Time is an important part of human existence, albeit one that can easily go unnoticed or unremarked-upon. It follows, therefore, that videogames, in trying to embody simulations of functioning worlds, would be equally ruled by this omnipresent force. In early videogames, a sense of the passage of time sometimes takes the form of the “time limit,” resulting in player death upon expiration, or else is hard-coded into the environment: this level takes place in the morning, the next takes place at noon, the next at sunset, etc. etc. etc. Less often, and particularly in games that try to simulate complete worlds, the passage of time is represented in its entirety, though usually at a truncated rate. At the very least, if a virtual world or sequence of levels does not try to convey a passage of time, they at least give a sense of events occurring at a time.
This scene from Ninja Gaiden uses its representation of the environment to illustrate the events occurring at a specific time.
As technologies have increased in power and videogames have increased in sophistication, these approaches toward showing the passage of time have remained largely unchanged. What is rather more interesting is the way these virtual worlds show the passage of time in relation to our own reality. When a player plays a video game, they experience two time states at once, their own and that of the game world, and these two states may not be congruent with one another. Videogames must necessarily abandon the specifics of time, or else encounter problems in presenting a coherent game experience. Batman: Arkham City demonstrates this fact of game design in a number of ways.
The plot of Batman: Arkham City takes place over a single night. This presents problems unto itself, as it is unlikely that the player will complete the game over a single night (though this is by no means impossible). Other texts—and not necessarily those that take the form of a video game—must also overcome this obstacle, and accomplish it by developing a relative passage of time that is related to the reader through the events of the story. To do this, time must become both elastic and intermittent, allowing one moment to encompass five minutes or five minutes to encompass one moment, and allowing other moments to make logical leaps in the story’s chronology. This “intermittent elasticity” is what allows Arkham City to encompass the space of a single night, even though one player may take five hours to play through the game and another may take twenty.
This scene in Batman: Arkham City takes place a few minutes into the game, though intermittent elasticity makes the actual amount of time which has passed in the narrative difficult to determine, discernible only through implication.
Intermittent elasticity in Batman: Arkham City can best be demonstrated via the Protocol 10 countdown. As the player progresses through Arkham City’s narrative, Professor Strange makes announcements on a radio signal that Batman has hacked into, counting down hourly to the launch of “Protocol 10,” his mysterious plot that Batman seeks to stop. First starting after Batman rescues Catwoman from Two-Face, it appears over the course of the narrative, counting down from ten hours. This countdown does not occur in real-time; in terms of the narrative, there is always a five-hour gap between the rescue of Catwoman and Batman’s descent to Wonder City and another five-hour gap between that moment and the confrontation with the Joker in his steel mill, whether it takes the player two or ten hours to actually traverse these sections of the narrative. This is intermittent elasticity in its simplest form: The player’s experience of time is relative to the narrative’s experience of time.
Logical problems can nevertheless appear in the application of intermittent elasticity when it asks the player to make assumptions that defy logic, challenging the player’s willing suspension of disbelief. The Deadshot sidequest represents a major appearance of this. The player first encounters Deadshot while waiting in the queue to enter Arkham City, though he may not be recognized on an initial playthrough—he’s the prisoner who does not move out of the way until he has threatened Bruce, declaring “you’re on my list.”
This list is eventually revealed to be prisoners in Arkham City who have been targeted by Professor Strange for their knowledge about his criminal activities, hiring Deadshot to infiltrate the megaprison and assassinate them. The player, assuming the role of the World’s Greatest Detective, Batman, must examine the crime scenes around Deadshot’s victims until Batman is able to pinpoint where the assassin is hiding his equipment. Upon locating the stash, Batman learns that the next target on the list, Jack Ryder, is due to be assassinated at 2:30am… which is in two minutes. Cue a race to reach the target before he is killed.
No matter how fast the player reaches the goal, Batman always saves Ryder at the last minute, showing how intermittent elasticity can be used for drama.
This specificity about time in the Arkham environment creates problems for the narrative. As this part of the Deadshot sidequest can only be completed when the player has beaten the core story, which includes the ten-hour Protocol 10 countdown, and allowing a generous two hours for the events preceding and following the countdown, in order for the Jack Ryder assassination time to make sense the game’s narrative must begin at 2:30pm at the latest. The entire game, however, clearly takes place at night. This timeline only works if we assume that Gotham experiences perpetual night (not an uncommon implication in the wider Batman canon, in fact). The specificity of time in this instance reveals the inherent issue of intermittent elasticity as a storytelling device: when applied freely or carelessly, it causes a breakdown in the temporal coherence of the world, which is already challenged by the relativity of the player’s experience of time and the narrative’s relation of it.
These events occurring at a specific time create problems with the game’s intermittent elasticity.
Intermittent elasticity can be seen to breakdown in other areas of the game, as well. Arkham City allows the player to replay Story mode at an increased difficulty setting while retaining their WayneTech skills, upgrades, and—most importantly—their Enigma Conundrum progress, in a mode called Story Plus. The Enigma Conundrum challenges the player with solving the Riddler’s puzzles and being rewarded with the locations of the Riddler’s kidnapping victims. Batman must solve all of the Riddler’s puzzles and rescue every hostage from their deathtrap before he can locate the Riddler’s hideout and put a stop to his schemes. This sidequest, encompassing the length and breadth of the game world, will almost definitely be the last thing the player accomplishes… at least in Story. As Enigma Conundrum progress is carried over to Story Plus, the hostages can be saved and the Riddler’s hideout located as soon as the sidequest becomes available.
The problem arrives in the form of Oracle, Batman’s computer-genius ally, who is the person to pinpoint the hideout and reveal it to Batman. Oracle, however, does not enter the game’s narrative until midway through the Museum, and the Riddler sidequest is begun immediately before—and, in Story Plus, can be completed—that section of the game. The result is Oracle suddenly appearing to reveal the Riddler’s location without introduction or context, then later appearing at her normal narrative introduction, complete with Batman’s sardonic “nice of you to join us”—after she has already joined them! Intermittent elasticity is supposed to allow leaps in narrative chronology. This particular leap, however, shows why those leaps must be logical: Batman seems less to be encountering Oracle earlier in the narrative in this scenario as he seems to be traveling through time, taking the player with him without revelation or explanation.
Oracle: Secretly a Time Lord.
It is when the player interacts with the Calendar Man that the representation of time in Arkham City is completely broken. Julian Day is a serial killer obsessed with dates who goes on themed rampages during holidays. Players encounter him locked up in the basement of Two-Face’s courthouse, and if they visit on twelve specific holidays as determined by the console clock, Calendar Man will share a story about one of his past exploits on that date. This complicates the temporal coherence of the game’s narrative; how can the game take place over a single night and simultaneously have events that explicitly takes place on twelve different days of the year? There is no explanation for this. The Calendar Man event must take place outside the narrative for it to work at all.
Batman: Arkham City explores intermittent elasticity in more successful ways, however. The Batman character model shows the passing of time by changing subtly over the course of the game. Batman is poisoned by the Joker on the first visit to the steel mill, which has a radical effect on his appearance that worsens over the course of the game. This even has effects on the gameplay itself—as Batman comes closer and closer to succumbing to the poison, his health bar grows shorter, requiring the player to take greater care in combat.
Batman, before his poisoning.
Batman, hours after being poisoned.
Batman’s armor also shows the passage of time, taking specific damage from major events—the bullet he takes for Catwoman at the start of the game leaves a noticeable dent in his chest for its remainder—and becoming more ragged and tattered as the narrative goes on. By the time the core game has been beaten, Batman’s cape, which begins as flawless fabric, has become tattered and ragged. These changes are intermittent because the game world is largely open to Batman, allowing the player to explore various optional parts of the narrative at their leisure; in one playthrough Batman might have a pristine cape while meeting Bane, and in another the cape might barely be holding together.
Batman’s cape in the game’s introductory sequences.
Batman’s cape in the game’s ultimate sequences.
The game world itself also shows the passage of time. Aside from obvious cosmetic changes caused by major plot events—the Joker’s bomb destroys the church’s tower near the start of the game, and later Protocol 10 leaves the courthouse and museum facades severely damaged, as examples—it is the mook chatter Batman’s supersonic cowl picks up that truly reveals the passage of time. As Batman glides over their heads, often unseen, the player is able to eavesdrop on the conversations of the various supervillain’s henchmen. These conversations are sometimes innocuous (the temperature and hunger are popular topics), but at other times reflect changes in the game world which Batman may or may not be responsible for. At the start of the game, before Batman’s presence has become common knowledge in the prison, conversations relate to recruitment into the various factions or speculation about what the other supervillains are doing. Once Batman has begun to make his presence known, discussion turns to his exploits and their effects on the game world; once he has dealt with the Penguin in the Museum, for example, the player can eavesdrop on the Joker’s faction moving in on the Penguin’s weakened troops, only for Two-Face’s faction to move in and fill the gap. These changes in the game world show an incremental change in the temporal state of the world, and without them players would only become aware of the changes by revisiting the places affected by them—a decidedly abrupt and inelegant form of intermittency.
Every game, by necessity of trying to simulate a world based at least in part on our own, must deal with the problem of time. Batman: Arkham City is interesting in that it attempts to set all of the events of its narrative in a single night, even though its own plot demonstrates that this is impossible. It tries to accomplish this via intermittent elasticity, the narrative device of implying the passage of time relative to the player’s own experience of time. This works until the game tries to become too specific in its description of time (elastic tautness) or allow too much freedom over the player’s traversal of the narrative (elastic slackness). It is when time is allowed to expand and contract more freely in the course of the narrative that the game sees its most success in its representation of time, a lesson many other games could follow.