In this article, I list some examples of how time has been expressed within works of interactive fiction. This article was created in preparation for a discussion of this topic by the IF Discussion Group on ifMud on April 5th, 2014.
By default, authors don't bother to model time at all and the game exists in timelessness, an endless day where the sun never sets.
However, even in this default case, a sense of time might be suggested by the game's turn count, displayed as Moves or Turns in the status line. By default, a distinction may be made between in-world commands like EXAMINE COAT and GO NORTH which increase the turn count versus out-of-world commands like VERSION and VERBOSE which do not. New commands like HELP may or may not increase the turn count depending on how the author coded the action.
It may also be suggested that scoring implies a sense of time. An increase in score usually implies progression towards the end of the game, and if the maximum score is known, the player also gets a sense of how close the end of the game is.
If neither of these vague senses of time progression is desired, an author can opt to remove the turn count and score from the status bar and disable the SCORE command.
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Many games that support a time model use a straightforward clock time. The time is often displayed in the status line, and usually on the right-hand side. Games written in English usually use the 12 hour clock with AM or PM designations.
Out-of-world actions use up no game time, and in-world actions tend to take up exactly one minute of game time, although in some games a typical action takes up five minutes or even fifteen minutes. Of course, authors can, for example, code their games so an EXAMINE action takes up no time at all but a SEARCH takes three minutes of game time.
Games with clock time also tend to have deadline goals, such as when the player character must find the macguffin by midnight or else.
This detective game uses clocktime quite a bit, restricting access to many parts of the game to the appropriate days and hours.
Fremont Office Building Outside Room 301 W * E In Out Monday, 10:21 am S
Fremont Office Building
Outside Room 301
The Fremont's third floor corridor stretches east and west from here. It's lined with identical frosted glass doors staggered so that no door opens directly opposite another. To the south is room 301. The sign on its door reads:
Guaranteed Confidential L I B E R T Y Bail Bonds E-Z Credit 24-Hr Service 9 am to 6 pm Mon-Sat After Hours Call LA61197
The door to room 301 is closed.
A stairwell lies at the east end of the corridor.
Usually, games that use clock times simply display the current time in the status bar and it's just something that player characters know innately like they know compass directions. But in Valley of Steel, timepieces are required to know the time; the time is added to the status bar only when the PC is wearing the watch.
Green Residental Park 1
A cheap digital, your watch reads 7:30 pm.
You put on the watch.
Time: 7:31 pm / Green Residental Park 2
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It is commonplace to split up a story into chapters, and further, to associate and identify those chapters with segments of time. Within a chapter, time does not advance; only by completing a chapter does time jump forwards.
If I recall correctly, Christminster plays with approximate clock times. Turns do not always correspond with elasped minutes, so some hours are elongated or shortened as required for the story. No time information is presented in the status line. (Other games would just use terms like "Early morning" or "Late afternoon" to divide up the game day.)
The clock tower is a tall and elegant spire above the college chapel. The clock only has an hour hand, so you cannot be completely certain of the time, but it appears to be a little after eleven o'clock in the morning.
The clock of Biblioll College chimes the half-hour.
Within a chapter, the clock doesn't change, but each chapter gets closer to the start of 2001.
Drowning Score: 0 Eight years before 2001 (at Maiden's Wharf) Moves: 1
Ever since that night eight years ago, memories have haunted your sleep: katana flashing through the air, your mother's executioner wiping it clean, remarks he made to your father as you tasted your first mouthful of seawater. [more]
Cocktail Reception Score: 5 One week before 2001 (at the Yamitsi building) Moves: 22
December 24th, 2000.
It's been eight years. Eight, long years searching for the man responsible. Four years to put a name to his face, and another four of secret investigations while working as a reporter for Atlantic City Television. [more]
Golden Horse Score: 85 Five hours before 2001 (above the watchtower) Moves: 340
Behind the hologram facade, the golden horse is a super-sleek helicopter powered by jet engines. Most of the cockpit is occupied by the aircraft's computer, Rex. Displayed on the main screen is a top-down plan of Atlantic City.
The matriarch speaks over the computer's intercom.
"According to the data you retrieved from Yamitsi, the Baron's accomplices will strike in the five hours leading up to midnight. I've highlighted the potential hotspots on your map. The choice is yours, Lisa." [more]
Progression through the work is denoted by the statue's position. This could be interpreted as a progression of time.
She is facing away from you. You cannot see her face, only her hair, and the line of her shoulder. It's hard to know what she's looking at -- the velvet backdrop, if she has her eyes open, but there's not much to see in that. Mostly, it is obvious, she is not looking at you.
Her green dress widens out at the knee, falling over the pedestal on which she stands in a way that would probably be very awkward, if she wanted to move.
>ask galatea about boredom
"Wouldn't you be? Standing here all evening, with no one to talk to and nothing to do?" She turns -- not her whole body, just her head, so that you can see one ear behind the cascade of hair.
She does have a point there.
>ask her about herself
(Galatea about Galatea)
"You've read the placard, so you know what they think is important... I'm not sure how much there is to add. I was carved. I woke up. And here I am."
>ask her about experience of waking
"What was it like, waking up?" you ask.
She shifts, so that she is now standing in profile to you, facing the blank wall. "It was night. I had been able to hear, and see, for a long time -- it was the talking, or the pain of being carved, that made me aware, I think.
"But one night-- he slept in a corner of the studio-- I heard him screaming in his sleep. More loudly than usual. And I forgot that I couldn't move, and I just stepped down and woke him."
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Each room in this small speed-if game is a different season.
Wary also very hot. She likes sunburn, you do not. Autumn's west and Spring is east.
You can see She and a bottle here.
Air is chilly, she don't like. She wants to sleep, you'd rather hike. Winter's west and Summer's east.
You can see She and a rake here.
Doesn't say so much at all. Doesn't write and doesn't call. It's as if she never was. Spring is west, and Autumn's east.
You can see a fire here.
Short of breath and long on sneezes, itchy eyes and wimpering wheezes. She would like to roll in hay. Summer's west, and Winter's east.
You can see a lawnmower and She here.
Although most of this C.A.T. game is essentially timeless, walking down one trail progresses from day to night in the room descriptions. (Unhappily, reversing one's steps makes time appear to go in reverse.) The penultimate room, where the PC wakes up after sleeping in the Heart of the Dell, carefully omits mention of the time of day, and the only escape back to the rest of the game is by jumping over the low hedge to the beginning of the trail.
CAUTION: I can't run this game on Windows 7, so I grabbed the sample text directly from one of the game files.
A trail through the dell which goes this way and that. On the south side of the trail is a deep ditch, and high above it is a hedge.
The trail goes this way and that. At the side of the trail to the west is a deep gutter.
The trail bends its way deeper into the dell. The sun is starting to set.
The trail is much deeper in the dell, and it's getting late in the day.
This way and that, the trail goes further. It's getting darker every minute.
The trail bends once again. To the north there is a low thick privet hedge.
You are now in the very heart of the dell. It seems to have taken hours to get here. The sun has now set, but a full moon shines brightly through the trees directly onto a patch of thick grass. You feel a little tired after your journey.
The sanatorium geography in this game was coded twice, once for Chapter 2 and again for Chapter 5. (The lack of "(near your car)" in Chapter 5 betrays the double-coding.) The slight changes in the room descriptions convey both the time-of-day change and more sinister changes. Note that the atmospheric messages have also changed.
|From Chapter 2||From Chapter 5|
Parking Lot (near your car)
Despite the gray day, the lively sound of birds can be heard.
A lone bird chirps in the trees.
Dead leaves blow around your feet.
The air feels very still.
A chilly wind blows.
The muffled sound of a scream can be heard.
Fuses are delayed events, events that happen one or more turns after a player action triggers it. The obvious example is when a PC lights the fuse on some dynamite and there's an explosion a couple turns later.
Daemons are recurring events or a series of events that happen independently of player actions. Sometimes daemons can be turned on and off as a result of player actions.
Both fuses and daemons impart a sense of time to a game world, simply by showing changes can happen without the player's direct involvement.
It's a very slow process, but puddles do evaporate away in this game. Notifications of evaporation are infrequent, and there is no explicit notification when a puddle vanishes completely.
You pour the water out onto the ground.
The water would appear to be evaporating.
Good, clear water.
[Over the course of several turns, you might see messages like:]
You can't see any such thing.
Shore of River
You stand on the eastern shore of a black river -- a silent sheet of mirror-dark water which slips by as you watch. Somewhere, far to the south, you hear the thin roar of falling water. A broad passage leads back to the east.
The far shore is a narrow ledge of scree.
>put white berry in river
You toss a white berry into the water.
The response catches your breath away: planes of frost crackle across the river's surface. Water eddies up around the obstruction, and is subsumed as quickly. The ice snaps and groans, cracking and splitting and freezing again faster than you can follow.
In seconds, an uneven sheet of ice has formed across the entire width of the river. It seems solid, although water hisses and bubbles underneath.
[If you wait here for several turns, you'll see the ice slowly melt:]
[If instead, you run to "Curving Hall, West End", where a window overlooks a waterfall downstream, you'll soon see:]
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The prose of a game itself can include references to time.
Sometimes, travel time is expressed in its own travel message:
You head north, following the stone road. Hours pass and the night falls, tiredness forcing you to seek shelter behind some trees close to the road.
And sometimes, the travel is incorporated into a version of the description of the new location:
As the hours go by, the road starts to climb gentle, wooded hills. Big chunks of stone protrude from the grass on either side of the road. Despite being overgrown with vegetation and worn by time, it is still visible that these stones were once cut by human hands. You stop atop a small hill, from where the road continues downhill to the north where, far away, you can see the outline of a great forest. In addition, a narrow path makes its way west between the trees. According to Baxter's map, this is where once the city of Ast Nadir stood.
There is sometimes a notification about time and/or weather when you leave a building in this game. I suspect that game time must also have progressed enough to warrant a new notification.
Court of Honor, North side of Administration Building Monday 10:44 a.m.
Administration Building, Rotunda
Court of Honor, North side of Administration Building
The plaza continues to the east and west. Directly to the south stands the grand Administration Building. To the north, a road cuts between the Electricity Building to the east and the Mines and Mining Building on the west.
Although still early in the day, it's getting hot.
Horticulture Building, Main Entrance Monday 12:16 p.m.
All of this detective work is making you feel a bit hungry.
Horticulture Building, Main Entrance
The Horticulture Building stands directly west. Flanking its entrance rest two beautiful sculpture groups by Lorado Taft in flowery splendor. Its central pavilion is capped by a glass dome 187 feet in diameter, and the building's facade is done in a Venetian Renaissance style. To the east is a boat launch, where gondola drivers are selling their services to fairgoers. The road continues north and south.
The sun beats down relentlessly from a cloudless sky.
The introductory sequence on the ship is all in past tense; the main game is in present tense. Eric also used this technique in All Things Abandon, where a breakfast sequence is told in flashback and in past tense.
Quarterdeck of HMS Niobe
The deck around you was little more than a mass of shadow and outline in the dark, with the only point of light coming from the binnacle just in front of you. You were aware of the mizzen mast towering above you nearby, but as much from the howl of the wind in the rigging as from anything you could see.
The helmsman was standing nearby at the wheel.
You were almost deafened by the howling gale screaming in the rigging and lashing up the waves all round the ship.
You couldn’t see much of yourself in the dark.
You were carrying a telescope.
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Each time zone is a (mostly) independent chapter. Each time zone also has its own geography, so events in one zone has no effect on another, except for items obtained and the progress of the PC's relationship with the NPC called Black.
Inside the Monument 11/2/50
The piece at c2 presses in smoothly, like a button, then releases. The table seems to drag you whole into a beam of pure energy, which is suddenly sucked up into the jigsaw piece. With a wrench you find yourself rushing through a kind of vortex, weird patterns of light streaking past you, clashing noises in your ear. As you slow down, you briefly make out television footage of the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial and then everything begins to change...
[Press SPACE to continue.]
Flat over the Street Time: 6:01 am
Chapter One - Ricochet
Flat over the Street
A second-floor flat, dilapidated and primitive but with a certain charm about it, decorated with faded Viennese prints. Through the open window you look down on a cafe across the arched, cobbled city street. It is early summer.
To one side is a cheap dresser with a mirror and a single drawer.
[Your score has just gone up by one point.]
The five time zones in First Things First involve revisted geography. Events in an early time zone can have an effect in a later time zone; for example, an acorn planted in the past can become a full oak tree in the future. Otherwise, the time zones are independent and revisitable like stations in a subway line.
Here is one location in all five time periods:
Forest (20 years in the past)
The woods surround you on all sides, although there is enough space around you to consider it a clearing of sorts. Light streams prettily through the canopy of leaves above. The ground is hard and flat and clean. You can hear the soft gurgling of a stream nearby, but the foliage is so rich and dense that the sound of it is dispersed. You aren't sure which from which direction it originates. You can barely keep your bearings straight, as each direction looks the same as every other.
Clearing (10 years in the past)
The woods part in a marvelous natural clearing here. Light streams prettily through the canopy of leaves above. The ground is hard and flat and clean. You can hear the busy noise of construction work nearby, coming through the woods from the northeast.
Clearing (present day)
The woods part in a marvelous natural clearing here. Moonlight streams prettily through the canopy of leaves above. The ground is hard and flat and clean. Your footpath leaves the clearing to the northeast, heading back to the house.
Clearing (10 years in the future)
The clearing here is desolate, giving the distinct impression that all natural life has left this area. The ground is hard and overgrown by weedy grass. There are no trees any more, but there are some stumps where once they stood. Your old footpath is nowhere to be seen. You do see your house to the northeast, but it too looks abandoned.
Parking lot (20 years in the future)
You are standing in the middle of a gigantic parking lot which extends as far as you can see in most directions. An ugly, hot wind whips past you, scorching across the miles of black pavement, drawing at you like a vacuum, pulling you toward one of the ugliest skyscrapers you have ever seen.
A monolith of black glass and steel, it rises fully 80 stories, at least. The fearsome structure is a short walk to the northeast, right where your house used to be.
Time travel can also get personal. If the travel is but minutes into the past instead of years, it's very likely a player character can meet their past self. The author must carefully record and duplicate the player's previous actions. Objects held by the protagonists can also be duplicated! Some games even let a player triplicate (or more) or allow a PC to meet their past self (or selves) as well.
This technique has also been used in non-time travel games, such as Common Ground (where the point-of-view changes to another character in the game) and Faithful Companion (which has a ghost following and duplicating the protagonist's prior actions).
Lifeforms: 4 UST: 1:46 am
MP stored MRL: critical
The reactor is a large cylinder slightly larger than you. It has clearly been damaged, and glows brightly in a way that you are sure it shouldn't. Radiation shielding covers the outside and looks like it can be opened for access.
With a deafening Boom! the temporal reactor finally goes critical and explodes.
Please press SPACE to continue.
[ He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality. - Friedrich Dürrenmatt]
Please press SPACE to continue.
Lifeforms: Inconclusive UST: 1:37 am
MP stored MRL: low
You look around, surprised that you are not dead. Not even hurt, as far as you can tell. In fact, you seem to still be in the laboratory, which looks much as it did when you first transported here.
The walls and most of the equipment are charred and twisted, including the communications array and a personal transporter. A utility table is still bolted to one wall, next a small cabinet labeled "For Emergency Use Only".
The central feature is a large cylindrical machine, with the words "Temporal Reactor" stenciled on the front. A closed control panel protrudes from the wall next to the reactor.
The head scientist and her assistant are lying on the floor near the reactor, severely burned and unconscious. They will certainly die without immediate medical help.
One thing is different: Another marine is standing here, looking around.
He looks exactly like you, with the same red uniform, and carries his sidearm and his TDU.
The other marine looks closely at the head scientist.
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Here are some other ways that time might be presented strangely besides time travel.
This story uses chapterized time with a twist: the chapters are presented in non-chronolgical order. (And in different color schemes.)
Gently placing the seed pod on the seat next to you, you rocket back into space, leaving the red planet in your wake. Soon a familiar cloud-streaked blue ball appears on your monitors. You are home again at last.
But something goes terribly wrong. The heat shields hold up fine during re-entry, but the parachutes fail to open as you head for splashdown. And so you plummet at an incredible rate, the ocean growing closer and closer...
You hear a splash.
In your home office
When you and Sam put that down payment on this house five years ago, you were expecting that you were going to need all four bedrooms eventually; but after the complications with Alison, you found yourself with a couple of extras on your hands. This one came in very handy when you started telecommuting. You can't say you're exactly glad that this room became an office instead of a bedroom for a brother or sister of Alley's, but you ARE glad that you and Sam decided not to move into that smaller house you were considering.
Your computer screen is, as usual, cluttered with the details of the Peterson account.
The same scenario is played over and over again (in flashback) until the PC's interrogator is convinced that the PC has told their story correctly.
You leave door and alley behind, and set off to see what else this fine city might hold.
-- glaring light...
[Hit any key.]
Interrogation Chamber (imprisoned in the chair)
You blink away sharp edges of memory, and the dim walls slowly emerge into your sight once again. Dark metal walls and air uncomfortably cool. And cool metal bands around your wrists and feet and forehead.
He leans forward over his desk, through the glow of his monitors and controls. Impatience tightens his face.
"Don't be absurd," he says. "You're no more a sightseer than the Old Tree in Capitol Square; and if you'd had enough sense to walk away from that door, you wouldn't be here. You don't and you didn't and are; we caught you. And you're going to start by telling me how you got through that door. Do you understand me?"
The man nods briefly -- a man satisfied with the least important detail. He touches a control. Once again, a faint whine begins to drill through your temples.
...glaring light --
[Hit any key.]
On the whole, it was worth the trip. The plains really were broad and grain-gold, if scarred with fences and agricultural crawlers. The mountains were overwhelming. And however much of the capital city is scarred with squat brick and faceless concrete hulks, there are still flashes of its historic charm.
This game loops back to its beginning frequently, incorporating changes in its world from previous loops. The player is free to interpret this as either the same protagonist acting in multiple parallel timelines simultaneously or as a series of nearly-identical protagonists slowly exposing the cavern's secrets.
Will you examine the, or reach into the ? Or shall we the story over?
You plunge your hand into the water. The chilly shock sends you numb, instantly, to the elbow. You withdraw your hand -- but the skin is blue, and the icy numbness is crawling up past your shoulder now. Not just cold, then, you think. A pity. Your helmet-lamp grows dim, and the stone grows distant.
Your story will end here, unless you wish tofrom the beginning.
(...You begin again.)
After descending into the Earth (said Marco Polo to the Khan) you seek through long, silent passages of stone. Your helmet's dim illumination presses back the dark, but does not break it; darkness follows in your footsteps and obliterates them.
This retelling of "Jack and the Beanstalk" puts time in reverse, starting with a rich and victorious Jack and working backwards to his poorer and humbler beginnings. Actions that do not alter the world are permitted along with those that move the story back a step.
Quickly, you chopped down the beanstalk as fast as you could. Chop chop, and the beanstalk was cut in two and began to topple over. And then it fell! Your mother screamed!
Down came the Ogre with a terrible thud, hitting the east road, where he died instantly, breaking his neck, the beanstalk crashing after him. You breathed a sigh of relief.
"You know you didn't take the axe up there, Jack," chides the voice gently.
You grab the axe from woodpile. Quick! The ogre is climbing down the beanstalk fast!
You climbed down from the beanstalk.
On the beanstalk
You're climbing a very tall beanstalk that goes up as high as you can see. It passes just past your window to the west, and the base of plant is in the garden below.
Oh no! The ogre's climbing down after you! The entire beanstalk is shaking with his vast weight!
Units are time are made into tangible and transferable objects in this game inspired by the story of "Rapunzel".
The skin has drawn in close and wrinkled; the flesh has turned to meal. A month of age clings to it, making it ugly and useless.
You pluck the month away from the withered apple and gather it into a skein in your fingers.
You are carrying a fresh apple and a month.
It is plump and ruddy-skinned.
A skein of time as light as spider-silk, the color of moonlight.
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Rarely, games will use real time in the real world to trigger events (fuses and daemons) instead of using turns or game time. So a bomb might explode three actual minutes after lighting the fuse instead of after three turns.
Sometimes the clock time in the real world determines the clock time in the game. For example, if you're playing the game at 9:00 pm at night, it'll be 9:00 pm at night in the game too.
Personally, I think real-time would be most effective in multiplayer IF, where player actions would also likely happen in real-time. In single-player IF, it seems to be mostly annoying.
▶ See also: Real-time at IFWiki.
I have to agree with Jimmy Maher ("Let's Tell a Story Together", Chapter 5) that Border Zone was a failed experiment. Events happen in real-time in this espionage game, and if the player doesn't type fast enough, they lose. Although there's an option to slow down the clock and a PAUSE command, the real-time clock can't be turned off altogether.
Also note that real-time events are reported in boldface so they're more obvious to the player as such.
On the roadway 00:00 18:01
You leave the side of the swamp and walk onto the nearby roadway, which runs from north to southwest here. The air is already fresher here, and you cannot help but cough a few times, as if to purge the foul air all at once.
In your confusion, you've all but forgotten how cold it is outside. You look up at the sky and notice the smoke rising into the sky to the west. Perhaps where there's smoke there will be warmth.
The real-time clock can be used by the game to pause itself and slow down the reporting of text to the player. Earlier games have attempted teletype effects by displaying one letter at a time on the screen. This game, instead, sometimes likes to fade-in entire phrases at a time.
In this example, the Rihanna quote is displayed for a short time, then automatically replaced by a completely black screen (also for a short time), before the final text is displayed.
All I see is signs.◅
All I see is signs.
- Rihanna, Pour It Up
The tower looms. They say it is a safe place for travelers.
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