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Wot I Think: TIMEframe


There will one day be a game that brilliantly applies the time-loop concept. It’s not TIMEframe [official site], but that’s okay. This is a very pleasant, very brief little pocket of experiences that very nearly works very well. Here's wot I think:

You are tasked with exploring the last ten seconds of a civilisation. Fortunately you’re doing this in slow-motion, so it lasts ten minutes of your time in each loop. Starting from a central spire, you can walk off in any direction across a faux-polygonal landscape, attempting to stumble upon relics and ruins of this people, piecing together their story from excerpts of texts. As you do, a meteor eventually appears in the sky, gradually growing larger and larger, until it crashes into the remains of the city and everything goes white.

Then you find yourself back at the spire, and can head off somewhere new. As you progress, the game remembers each of ten locations you’ve discovered, shown when you press the space bar, giving you a notion of incentive. But nothing, not even the ten seconds = ten minutes, is explained here. (They say that in the game’s blurb.) So I shall not explain anything else, either.

An earlier build of TIMEframe was entered into the IGF Awards in 2014, having been created for Ludum Dare 27, which was far looser, with even less direction, and where it fell short was its ruins not being interesting to discover. That’s no longer the case in this completely revamped version. Not only is the whole game completely beautiful, but the buildings, structures and statues within all possess an archaeological or artistic merit of their own, and thus are rewarding to find. The way the game uses its viewing distance to hide them is subtle, never feeling like artificial fog or a lack of a draw-distance.

On Steam the developers, Tyler and Spencer Owen, also suggest that it offers a “Unique polygonal art style reminiscent of early 3D Playstation and N64 games with modern graphical flourishes layered throughout.” That’s... not really true. The polygonal effect, while lovely, is seemingly faked. That’s rather given away when you spot the triangular shapes on the mountains and sky in the distance slide over the objects. I’m pretty sure it’s all a texture, but heck, it’s a lovely one.

What’s slightly less lovely is the discovery of invisible barriers. Which makes no sense at all given how smartly it’s all put together, and how needless they are. In one direction you’re limited by an enormous wall, about which you can learn, and it makes good sense. In the other, huge mountains rise around you after acres of sprawling hills, and they’d do the job nicely. So it’s mystifying why it doesn’t just let you run up until the slopes get too steep, rather than a circular (and thus enormously confusing) giant invisible forcefield. This would be a very minor niggle in most cases, but in a game that’s literally just about walking around the limited landscape it offers you, it’s a pretty egregious design choice.

The other rather stark issue is the climactic meteor crash. Or entire lack thereof. With the encroaching fiery rock the repeating centrepiece of the game, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s no moment of impact, no explosion of the landscape into its constituent triangles. Instead, before it’s quite got to the ground, the view fades to white. It’s quite a big shame.

My last major complaint is just how desperately this is a game crying out for a jump button. Movement is particularly poor, just a sort of glide no matter the surface (other than steps), with nothing tactile. So a gliding, graceful jump would have made it so much more interesting to travel the five minute stretches from one side of the game to the other.

There are perhaps other questions to ask, like why would the city be devoid of people, and in quite such a barren state, before the meteor struck. It seems as if two ideas never quite met in the middle: exploring an abandoned civilisation, and experiencing the last ten seconds of a world. But it’s not worth giving any further thought, since this is a vignette, an hour-long experience, more poetry than lore.

Poetry is a word that kept coming to mind as I was playing. There’s a sombre pace to it, a melancholic atmosphere (as you might expect), and an ambient calmness to it all. It’s beautiful, and thanks to a splendid soundtrack, it sounds beautiful too. Tiny details like colourful sparkles over patches of ground, or the striking splash of red from a vast tree, stand out from its sand-blasted muted yellows and greens.

After its brief hour, with a definitive conclusion, it’s something of a shame to realise it’s not in any way procedurally generated. Start over, as it will offer, and everything’s in the same place it was last time, giving you no incentive for another wander. But while it lasts it’s an extremely pleasant time. It certainly falls short of all it could have been, but as a moment in your day, I think it’s worth the entry price. It certainly bodes very well for Random Seed Games' forthcoming larger project Lacuna Passage.

TIMEframe is out on Steam now, for £4.75, or via the developer's Humble for $7.99.

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