Time travel stories can have pretty high stakes, because usually you only travel in time when you really need to change something. A killer robot is trying to kill a lady because of something her son will eventually do, that kind of thing. My favourite episodes of Doctor Who, by contrast, were always the ones where the Doctor met a miserable dog-alien thousands of years in the future, and the dog alien is like "Not only is the planet about to blow, but my marriage is in trouble," and then the episode was mostly about the latter issue rather than the former. This is all by way of introduction to Eternal Threads, a puzzle game where you go back in time to stop everyone in a house share dying in a fire.
To save a present that has been rendered apocalyptic by time travel itself, you are part of a team who go back and change tiny things in the past to fix it, in this case 2015. While it is imperative for some reason that the fire does indeed happen, it is just as important that all six occupants live. You can alter small decisions they make in the week running up to the fire, and so save their lives by choosing whether they go to the pub, if they comfort each other in times of need, or what they have arguments about. The beat of a butterfly's wing, indeed.
Let's list our dramatis personae, so it's easier for you to keep track:
- Tom - a chill landlord who definitely doesn't have a secret room in the basement
- Ben - a junior doctor who has applied to join an MSF-like medical organisation but hasn't told his girlfriend
- Jenny - a university student, loyal pal, and Ben's girlfriend who has inconveniently started feeling nauseous in the mornings but isn't thinking about that right now
- Raquel - Jenny's best friend, a voracious bisexual stereotype/cool party girl who always knows what to do, and likewise university student
- Neil - a young man who likes video games and has anger issues, and likewise university student
- Linda - a housewife who has left her husband and son for a bit to figure out if she wants to stay in her marriage; Neil's older sister
You turn up at their house in the middle of the night, a few hours after the fire has been put out and the bodies removed. Rather than constantly travelling back and forth along the timeline of the week, you use some special technology and some light emitting drones to project key events, each a few seconds to a couple of minutes long. You watch the ghostly holograms play things out, and can, with the press of a button on your special hand-held time-meddling machine, change their decisions. This then opens up other optional scenes to gather more information, or even re-route the timeline to another key difference that will save someone's life. Each scene could be the small domino that makes larger and larger ones topple.
For example: there's a house party on the Friday night before the fire, and you can change Linda from not drinking to properly getting on one. If she gets drunk, she might then come on to Tom, and if they sleep together she'll wake up late for her son's visit the next day. But she will also ruin Neil chatting up the girl he likes by loudly giving advice about condoms. Both of these events could affect later decisions, but also the option to shag Tom only exists in the first place if Tom decided not to text his weird ex a couple of days before - or, if he did text her, if he asked Ben to help him stay away from her, rather than angrily insisting he should make his own mistakes.
This is all tracked on a huge timeline, which is just a mass of anonymous question marks at the beginning. By rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in, you can start to parse it, and it has some of the same satisfaction of untangling a hose or finding a really good jacket in TK Maxx. Eternal Threads does have a robust and well-thought out set of controls for using the timeline - you can flick between days, follow one particular line of cause and effect, or filter it to find certain combinations of people. But the thing is fundamentally too large and complex for it to ever not be a bit of a ballache to navigate. At one point I had four people alive and flicked one decision on the second day of the week, and suddenly everyone was dead - even if I flicked the original decision back. I nearly cried.
These moments reinforce that you're alone, when the rest of the time you trick yourself that you're in a house with people you know. The story and form of the game put a lot of weight on the shoulders of the scripting and voice actors, and I'd say the voice actors in particular really hold it up. Tom is shy and sweet, Linda is quiet, observant and funny, Neil is a pitch-perfect brittle young man, Ben and Jenny are a very believable couple with established in-jokes, and Raquel is bubbly and charismatic.
The quality of the writing is a little more variable, not when the characters are being characters, but when they're being advice machines. There are times where you're given the choice between a person saying nothing or giving some absolutley bang on life advice. It's always the right thing to say, and at these moments everyone in Eternal Threads sounds like one person, and that person is an experienced and broad-minded 65-year-old agony aunt. Given the backstory of some of these people, particularly Raquel, you'd think they'd have more of a fucked up perspective on things. It just becomes a bit monotonous when they're always so collected and reasonable.
The extra challenge is getting the best possible ending. It's quite easy to find ways to save all of them, for example, but those first wins are usually by making those same people unhappy, which can feel a bit dissatisfying after spending so long fiddling with their respective fates. If we stick with Linda, for example, then the easiest way to save her life is if she decides to go back to her husband. You can save Tom and Ben in a stroke if you precipitate an argument between Tom and Jenny about their lives and future. My most succesful attempt so far still ends with Tom and Jenny living together in misery for a few years before breaking up. If you want people to end up happy then you have to really work at it, and it's here that you'll probably hit a wall.
Once you've figured out the broad parts of how to save people, it becomes harder and harder to get the details you would like right. I spent an exorbitant amount of time trying to get Tom and Jenny to have an argument about the right thing on the right day, to no avail. It is extremely likely you'll reach a point that you go, "Fuck it, just let 'em burn!", probably more than once, at which point you should turn the game off and leave it for a day or so. This isn't a game that you should pick at for hours. It's one to put back up the shelf for a bit, until you can take it down and look at the problem with fresh eyes. You have all the time you need. Sort of.