It was Superhot that first made me think about the old writer’s adage, that you do the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow. This is the thinking that powers Jack Reacher novels, for example – Lee Child talks about this trick often and with great clarity. If Reacher’s doing a bunch of research, you whip through it in a couple of lines. Literary montage! If Reacher’s outside a bar, though, and a horseshoe of bad’uns is forming around him, time slows until it forms a thick mineral goop that traps everyone within it. The next few seconds are going to involve the shattering of kneecaps and the bruising of aortas (if aortas are a thing that can be bruised – having typed it, I am unconvinced). The next few seconds are going to be violent and memorable. Crucially, the next few seconds are going to take eight or nine pages to play out, because every move will be examined in great forensic detail. We will count the separate sparks in the air, and be deafened by the clatter of a spent cartridge case rattling on the tarmac. We will be fully present and fully conscious in these terrible, glorious moments.
Is Superhot turn-based? Not really, but it’s a unique kind of meter, certainly – the work of a ludic Dave Brubeck. It is strange, given the unprecedented control over the variables that make up the universe they afford, that many games are so uninterested in time. Sure, they shatter it into loops with the death and save systems. They may also slow it, Reacher-like, when the guns come out. But genuine inventions, such as Superhot’s world in which time only moves when you do? These genuine inventions are quite rare.
I’ve been thinking of all this these past few weeks as I’ve been playing, by sheer coincidence, through a range of rather brilliant turn-based tactic games, some of which have come out and some of which are yet to be released. Turn-based tactic games are hardly inventive by this point, but they definitely force you to think about time, about how it is broken up, and about what happens when you can pause it and step outside of it and really ponder your actions. Specifically, the games I’ve been playing have made me think about the way that time affects storytelling, and I think I’m ready to present my findings. Turn-based games, I suspect, are uniquely suited to generating incredible stories. They are more cinematic in the narrative sense than the games that we lazily refer to as being cinematic. And I think this is because of time.
Powered by WPeMatico