The above is a YouTube video showing all the ways in which Reika Kirishima, the lead character of Time Gal, can die during her adventure. This set of sequences came from the Sega CD version, although Taito‘s quirky 1985 title started out as an arcade game and went on to be converted to several platforms over the years.
Considered as a gimmick, on account of the Full Motion Video (FMVs) craze that invaded the adventure genre during the late ’80′s and throughout a good portion of the ’90′s, Time Gal was an heir to Dragon’s Lair. Its initial appeal was clearly the FMV quality – just like today, you didn’t need to develop a particularly good game, just something your audience had not yet seen and they were definitely in that camp – since the “game” element was nothing more than a long trial and error process with little input on behalf of the player. Yet, while I was never a fan of this subgenre – for all the mad pixel-hunting skillz you needed for point’n'click adventures, they always felt more substantial in their storytelling and play mechanics – I’ve come to look at it fondly over the years. Here’s why.
Arcades games were always economic in design – play sessions were quick affairs, inviting not only by virtue of the structural simplicity of game rules but also the interface. The first generation of home consoles went on to replicate this to great effect, quickly dethroning those quarter-munchers. In this context, Time Gal was perhaps a surprise – it aspired to be accessible and reach a broader gaming audience years before we blamed Miyamoto for converting housewives and elderly into the gaming fold with the Wii. It combined an unprecedented level of visual quality but also play mechanisms that everyone could immediately understand, the split-second nature of arcade games replaced with a more forgiving method of timed input. Virtually everyone could play them.
This distillation of mechanics was curious. Whereas ye old text adventures juggled with verbs and nouns and graphic adventures replaced most textual components with visual signs, in Time Gal you play by pressing a single button, highlighted on the screen, in order to advance. Pressing the right button will play a pre-recorded video sequence where Reika escapes some threat and succeeds; pressing the wrong button will play a pre-recorded video sequence where Reika fails. Time Gal and Dragon’s Lair haven’t reached classical status for a number of reasons, but their gameplay was probably the first recognizable instance of what would later become Quick Time Events, now ubiquitous in modern gaming from God of War to the more recent Prototype.
Gamer culture, with its derisive tone and ironic discourse, would probably not appreciate being reminded that they denounce Time Gal’s one-button, limited response as old-fashioned but salute the same play mechanics in titles such as Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol, here previewed at this year’s E3:
Your decisions, while never attempting to orientate you on a moral spectrum, have both short and long-term consequences. At the beginning of the level there’s a conversation with a Germanic mercenary woman called Z. The conversation options are time-limited, forcing you to pick your approach in just a couple of seconds. Talk aggressively to her and she’ll take a shine to you. Demonstrate a lack of balls and you’ll lose favour.
I won’t make any jokes about a past decade making a phone call asking for their design back. And Obsidian’s spy’em up certainly follows a more varied template of choice and consequence. But this behavior rooted in our culture seems to enforce a legacy of decontextualized value. The same gameplay structure is seen with disdain and enthusiasm, the only difference being the decade in which it is being used.
Further into Time Gal’s analysis, some have argued that watching Reika fail is more interesting than watching her win because of the humorous sequences, just as it happened with the many deaths of Dirk the Daring as he tries to save Princess Daphne. While true, exploring these “fail states” reveals something far more striking – these adventures gave as much attention to success as they did to failure. If you have reached their endings without having seen all of the “fail states”, you haven’t seen the entire game. Looking beyond the cutesy art direction you’ll find these games are mostly centered on death, failure, tragedy.
It’s a design philosophy that seems to be disappearing from our gaming landscape. 2008′s Prince of Persia, for instance, saw Elika saving the Prince from any kind of meaningful failure. And can you imagine a Final Fantasy game that, after 60 hours of dungeon crawling, cinematic sequences and long dialogues, informed you that you only uncovered 10% of all the possible ramifications in the story? That you’d have to undergo the same motions and fail at every major point to discover new alternate stories? Look back to games like Chrono Trigger and Planescape: Torment and how they interpret the power of failure. In Square-Enix’s time-travelling opus, you could finish the game and start a new one to discover how the wrong choices could bring to life alternative timelines as imaginative as the main one. And in what is possibly Black Isle’s finest hour, the Nameless One found himself in situations where failure – in his case, temporary death – would actually allow him to progress.
Though Time Gal never left its game-as-movie-as-game territory and only presented success and failure as absolutes, it shows what can happen when a developer aims to show detailed consequences to player actions. By focusing on its limitations, the design was made stronger.
You can certainly find games where failure is accounted for but it’s mostly a footnote, a text blurb, a lower score on leaderboards or missing an achievement – which you can probably try again to get, anyway. There’s a bit of irony in how death and failure are slowly being exorcised but still maintain a certain presence in narrative terms – Kratos’ story begins after the tragedy that befell him and his family but any release from torment that his death would provide is but a temporary nuisance, the Looney Tunes cycle of death and rebirth kicking in. We cannot decide upon failure during the game, but are forced through a story where failure (or death, or tragedy) has already occurred.
Another reason I’ve found myself thinking about Time Gal also has to do its gaming DNA. It’s hard to peg down, if only because there are several reference points where it might have started from. Punishing text adventures come to mind if you’re an old gamer; that notion of interactive entertainment Bradbury mentioned in Fahrenheit 415 – a TV show where a person in the audience would influence its progress based on a timed decision – if you’re a pretentious git like me.
However, I can’t think of a better comparison than the Fighting Fantasy series of books. Kick-started during 1982, a year before Dragon’s Lair, they also had a similar way of streamlining play mechanics in order to emphasize storytelling. They broke down much of the rules in Pen and Paper role-playing games and focused on the essentials to define a character – attributes like Skill, Stamina and Luck, which featured in most books – and dice to simulate luck – 2d6, or in non-geek lingo, a pair of six sided dice. I suspect the captivating titles and strange world contained in those pages captured the hearts and minds of many youngsters back in the day; my collection is rather thin but I managed to play most of them at the time, and still find them occasionally in rundown book stores or flea markets.
Fighting Fantasy and Time Gal have a similar structure in narrative and gameplay. They each have a story with specific turning points where the player is asked to decide on a course of action except where the game shows Reika’s curves, the books uses text and static – but often good – artwork. Every once in a while an event required that you made a choice. Do you want to join the Thieves’ Guild? Jump to paragraph 53. Maybe you want to avoid the guards? Go to paragraph 239. Maybe you should try your luck and venture into the slums? Paragraph 178 was your destination. Then off you went searching for the correct paragraph, flicking back and forth through the book’s pages, anxious to see what would happen next.
Of course, Time Gal is more punishing since there is only one correct way to progress. Meanwhile, Fighting Fantasy often created labyrinthine series of events as you investigated damp crypts, treacherous swamps and bustling cities but still made it manageable to a point. Several books used permadeath, yes, but there were cases where the player’s journey was reset after an untimely demise, placing him back at the start of the adventure. This design was a good idea – let players discover the success and fail states, let them explore these windows of opportunity and if they so choose (whether through restarting or an inbuilt system that married narrative and play mechanics as described above), give them a chance to do it all again armed with foreknowledge. Textual respawn.
And can anyone deny the hidden pleasure of sneak peeking at those places you never travelled to? What would happen if your choices were different? You placed a marker on the exact moment you were about to confront the Lizard King, and decide to check out what would have happened if you brought the Magical Crystal with you. Only to think to yourself “That’s great, I need to come back some other time with that crystal!” Suddenly, the idea of a videogame that does this – allow you to place a “marker” on a specific event and explore its ramifications, albeit in a limited fashion so as not to spoil things, then return to where you were – sounds very appealing. Why aren’t videogames doing this?
Time Gal did. In a way. While you had a limited number of chances to fail until a traditional Game Over screen reared its head, you could tap the narrative vein for possibilities, travel the least travelled path. Granted – the fiction only ever splinters into a dead end. But it’s one spurred by our imagination, leading to alternative ways in which the story might have ended, a Marvel “What If?” in condensed, videogame form. Not all fiction needs a happy ending, not all endings are satisfactory, and not all satisfaction is derived from success. Time Gal proves all this effortlessly.
At this point you may be wondering why I am focusing on Taito’s game when, for all intents and purposes, it’s based off the same principles as Dragon’s Lair. This leads me to the final aspect of Time Gal that I enjoy – characterization. Dragon’s Lair was firmly rooted in two opposite camps. On one hand, you had the Disney visuals and fairytale quest, an innocent love story dressed in an epic quest against evil, safe for everyone in the family. On the other, Dirk embodied the adolescent power fantasy of the hero on a quest to save the woman in distress. The princess was a hypersexualized reward, a simple validation for the masculine identity. It shouldn’t come as a surprised that Daphne was modeled after women in Playboy magazine when the animation studio could not afford to hire models.
By contrast, Reika is not the typical titillating female lead. In fact, she’s rather standard in appearance and personality, her only saving grace for anime fans being her likeness to Lum Invader. We can argue that Reika is a victim of male desire – her clothes are arbitrarily placed in order to reveal or accentuate feminine forms, and she is curvaceous enough. The key difference lies in the approach to her sexuality. Consider Lara Croft. Constantly on-screen, buttons at your fingertips ready to display her from various camera angles. She’s perpetually subjected to the male gaze – there’s no escaping the idea that your control over the lead character of the Tomb Raider series requires as much skill in coded videogame language as it does vouyerism. She is there for the male player – jumping, running, acrobatics, all serve to create male intimacy, her body the target of constant scrutiny.
Reika is surprisingly the opposite. She is never under your control: her movements are pre-recorded and you can only watch as she advances through several timelines in search for Luda, the main antagonist of the game. While Lara is a puppet at your disposal, Reika is always out of reach, never letting players “control” her. The only sense of player agency you have comes from previously mentioned moments where the story comes to a halt, waiting for your input – otherwise you’re basically left to watch as the female character operates in her own terms. Further distancing herself from traditional female representations, remember that Reika can “die” in several ways. If you watched the video at the top of this page, you’ll note they all lead to Reika morphing into a chibi version, taking on the comical role of the Coyote that gets blown, shot, stabbed or crushed as if Chuck Jones had suddenly walked onto the set of an anime studio.
It has been said this move was meant to reduce memory usage, replacing the detailed Reika with the simpler, childlike version to cut on a detailed frame by frame exposition of her demise. A handful of these “fail states” show her jacket or shorts being ripped by enemies but when this happens, she adopts the childish appearance and is always in a position to prevent her clothes from revealing anything. Perhaps indirectly, Taito managed to present a character that works against nearly all aspects of what we’ve come to see in female leads – she’s not hypersexualized, is defiant of our control and does not conform to our voyeurism. It’s become rather common place to write dialogue for female characters that somehow attempts to mark them as independent, strong-willed women but the result is often cheap and juvenile. With a simple series of interface restrictions, Reika comes close to that Holy Grail of female characterization. Not through words or dialogues, but through the relationship built between character and player.
Yet, Time Gal and other specimens of this subgenre are scoffed at today, dismissed at large by gamers. In some cases there are good reasons to do so – I’m looking at you, Night Trap – but even the worst underdogs might have good lessons to teach. While I’m in no position to claim what Taito were aiming for, the end result seems to be just as much a commercial imperative – trying to capitalize on the success of Dragon’s Lair – as it does an example of a studio trying to make a unique game experience that does not conform to conventional game creation methods. Its lessons are those of economy of design, strength of focus and accessibility – something that I’m still waiting to see in many contemporary games.