I’m Nitro, tech lead here at GROUND. In other words, I’m the one responsible for creating (and hopefully also squashing) most of the game’s bugs. My area of expertise is game design and programming so that’s what I’ll be writing about in my blog posts.
You can also read this exact post on Steam.
The Genre reMix
At the core of The Time I Have Left there is a mix of two distinct genres: A time-driven adventure game, and a turn-based RPG with active elements. Finding a good balance was naturally a big challenge!
While many RPGs have a good deal of adventure elements baked in (such as exploration, puzzles, and a focus on narrative) they rarely go as deep as it’s expected of the latter. What’s more, backtracking in RPGs is generally perceived as padding (or as a means to grind for better stats) but it’s generally part of the natural progression of an adventure game!
As we expanded on our original concept, we found, however, that weaving turn-based combats into the exploration phases helped break up the pace, and working with the environment to avoid encounters was a good way to keep players on their toes without having to rely on pure action elements.
An evolving formula
Of course, we aren’t the first ones to mix adventure games with RPGs: Capcom’s Sweet Home did it on the Famicom in 1989. By taking the RPG mechanics and turn-based combat that Dragon Quest had made popular and repurposing them into a much more focused setting, Sweet Home put an emphasis on the exploration of a mansion with a horror theme while also throwing into the mix some elements of the text-based adventure genre.
Another example would be Sacnoth’s Koudelka (PSX, 1999), a game that took the game loop and look and feel of survival horror titles popularized by Resident Evil (1996) and brought in the mechanics of its contemporary RPGs, including turn-based combat.
Those and many other games took established formulas and gave them a unique twist by mixing and matching elements from different genres. The Survival Horror genre was born under this type of experimentation: If you subtract the horror and action from a Survival Horror title, you’re left with a classic example of an adventure game!
The intricate environments and storylines of the adventure genre became an integral part of the golden age of the Survival Horror. The dangers of combat systems with lasting consequences for mistakes made exploration much more tense and exciting, and gave designers the possibility of sprinkling in item rewards for exploration (such as healing items, ammo, weapons, and others!). Add in puzzles and the whole package was much, much more varied than what you would find in other games. Even if the combat wasn’t as good as it is in action titles, or the puzzles could be abstract and immersion-breaking, it was a genre that embodied the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
You can find a lot of what makes an RPG special in its adventure game roots as well: exploring a deep, complex world, and a heavy emphasis on narrative, characters, and dialogue. Puzzles were much simpler and used sparingly, but they were still a part of the experience.
The RPG/Survival Horror I Have Left
In The Time I Have Left, we took a good look at these branches of the adventure game, and how they evolved and moved away from their origins as well as each other. Nowadays, the Survival Horror genre has more in common with the more than broadly encompassing “Action-Adventure” label, while RPGs dropped a great deal of their exploration and puzzle flavor in favor of deeper combat systems, complex progression mechanics, and sometimes more of a Visual Novel appeal.
Just in case all this Survival Horror talk is starting to worry you, now is the time for a big disclaimer: despite appearances, The Time I Have Left is not a horror game. We take a lot from the game design and structure of the genre but we are not trying to scare you (not on purpose, anyway!). Have you ever wanted to play an old-school survival horror because the narrative, puzzles, and exploration looked interesting, but the horror aspect made you reconsider? Then The Time I Have Left might be just right for you!
In any case, we grabbed our multiverse telescope and searched for a world in which the timeline split around the 2000s, where the Survival Horror and the RPG genre evolved in a different direction and became entwined.
One can’t simply reach back into the past and drag old sensibilities into the present by force. Player and market expectations are different now, and as much as we love older games, taking their design language verbatim wouldn’t be enough.
We aren’t interested in just replicating what came before, either: We wanted to make something that felt like an offshoot of the hidden gems we loved without falling on simple homage. This came with quite a few challenges as well, so throughout our (very likely semi-infrequent) blog posts we’ll share some on how we tackled them.
For now, let’s talk about the phases of gameplay, and how they relate to each other: Turn-Based RPG, and exploration adventure. One of these challenges was finding a way to properly connect those two phases in a way that felt meaningful, where the consequences of each would be really felt in the other. For example, we decided to tie the rewards from Exploration into Combat and vice versa: If you level up from combat experience, you gain small benefits that make exploration easier (such as a longer sprint gauge); if you find enough clues and hidden details about the world, filling the in-game database with all sorts of interesting story details, you will unlock abilities that give you new tools in combat (such as a healing skill). We will be releasing more information about how the game works in the near future!
Phew! That was a mouthful. I sat here thinking I’d write a few lines promoting The Time I Have Left to fill space between updates, but I ended up writing a quick look back on forgotten design sensibilities.
Next time, I’ll force Yite to write one of these. Maybe he can share some insight on the game’s art style!
But what about you? What do you like about survival horror games? About exploration, and about RPGs? Which are your favorite examples?