This morning, I received a link to a 20-year-old video. It’s the first-ever preview of The Journeyman Project, as shown at Macworld in 1992. Perhaps appropriately for a game about time travel, I felt a distinct sense of journeying into the past while I watched it.
What once looked so painstakingly rendered now, in the way of these things, looks (and sounds) primitive, and I feel the gulf of the decades between the adult I am now and the young teen I was then.
Thinking of The Journeyman Project was a blast from the past in another sense, too, though. While time travel was a staple of many excellent games for two decades, lately it seems to have gone entirely out of vogue. I, for one, want it back.
A significant number of games in recent years have used rewind or similar short-term tricks as a mechanic: Ghost Trick or Braid, for example, or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time a few years earlier. Time is a great mechanic to mess around with, and being able slow down, speed up, reverse, or fast-forward through the normal rate of events can have some extraordinary effects.
Then there are games that use time travel as a major plot point, games where the player doesn’t manipulate the timeline of the game but rather where the story itself depends on the natural sequence of things being upended. My favourite old Journeyman games fit here; each time Agent 5 visits is also in a different place, and so time is a plot concept rather than something the player wrangles. There are many games that use time travel as an element, and yet that only truly place players in one single era at a time.
But then there are my favourite games, the games that take a long view of causality and that let the player ping back and forth willy-nilly through the eras either to find out the effects, or to backtrack and change causes. Chrono Trigger is perhaps the best game that has ever done this: the player stays put geographically, wandering over one continent, but travels through time instead. Players, therefore, are always keenly aware of where to find the consequences of their actions, though choosing when to take an action may be more perplexing. The same is true of the LucasArts classic Day of the Tentacle, which puts players simultaneously in three eras in one location. If there’s a tree in your way in the 22nd century, you can get rid of it by convincing someone to cut down the sapling for you in the 18th.
Judging by the response I got when I asked Twitter, I’m not the only one who wants more. This afternoon, I asked what everyone’s favourite games featuring time travel were. I had several dozen answers in about five minutes. Clearly, many others are passionate about time travel. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Day of the Tentacle were the games I heard cited most. (I forbade Chrono Trigger responses.) They were far from the only answers; thanks to that casual question I’ve discovered a half-dozen games I never knew existed.
The games, though, all shared one clear trend: the vast majority of them were made in the last century.
Day of the Tentacle came out in 1993. Chrono Trigger in 1995. Ocarina of Time was 1998, and Majora’s Mask in 2000. Singularity and Radiant Historia were the only narrative games I heard that came out recently, and both had their initial release in 2010.
What I would really love is a big-budget, graphically gorgeous, fully-realized time travel adventure that doesn’t go anywhere much spatially, but that roams time back and forth. And yet there are so many more stories to tell. We could have an episodic adventure like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, where decisions made from time to time carry through. (Their Back to the Future series, while fun, used time as a plot element more than as a mechanic.) We could see mobile games that connect time travellers on the go with each other — if my character is in 1885, and yours is in 2023, perhaps when we reach each other, we can change each other’s games.
It’s high time for more time travel. Someone should make it happen. Or come back from the future where it’s already happened, and leave me a game. Or give it to me five years ago, thus making this post vanish in an existential paradox. Like they do.