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