The Scariest Video Game Monster Is Time

From Dragon Age's darkspawn to Silent Hill's Pyramid Head, video games have no shortage of terrifying foes. But there is a single enemy that is scarier than any of them. A formless, invisible beast that can never be stopped: Time. I still remember the first time I drowned in a Sonic game, specifically Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Near the end of Chemical Plant Zone 2 there's a segment where boxes twist and turn to slowly bring Sonic out of the water. All you have to do is jump at the right time and ride them up. But I was young and still not all that great at games. Try as I might, I kept mistiming the jumps.

And then I heard it — the music. That frantic pulsing tune, percussive and increasing in pace. I was going to drown, and I couldn't stop it. I saw the numbers appear above Sonic's head, counting down to his doom. I tried jumping up, failing each time as I panicked. The clock hit zero, and I died. To this day, that music strikes a chord with me.

What scared me, more than the water or the drowning, was something far more abstract than simply dying in a video game. I was afraid of the inevitable. Dying meant very little; I just started over at a checkpoint. The horrible thing was seeing time tick down and being unable to stop it.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is my favourite title in the series. I think it has a lot of heart. It's a game about taking time to help people, and it even gives you a notebook that makes it easy for you to keep track of all the people you meet. But it is also about just how little time you actually have. The moon hangs above the sky. It is a personified mass of impending annihilation, with bulging eyes and gritted teeth. Link has three days to prevent it from crashing into the land of Termina.

You are given a variety of tools to fight back against the tides of time in Majora's Mask. At any point, you can play your ocarina and travel back to the start of the three-day cycle, and you also learn songs to slow time or skip forward. With these options, time can occasionally seem manageable. But those are mere stopgaps; you are never truly in control.

Even with your magical abilities to weave time, Majora's Mask is not particularly empowering. That moon is going to fall. There's a timer right on the screen telling you much longer before the inevitable. All you can really do is get ready.

Another game that is deeply concerned with time and annihilation is the shockingly good Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. In it, Lightning acts as a chosen instrument of god, travelling a wasted world to help lost souls prepare for the end of the universe. You start with seven in-game days to complete this task. This timer can be extended by helping others, with the maximum amount of days possible stopping at 13. Yet, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do in the game, the end comes.

Time is a terrifying enemy explicitly because it cannot be fought. Link can run into the past over and over, but the future will always come. Lightning can search high and wide for more souls to save and more energy to spend staving off the end, but nothing lasts forever. You can delay but you cannot stop.

There is something uniquely horrible about a countdown clock. In microcosm, games like Telltale's The Walking Dead and Alpha Protocol use a short timer to represent the tension of having to make hard decisions. The more abstract clocks of Majora's Mask and Lightning Returns broaden this into something existential and chilling. They are reminders that playtime cannot last forever. That your life is only a passing moment in eternity.

Sometimes, at night, I have panic attacks. Terrible bouts where I can barely breathe. I am safe in my room, but my mind reminds me that I am going to die. Not right now, but one day. There is an invisible countdown clock running the background of each day, edging closer towards the moment I fade into an unending blackness. I enjoy playing games where heroes slay monsters explicitly because the threat ends.

The moon draws closer to Termina. Annihilation comes for Lighting and the people of Nova Chrysalia. Even Sonic, standing outside of the water, still has a clock running. Take too long and you'll lose a life. Zombies and necromorphs don't faze me at all. All you need to do to scare me is show me the clock.


Comments

    Nah it was definitely the Pac Man ghosts.

    Don't think about the existential crisis.

    The time aspect of Majoras Mask killed it for me. I HATE playing against a clock. Didnt like Dead Rising for the same reason. Happy to hear the new one has the time factor removed.

      Shit, really? The timer was why I didn't bother sticking with Dead Rising, too. I hated that.

        I dont mind moments where you are playing against a clock. Running out of breath etc but when the whole game is always pushing you at its pace as opposed to your own, yeah bugger that.

          I loved the timer mechanic in Majora's Mask but despised it in Dead Rising 2, to the point that I cheated it out of existence. You can get a trainer on the PC version that let's you adjust the ratio between real and in-game seconds, so you change it to 1:1 instead of the default of something like 10:1 and have literally a week of play time to finish the game.

            Yeah, I hated the timers in the first one. It was clearly designed to be played through multiple times so that you learn where all the survivors are, or do an 'all survivors' run after attaining mastery of knowing where and when everything happens, etc, etc. But that was waaaaaay too much involvement for me. I was skeptical about playing through it even once, let alone seeing all the places I was going to be expected to play through again.

            With @banderdash advising of the timers removed and quality of life improvements, I'm a heck of a lot more curious than I've ever been. I'd been writing the last few titles off.

              Every comment I've seen has been some variation of people complaining about how this is ruining the franchise... and I'm just, like, are you people high?

              This might be the thing that makes those games enjoyable.
              People be crazy yo...

        New one has no timer and regenerating health... and proper dismemberment.

        It might actually be the first one I enjoy playing, or at least stick with past the first few levels.

    Majora's Mask took all that slow-building tension over 3 days and bottled it into a final, controller wrenching trial to secure that bloody wedding mask. And I munched it! 3 days of setting everything up for that moment and I fumbled the damn thing. Kudos to the game not allowing you to reload a checkpoint, instead it was back around to the start.

    Great article one of the best reads is a long time, well written and concise.
    Makes me want to play Lightning Returns.

    Kings Quest 3, the wizard chores... urrrgggghhh.... scariest thing ever for me.

      hah nice call back man, yep having to get back up the house in time after the wizard left was a chore too, especially until you made the eagle potion and could fly up and down, u had to take that damn mountain path.

        oh... you just reminded me about that damn mountain path... the S bends... oh my god. I fell off more times than i could count, especially on my beefy quick Amstrad 286 pc with 1 mb ram. Hell on earth... literally,

          too right, at least back then it was a simple 'save game' before attempting the mountain. i bet i died there more times than any other part of that game, like you said from damn S bends where you move one pixel too far and bang, dead lol. great game tbh, nice change up from the previous two, with the whole spell thing and having to collect ingredients to make more and more spells.

    Wrong. Scariest Game monster was this guy.
    https://discdoesretro.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/ironmaiden.jpg

      I think I found the regular Regenerators worse, especially at the earlier stages when you're not as equipped to deal with them.

      That breathing though...

    Lightning Returns - fantastic game but time is a b***h. i want to enjoy my JRPGS without the stress of time.. let me take my sweet ass time.

    Even time as the enemy can as simple as a completion time you have to get to complete it (or not die, or unlock something)... sometimes more planning and strategy goes into betting a clock than does an NPC.

    Ticking clock or a turn counter can generate anxiety lead to mistakes or bad choices... even in Hearrhstone.

    The hacking puzzle clock in Deus Ex is infuriating at times vs the slowcplanned attacks of stealth.

    That said quick"time" is lame and tries to make an enemy of your reactions by simulating a fast pace in what is meant to be just a story.

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