Design Talk: Time Limits

In 6 hours you will be dead.
It is fated to be.
Even so…
Is there anything you would like to do before the end?

We have been repeating this hook non-stop for the past three years. It captures the essence of The Time I Have Left and (most of the time) is received with positive curiosity.

But a question always arises: how does the timer tie into the game?

Hi everyone! Yite here with another development blog, right before the Gamescom season starts (we will have another one soon!).

The time limit is probably the most difficult core concept of The Time I Have Left (TIHL for short) to properly convey — and understandably so, since its uses are mostly associated with acting under pressure and going fast.

  • “Isn’t it too stressful?”
  • “How am I supposed to explore thoroughly under a ticking timer?”
  • “Will I have to repeat the 6 hours if I run out of time?”

These are just a few questions that we have heard many times during development.

So today I will discuss them briefly and hopefully not only clarify our design intention when creating a “time-driven narrative escape adventure” but also, in typical Ground style, take a brief look at other narrative games and RPGs from the past that incorporate a sort of time limit into their design.

Let’s dive in!

Isn’t it too stressful?

Short answer:

It’s not! There’s plenty of time to find your way through the main story, time flows slowly in combat and during menu navigation, and there are safe rooms where time completely stops. Take your time to explore and use your remaining time to hunt for secrets.

Long answer:

Everyone understands the urgency of time: no matter if you are late for work, you are taking a test, or you have to pay your bills by the end of the month: We all feel the pressure of time in one way or another, so it’s a given that including some type of time mechanic will ramp up the intensity.

Long before video games, tons of competitive activities had included timers in their rules. From chess, all sorts of competitive sports, board games, and racing had already included timers into the mix to push the tension of an encounter.

Many early video games were digital versions of those same board games, sports, and races, so it makes sense the timers were quickly adopted by the medium, even more so in the arcade times when time was money (literally). There are also modern incarnations of these timers such as certain incremental games and other forms of limited free-to-play models.

(© Garou: Mark of the Wolves – SNK CORPORATION, 1999 / © Time Crisis – BANDAI NAMCO, 1997) Limiting game time in old-time arcades would add some extra pressure and also bring in more precious quarters (or pesetas here in Spain. Yeah, the same ones you use to buy rocket launchers in Resident Evil 4).

We are already stressed enough in our daily lives, so, understandably, some people are against an additional restriction that adds urgency to their gaming time, especially when playing adventure games, which are usually methodic, slow, and narrative-driven.

We set ourselves to do something different though, because we know that there is also another way to understand time: if you are in control of your actions and spend it on the things you want to do, no time is wasted even if under a limit.

In TIHL, the timer is always there and rarely stops. There is a sense of urgency pushing you forward, and there are also actions that will require you to spend some time, like resting to recover Willpower (your other main resource). It is an important core mechanic and as such it needs weight and consequence in the game, but that does not mean that it’s there to make your life harder.

You will have plenty of time to find your way out, to explore even more than what is right in your path even. When in combat or navigating the menus, time will go ten times slower than normal, and inside a Waiting Room time stops completely giving you plenty of space to plan ahead.

We could have named the game ‘I don’t have time’ but went with ‘The Time I Have Left’ for a reason!

How am I supposed to explore thoroughly under a ticking timer?

Short answer:

The time is yours to use. All the time that is not used is lost at the end of a chapter, so once you locate the exit of the level you can decide what to do with it. There are plenty of secrets worthy of getting out of the main path, and even if it does not seem like much at first, Aline still has 6 hours left.

Long answer:

In TIHL you have to find your way by gathering clues in Colony 7. You can find clues in both third and first-person exploration, and those same clues will act as unlocking conditions to get new story fragments.

Unlocking and reading story fragments will give you hints to reach the end of the chapter and also point to secret areas that hold even more clues. And with every few unlocked fragments, you will get new combat skills that might help you overcome difficult enemies down the road.

Once you locate the exit of the level you can decide when you want to leave. The most important thing to note is that all the time that is not used will be lost. You won’t gain anything for finishing a chapter with 30 minutes remaining in your timer, in fact, that time will be gone by the start of the next.

In TIHL, time is meant to be spent. To be pushed as much as you want on the things that matter most. And of course, you will have a big part in deciding what that is.

Will I have to repeat the 6 hours if I run out of time?

Short answer:

You won’t! The game is divided into separate chapters that follow the main narrative. As long as you beat a chapter in time you can keep up with the game’s story. You can also save your game in multiple slots (just in case!).

Long answer:

When creating TIHL, we looked at tons of examples and explored many ways that timers can be used in games, specifically in adventure games and RPGs: from the story time limits of Valkyrie Profile and Lightning Returns to the calendar deadlines of Shenmue and Persona.

Jordan Mechner was one of the pioneers in creating experiences that present their stories under a timer. Games like the original Prince of Persia and The Last Express were built around the timer.

WARP’s D also pops up in discussions about narrative adventure games on a timer.

(© D: The Game – WARP, Nightdive Studios, Throwback Entertainment, 1995 / (© Prince of Persia – Brøderbund, 1989) D was a unique first-person cinematic adventure game at the time, built entirely on pre-rendered video sequences that force the player to solve the mystery in 2 real-time hours. The original Prince of Persia also had a 1-hour time limit to beat the game. Both games had timers that were not always present on the UI.

These games highlight both the great and the not-so-great aspects of a starting point that is similar to ours. The premise to beat the game in a set time limit is enthralling, and repeating over and over sections until you manage the “perfect run” is a challenge that can hook you for hours. But it can also get tedious after a short while, hurting the narrative nature of the game.

Another drawback of many games with timers is their length. You can’t make a 30-hour game set on a timer that blocks people from reaching the end unless they master it (can you?) so most are short, running on 1-hour or 2-hour time limits.

To expand their length but keep the time limit aspect, some games break their structure into loops of some kind. Like the 3-day cycle of The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask or another game that has appeared in the past in our developer blog: Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter (Which could be argued that it does not technically run on a timer, but still works similarly, limiting your playtime and encouraging repetition).

(© Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter – Capcom, 2002) The time limit in BofDQ is not measured in minutes or seconds, but it’s still a ticking bomb that signals the end of the game. The D-counter on the top-right of the screen fills naturally just by moving around and fills faster when using certain actions, if it reaches 100% the game is over.

TIHL is also designed with replayability in mind and it will be very difficult to get everything in one go, but it does not mandate you to repeat the whole game every time your time runs out.

The game is divided into chapters, each one with its time limit, area to explore, and objectives. The timer is always rebalanced when changing chapters, so the best approach is to leave the area with as little time remaining as possible.

You can save your game resting at any Waiting Room, including one right before leaving the area (just in case you change your mind after leaving!). But remember that your save slots are limited, so your decisions matter in the long run.

We *may* have something in the works for those that want to get everything in the game…but those are news for another day!

Closing words

I hope that after reading today’s post you have a more solid idea of how the game works and some of your doubts about the timer have cleared. The team will keep doing their best to take you and Aline through a unique time-driven adventure.

And, as always, please share with us your comments and suggestions in the comments or join our join our Discord server!

We will have another post soon detailing our summer plans. Stay tuned!

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