A Clock in its walls

Image from Meet Me in St. Louis: Summer 1903, Autumn 1903, Winter 1903, Spring 1904. Source: https://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2015/12/meet-me-in-st-louis-1944.html

My annual Christmas re-watching of Meet Me in St. Louis, coupled with, well, all of 2020, has gotten me thinking a lot about time, and the way that the passage of time is both communicated and experienced in choice-based interactive fiction (for a great discussion of time in parser games, see this). Specifically, I’ve been wondering: what are some choice games whose sense of time feels “sweeping” or “vast,” and how is that achieved?

It’s important to define terms, so here are some very provisional, length-agnostic definitions of “sweeping”: 1) a game whose “canvas” exceeds the lifetime of the player character (i.e., events significant to the story happen before their birth or after their death); and/or 2) A game in which time itself, in addition to–or perhaps more often in opposition to–the actions of the characters, is one of the principal forces driving the story forward.

A couple of caveats: I’m less interested in how “sweeping” is conveyed through content: e.g., stories of empires, quests, heroes, etc. I’m more interested in how it is conveyed through form, structure, and mechanics. That said, I understand that form and content are completely interrelated, and that games whose structures convey a sense of vastness will usually be thematically vast as well. 

Second, I didn’t really get into IF until 2014, and I tend to play mostly one-hour-or-less, non-puzzly, choice-based IF, so my examples are limited by those personal preferences. I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive or definitive typology, and I’m certain I’m omitting a lot of really excellent examples, so I very much welcome suggestions of other games.  

So… Here are some techniques I’ve noticed in choice-cased IF works that feel “sweeping” to me. This will be spoilery, so I’ve called out the games I’ll be discussing in the headings.

Modulating “time per choice” (Summit)

…in other words, presenting the player with choices that result in a few (diegetic) minutes of action alongside choices that would mean years of action. Phantom Williams’s Summit does this really seamlessly. The game chronicles the PC’s meandering journey from their home to the cloud-covered summit, which, no matter how close you seem to get, remains somewhere off in the distance.

A recurring choice, especially early in the game, is whether to have a fish or to continue making progress toward the summit. Given the way the choices are presented, It’s clear that, no matter what you choose, the resulting actions or sequences of actions won’t take very long:

  • You’d love to take a break and have a fish. [Even if we don’t yet know what, precisely, “having a fish” entails, we understand by this point that it doesn’t mean “catch a fish, build a fire, etc.,” so… probably a few minutes?]
  • But if you’re really aiming for the summit, maybe you should make some more progress before you give into temptation. [An hour or two at most.]

These “short” choices–along with the writing, of course–make the game feel truly immersive: You feel as though you are walking this path, watching the wheat fields ripple beside you, listening to the buzzing streetlights, watching the moon go from orange to yellow to white. You (as the PC) are experiencing time as it unfolds. 

It doesn’t look like the game tracks how long you hold out before eating a fish, but this small, repeated choice has another significant effect, which is to require you (as the player/interactor) to keep negotiating and renegotiating–albeit on a small scale–one of the central tensions of the game: satisfying your immediate needs or remaining focused on the summit.

At one point in the game, you must choose between staying in the blue city or continuing toward the summit. The outcomes of these choices represent much more substantial chunks of time:

  • If you stay in this city, you could get closer to this art, learn it – maybe, one day, practice it. [This could take years, maybe forever.]
  • Or you can go, and try again on the road. [Indefinite.]

If you opt to remain in the city, the narrative seems to do a kind of temporal “zoom out,” summarizing long sequences of actions. Time flows much faster; years pass in the space of a few screens:

  • In bars and cafes, you debate the future of the technos. You scoff behind the back of a boy who drunkenly but sincerely confides that he’ll one day be, he believes, the first technopriest born into the receiver class.
  • You become heavy; mornings, you wake up late, your mouth stale and mucid. When you drink you eat too many fish, and you can feel the fishrot in your gut, the unseen ragged holes in the darkness inside of you.
  • Like a veil, a thin mist, a tiredness comes over you, slowly, getting a bit denser every day, a bit murkier every month, a bit heavier every year.

The effect of employing both “short” and “long” choices is to create a sense of immersion and immediacy, while also covering a vast expanse of time–including an era before people lived with fishstomachs–in a game that takes only about an hour to play.

The most frequently implemented method of advancing the story, however, is not choosing among several branching paths; it is simply clicking a link. This link is sometimes a word, sometimes a sentence, sometimes sometimes a punctuation mark, sometimes some other type of symbol. Most of the story unfolds this way–quite linearly–through what essentially functions as a “next” button.

As I progressed through the story, I felt a kind of inertia in constantly clicking forward, forward. It felt like being carried along by a current as years passed. It was a reminder that time, regardless of your intentions, inevitably disappears.

Image from Summit: "But the thing that draws you is wordless and doesn't have stories attached."

Speaking through time (Harmonia)

Events in Liza Daly’s Harmonia take place primarily in 1889 and in 1998, a span of nearly 100 years. The story is set at Blithedale College, an east coast women’s college built on the grounds of the 19th-century utopian community Harmonia. You, Abby Fuller, have been hired as a last-minute substitute for Jeffrey Lynn, a professor of 19th-century mysticism who has mysteriously disappeared. The story is told through sources like newspaper clippings, journal entries, notes, and fliers–and the marginal notes, written by several different characters, that connect all of these texts. These voices speaking back and forth through time don’t necessarily fill in all the years between 1889 and 1998, but they do give that 100-year time span a sense of great depth and dimensionality.

When I first started trying to write about this game, I imagined that each voice was speaking backward through time: that is, each annotation was elaborating on, questioning, or drawing a conclusion from the annotation or text that preceded it chronologically. For example,

  • Abby’s November 1998 comments evaluating Lynn’s summer 1998 draft syllabus
  • Lynn’s fall 1998 annotations contextualizing Ignatius Cadwell’s June 2, 1888, journal entry
  • Alice Gilman’s/Elsie Cadwell’s November 1998 (?) remarks on the hypocrisy of Ignatius Cadwell’s November 22, 1889, journal entry
Image from Harmonia showing Elsie Cadwell's 1998 annotations responding to Ignatius Cadwell's 1889 journal entry

But you could also read the annotations the opposite way: with each speaker addressing a future audience–perhaps themselves, perhaps an unknown reader, perhaps, just generically “the future.”

Here’s what some of the layered texts might look like when read in the opposite direction:

  • Ignatius Cadwell (November ??, 1889) documenting his final days for whomever finds his body: Lynn, who, finding the entry in November 1998 documents his own attempts to escape from beneath the Phalanstery
  • Abby, on May 9, 1931, writing to Lillian in 1998
  • Ca. 1931 signage informing future students about the astrolith and its new seating; fall 1998 flyer added to the original sign, altering students to imminent science center construction and astrolith removal; November 1998 graffiti added to the science center notice by students, inviting fellow students to a future rally to prevent the removal of the astrolith
Image from Harmonia showing 1931 astrolith interpretive sign, with 1998 note about science center construction and 1998 graffiti

Reading the layers of texts and annotations as each addressing a future reader is consistent with the future-looking orientation of utopian literature and utopian communities (the Harmonians’ newspaper is even called the Harbinger). Thinking about the voices as always addressing a potential future audience also helps to keep the story open and indeterminate (another potential definition of “sweeping,” maybe?). Harmonia is, after all, a story about promise and possibility (though perhaps in some senses, only the myth of possibility).

Flattening time (500 Apocalypses)

Evoking eons by flattening time may sound a little counterintuitive at first, but I think that’s one of the things that makes Phantom Williams’s 500 Apocalypses so effective. The game is presented as a memorial garden consisting of 500 entries from the Encyclopedia Apocalyptica, an arcane, ever-expanding catalog documenting the collapse of innumerable extraterrestrial civilizations. The mechanisms of destruction range from the relatively conventional (climate apocalypse, population collapse, disease, plague of insects, AI revolution) to the fantastical (population drowned by sweat, world overcome by some type of white fungus, falling into an underworld of corpses and feces, language becoming insufficient to describe experience and therefore becoming unable to sustain life). Each blue dot in the memorial reveals one annihilation, briefly described.

Image from 500 Apocalypses showing dots.

The memorial takes 500 events that are presumably separated by hundreds if not thousands if not millions of years, and presents them as though they are all happening at once. As you wander from entry to entry, you witness civilization after civilization collapse. Each entry is suspended in this moment of collapse pretty much forever.

Image from 500 Apocalypses: apocalypse #2: timepool

This results in a number of distortions: 500 worlds, each with long and rich histories, are reduced to a single moment or series of moments. How long was the “artificial flesh” world in existence before it ended? What happened after it ended? We don’t know. Further, there’s no sense of when these events happened in relation to one another. Did the frozen world end before or after the world whose gravity dissipated? Again, we don’t know.

These distortions make me think of the way that map projections, in rendering a sphere as a plane, distort the relative sizes of continents and the distance between continents. And just as a flat map enables us to see the entire world at once, the structure of 500 Apocalypses enables us to appreciate within the span of a few days or weeks a chronological scope that would otherwise take many lifetimes to comprehend.

Restricting choices (Dull Grey)

The second definition of “sweeping” that I proposed was this: games that feel as though time itself, more than individual actions or choices, is what propels the story forward. One way to create this sense of inevitability is to restrict choices.

Provodnik Games’s Dull Grey is set in the area surrounding the settlement of Thermal, a vast and remote place that is snow-covered even in spring. The landscape is dotted by geysers, broken robots, and the occasional sandpiper. In this world, young people must choose what job they will take for the rest of their lives. For Kirill (presumably the PC), this choice is between lamplighter and tallyman. It is the only choice in the game, and it is presented over and over. As Kir and his mother walk toward the train station, where they will formally record Kir’s decision, the people they encounter ask what Kir has chosen. But before he can answer, his mother jumps in:

Image from Dull Grey: "'Oh, my trouble maker, what will you be?' / Mother: lamplighter / Mother: tallyman"

A number of factors contribute to the feeling of claustrophobia: 1) Choosing from restricted options. I think it’s notable that the question everyone asks Kir is always “What profession have you chosen?” and not, “Would you like to be a lamplighter or a tallyman?” This sets us up to expect more choices than the two that the game ends up presenting. 2) Not actually making a choice: Kir never makes the choice; his mother does. And 3) Choices that don’t seem particularly consequential. The game suggests that neither choice would bring Kir great fulfillment.

Essentially, the choice you make over and over again is not really a choice, and even if it were, your decision wouldn’t really matter. 

This “grayness” is reinforced by the game’s motifs of constrained paths conveying the characters to a predetermined destination: the narrow metal bridge; the gondola, the train that the navigator arrives on. “You see two identical ruts on a straight dull road,” the navigator tells Kir. “The road leading to old age. To death. And nothing can be changed.” Indeed, what the game seems to suggest (unless you “unlock” the other way to play) is an order that existed before Kir’s birth, and will continue to exist long after his death–an order that will remain unaltered no matter what choices Kir makes.

Pitting time against choice (Queers in Love at the End of the World)

The tension between time and choice is I think most devastatingly explored in Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World. The game is literally 10 seconds long, representing the 10 seconds you have with your partner before the world ends. You choose how to interact with her–what to say to her, how to touch her. Each choice reveals a little more of your relationship and/or your state of mind. But when that 10 seconds runs out, “everything is wiped away” and the game ends.

Image of opening screen of Queers in Love at the End of the World.

One way to read this would be that the choices don’t matter. There’s no way to influence the outcome of the game; no matter what choices you make, you always end up in the same state: dead. It is time, not choice, that ultimately dictates the rules by which the game is played.

The opposite could also be true: Since you always end up in the same place, choice is the only thing that matters. Indeed, what could matter more than the last moments with the person you love? You can reach out to your partner in lust, violence, tenderness, love, some sequence of all of these. Your choices determine whether the both of you spend these moments feeling secure, frantic, furious, peaceful, anguished. 

Because of the time constraint, however, the choices will, ultimately, never be enough. As I played and replayed the game, I found myself clicking through the choices as fast as I could, wanting to squeeze as much as possible into those dwindling seconds, hoping I could somehow get away with, like, wishing for infinity wishes–all the while knowing that it was impossible. The extreme time constraint is what gives the choices a significance that extends far beyond the experience of the player character. It’s what gives what might be the shortest IF game its sense of vastness. There will never be enough time, the game contends. So how do you want to live?