Header illustration by Sunless Design.
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars, and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
Time Travel Club Members: Jack Cooper (Titanfall 2), The Player (Superhot), Jack Joyce (Quantum Break), Cassandra Hays (Gemini: Heroes Reborn)
Club President & Designated Time Captain: Emily Kaldwin (Dishonored 2)
One way games differ from other creative mediums is interactivity. Another word for that is control. There are things we don't get to choose in life—when we're born, who our family is, what time period we exist in. That's why time travel is such a powerful framing device, and it's no surprise that games, which allow you to exercise agency, are able to harness time travel in powerful ways. Whether by accident or because the secret video came cabal got together behind our backs, 2016 was home a slew of really terrific games that took advantage of time travel. More importantly, they weaved time travel into their gameplay, instead of simply offering the device as a story gimmick.
First things first: Yes, one of the best time travel games of this year—and just an underrated game, period—was based on the awful reboot of the once-promising NBC superhero show Heroes. But you don't need to have any understanding of Heroes lore, continuity, or why someone thought it was a good reason to bring it back to appreciate Gemini: Heroes Reborn.
It's a low-budget affair, but one that makes effective use of scope, focusing on creative ways to deploy powers. Naturally, you're able to swap between time periods at at will, but you can also summon temporary windows into other timelines, which adds a layer of strategy to stealth. Not sure where a guard is hiding? Rather than risk your neck, pop open a portal, see where they're hiding, and start plotting your next move. (Yes, I'm aware that you can do exactly that in Dishonored 2, but it was totally novel at the time.) Heroes: Gemini Reborn was a nice surprise.
And look, it was really fun to toss guards into giant fans.
And though Titanfall is sci-fi through and through—it has giant mechs, y'all—nothing suggested it would lean as hard as they did in the game's "Effect and Cause" mission, where players are, basically out of nowhere, told they can start flipping between the past and future.
I profiled "Effect and Cause" earlier this year, speaking with Respawn designer Jake Keating, who revealed he'd been sitting on the idea for several years, back when the ex-Call of Duty developers didn't know what game they were making yet. The original Titanfall didn't end up with a proper single-player campaign, which meant there was no place for it until the sequel.
There are all sorts of great parts to "Effect and Cause," but one of my favorites is a simple moment where the player has to swap timelines to escape down a shaft full of fans. (Maybe the trendline this year wasn't time travel, but games with fans that can kill people?) Keating explained how Respawn's level-first approach to game design made that sequence possible:
"That particular spot was a good example of that. It was these placeholder fans that I'd created just out of simple geometry, and the room looked really ugly and had these grey textures. But it was all very simple, so things could be moved around really easily. So when a player mistimed a jump or something needed to be moved just a little bit to make it perfect, we were able to do that up until pretty late in the game, before we really had to just say 'Okay, we gotta lock this down so that the art team can make it beautiful.'"
Related, on Waypoint: Find out where Dishonored 2's Emily Kaldwin landed on Danielle Riendeau's top ten!
Both Dishonored 2 and Titanfall 2 make time travel a one-off mechanic introduced in one level and thrown away in the next, a big reason it feels special. But when Keating was watching people playtest the level, it gave him all sorts of anxiety. Games these days are always worried people don't understand what's going on, but part of what makes these areas in both games rewarding is how hands off they are; they rely on players to figure out (and exploit) time travel.
"We have these focus tests very early on. No matter what state your level is in, it's going to get played by someone off the streets. It gets kind of stressful because you're surrounded by your peers and you're watching this guy not know what to do. He's stuck and he's at a dead end and he doesn't know what to do. You just want to overcompensate and handhold him like crazy and throw up tutorial messages, or have BT chime in with 'Hey, pilot, I bet if you did this, this would happen!' It's really hard to resist that temptation."
And you could be such a jerk while playing Dishonored 2. You'll sometimes find yourself in a giant room with, let's say, five or six guards. Pop into the timeline with the guards, stab one in the neck, disappear. Then, use your magical device to peer into the past, watch the guards lose their minds trying to figure what just happened, prepare for the next attack—rinse, repeat.
Like I said, jerk.
Whether in these games or in the other time-bending games that came out this year, like Quantum Break and Superhot, the are moments in all three where it feels like you're cheating. Is the game supposed to let me do this? I can really slow time down in order to cut a bullet out of the air with a katana? Isn't that unfair to everyone around me?
Here's the better question: Who cares?