How do you use time in your games? Is it a garnish, an annoyance, a selling point, or a core gameplay element? What other games have time mechanics that you find interesting? Say something in the comments.