In defense of time limits

Time limits are up there with escort quests and sewer levels on the list of Things Real Players Hate, and I understand the reasons. They’ve annoyed me too. My go-to example is Driver: San Francisco and the mission where you have to catch bankrobbers with only a couple of minutes on the clock. After an exhausting chase up and down the city’s hills I slammed into their getaway car, pushing them off the road and into the waiting arms of the law – but I’d taken a second too long and then had to do it all over again. They hadn’t escaped, I’d just caught them one second after the arbitrary deadline.

Yet there are other games where we accept that kind of limit as standard. Fighting games like Mortal Kombat wouldn’t be the same without them, the pressure of a countdown hanging over us like our shrinking health bars. Sports games where the clock is the enemy, any multiplayer game that wants to keep its rounds short – all of them have time limits that encourage reckless play once they start ticking down and create memorable moments when someone wins in the dying seconds.

When time limits crop up in other genres, like the kind of single-player RPG where we’re used to having an infinite amount of time to wally about as we please, that’s when the the anger rises. The original Fallout is one of the archetypes of the wide-open RPG, but it came with multiple time limits. Players had to death march across its post-apocalyptic wasteland to find water for their Vault within 150 days, and then defeat the game’s villain within 500 days. Additionally, if you don’t defeat the villain within a certain number of days before that he starts wiping out settlements one by one, preventing you from getting the best possible ending.

Response to this was so negative that the designers eventually patched the 500-day limit out. I played Fallout on disc in the dark old days of the 1990s though, with no such luxury. I made every decision with that threat hanging over me. If I wanted to prove to the Thieves Circle that I deserved to be a member, I had to wait till nightfall to steal something valuable, wasting most of a day. If I wanted to find some missing caravans I did it knowing the search would add yet another delay. It was the opposite of the kind of RPG where a character asks to meet you at the graveyard at midnight, then patiently returns to that graveyard every single night until you show up to initiate the next stage of the quest.

In Fallout I had to consider every action as if it had consequences, knew that people who said they were relying on me were relying on me now. At the end I saved the day but lost one of the settlements to a mutant attack. Maybe I could have saved it if I hadn’t spent so much time reading skill books to boost my abilities. Those improvements helped me hack computers and survive in the wilderness, but were they worth it in the end?

In Fallout every decision had another element to consider, another variable to make those dilemmas even more interesting. There were water merchants who can visit the Vault and temporarily extend the first deadline, a band-aid solution that earns an extra 100 days but lets the game’s villain discover the Vault sooner and deducts time from the second deadline. Everything comes with a cost.

Done well, time limits force you to make the kind of agonizing choices that actually enrich games. Star Control 2 (and its freeware remake The Ur-Quan Masters) begins on the 17th of February 2155 and gives you four and a half years from there to gather your forces and defeat the aliens before they raise an unstoppable army. In Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale you run an RPG equipment store struggling to make loan repayments, and as deadlines approach you’re tempted to give deep discounts to scrape together the cash.

Meanwhile, in its first mission, Deus Ex: Human Revolution measures how much time you waste hacking computers to read private email before leaving to rescue some hostages, and if you take too long some of those hostages will die. Like the moment in the first Deus Ex when a character calls you out if your male player-character uses the ladies’ toilet, it’s an unexpected reality slap that forces you to treat everything that comes after as if it will have consequences, because you never know when it might.

To pick a counter-example, Dragon Age: Origins lets you live in the land of do-as-you-please. One of your party members, the acerbic witch Morrigan, berates you every time you pause to help out some villagers because there’s a Blight devouring the world and there’s no point slowing down to find every missing cat. But she’s wrong. It’s the kind of game where the experience points and rewards from sidequests are a huge help in surviving the main storyline. The mechanics argue against the character, even though she’d be completely right if this wasn’t a game. Dragon Age: Origins would have been better with a time limit, with a Blight that observably spread across the land the longer you delayed stopping it.

Games with time limits ask us what we’re going to do with the time we have. That’s a fascinating question for them to pose because it’s a relatable one, even if it’s framed in terms of an alien invasion or a mutant army or a magical Blight. It’s a question that’s in the back of our minds every day, whether we’re thinking about what we’ll get done by the end of our shift or over the weekend or with the rest of our lives.

“Play at your own pace” is a fine back-of-the-box promise for a game to make if it’s about walking wide-eyed into a bright new world full of collectibles, but if a game’s story suggests urgency that threat rings hollow without a time limit. Unpleasant as it sounds, sometimes a good death march is just what we need.