Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Time travel is the most vicious plot device that we have ever devised in our fiction. Time travel means, on some fundamental level, that we have a chance to get things right. We all have things we wish we could have avoided, things that we did or didn’t do, and time travel offers the opportunity to make that happen in a real way. Forward and backward, then and now, time travel dangles hope in front of us. And Into The Breach, the new tactical time traveling game from the makers of FTL, makes that dangling bit of hope the shepherd of its core gameplay loop.
This isn’t an unfamiliar idea in media. Edge of Tomorrow gave us an alien invasion that was powered by time travel. We watched Tom Cruise die over and over again, sometimes comically, so that he could learn the true meaning of friendship and the ultimate skills of deadly combat. Source Code put Jake Gyllenhaal on a train so that he could figure out why it exploded, each attempt resetting in a horrible simulated loop controlled by an evil scientist. Even 2017’s under-respected Happy Death Day waded into the question of time, throwing Jessica Rothe into a time loop where she had to figure out who was killing her each and every day.
Into The Breach is a little different because the player isn’t going through the exact scenarios like the people in these films do, but the core is still the same. You learn strategies, you figure out how to clear the puzzle-like stages using those strategies, and you fail. You get better. You die. You jump to a new timeline. You’ll do better there.
I wonder, though, about Amelia. She an artillery mech pilot, and she speaks up pretty often. She’s a small person defined only by her stats and the cycle of generic phrases that the game is happening to put into her mouth, but I can recognize her orange cloth-wrapped helmet at a glance, and I come to think of the artillery mech not just as a piece of machinery, but as a character. She’s Ned Ryerson or the military buddies that help Tom Cruise along the way. She’s going to serve a purpose, and then she’s going to die.
I have my mechs, and I have my pilots. I’m on an island that is experiencing a cataclysm, and the ground is disappearing from beneath allies and enemies alike, dropping them down into some terrible abyss at the heart of the earth. A giant bug enemy topples off the map, and Amelia barks out a one-liner. “I hope it hits another Vek on the way down,” Amelia yells out. I smile.
During the next mission she screams that I need to check my fire. I’ve used the artillery to shoot a building to tactically save another of my units, and she’s rightfully panicked by this choice. She’s shooting her allies, but this is the kind of choice I have to make as the all-seeing, all-skillful eye in the sky that controls the destinies of the people in this timeline. Some civilians have to go so that I can try to scrape by with a “win” on this map.
“I’ve taken heavy damage, commander, but I’m still in the fight.” Amelia is telling me this during the last turn of a particularly difficult battle, and I smile because we’ve made it through. She’s done some crucial attacking and bouncing around, and my enemies are running scared from the onslaught.
“Ready to make the Rift Walkers proud, commander.”
“Protect the Grid, it’s almost gone!”
Amelia’s words become this constant commentary. She becomes my main character, in my own little story about the game, and I do everything that I can to make sure that she’s getting the experience and mechanical upgrades that will help her survive each fight. But eventually, because I am me and because this game is hard and because I’m just not very good at it and because I am impatient and because I just have not died, lived, died, repeated enough, I lose the game.
My Rift Walkers make the leap back in time. I get to make my choice about who gets to make the jump to another timeline to try again in these, the last days of humanity. I get to choose who becomes the beacon of hope for some other people, in a different world, and I make the hard choice between Ralph, a max-level combatant who I have drug through multiple timelines, and Amelia, this fresh face who is still making her way up the ladder.
Amelia comes with me, of course. She’s good at the game, and she’d developing great skills. Ralph gets left. Humanity gets wiped out, or at least the survivors are so spread out and harried by the Vek that it they might as well be. There’s a guilt that comes with it, and it’s a guilt that Into The Breach pushes heavily. You’re not starting over. You’re jumping over into a new realm of probability.
So Amelia gets to become a beacon of hope, but for a people who have yet to die. Into The Breach is a game about failing entire planets of people, one by one, until you luck out and save a few. The time-looping films all find some way to solve this or make us feel better, but not this game. We’re just meant to bear it and soldier on into the future, taking the people and objects that benefit us while leaving the rest of it to rot.
Other characters, each as potentially funny and interesting as Amelia, are left to dust and ash. And unlike most other roguelikes, where the worlds are deleted as if they never happened, I have a hard time getting these abandoned timelines out of my head.
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