In the world of videogames, highlighting the passage of time is an incredibly useful tool. In any form, be it day cycles, moon phases or internal calendars, time can add to immersion like virtually nothing else. Without much fanfare, it’s become a key component of games that want to maintain the illusion of a persistent world. From periodically changing the color scheme to utilizing the clock on today’s consoles and PCs, time mechanics have been evolving for the better since the very beginning.
As early as the original Super Mario Bros., game developers recognized that games could be less repetitive simply by taking away the perpetual daylight. While most of Super Mario Bros. took place during the day, there were occasional darkness-laden levels as well. The idea was hardly an immersion builder at this point, but it did lend the game a sense of variety. It was an idea that we still see today in mission-based games that feature some missions during the day and some at night.
A few years later, another NES title took a step further in its depiction of time with one simple phrase: “What a horrible night to have a curse.” In Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, such a message would pop up every few minutes declaring the coming of day or night, and the game’s color scheme would change to reflect this new state. While some players considered these messages more disruptive than immersive, others believed they lent the adventure a grander sense of scale than other games of that time (in which the story always seemed to take place over the course of a single day). This mechanic also acted as a storytelling device, as the towns became infested with zombies and the surrounding areas populated with more aggressive creatures during nighttime, thanks to Dracula’s curse.
As the years went by, time mechanics in games evolved quickly and became more common. Games started to divide days into more discrete sections – instead of a binary day/night cycle, games would transition from the gray of early morning to the blue of midday, the orange of evening and, finally, the black of night. Eventually, games like Harvest Moon added a clock to the whole equation, scaled to the shorter day cycles of its world. Developers started to realize the ability time had to draw players into their games. When asked how long they’ve been playing Harvest Moon, players might have answered “12 days” when they really meant four hours.
Once games started to go 3D, that giant lens flare in the sky became another timekeeping tool at developers’ disposal. Games like the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Morrowind absorbed players in a world replete with sunrises and sunsets, nocturnal monsters and constellation-filled skies. Just imagine Ocarina of Time without that one simple ingredient: There would be no waiting for nightfall to sneak into Hyrule Castle, no Castle Town nightlife and no riding off into the sunset in Gerudo Valley. This seemingly superficial element brought the Zelda universe to life by allowing it to continually change without any input from players.
Suddenly, developers were putting the passage of time to all sorts of creative uses. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night featured a point where different paths would become available depending on the time depicted on the clock in the background. And in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, time played an even more critical role in the gameplay: The game’s story took place across a continually repeating three-day interval during which environments evolved and characters went about their daily lives.
Around this period, time’s primary function of helping to create a dynamic, life-like world became more apparent. In-game time was primarily used to create a sense of adventure, grandeur, and freedom. Open-world games and games that emphasized exploration embraced the idea, while more story-intensive genres continued to partition day and night only when it made sense in the narrative.
Starting with Gold and Silver, the Pokemon series joined the timekeeping crowd by synchronizing the games’ internal clock with that of the real world. As the sun went down outside your window, so did it on your Game Boy’s screen – as long as you input the correct time from the start. Playing at night meant a chance to catch nocturnal Pokémon, and in later generations, in-game events like radio and television programs would only be available during certain times or on certain days of the week. This system helped give players the impression they were part of a living, breathing world.
Years later, Nintendo refined the practice of real-world time synchronization with its family-friendly life simulator Animal Crossing. Similar to Pokemon Gold and Silver, Animal Crossing read the GameCube’s clock and synchronized it with its own internal timeline. But while Pokemon was only concerned with the time of day, Animal Crossing reflected the passage of time in weeks, months and even years. Not only was the world persistent, featuring weekly events, plants that took days to grow and residents that noticed when the player had been absent for an extended period, but it also allowed players to watch winter turn to spring day by day and celebrate their birthday with their virtual neighbors.
This in-game calendar doesn’t just add realism to Animal Crossing – it encourages players to keep coming back. The longer you neglect the game, the more disheveled the village becomes, and it’s almost irresistible to occasionally hop on for 15 minutes to complete a few chores and earn a few bells (the game’s currency). Die-hard Animal Crossing fans even start to wonder what’s going on in their village while they’re not playing.
Today, we continue to see the time mechanics of games slowly evolve. Thanks in part to the surge in popularity of open-world and sandbox style games, new genres are beginning to incorporate such systems. For example, in the arcade racer Burnout Paradise, racing at night instead of during the day is simply a matter of waiting a little while.
While we may not see another in-game time system as nuanced as Animal Crossing‘s, titles such as Castlevania II and Majora’s Mask prove that in-game time can be put to uses beyond just adding another degree of realism to a game: It can add to a game’s plot, and tell the stories of the people and places in a game’s universe that simple text and dialogue cannot convey. As technology advances forward, this is where the in-game time mechanic is headed.
Dan Squire is a freelance writer and can be heard each week on New Game Radio at New Game Plus.