I like time travel. The Embassy of Time is a big display of that. It is designed to include books (currently being written), comics (being slowly drafted), movies/animation (storyboards are being revamped from an earlier, failed attempt), and of course, games, like what I have talked about in here. But as is fairly common knowledge by now, games are a very different medium. It's interactive. I can write any number of stories for any number of other media, but games require me to let the player take the helm of the story. And for time travel, that poses a few problems.
Before people rage at me, yes, I know there are plenty of games about time travel out there, and many of them good. But actual time travel games are, to me, another matter entirely, and not something I have ever seen, at least not intentionally. Long story short, I see existing time travel games as basically a hub world and various adjacent worlds. The "time" thing is just a word added. Even a show as off-the-wall daring as Rick and Morty has deliberately been stated to avoid time travel, because of the many problems it causes. Time travel (I may shorten that to TT,as is often done in those circles) becomes a variant of world jumping, the "time" being written into each world as historical references (world history, or personal history like Back to the Future). To me, this is like a racing game: You can pick between X amount of racing tracks, cars, maybe even weather and such, but you can never go truly off the track, or drive from one to another yourself. What I consider 'true' TT games would be along the GTA model: There are a bunch of roads. Drive as you like, an dsuffer the consequences.
For TT, that 'open road' model would be to give the player's character a time machine and say "go wherever/whenever you want". Not specifically designed sub-worlds based on history. Not "pick a year from this list of twenty premade story points". Not tracks. I want the open road.
Several of my real-life friends are a bit perplexed as to why I do all this procedural generation nonsense, instead of just designing a game. I admit, a lot of it is because I recently chewed through just about every major science for a teaching project that never got off the ground, and I like to see what I can use. But when talking goals, there is still a point to it. If I don't want to design a few neat worlds for my game, but instead want a fully accessible timeline (and alternate timelines, of course!), I need to think in different tools. To put it in a fancy way, I can't draw every drawing I need, so I need to create mathematical equations that will draw 95% of each drawing for me, then go touch up and adjust everything by hand to get what I want. I need the proverbial million monkeys with a million typewriters, but I need to train them to do better work.
So far, of course, that's just a fancy twist on the "open world, procedural generation" trend that has its claws in a visible subset of games programmers and designers these days (maybe less so after the No Man's Sky debacles. Or maybe more!). The world extends not just north, south, east, west, up and down, but also back and forth in time. But it's still the same basic notion: Use a ton of math to make the computer design stuff for you. Spend your time instead on creating a new breed of tools to design your world via math. It's a challenge, no doubt, but the TT elements are still sort of vague. In fact, you could easily argue that by that account, even if true TT games do not exist, the feature to turn every game into one does exist: Game saves. Think about it, you save your game, and later, you can go 'back in time' to that point in the 'timeline'. Multiple saves means multiple TT destinations. A sufficiently advanced save system would be indistinguishable from time travel!
Which brings me to the elephant in any TT room: Changing history. In a sense, this is where the 'save system TT' and the procedural generation overlap. Serious TT stories deal with the effects of meddling with the past (or the future, in advanced cases). A true TT game would need to get its feet into those waters, too. So if a game can simulate how, say, a society evolves from barely human tribes into a spacefaring civilization, would saving the game at some point and later going all the way back to that save point and doing things differently allow the player to push the world down a different historical path? In TT terminology, could a player go downtime to seed an alternate timeline?
This is, to me, where the true TT gold is buried. A solid, grand TT game would be one where the notion of changing history, and understanding the dynamics of timeflows (according to the game, that is), would actually matter. Good games in other genres do this on a much smaller scale; if you save your game and play it through, then go back and play differently, the AI in the game would/should react differently the second time around. Enemy units will use different strategies in order to counter your different moves the second time around. Taking on a different target in a FPS means the previous target gets to do stuff that was not done before, while the new target might not, changing the course of the game. This 'fake TT' approach to games will answer one of the questions that many experienced gamers cannot help but wonder, or have already figured out: How much do my choices actually matter in the game?
We saw the massive rise of this, and the disasterous crash, in the Mass Effect series. The idea that any action during any of the games might help shape the final ending was a nearly sensational concept, making players feel like their actions mattered in ways never before imagined in a game. But in the end, it was all dumped for a disappointing "pick a card" ending, one that even had only three real outcomes. In a TT game, that would be like killing Hitler before WWII, and just finding out that history respawned him because he had to take on that role. Actions with no consequences.
I believe firmly that this is one of those challenges that have never been truly tackled, and that succesfully tackling it will rock the games industry as hard as the concept and unexpected success of Minecraft did. Imagine essentially to live as a character inside a perpetual world editor, where you had the option of taking one point in time and going two or more ways, splitting the game into two distinct, even if closely related, versions of the game. One in which you picked up the gun and started a violent revolution, and one in which you non-violently manipulated people into doing your bidding behind the scenes, for example. The latter would see the world go on as expected, only with you pulling some strings behind the scenes. The first one would throw the world into violent upheavel, sending city streets into murderous action-drama. With good and varied enough simulation of consequences, every major saving point would be its own new sub-game; a stealthy game of subterfuge and manipulation, or an urban military action game. Your choices would not only matter, they would create the/a future of the game.
At this point, though, it's all just speculation. I'm still working on having the game create scientifically plausible, yet greatly varied, planets for players to roam and explore. With luck, I can have something like Rodina running before the end of 2017, maybe adding animal life in 2018 and snapping No Man's Sky at the heels a bit. But with time (the irony is duly noted) or if I happen upon that one magic piece of mathematical genius (I seek high and low, I can guarantee you), is it entirely unthinkable that a true TT game could be created? Could your next big challenge be to find the point in your own playing time to go back to in order to alter the game world in just the right way for it to evolve into what you want?
If you ask me...... its about time!
(sorry for the pun. I have a problem)