by Monica Joyce Evans
“The Kindness of Jaguars” [in our November/December issue, on sale now!] addresses “the fallout from an unforgivable decision,” seen two ways. That weightiness of choice-making and multiplicity of perspectives has author Monica Joyce Evans thinking about time travel—below she invites you to play along as she journeys through this classic SF topic and its intimate relationship with video games.
Ever since I had kids, I’ve been terrified of time travel.
Human life is miraculous. That any specific person exists here and now, exactly as they are, is amazing. And while I’m curious about what might have happened if I’d made different choices in my own life—picked job A over opportunity B, or traveled to different places with different people at different times—I have no desire to go back and actually change those things. I met my husband here, got married there, had one daughter and then another, and I worry that any changes to my timeline would mean that my children might not exist. At least, not as the exact people they are today.
What that says about my personal definitions of time, I’m not sure. But my children’s safety is paramount, and “safety” includes the fact that they exist. So, no time travel for me.
Which makes it weird how much I like time travel games.
Or maybe it makes sense. In fiction—and I unabashedly love time travel fiction—things generally go wrong, or at least sideways, and characters spend their time trying desperately to fix things or dealing with the fallout. Or both. Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” is the classic don’t-step-on-any-Cretaceous-insects-or-else story. Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” has a light tone but still ends with the protagonist undoing their own time stream. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—,” John Varley’s “Air Raid,” Ted Chiang’s melancholy “Story of Your Life” . . . They all deal with characters confronting awful events and painful truths that, no matter how much they learn or change from them, cannot be undone. Even Charlie Jane Anders’ “Six Months, Three Days,” more positive than most, ends with a nasty breakup. Time travel is messy, and humans are messy, and sticking the two together usually means that someone ends up bloody and hurt.
So I’m fascinated that in video games—where “bloody and hurt” is practically its own genre—time travel so often ends up going well.
Of course, in games we’re trained to fix things. Our characters are presented with problems, often ones with clear-cut mechanical solutions, and—unlike characters in short stories or films, who get one shot—we get to try over and over again with no major repercussions. Sometimes that’s the point. The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time lets you play with how much you can fix in about six seconds of rewound time. Outer Wilds gives you twenty-two minutes. Chrono Trigger lets you travel across thirteen hundred years of history, give or take. Jonathan Blow’s Braid lets you rewind time forever, or at least until you get bored.
But in most games, time travel never comes into it—at least, not on the surface. The story in Horizon Zero Dawn or Subnautica or Hades has nothing to do with time travel, but it’s the same story every time you play it. (With substantial caveats and nuance, says the game design professor in me, but the point stands).
But “same” here is also messy, because if I die, or make a mistake, or even just a choice I don’t like, I can go back. And I can keep trying until I get to whatever I consider the “good” ending: the point at which everything, by the game’s definition, turns out right.
In games you always get a second chance to save the world. As many chances as you need.
Games teach you about themselves. They have to, or nobody would ever make it to the end. And much of that teaching involves messing up, making mistakes, and getting clear opportunities to try again. And again. And again.
So as I’ve been thinking about this—with two children in my lap, insisting I attempt the Trial of the Sword in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild one more time, this time without blowing myself up with bomb arrows—I realize that time travel in games isn’t scary at all. In fact, it might be fundamental to the medium.
You could even say that video games make time travel real.
No, really! They do. And it’s because games, especially digital ones, depend on you playing the same moments over and over again. Most games teach their players through trial and error. Some, like PlayDead’s LIMBO, teach through trial by death! As a game design professor, I’ve argued that all digital games are essentially educational games, even if the education is simply “here’s how to survive in the province of Skyrim” or “here’s how jumping puzzles work in the Mushroom Kingdom.” Games teach you about themselves. They have to, or nobody would ever make it to the end. And much of that teaching involves messing up, making mistakes, and getting clear opportunities to try again. And again. And again.
But in games with stories, especially the ones where the player controls the main character, that character isn’t living the same day or moment or set of events over and over. The game resets, often to a few minutes earlier in the story, and the character moves forward—but this time, the player knows what’s coming. How that boss monster moves. Where that hidden door is, and how to open it. How that non-player character will react to hearing that her mother has died, but she’s done so saving the world.
The character doesn’t remember all those previous attempts. The player does. And together they move forward, creating that one perfect version of the story where everything goes well, and the ending works out exactly as you’d hoped.
So in video games, time travel is nothing to fear. On the contrary, it’s the mechanism by which games become, for lack of a better word, safe.
This has very little to do with my story “The Kindness of Jaguars,” except in how much I was interested in the fallout from an unforgivable decision, seen in two very different ways by two very different characters. But I can say with certainty that, had I given either one of them a time machine, it would not have helped! And of course, real people can’t go back and change things. Our actions and our memories make us who we are. None of us gets a perfect run, and dealing with our own personal fallout is, in a way, dealing with being human.
But sometimes it’s nice to pretend otherwise. And in this difficult month of this particularly difficult year, it’s comforting to be able to fail over and over in front of my children and know that, with enough practice, Divine Beast Vah Naboris will calm down. Aloy will save the corrupted machines from “The Derangement.” Zagreus will escape from Hades and find his mother. And everything will work out just fine.