Retro: Where Time Stood Still

By Kieron Gillen on November 17th, 2008 at 10:11 pm.

I wonder what the Asian market makes of her, etc, etc.

When people ask me about emotions and games, I always think of my early-teenage experiences with the Denton Design’s Where Time Stood Still. It was the first time a game had provoked one. And if you’ve just glanced at the cover above, it’s not the emotion you think I’m talking about.

Games and emotions are tricky ones. There’s some people who claim to have never experienced one. Even something as basal as fear, a primal flare which games do a pretty damn good job of stimulating, some deny ever having had. I suspect I had a dose of the shivers before Where Time Stood Still went to work on me – though, I couldn’t place anything specific. Which makes me think that it’s such a core experience, it’s always been there. I could pull out the extremes – first time I was scared witless was in Eye of the Beholder II when a set of trapdoors snapping shut automatically scared me witless by tricking me that an enormous monster was stomping around – but in the same way of excitement or fury, it was something that was always there. It’s what I game for. It’s what I expected.

Where Time Stood Still stands out because it provoked an emotion I wasn’t.

You may not be aware of WTSS or Dentons. They were best known for their also-isometric The Great Escape, a prison-set game based around… well, you work it out. While highly acclaimed – and its structure based around the world running on a series of cycles and you looking on trying to find the gaps has turned up over the years – I never really gave it a fair shot. Constructed on the same engine, and one of the few 128K (count ‘em!) only spectrum games, my Sinclair +2 needed WTSS to justify its existence.

Box art may not represent actual game, etc.

Where Time Stood Still is a Lost World game, with you controlling a group of four plane-crash survivors. The immediate striking thing was how each had their own personality. Jarret the generally capable pilot, the newly weds of Dirk and Gloria, plus her agreeably chubby and totally useless father father Clive. You played Jarret with the rest following you around until you died, at which point you passed onto another survivor. And death? That happened a lot. You died from Cannibals hunting you. You died from fatty dad falling through the too-narrow bridge. You died from pterodactyls picking you up and sending your body plunging to terra firma. You died from hands grabbing you out of holes in walls, T-rex, Ankylosaurs, standing still in the swamp, panicking and running into the deep bits of the swamp, having the tentacle grab you in the swamp and… well, let’s not talk about the swamp. Bad memories. You even died from starvation and thirst if you hadn’t enough food – and, yes, Clive complains more than everyone else any time he’s hungry.

Now, that gives you an idea of the amount of characterisation which was present. Which is neat enough. And then there’s hyped stuff like Dirk becoming a nervous wreck when Gloria dies, and so being much less useful. Which is also fairly neat, and alongside the single-level sprawling mysterious world (filling those aforementioned glorious 128K) made it a profoundly atmospheric game. But all that was hyped, and while it’s why I loved it, it’s not the cause of the emotion. It was something entirely unexpected.

If Ubisoft had ULTROGUTS, they'd have done it like Where Time Stood Still. Frankly.

I was playing through and was doing relatively well. I’d only lost Clive – and as the RPS motto 342 says, who cares about Tubby! – and our little threesome was making its way over the first mountain range.

Then it happened. The Pterodactyl sweeps in and grabs Dirk, soaring off to the North West.

Gloria and I chase after the reptilian caws. I mean, I know he won’t survive the fall – no one does – but we need to be practical. Everyone has four inventory slots, and in WTSS’ proto-Survival-Horror way, we needed the equipment he was carrying. Eventually we find the body at the edge of the swamps.

I approach, flicking through his pockets. It’s been a long time, but I think it was just some food and Clive’s pocketwatch, which was used for befriending natives later. The grisly task finished, I turned and headed away, trying to remember which of the paths lead through the swamp and which lead to dead-ends and tentacle-death when I realised something was missing.

Where’s Gloria?

I turn back and find her standing motionless over Dirk’s corpse.

I inch closer until I’m by her side. I move away.

She doesn’t follow.

I don’t know what to do. Eventually, I head back and try again. And this time, at last she turns and follows me on our inevitably doomed mission, leaving her dead spouse behind her.

I wonder what the Asian market make of Gloria? Perhaps she can be redesigned with large pixels.

Now, as an adult, I’m aware it could just be the ghost in the machine. Its pathfinding was never great at the best of times, and it could have just got a little confused. But that doesn’t matter – that pang that ran through me, that minor-key recognition of unexpected humanity in a sprite’s behaviour is the sort of thing which helped cement my belief in the potential of games. Yes, as I’ve argued at length, gaming’s visceral pleasures are worthy of respect in and of themselves. But how I felt right then made me realise that, against everything which my culture told me, that’s not all they could do.

And with everything from mass-market successes like Bioshock to underground cult text adventures like Galatea, it’s a lesson that’s be restated many times since. And any time one of them strikes, and a game takes me somewhere unexpected, I find myself thinking back to looking at a woman standing over the body of a man; back to a moment when time stood still.

Where Time Stood Still is available on various Abandonware sites. I suspect you’ll need DOSBox to get it working.

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50 Comments »

  1. Sum0 says:

    As games get ever-more real, I think this sort of thing will sadly disappear. It comes with the primitiveness, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense – with olden gaming, you have to fill in the gaps.
    Seeing as I’ve been raised on your hip young 3D phong-shaded shooters, the only experience I’ve really had of this is retro stuff like Dwarf Fortress, where the dwarves show scarily humanlike dwarflike behaviour. Things where you’re never sure if it’s a feature, a bug, or if you’re just reading too much into it.

  2. hydra9 says:

    The account of the pterodactyl attack and chase reminded me of (current obsession) L4D.

    But the woman standing over the dead body… wow… This sounds awesome, and I will be downloading it. I remember trying out ‘The Great Escape’ back in the day and thinking it was cool, but never really getting to grips with it. Now I’ll give this a fair shake. Oh, CGA, it’s been so long.

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    I thought of L4D when writing it actually.

    KG

  4. Pags says:

    Sounds like this game was proto-Lost, only it’s actually good.

  5. John Walker says:

    I hate RPS motto 342 : (

  6. Fat Zombie says:

    As do I. It’s incorrect.

    You’d better care.

  7. Johann Tor says:

    Where Time Stood Still and emotion? I was so frustrated when this came out and I couldn’t find a copy for my CPC!! I suppose I’ll have to try this now.

  8. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    That’s one thing that I’ve found to be rather overlooked in L4D. The facial animations and the voice acting is pretty incredible. When Zoe’s on her last life and she’s saying something like ‘Guys… I don’t think… I’m gonna.. make it..’ and you see her eyebrows raise and her hair fall limply over her face, you can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy.

  9. nabeel says:

    Great piece. I’ve often felt chills in a game at a moment where everything just suddenly clicks, and I’m completely won over, or I realise something new from a completely unexpected source.

    nabeel

  10. mrfredman says:

    I remember the first time I game ever scared me, I was far younger than you. I was in third grade, so I must have been 8 or 9 and I was at a friends house playing Star Wars: Dark Forces, which I believe was the first Star Wars FPS. I don’t remember anything about the game except for one level that found you trudging around in this level full of quicksand or swamps or something…

    Anyways there were these swamp creatures with tentacles and glowing red eyes that would jump up right in front of you and attack you.

    We had the sound up loud and were both playing the game for the first time. We started this level and when we first got attacked by a swamp creatures we were so surprised we both screamed and my friend who was playing fell over backwards in his chair.

    The only type of fear I have ever excperienced in a game is really just surprised. Its easy for a game to startle the player, but to get them to experience other types of fear is something that hasn’t really been accomplished yet/

  11. hydra9 says:

    The first time I played L4D, I was actually a bit shocked/creeped out by Zoey’s regular expression – There’s a certain pain in there, a sadness… It’s almost ‘uncanny valley’ territory.

    But back on topic (EMOTIONS IN SPECTRUM GAMES): I remember the first ‘emotional’ experience I had. This was 100% definitely pre-scripted and took place in 1988′s mad French classic, Captain Blood. At the start of that game (a kind of intergalactic detective story), you meet a young, friendly alien who tells you about his kidnapped father, begs you to find him, and also expresses a desire to be taken to another planet. If you want, you can beam him aboard your ship, cryonize him, then deposit him on any of the game’s 32,000 randomly-generated planets. The only trouble is… Your new alien friend will die. He won’t be able to breathe probably, and his dying words will be along the lines of “YOU – KILL – ME?! WHY? (CRY) (CRY) DAD? DAD? (CRY) WHERE – IS – DAD?” And then, that’s it. He’s gone. The communication interface closes, and if you return to the planet’s surface, he’s not there any more. He died, and you killed him. It was an honest mistake, but for me, at age 11 – Man, that was a heavy loss. I simply wasn’t expecting to experience shock, guilt, regret and loss from a cassette I’d loaded on my 48k ZX Spectrum.

  12. Duoae says:

    Great write-up Kieron. I hope you guys keep doing these things. There’s loads of great experiences and games that use younger people never played (and i’m approaching 30ish!) :)

  13. LEEDER KRENON says:

    for some reason i never played this, but loved the great escape, although it was bloody hard. it was great fun to finally escape. although you got plonked back in the hut as soon as you got out. true to life i guess. i expect if you played it for long enough the soviets would roll in and liberate you.

  14. hydra9 says:

    Mein gott, Leeder Krenon! I haven’t seen you since Rebelstar!

  15. Pod says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with motto 342. down with fatties!

    also: I didn’t get the Asian market jokes?
    alsoalso: I used to think Flight of the Amazon Queen was original… until now.

  16. hydra9 says:

    @Pod:
    This

  17. Schmung says:

    Sort of unrelated but not – one of the clearest memories I have of my long departed grandmother is when she came to stay one Chrimbo during my youth and her discovery that our Amstrad 6128 had a scrabble game on it. She spent more time playing that scrabble game than she did watching countdown and drinking sherry. I guess I associate the games/systems more with the people playing than the what happened in them – like the hours my sister and I spent playing Double Dragon and Sonic 2.
    Aside from fear or excitement I’m genuinely struggling to think of a time when a game has eked an emotion out of me, but that is perhaps to do with the late hour.

  18. Jonas says:

    @ mrfredman “The only type of fear I have ever excperienced in a game is really just surprised. Its easy for a game to startle the player, but to get them to experience other types of fear is something that hasn’t really been accomplished yet/”

    Speak for yourself please, I’ve been genuinely scared on several occasions. Not startled or even frightened but filled with deep, psychological fear. The Shalebridge Cradle mission in Thief 3 comes to mind. As does pretty much every underground mission in STALKER. Not to mention certain parts of Dark Messiah.

    Yep, quite easy to scare I am.

    As for other emotions, how I felt about Annah in Torment was obviously not actual love, but it was a pretty convincing approximation. And the ending of Max Payne 2… did not make me feel happy. Spoiler more or less avoided, I hope.

  19. Ben says:

    The first time I was scared by a game was playing Abe’s Oddysee (I was very young at the time), I was too scared to move over the next page for fear of a slig :P

    First time I was upset by a game was Episode 2′s ending. I MUST have REVENGE.

  20. Jeff A says:

    Who said games can’t elicit fear? I have owned 3/5 Silent Hill games, and have only finished number 4. It’s pure psychological torture to me. I even sold Silent Hill 2 because I could not bear to play another minute in those silent dark hallways.

  21. Valentin Galea says:

    I played Silent Hill 2 on the PC and it had sound problems but they were very random and rare.

    One time I played with this looping low sound for about an hour and thinking “boy these designers are sure quite mad – this sound is driving me insane!”. Then I realized it was the audio glitch:P

    — MAJOR SH2 SPOILER —
    Anyway best thing in that whole game for me was when James finishes watching the video tape and leans back in the chair and the music kicks in.

    That was pure magic to me!

  22. Quater says:

    Speaking of Silent Hill, the first one was one of the first serious encounters with fear I ever had in gaming. When it came out I watched my mate play through the first ten minutes – easily the scariest ten minutes in any game, ever – and it put me right off the whole game. Just couldn’t handle it at all. Never did get around to playing any Silent Hill games until a couple of years ago, went back and played the original first. Those opening ten minutes didn’t scare me any more but there’s a genius bit in the schoolhouse involving a locker, and one room right near the very end of the game iirc, where you were in one of the hospital’s cells in the basement and there was a completely empty, silent room where you’d think, “well what’s the point of this?”… and then CRUNCH, kind of horrible glass-smashing noise comes out of nowhere. At first you think maybe it’s a surprise attack, but no… nothing. Just the noise. Freaked me out every single time I went in the room.

  23. Roy says:

    @ Mrfredman.

    I hear you on Dark Forces terror – I wasn’t allowed to play Doom, so my mum bought me Dark Forces, and that sewer level shit me up to no end.

    Another game in which I absolutely could not handle the psychological terror was Marathon: Infinity on Macintosh. I swear it had everything – Labyrinthine corridors, underpowered weapons, and an Aliens-esque motion tracker (the inclusion of which can make anything terrifying – see Alien Vs. Predator). There was also no music, just ambient industrial noises from the space-station you were stuck on and the sounds of the creatures infesting it. The real kicker, however, was knowing that enemies were never triggered – they were simply out there, looking for you.

  24. Maerd says:

    First game that gave me made me feel emotional was final fantasy 7. Up in the Shinra building, where Sephiroth killed pretty much everything with blood everywhere. Walking around there a few times and you get what I mean. It wasn’t just the fear though. The story had setup an atmosphere that no single trapdoor or monster can rival. The whole game seemed so alive and real (probably because it was my first videogame that had story in it).

  25. Cibbuano says:

    That box cover reminds me of the bad-old-days, when CGI graphics meant that publishers would get hand painted box art. And kids like me would want to play the game solely based on the busty lady on the front.

    Thank Bog I’ve matured since then!
    *starts up Soul Calibur*

  26. Caiman says:

    The easiest way of playing Where Time Stood Still is to visit http://www.worldofspectrum.org then download a decent Spectrum emulator (eg. Spectaculator, ZX Spin) and finally check the archives for the .TAP file of Where Time Stood Still.

  27. hydra9 says:

    @Caiman:
    Good point. Then you can also save your progress if you want, unlike the PC version.

  28. Tei says:

    I never played this one. But I played “The Great Escape” that has similar gameplay, and I loved it.

  29. cullnean says:

    i have to agree with a couple of guys FF7 was well done and the parts of KOTOR that felt like justified rampages aswell

  30. megaman says:

    When “The Suffering” by Midway was made available for free, I couldn’t help but download it. It is a straight shooter, but it is so blatantly made to scare the hell out of you that I am repulsed to play it. The environment is creepy, the story is creepy, the sounds are creepy, the creatures/enemies are creepy .. but jeez, do I really have to put up with random scary images shown all over my screen for just a blink? This just pushes it over the edge, at least for me.

  31. The Hammer says:

    Myst made me cry as a kid, because of how lonely and isolated it was.

    As well as being shit, like.

  32. Richard Beer says:

    Thanks for that link, Jonas. I was going to mention the Thief Cradle Level as the first time I was genuinely, immersively scared in a game and that brought back some real memories.

    Has anything like it been created since?

  33. Kieron Gillen says:

    Worth examining Fort Frolic in Bioshock. It’s not the Cradle, but constructed from similar principles. Also, shares a designer, Jordan Thomas.

    KG

  34. Richard Beer says:

    Fort Frolic was good, no question, but I was heavily armed. The Cradle made you feel powerless and afraid of what you couldn’t see. Genius.

  35. Jonas says:

    Fort Frolic had the Basement to End All Basements though. That was a very unpleasant easter egg.

  36. LionsPhil says:

    Really? I didn’t find Fort Frolic particularly scary, or even that notable other than being an interesting decor over a fetch-the-keys level. I think Bioshock makes you too powerful to even really feel vulnerable. (To be honest, Bioshock has had a rather low density of moments which have burnt into memory, beyond the initial dive, and That Famous Reveal.)

    (Thief III is still in its cellophane, so no Cradle spoilers plz.)

  37. newt says:

    other than being an interesting decor over a fetch-the-keys level

    That’s the kind of thinking I’ve never really understood. Yeah, the template is fetch-the-keys but does the execution make it feel like you’re fetching keys? Sander’s masterpiece wasn’t made of keys. The point (or “theme”) of the area wasn’t to collect keys.

  38. LionsPhil says:

    I’m afraid it did feel like that, somewhat. Possibly because of the heavily-scripted repetition of it; go kill blokey, photo photo, trek back to statue, sit, beg, get reward, off we go again. I’m not saying it was boring, but it’s not about to challenge, say, Half-Life’s tentacle as a notable level, which was similar in structure (go poke things via a hub).

  39. Premium User Badge

    AndrewC says:

    Emotions come when you are reacting to the game world in a human way and I still think level design is a bit too clunky to deliberately create these emotional reactions. You can still see the ‘win’ conditions and so can’t help but play the mechanics rather than the narrative situation. For example deliberately choosing a dialogue option because it will land you a strength/evil perk or intelligence/good perk rather than because you genuinely want to help or hinder that character. You are emotionally distant. You are treating characters like means to ends.

    In fact, most games still demand you have that emotional distance as they would, if you felt you were genuinely ‘there’, be deeply depressing existential horror stories. The world is collapsed, I am trapped in this corridor, everything wants to kill me and all I can do is run forwards and murder – that’s just horrible. It’s a nightmare. It’s no wonder fear is the emotion games are best at.

    So real emotional moments happen, for me, with the accidental stuff, the fringe stuff, the stuff that is not locked into the mechanics. In Fallout 3 watching a trader bodybguard smoke a cigarette joylessly as she followed the shambolic cow into the sunset gave me a strong reaction as it tied in to the isolation and sense of sadness the world was giving me (and the sense of trudging work some of the mechanics were giving me). I was getting feedback from the game that matched how I was humanly reacting to the world. Hey presto emotion.

  40. phil says:

    Fort Frolic was harilous in parts, getting a big daddy to chase one of the target nitros around like Benny bloody Hill, made the basement bits slightly easier to bare. The Ice Room free for all, if you defront all the splicers at once and the showers of glitter the accompany Cohen’s first appearance were chucklesome.

    @Jonas – The real ending to Max Payne 2 will probably make you feel alot less not happy.

  41. spd from Russia says:

    Even bad games evoke emotions. Like anger and frustrattion.
    Sentiments ‘forced’ on you by the cheesy japanese games? plz they make me laugh

  42. sanxo says:

    The underground level with the poltergeists in STALKER is probably the most actually scary moments I can remember in a game; it was just the experience of impotence where normal stuff is levitating and throwing itself at your (without anything obvious to shoot at) and all you do is run away.

    All the other wierd stuff like mutated soldiers with gas masks melded on their faces you can rationalise as an slightly warped art department.

  43. Boltingturtle02 says:

    This reminds me of the Syndicate retrospective, which described exactly what I felt when I played the game. The scource engine is brilliant for emotions though. The simple power of facial expression is a tremendous thing, and when stuck in a game it covers many sins.

  44. bonuswavepilot says:

    I think ‘Another World’ on the Amiga was probably the earliest really affecting game I can recall. The whole atmosphere and story were brilliant, then that moment towards the end

    *SPOILERS*

    where you are plummeting to your death, and get caught by one of the aliens. There’s a brief pause for you to think you’ll be ok, then he smacks you against the wall and you spend the remainder of the game pushing yourself along on your belly, presumably with a broken back. Then into the lovely closing scene where your alien buddy loads you onto the back of the flying beastie (either unconscious or dead, depending on whether you consider the sequel to be canon) and you go winging off into the sunset, mournful music swelling all the while.

  45. Ergates says:

    I remeber WTSS. I remember it being bastard hard. REALLY bastard hard. Pretty much anything you do at any point and and will get you killed, usually without any warning. You’d be standing there and suddently a dinosaur would run on screen and eat you. Or a bloody Pterodactyl would pick you up and carry you off. Very much a case of trying to remember all the dangers and avoiding them.

    I never really got to grips with it.

    Great Escape on the otherhand – whist certainly not easy (I don’t think I ever actually escaped, but I got close a few times), was at least a bit more predictable (not in a bad way). You could usually anticipate when/if you were in danger. Also helped that getting caught didn’t mean certain death – just back to your room with a little lost morale.

    In fact that was one of the cool things about it. Every time you got caught, and every day that passed without you escaping, your morale dropped. When it got too low, it was game-over, except you didn’t die. Instead, you just control of your character and he’d just follow the other inmates around on the daily routine – he’d given up trying to escape).

  46. eyemessiah says:

    OMG SPOILERS ETC OFC

    I have had emotional responses to plenty of games (it feels absurd that that seems like such a candid confession!). I used to play Feud on Atari 800 (please raise your hand if you had one of these, I have never met anyone else who did!) and it scared the living shit out of me. Somehow having the position of your nemesis indicated by a compass arrow at all times made the fact that he was always closing in on you all the more foreboding.

    I’m also regularly scared of any FPS with underwater sequences. I have many HL1 saves where I’m just staring at the water and have thought, “Not tonight!”.

    The end of Alisa Dragoon on the megadrive was also pretty effective as the dragons you have been nurturing all the way through the game and who have saved your ass many times sacrifice themselves to save you from certain death.

    The sprouting sequence in Grim Fandango was pretty horrifying too, and not in the usual “gory” way.

    I found the end of Freespace II to be quite affecting as well. Its altogether more downbeat than I was expecting (partly given that I died, and that that was factored into the ending sequence).

    Also, Close Combat 5 (if that was the one where you could keep your units from mission to mission) was fairly harrowing for me as I watched squads that had been with me since the start of the game get ripped to shreds in the face of overwhelming odds.

    Also in COD4 when the sniper that is training you gets his legs borked by a crashing chopper and you have to carry him to the extraction point, that pretty involving, and of course the bit where you are crawling along on your radioactive broken legs in the nuclear wasteland, that was pretty desolate.

    Also the bits in HL1 where you have to leave Barney behind because he can’t cross the load points or some BS, imo that was a sad moment.

    Although I found the ending-proper of ME to be substantially broken, I was moved by the bit before that where you are thought to be dead and you companions look stunned and defeated and then you run sort of limping up over some rubble and smile just a little in a sort of satisfied way.

    Also, pretty much any multiplayer game (Tribes 2, TF & TF2 etc) where you have moments of camaraderie are often quite moving I think.

    Of course that includes L4D, which not only has camaraderie in spades but also some really powerful writing and voice acting. I love the way that on expert everyone starts of cocky and upbeat and by the end of the level everyone is hunched and limping and downtrodden looking and shakily saying “Guys, I’m pretty torn up.”. And lets not forget about the delivery & the dialogue when people are on the ground getting pounded to death by the tank – I always get a little distraught when I hear that, particularly because the way the game is designed you can almost never help them.

    And lets not forget the heady combination of breaking up with your girlfriend, taking drugs putting on your favourite albums and playing wistful Japanese dating sims.

    Magical.

  47. hydra9 says:

    @eyemessiah:
    Feud was a brilliant and genuinely scary game, and I’ve never played anything else quite like it. If anyone wants to play a great ZX Spectrum game that still stands the test of time (I personally don’t think there are many)… Check it out. I played it for the first time a couple of years ago, and loved it.

    Re: L4D. I only noticed last night that the delivery of certain lines changes depending on how well (or badly) you’re doing. You can make your character say a ‘hooray’ type of line, but if you just got pounded on by a Tank and lost two of your friends then they’ll say “We’re going to make it, aren’t we?” in a cracked and slightly lunatic kinda way.

  48. StooMonster says:

    I worked at Denton Designs, and did the loading screen for this game. :)

  49. The Shed says:

    Silent Hill’s always my first port of call when it comes to horror. I played SH3 a hecka lot, and while it was good in terms of gameplay, the story and level design is in no way as brilliantly inspired as SH2. SH2 is the ultimate horror game- I just eBay’d it the other week and am slowly slogging through it. Ironic how it has one of the most likeable characters in videogame history, yet the most bleak of settings.

    Condemned is a classic, if a flawed one, and while I like the second, it’s just not got the same class as the first, it’s been quite overcomplicated.

    On topic: Creatures 2 held some highly emotional moments for me. Mostly when I neglected my creature a bit and he started trying to commit suicide. =(

    I have emotional moments all the time in games, but I can’t remember any at this moment in time. May return with more … “material”.