Games shouldn’t be afraid to demand urgency from players

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Games shouldn't be afraid to demand urgency 1

It’s morning on a normal school day. I head to class and get put on the spot by the history teacher, who asks some obscure question about something I was just not listening to. I answer, and to my delight get the question right, feeling like I’ve learnt something today. Later I’m meant to meet a friend for lunch. Or perhaps go to that band practice I’ve been skipping out on. But it’s also raining so I know my favourite noodle place will have that limited special on too. And that’s ignoring the fact that I only have a few more days to rescue that person about to be murdered in the TV. So, really, what should I be doing?

That’s the sort of internal crisis I face while continuing to slog through Persona 4: Golden on my Vita. The PS2-era gem (which is soon getting a sequel in Persona 5 next month) is a newfound obsession of mine, primarily because of how it pressures me like few games have in the past. Time is fleeting, and Persona 4 not only emphasizes this through its gameplay, it hinges on this very idea to create a real sense of player agency within its world. An agency that comes with its own sorts of consequences.

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Persona as a series has a pretty rigid structure. Playing as the hero, you’ll undertake tasks throughout each day over a calendar year, with every one of them filling a specific purpose. You could choose to read a book to boost a stat, spend time with other characters to improve your relationship with them (which help you create more powerful Personas, the real offensive and defensive characteristic of the game’s combat), or grind out dungeons for loot, experience and gear. Each of these actions are crucial to your year long journey, but you as a player are forced to pick between them. Choosing one locks out the rest for the day, and briskly moves you onwards down the calendar.

Easy enough, right? If it weren’t for impending murders in the background, sure it would be, but Persona (and more specifically Persona 4) always reminds you that there’s a challenge around the corner. As victims are thrust into its dangerous alternative worlds, you as the player are tasked with balancing progression by completing your heroic duties. Fail to save the victim in time, and the game ends, throwing you back to a past save. Manage your time poorly, and you could find yourself in an inescapable position: too weak to progress, and too near the untimely demise of your friend to make any meaningful difference to the past couple of outcomes.

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It sounds frustrating on the surface. A game that punishes you for frugality in your actions, only to lock you in a position of futility. Except that’s exactly why a limited-time game like Persona is engrossing. Unlike so many other adventures, there’s a tangibility to the impending danger that you need to intervene in. Without the careful management of your time, the bad guy wins – just as you’d expect if a hero spent too much time eating steaks and not enough time honing their abilities to vanquish greater foes.

Being selective inhow you spend your time now becomes an inescapable part of the game, and by virtue imbues your decisions with a lot more weight. It’s also dangerously easy to fall into a pattern of complacency, where Persona makes you feel as though your daily routines will work for the rest of the adventure. Those patterns are often turned on their head in new dungeons, as different foes demand flexibility in your offensive options. Which, as you may have guessed, are only possible if you spent time accruing them in the days beforehand.

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Persona isn’t the only series to employ this sort of mechanic, although the various others strewn across gaming history don’t always pan out as well. Dead Rising and its sequel, for example, urges the player to keep moving forward with a continuous timer ticking down to a Game Over screen. While you’re frantically throwing weapons together and seeing how many zombies you can take down with your new toys, there’s a constant reminder of a bigger story at play.

This sense of urgency and purpose is what elevated the games above simple, silly action – a lesson that was desperately forgotten in the games’ immediate sequel. Without the constraint, Dead Rising 3 allowed players to engage with the sillier aspects of the game – crafting a multitude of weapons to hilariously take down never ending hordes of the undead. While the doubling down on crafting sure starts the game off on a good foot, the engagement quickly fades. The lack of urgency is certainly not the only fault of the sequel, but it’s a crucial part of why a lot of the game’s tension evaporated into thin air.

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Equally so, it would be short sighted to apply this ideal to every game in the question for player engaging tension. Games like the recently released Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feature their own sorts of narrative tension, with Link again pressed for time to stop Ganon from running things in Hyrule.

Except time is missing from that equation in execution. Link is free to roam the snowy mountain tops and bubbling volcanic landscapes of Hyrule with leisure, never encouraged to hurry his adventure along and bring peace to the land. Injecting that into the game would only serve to detract from its core strengths, which allow the player to wander its world without care. Happening upon hidden treasures and witnessing true scenes of emergent gameplay wouldn’t be possible with the stress of an ever-present timer, even if it detracts thematically from the narrative at play. Ganon is certainly there, waiting to strike, but players are never urged to finish up with what they’re doing and engage him.

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It’s a trade-off that’s made in most games, where players are certainly catered to in being able to play the game in the manner they choose. Escapism demands that sort of freedom, but it should never come at the expense of tension. Persona 4 might not be the most cathartic game to play at times, but it’s a game where a decision can have a truly tangible ripple effect on the next handful of hours of your game, at a core mechanical level. That sort of tension is rare in games now, and it takes a special type of balancing act to pull it off in a way that’s both challenging and rewarding for its players.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: March 22, 2017

Alessandro Barbosa

You can all call me Sandy until I figure out how to edit this thing, which is probably never. Sandy not good enough? Call me xXx_J0k3R_360degreeN0Sc0pe_xXx. Also, Geoff’s a bastard.

  • So you never played dead rising?

    I think there are exceptions to the rule but for me urgency in games can GTFO if the game revolves around it. ME2 is a great example. There is only an urgency when you trigger the Reaper IFF install. You can work around it. Then you get X-Com 2 doom clock that made you rush a game that rewards methodical gameplay on two different levels. That sole experience alone is what made X-Com 1 better. Fallout 2 is yet another great game that screwed with a timer where it shouldn’t have.

    Nope this idea can go to the same pile where QTEs are slowly heading towards. Junk and CoD games. 😛

    • Alessandro Barbosa

      “Dead Rising and its sequel, for example, urges the player to keep moving forward with a continuous timer ticking down to a Game Over screen.” 😛

      Dead Rising is a great example of this system working to the game’s favour. With it stripped out, the actual core gameplay struggles to retain any sense of fun when you’re not being forced to make decisions that are spurred on by time constraints.

      It’s not so much the “limited time” aspect, it’s more the situations that are born through the players natural need to succeed that create situations that others miss out on. Not all games get it right though

      • I actually hated dead rising because of that timer. I did not even bother to finish it. So far I have had very little luck with Doom clocks in games. I do understand urgency and it does work in small amounts. The Dehaka in PoP is a good example. but when you make the whole game constantly warning you that you are too slow it sucks the fun right out of it. Now Blizzard did it right with their take on urgency with the super rare achievements for finishing their games within a certain time period.

        • Admiral Chief

          Man, FFFFFFFFFF DAHAKA!

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      Fallout 1, you filthy casual!

  • Zoe Hawkins

    I agree that it’s a useful element, but only when it suits the game. Most games seem to be so focused on creating a massive world with tons to do that you would feel like you missed out on the experience if you didn’t get to do and see all the things. Imagine if Geralt actually had to rush to save Ciri in The Witcher? Then I’d never play Gwent! 😛 That said, I do wish that more games added consequences by making time matter… even if that does feel too much like life and OMG it’s already almost the end of March!

  • Umar

    The great thing about urgency is that it makes player actions meaningful. It has to be handled correctly in order for it to really have an impact. Persona is a great example of how it makes every action mean something. Darkest Dungeon is another great example as the more the light fades the more the dread starts to kick in, which really drives home the theme of the game. Then I look at Lightning Returns and I’m like….the hell are you putting a timer on a RPG. While I enjoyed it, it essentially forces the game into a intense and rigid structure that demanded you play a certain way to maximize the experience (even though I know it was handled in a roguelike-structure where you’re essentially learning through each playthrough, which wasn’t really fun when played that way).

    It’s an interesting concept, and one that games rarely explore these days. I would love to see another game that does something like Shadow of Memories where the presence of time plays directly into the gameplay, as the game itself is about time travel.

    • Zoe Hawkins

      That timer in Lightning Returns GAH! hated it. but if games do it well, it can be great.

      • Umar

        Dumbest crap ever and you know, beneath that timer, Lightning Returns is actually a really good game…such a shame

  • Admiral Chief

    This War of Mine

  • “You are going to make new memories with me, right?” excellent writing there…

  • Draco Lusus

    Played X-Com 2 this weekend, absolutely loved it. The timed missions were great. I was hesitant to play it, cause of all the negative feedback on the timed missions. A weekend of it, I was wondering what the hell they are on about. I normally don’t enjoy being too rushed. It worked perfectly in the whole scheme of the game.

  • Sageville

    I have noticed that timed things / urgency has been used less and less as a gaming a mechanic and that’s sad. If it’s done right it adds awesome, but if done wrong it can be ultimately too frustrating. Good games find that balance.

    Games like Don’t Starve come to mind…

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