Playing in time

December 14, 2009

There are games that exist outside of time, games that know the shape of a block of time and can be dropped through it like a cookie cutter, and games that only run once, through ‘real’ time, and can never be repeated. All of these relationships with time interest me although you wouldn’t know it from Enemy of Chaos, a game that doesn’t really care for time but is all about the endings. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about, and something that keeps coming up. We had Russell Davies on the podcast that I make with Roo Reynolds recently. He was talking about how Snakes and Ladders is actually a weighted game – not a random one as you might assume – and that there could easily be different versions with different tunings of difficulty. You could buy a version tailored to longer lasting, more pessimistic gameplay. Or you could go for a shorter, easily winnable, ladder-heavy one.

Snakes and Ladders is a game that seems to have nothing to do with time, but its difficulty impacts directly on the time it takes. Moreover, it’s a game about a journey, and – as we know for GCSE science: Time= Distance/Speed. Board games like this, involving a series of iterations, boxes and events that sort of stand in for time, rarely explicitly prescribe themselves a cookie-cutter block of realtime…but there must be a rough time period corresponding to their difficulty.

I wrote something in an email yesterday about how Atmosfear is the ultimate example of the realtime game. I really think Atmosfear is something special. It’s a sort of weirdly affirming horror game, themed on the confrontation of one’s worst nightmares (or whatever you’ve actually written on your card at the beginning of the game). You’ll remember the board, although it’s jazzed up a bit since I played it. But the basic premise seems to be the same today: you play a very simple board game simultaneously with the 60-minute long DVD (or video, as it was in my day) that comes with the game. The film is mainly just an expensive and inconvenient clock, and indeed would be amusing to use it as such, but pays for itself through occasional ‘random’ and surprisingly startling interruptions from a hooded spectre known only as ‘The Gatekeeper’. And that’s where it all goes a bit D&D, as the underemployed actor throws new instructions into the game, committing players (often addressed by their relative age, if I recall – “the youngest player” etc) to doom or saving them at the last minute. I wouldn’t recommend watching the DVD on its own – the sneering face decays over the period of 60 minutes, and it’s a lot like watching someone have a stroke in slow motion.

But Atmosfear is a brilliant game because it uses time, addresses the players as though they are real individuals (“come closer… come closer… DON’T YOU EVER COME THAT CLOSE TO ME AGAIN!”) and has a degree of repeat playability because it’s so carefully written. The randomness is in the dice-rolling, but the Gatekeeper’s ultimate inertness and the slightly clunky “the tape is stopped when someone is declared the winner” stuff breaks the illusion somewhat.

It is not a game you could play every day without starting to anticipate the Gatekeeper’s maggoty interventions. And this is the weakness of video and DVD as media; they run the same each time. But we can do that now, can’t we? We can make games with Gatekeepers who really are random and empowered, who can’t be switched off, who really do know our weaknesses. We can make boards that are booby trapped in ways we could never anticipate. Forget all this stuff with DVDs and videos and shackling the genuinely interactive to the pseudo-interactive visual: that’s no nine-ties, baby. We have internets now. So – what’s the new Atmosfear for the new decade?

I want to play a game.
My game.
By my rules.

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2 Responses to “Playing in time”


  1. How about this: A Small Town Anywhere

    It has a (roughly) 2-hour runtime which is governed by a timeline provided by an external narrator, though in this case it’s live not recorded.

    Coney (the company that made it) is doing other experiments into providing coherent narrative structure while still allowing the audience to have some agency. I think it’s all quite interesting. I might have introduced you to Annette Mees who is one of the people there.

    Lyn Gardner’s interpretation

    Someone’s blog post about it


  2. […] its attempts to follow formula. I think the real time thing is very interesting (also what I like about Atmosfear) and I enjoy looking out for the unique challenges the format poses the writers. I like the […]


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