On the quest to combine truth with entertainment, the ability to compress, expand and abstract reality is crucial. We bumped up against this while developing Waking Mars. Growing an alien seed to see what emerges would be amazing in real life, but when it comes to entertainment, you don’t want to wait weeks just to see vine tentacles poking up from the soil. Our solution was to present, without comment, the dubious vision that Martian flora grows in mere seconds. It illustrates the problem: reality is too slow to be entertainment, but entertainment can strain truth when it becomes too juicy and condensed. I started to wonder: do videogames have tools for time compression, anything as effective as other media?
My original comparison was with film, which skips through time and space easily. A cut from a day shot to a night shot of the same village shows time has passed. Consider the training montage where the pupil learns sword fighting. We see the condensed version – only the most representative and interesting bits – and jump ahead to the conclusion. Months of fictional time pass in moments. The magic of time compression makes this sequence both brief and believable. Literature, however, can perform even mightier feats. ‘After his ordeal at the orphanage, Miles lived in constant anxiety as a lonely porter and died of tuberculosis in 1918.’ And literature can go both ways, if desired, unpacking a handful of seconds into a huge quantity of events and observations.
Slowing down seconds reminded me of Max Payne’s Bullet Time, a fabulous example of time manipulation in games. It inherits primarily from film’s slow motion, a straightforward way to create time expansion. So could fast-forwarding provide good time compression for games? There are examples: simulations such as The Sims, or Osmos, which features a slow-to-fast slider for simulation speed. But it’s less appropriate for avatar games such as Waking Mars. Planting seeds and then watching your avatar’s sped up idle loop as plants grow in fast-forward still sounds neither believable nor engaging. The goal is to avoid depicting every second, since most are irrelevant. Far Cry 2 is an example where sleeping enables you to skip time, but is there a way to do this when a player’s fictionally awake?
I was reminded of where the Ultima series had got to by Ultima IX. In 1999, Origin Systems leveraged improved 3D graphics and seamless travel to portray a more realistic world. It was breathtaking to see castles towering over me and rivers bubbling under bridges. But then I headed into the woods to walk to an adjacent town. It turned out there were about two dozen trees between Britain and Paws, and I managed to bump into each of them. Because walking through woods in real time wasn’t fun, villages were barely a mile apart. Because houses were expensive to model, there were only a few per village. The ambition of spelling out an entire globe one plant, stone, and building at a time robbed the game of both playability and realism. Whereas in earlier Ultimas I was on an epic adventure spanning continents, now I was in a medieval theme park with tree roots as my most daunting foe. It was a serious breakdown of compression and abstraction.
Comparatively, the classic Ultimas, say IV and V, provided an amazing example of effective time compression. In Ultima IV, you walk from one town to another on a journey that takes days of game time, but only a few rapid button presses from you. On a world-map-like view, you see you’ve journeyed through a vast forest without having to prove you can navigate past each tree. The sun rises and sets, your party eats meals, and other less pertinent events happen automatically, contributing to a weighty sense of long-distance travel with the tedium abstracted out. When something interesting occurs, such as an ambush, you zoom in for finer control and detail. A similarly effective solution is employed when you enter a town. Time and space become more granular, so you can watch citizens go about their lives. This modal adjusting of scale to correspond with the contextually relevant details is how time compression is achieved without breaking continuity or resorting to weird fast-forwarding.
I’d say the final word comes from Rogue and its kin. Rogue featured a control that essentially meant ‘keep doing this and make the obvious decisions until something interesting happens’. With it, you could proceed instantly down corridors until you encountered an item, threat, or side passage. You could stumble through a dark room until you reached something. It had the opposite result of the low-importance, continual clicking of Diablo.
Everything in Rogue can be compressed, and when played well the routine moving, fighting, and searching blurs past at lightning speed, the game only slowing when difficult problems and important decisions arise. Rogue and Ultima IV/V embody an ideal of game design – they’re able to provide a wide-ranging scale of content and experience that filters itself gracefully to the parts that most merit your time.