Editorial: Time Travel: Necessary Gimmick or Plot Death

A screen many have never seen because of how easy this game can be.
Time travel abounds!

One of the seemingly hardest gimmicks to properly utilize in gaming is time travel. Some games make use of time travel elements well, and become runaway hits, like Chrono Trigger. Other games, however, use this system and end up with a game a lot of people consider confusing and all around bad, much the way many people view Final Fantasy VIII. What is it about time travel that can make one game interesting, and another a complete mess of a plot? There are a few different games that use it, So looking through a couple of them is probably the best for this. There are even more games that employ a “time skip”, where time jumps forward at a point in the game to age the character or change the season or something similar, to give players a sense of time passing.

It is impossible to talk about time travel in games and not mention Chrono Trigger, as it is the key point to the story and the game mechanics, and is one of the most successful games based around time. many people are probably familiar with the game, but here is a brief rundown of the story, and the way time travel is used in it. Chrono Trigger takes place in a world similar to Earth, with eras in time that are equally similar, such as the prehistoric age, (although ours did not involve talking reptilian creatures) the middle ages, featuring your typical knights and magic and monsters; and the post-apocalyptic future, where destitute humans and sentient robots struggle to survive. The characters frequently travel through time to meet new companions, find specific items that can only be accessed at a certain point in history, and learn things about why the planet has come to a messy end. The main hub of the party is a place known as the End of Time, where characters from all different times can meet and set off to other times.

I wonder if Ayla x Gau is a thing...
Characters from all over Time with One Clear Goal

The success of this system has to do with the effectiveness in which time travel is utilized. Each era in time is interesting and has new enemies/environments, and each character represents the time that they come from quite well. The story follows along the use of time travel quite well also, not getting too confusing along the way, and not attempting to tie things together in a way that doesn’t make sense, just leading the character to different points in time where they must accomplish something, and giving the importance of a large, over arching goal in saving the world from destruction at the hands (..claws? pincer things?) of Lavos. This is an example of time travel done right.

On the other hand there are games where time travel adds nothing to the story, and in many ways takes a player completely out of it with odd scenarios and more questions than answers. A good example of this would be Final Fantasy VIII. The main plot of VIII is, in a word, confusing. Convoluted is another word that could be used. The main goal of the party is to stop a sorceress who can possess the minds of other sorceresses throughout history from destroying time by compressing it, and in doing so somehow become a god. Apparently, if she can manage to compress and absorb all of time, then she will become a living god incapable of death. It is up to a ragtag band of adventurers, led by the “legendary SeeD” known as Squall, to stop her plan and save their friend who happens to be a sorceress.

Final Fantasy does a really good job of making their villains obvious.
A Sorceress, and a Foster Parent, Apparently

What exactly a sorceress is is never really explained, but that is not as important as the act of time compression, and the way that would lead to godhood, never being explained. The characters all also end up being connected in a past that none of them remember, where they all grew up at the same orphanage and were raised by one of these sorceresses. This is all explained with a very odd sequence involving a run down orphanage and random memories of abandonment and explained feelings. The whole thing is muddled through in something of an awkward way, and adds nothing to the plot itself. It is rather unnecessary, and is a major part of the problem many people have with the game.

One last example, this of more of a “time skip” but still technically time travel, is in Ocarina of Time. In this game, the main character ends up traveling seven years into the future and is able to travel back into the past for certain things as well. The mechanic of time travel, as well as showing the changes of the kingdom over time, are handled rather well in this instance. Link can only do certain things as an adult, and others only as a child. The areas of the game and the characters mostly change as time does, and inevitably this change in time and scenery adds to the gameplay as well as the story, keeping things interesting and making for a feel of almost two different games in one.

These are just a few of the examples of time travel as it is utilized in games. Sometimes it is a huge success and adds many layers to the game play, and other times it is a shot in the foot of the story, leaving it limping to a convoluted conclusion that would have been much better without the seemingly random addition of time travel. Reflect, if time allows, on the games that utilize this odd mechanic, and think on whether or not it has made them better because of it, or dragged the story through on a twisty turny path that was completely unnecessary. Until next time, Lusitards!

One comment

  1. Radiant Historia has my favorite usage of time travel in any game.

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