Time Zone: Tropes

time_zone-lostOne thing, more than anything else bar the graphics, establishes Time Zone as having been written early in the history of the form: although it’s a time-travel game, it lacks the usual time-travel tropes. There are basically two tropes, with sundry variations, pioneered by Infocom in the mid-80’s and almost obligatory since then:

  • Avoiding changing the past. Taking care to clean up anachronisms and/or paradoxes, lest you rupture the space/time continuum. Sorcerer and Spellbreaker both had memorable scenes of this sort, and many time-travel games, including Timequest and Jigsaw, make it the player’s primary goal.
  • Deliberately changing the past in order to affect the future: planting acorns so you can climb oak trees a century later and suchlike. Zork III may have been the first game to play with this, but Timequest and Day of the Tentacle are whole games organized around puzzles of this sort. And on the larger scale, changing history is the player character’s chief motivation in Trinity 1Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game. and Lost New York.

Time Zone doesn’t do any of that. The time periods are effectively islands, connected only by the fact that you can carry objects between them. And you often can’t even do that: anything that would be anachronistic in the era you’re going to (such as dynamite in 1000 AD, or any manufactured item in the age of reptiles) gets vaporized in transit. So you can’t alter history by leaving ahistorical technology lying around, accidentally or deliberately. More direct alterations, such as assassinating Christopher Columbus, are prevented by the poverty of the game engine: if you try it, you’ll just an error along the lines of “I don’t understand that”.

More broadly, the tropes I speak of (or at least the second one on the the smaller scale) are reliant on non-local effects. Internally, past and future are modelled as separate rooms. For the past to affect the future, you have to have a mechanism whereby an action in one room can affect the state of another. The engine used in the Sierra High-Res Adventures might not in fact have this capability. Judging by the way that some verbs are understood in some areas and not in others, it seems like different areas are in some way treated as separate programs. It seems a little incredible, but having tinkered with the various King’s Quest engines, I can attest that they did something similar, albeit with less noticeable side effects.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just that the author was used to thinking in terms of local effects, because that’s how early adventure games generally worked. The whole idea of non-local effects was a major leap in sophistication for adventure games, arguably more significant than the full-sentence parser. (See the T/SAL “Phoenix” games for examples of what can be done with a two-word parser and a sophisticated world model.)

At any rate, if it’s not doing time-travel puzzles, what is the game doing with all that space? To a large extent, it’s establishing its own tropes. There are certain puzzles that are repeated with different details all over the map:

  • Dark tunnels that need a light source
  • Dangerous people or animals that, when you enter their location, you have one turn to use the right object to keep them from killing you.
  • Merchants and traders who will give you something you need in exchange for a specific other item. (In most cases, they’ll only accept one other item, but won’t tell you which.)
  • Expanses of hazardous terrain (either desert or frozen wastes) that you can’t cross without some way of getting food/water/rest/warmth.

Notably, even when two places have identical problems, they’ll have different solutions. The vaporizing of anachronisms, which seemed cheap when I first encountered it, is important to making this work: it provides a general rationale for the solution in 2082 AD not working in 50 BC. I mean, it’s still cheap to bar objects from certain areas by permanently destroying them, rather than by, say, preventing the time machine from launching until you ditch them, or just automatically leaving them behind. But at least there’s some justification to barring them at all.

1 Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game.

Guitar Hero

This was the last game purchase I made before starting this blog. I’d been meaning to get it for some time, not just because of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, but because one of the developers is an acquaintance of mine, and if there’s one kind of game you always have to play, it’s games involving people you know, however slightly. But I hesitated. Partly because, with the custom controller, it’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought (unless you count Katamari Damacy, the game that finally made me buy a PS2). Partly because no one seemed to be able to answer the question: Is this game still fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star?

This may seem like an odd question. When I first asked it in an online chat, one person replied “Everyone has a fantasy of being a rock star!” Well… no. Not everyone. It’s not that I hate rock, it’s just that it’s never inspired in me the zealous enthusiasm that makes people idolize its practicioners. Think of, say, John Williams. Here’s a musician whose works have had an emotional impact on millions of people: imagine how dry Darth Vader’s initial entrance onto Leia’s ship would have been without the strains of the Imperial March in the background. But John Williams doesn’t have screaming fans. He doesn’t have groupies. He doesn’t have people quitting their jobs to follow him around on tour. Few if any people have commercially-successful movie sountrack composer fantasies.

Given that the question isn’t purely hypothetical, there’s another problem with it: the assumption that gaming is based on a fantasy of being the player character. Sure, it’s a factor, and a game with a really unacceptable protagonist can raise hackles — witness the recent furor over Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But in most cases, I’d say that character identification isn’t as big a deal in games as pro-censorship activists think it is. If you can play Super Mario Brothers without actually wanting to be a plumber in the Mushroom Kingdom, why can’t you play Guitar Hero without wanting to be a rock star?

(To go off on a tangent: I remember when Infocom released Plundered Hearts, a romance-novel-like text adventure with a female hero. All of Infocom’s promotional materials seemed to be geared towards reassuring their predominantly male fanbase that it was okay to play it, that they knew some very macho people who played it without becoming less macho, etc. And I remember thinking at the time: No one would do this for a novel or a movie with a female hero. And it’s not like audience identification with the hero in a novel is weak; in many, you’re actually privy to the hero’s inner thoughts. But they had to respond to the idea that the player of a game is fantasizing about being the protagonist, and therefore, in the case of Plundered Hearts, fantasizing about being a woman. Of course, no one would bother refuting this notion today. Tomb Raider has rendered it laughable.)

Still, there’s some reason to think that the rock star fantasy may be more important than usual in this game. Whenever people describe why it’s so fun, what they talk about is rocking out. This is apparently the main appeal of the game: it gives you an excuse to rock out, and a context out from which to rock. Sure, it’s a simplified and videogamized version of rocking out, but apparently it does a good job of capturing the experience. The thing is, I wouldn’t describe most games in terms like these. If a first-person shooter felt like actually shooting people, I doubt I’d be able to play it. Jumping around is kind of fun, but the fun in playing a platformer is not based on how well it captures the experience of jumping. That’s because a platformer isn’t about replicating a jumping-on-platforms fantasy.

So, is Guitar Hero fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star? We’ll find out in my next post, after I’ve tried it out.