If you’ve been playing video game for as long as we have then you’ll be well acquainted with the concept of time manipulation. Whether acting as the bedrock for a mind-bending story or being used as a core gameplay mechanic, tampering with the fabric of time presents a rich goldmine of opportunities for game developers to explore.
With Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and a Prince of Persia remake the horizon, we’re exploring ten of best uses of time mechanics in video games.
Saber interactive released TimeShift for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC back in 2007, featuring a time-travelling narrative that followed an unnamed protagonist going back in time to change the history antagonist Dr. Krone had altered. He developed two time travel suits before appointing himself as an authoritarian leader, the alpha and beta suits.
The former was a basic model with standard travel abilities, the beta suit, which players experience, offers military-grade services such as checkpoints and combat time manipulation. Players could slow, stop and rewind time more or less at will. Picking up decent reviews at the time, TimeShift doesn’t leave much of a legacy though at tried to jazz up the first person shooter formula.
9: Quantum Break
The Xbox exclusive Quantum Break was a spin on the superhero origin story. Childhood friends grow up and discover a new energy source that allows them to control/manipulate time. One turns bad whilst the other tries to stop him, although the bad guy is continuously changing the future to suit his needs.
Players also experienced an episodic TV series that changed depending on their actions during the last level. Not only was the concept ahead of its time, but players could also freeze items/NPCs, speed up, slow down, and even weave together multiple uses of time mechanics.
8: Life is Strange
In what seems like a plot device initially, Life is Strange follows a teenage protagonist, Max, who can rewind time on the fly. It soon develops into a gameplay mechanic as the players’ actions create butterfly effects through time, changing the players’ circumstances.
Changing the past to change the future is the basis of the overall puzzle elements in Life is Strange. Winning 20 awards such as ‘Best Original Game’ and ‘Best Adventure’ in 2015’s Global Game awards, Life is Strange went on to spawn a prequel, Before the Storm, with Life is Strange 2 imbuing its own hero with a different superpower.
In this shamefully overlooked shooter, hero Captain Nathaniel Renko investigates the ominous island of Katorga-12 before realising he is drifting between 1955 and the present day. Equipped with a time manipulating device dubbed the TMD, in Singularity Renko embarks on an era-hopping odyssey.
Singularity’s TMD is used to move objects forwards or backwards in time, suspend them, and fire energy pulses to fight off enemies. Mixing this mechanic into an action/horror game such as made for a compelling title that didn’t feel like just another FPS with a gimmick. Sitting on a Metacritic average of 76/77 across all platforms, it’s surprising that Singularity only sold around 400,000 units. This was the last game Raven Software developed before publisher Activision rolled them into Call of Duty stable of studios.
6: Max Payne
The late 90s/early 2000s were riding high on gritty anti-heroes, leather trench coats, wearing sunglasses indoors and The Matrix. Max Payne is a product of that time period and developer Remedy’s eye for creative gameplay mechanics. Max Payne was originally going to feature bullet-time areas instead of allowing players to trigger the mechanic on the fly.
Remedy soon realised that this broke immersion and forced players to do every action in slow-motion. As such, bullet-time became a tool for players to utilise. This would carry into its sequel as well as 2012’s Max Payne 3, which managed to somehow implement bullet-time in its online multiplayer. Activated in short bursts, the entire match would slow down for every player, allowing the user to pull off precise, tactical plays. Genius.
5: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Following the adventures of a young Hylian named Link, Ocarina of Time is legendary for revolutionising the 2D adventure series into a full-blown 3D action RPG with massive open environments. It was also based around a magical Ocarina that could manipulate time and objects by playing certain songs.
From changing the time of day to travelling through time, this was a core mechanic that was later transferred to Link receiving the Master Sword. As players progress, they will notice missing items in the future, such as vines to access things. Link can put the Master Sword back in its pedestal to return to the past to plant a seed.
4: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Serving as a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, in Majora’s Mask Link has defeated Ganon and sets off to find his fairy friend, Navi. This plan soon falls apart as Link tumbles into an alternate dimension. More specifically, the town of Termina. Link must use a series of masks to stop the evil Majora from sending the moon on a one way trip into Termina.
A constant countdown looms over players in Majora’s Mask. Link must travel back in time to allow himself to save the alternate realm. Whilst this doesn’t seem like heavy use of a time mechanic, the game received critical acclaim. There wasn’t a title like Majora’s Mask at the time, making it a fan favourite even today.
3: Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time
We couldn’t possible make this list without including Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. As the name suggests, time manipulation is key to this instalment in the long-running PlayStation franchise, both in terms of its story and gameplay.
As our titular twosome look to thwart yet another devious plan concocted by Dr. Nefarious, Ratchet encounters another member of his extinct species. While his intentions are good, the exiled Alister Azimuth will stop at nothing to find the Great Clock, turning back the hands of time to save his people. A Crack in Time features the best puzzles in the entire series thanks to its time-bending Clank sections.
2: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Evolving the long-running from its 2D roots, 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was one of the best platformers of its time. The titular Prince uses the conveniently-named Dagger of Time to reverse the events orchestrated by his father’s evil advisor, The Vizier.
Time manipulation is used on the fly to freeze enemies or rewind time should the player wish to retry the last few gameplay seconds. It’s sold 14 million copies worldwide, warranted a handful of sequels and is currently being remade by Ubisoft, due to launch later this year.
1: Superhot / Superhot VR
Superhot is quite possibly one of the most original games of the past decade. In Superhot (which is now available on Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, by the way) time only advances as you move. For example, if three antagonists are charging at the player, they will only do so as players move to dodge or hit.
Holographic red enemies lurk amidst brilliant white levels; weapons stand out as black items. Whilst the console release of Superhot is a must-play, the experience levels up in VR, where you can see bullets slowly travel before your eyes as you twist your head. It’s the ultimate Matrix flavoured power fantasy.
All of these games represent the near-endless possibilities of meshing time mechanics with other gameplay systems. This is without even touching on the myriad of games that use time-bending as their main narrative device – we could have easily spent a thousand words chatting about TimeSplitters on its own! Let us know your own favourite examples in the comments below.