The Currency of Time: Video Game Design

Time is the most valuable resource a player entrusts to a video game. It is a blank cheque handed over to the game; some games use it judiciously, others, irresponsibly.

This is reflected in world design and narrative at a macro level. But choices at the micro level can often be revealing in how a game perceives itself and its players.

Conventional literary and cinematic wisdom tells us that every scene, every line should move the story forward in some way; it should establish a setting or character, build an atmosphere, or advance the plot. Without necessarily committing to this tenet, it’s interesting to explore how it can be extrapolated to video games.

Video games have a unique component of interactivity — typically referred to as ‘gameplay’. This suggests a trivial extension to the tenet — every moment in a video game should move the narrative (establish a setting or character, build an atmosphere, advance the plot) or engage the player with [interesting] gameplay.

While defining any pithy principle is fraught with the perils of over-generalization, such an idea can be a useful lens with which to examine video game design. Note the delineation of ‘interesting’ in the principle, which is to say we’re not sure yet whether gameplay has to always be interesting.

Having established the principle thus, let’s look at a particularly egregious ‘violation’ of it.

Weapon upgrade animations in The Last of Us Part II (Source for all images: Screenshots from the games)

When you upgrade a weapon in The Last of Us Part II, you’re made to watch a laborious animation of the upgrade process. These are detailed, shiny animations which clearly required a fair bit of work from Naughty Dog. But they do not move the story forward nor provide gameplay to engage the player. What is their purpose? Are they intended to be educational? Unlikely — closely following the demonstration is more likely to amuse than instruct.

This is a very good example of how micro details of time management in a game can have disproportionate impact — The Last of Us Part II takes around 25 hours to play through, and all the weapon animations together last around 15 minutes. And yet, while the game felt ‘too long’ to me, it was the weapon animations that actively angered me due to their utter pointlessness. While the story was lengthy and had its issues, it had purpose. The animations are indicative of a studio being wasteful with the time of both its players and its developers.

A closely related ‘micro’ example is how Red Dead Redemption 2 and Ghost of Tsushima deal with the minutiae of interacting with the world. Every action in Red Dead Redemption 2 costs you time. Looting a dead body means you need to watch Arthur squat and search the corpse’s pockets. Fast travel is laughably complicated which means traveling to places is time consuming. Arthur can’t run in camp, so getting from one side to another in the camp becomes painful.

These decisions are not necessarily criticisms as far as our principle goes; they were made with a (misguided, I’d argue) intent to slow the player down and have them take stock of the breathtaking world — in other words, to create a certain atmosphere steeped in realism. Ghost of Tsushima takes a different stance entirely by allowing Jin to loot bodies off the back of a galloping horse, and making fast travel possible in under ten seconds. Despite its many compelling qualities, I find myself hesitant to return to Red Dead Redemption 2’s world because the Pleasure-Per-Minuteᵀᴹ score is a little low for my preferred playing style.

Dying in Ghost of Tsushima results in a prolonged sequence where the Mongol walks over and stabs your body — the currency of time is used as a way to ‘punish’ the player, thus disincentivizing death intelligently without making the player replay large sections of the game leading up to that fight (something which the now-ubiquitous checkpoint system has driven extinct in most games that aren’t Soulsborne).

Another key theme that is unique to time management in video games as a medium is control. Since the medium is inherently interactive, how much do you allow players to dictate the gaming experience? While Ghost of Tsushima has been frugal with the player’s time, as of writing this, it frustratingly does not allow you to skip cutscenes, or even click through trivial dialogue with NPCs, unlike most sensible modern games. It’s hard to imagine that this is a particularly difficult feature to implement, which begs the question of where such a decision would arise from. The answer lies in control.

Studios present a diversity of thought on how much they want the player to experience the ‘director’s cut’ versus the ‘player’s cut’. Spiderman allows you to skip the lab puzzles in the game, rightfully recognizing that players might simply not be interested in them (here’s where the notion of ‘interesting’ gameplay comes into the picture). There’s a powerful, controversial idea here that the gamer knows best how to invest their time.

The notion of interesting gameplay allows us to segue into the final aspect of time management in video games — loading screens. Loading screens are likely to go extinct with next-gen technology, but while they’re still around, they also provide insight into time-related decision-making.

By default, loading screens are seams in the game — they wouldn’t exist if the game had its way. Most games paper over this seam by displaying ‘artwork’ or ‘tips’. The latter isn’t a bad strategy; it uses the time for exposition. But what if you could keep the player engaged with gameplay — even uninteresting gameplay?

God of War loading screens are hidden by having Kratos walk an otherworldly ‘path’ until the portal to the destination materializes. More sophisticated loading screens exist, but even this lean mechanic in God of War appears preferable to passively staring at a screen. The point is that gameplay doesn’t have to be interesting or engaging all the time — sometimes, simply allowing the player to play, rather than watch like a bystander can make the difference between a frustrating experience and an immersive one.

An essay on how video games deal with time cannot be complete without a brief mention of how the Persona games deal with it. These games hand the currency of time back to you, but caution you to spend it wisely, for it is scarce and fleeting.

In closing, how video game studios regard time is often revealed through seemingly insignificant decisions that can disproportionately affect a player’s experience with a game. Time should be thought of as a currency, perhaps one of the most important ones in video game design.

The diversity of design philosophies demonstrates that there is no single answer — do you allow the player to take control of where they spend their time? Do you extravagantly spend the player’s time to build a ‘realistic’ experience, or do you choose to be frugal instead? Do you hide the downtime (seams) in the game with exposition, or with gameplay?

While I don’t have the answers, I know that if I go the rest of my life without watching another self-indulgent weapon upgrade animation, I will be none the lesser for it.