2004 was a stellar year for first-person shooters, with cutting-edge games such as Far Cry, Doom 3, and Half-Life 2. Now in 2005, we're turning our eyes toward a new generation of games, including TimeShift, which was first revealed earlier this year. In addition to having beautiful graphics, the intriguing feature of TimeShift is that your character will have the ability to control the flow of time. Clad in a special time suit, you can freeze time, make time flow in reverse, and slow down time. Of course, this will have all sorts of applications in and out of combat. For more details, we caught up with Saber Interactive CEO Matthew Karch, the developer of TimeShift.
GameSpot: Tell us about where the idea for TimeShift came from. Why make a game where you can slow, pause, and rewind time? And why was the decision made to design the time powers the way they are--such as how rewinding time won't affect the players' character (that is, how it won't prevent injuries from enemy fire or relocate your character back to where you were previously to save yourself from falling, for instance)?
Matthew Karch: When we first sat down to design a new game, we knew we wanted to keep it in the first-person shooter genre. As a young team without the established reputation of some of the other FPS studios, we knew we had to come up with something that would distinguish our game from the highly anticipated shooters that were on the release schedule. We felt that great visuals, a unique art style, and a unique story weren't really going to be enough to set us apart. We brainstormed on different types of gameplay mechanics that would work well with gunplay. In a pretty short period of time we came up with time shifting.
One of our primary inspirations came from a game in a totally different genre. When I was a college student, my roommate and I were totally addicted to Madden Football. We would often sit down at 6 pm on a Friday or Saturday before going out and would end up staying home all night battling it out on the virtual gridiron. The most fun we had was using the instant-replay feature. There was nothing better than using slow motion, pause, and rewind to torture each other after a cool play. While the instant-replay feature wasn't a "time control" feature per se, the mechanic of controlling the flow of time even in a replay setting was a lot of fun. We thought that it would make a great mechanic in an action setting and would open up some pretty unique gameplay possibilities. When we started to experiment with the time-shift mechanic early on in our prototyping phase, we discovered that it was not only fun to just play around with the time-shift powers, but that they could really impact gameplay to create a pretty unique experience in the FPS genre.
Our decision to isolate the player from the effects of time control was based on our desire to let the player effectively take advantage of situations in the game that required time manipulation. We have always viewed the time-shifting abilities as superpower-like ability. If the player were affected by applying his own powers, the mechanic would not be nearly as compelling. For example, if the player needs to cross a bridge that is detonated before he has a chance to reach it, he can use reversal to rebuild the bridge and get across it or use time suspend to freeze the pieces in midair and hop across them. If the player's motion were reversed or paused when applying either of those powers, then he would never be able to cross that bridge. Most of the in-game challenges that require time shifting just wouldn't work if the player were affected by his own powers.
A logical consequence of isolating the player from the effects of the time power is that the player cannot take advantage of the power to reverse damage done to him before applying the power. If the player has taken damage but is immune from the effects of reversing time, he shouldn't logically be able to undo the damage.
GS: We understand that the team intends to make the game's challenges very open-ended so that players can solve them in multiple ways. Tell us more about how the time-based powers can be used not only to slow time to dodge bullets, but also to solve specific puzzles.
MK: The challenges that the player will face in the course of the game will generally have multiple solutions. We wanted to give the player the opportunity to think creatively about the time-shifting powers and to apply them in unique (and sometimes unforeseen) ways. Having said that, there will be certain areas of the game that require the player to apply a particular power at a particular time or face certain doom. These areas occur later in the game when the player has likely mastered the time-shifting mechanic. They also occur only when the player is certain to have the requisite energy to complete the challenge.
The time powers will have applications outside of bullet dodging. We have designed opponents, weapons, and in-game obstacles that all require use of the time-shifting abilities. The player can use the time-shifting abilities, for example, to defy gravity. By jumping on falling objects and reversing them, the player can "fly" on them to the point from which they began to fall. He can also use time suspend to make otherwise fragile or unstable objects solid. For example, a wooden walkway that would certainly collapse were the player to walk on it during normal time flow freezes in time and becomes a solid object during time suspend. Even time slow has uses other than projectile avoidance. The player can use the power to slow down rapidly moving objects that he needs to pass by or through. Like I mentioned above, we have also designed opponents and weapons that work well with the time-shifting mechanic. The idea was to make the mechanic a tightly integrated element and not an add-on or gimmick. I think we have really achieved that objective with TimeShift.
Time Is on My Side
GS: Tell us about the game's futuristic setting and story. We know that you play as a character who wears a special "time proof" suit, but who is your character and who is his mysterious enemy, who seems to own several heavily guarded compounds?
MK: The game's hero is a former military man who has somehow been thrust into an alternate history. The story's antagonist has used our hero as a pawn to make changes to the past that have rippled into an alternate reality dominated by the villain. The world that the player enters is strange and foreign. It is a world that Orwell or Jules Verne may have envisioned. It is dominated by a despotic regime that has its roots in the very changes that the player has unwittingly made. Our hero must now find a way to travel back in time and prevent the time-altering event from ever occurring.
GS: The last time we saw the game, the exact details on the players' use of the time-shifting abilities were still being determined. How is the use of the players' time-related powers governed? Will there be a meter onscreen that gradually fills, or will it be item-based? How is the team making sure that players will have enough time-shifting power to not only solve every puzzle they encounter, but also have some powers left over to experiment, while not giving players so much leeway that they play the entire game in slow motion?
MK: The key for us in designing the recharge system for the time powers was to find a way to ensure that the player had the powers whenever he needed them without making them available all the time. We wanted to avoid an item-based energy system, as it really doesn't make much sense in light of the game's story and feels like a forced solution. For recharge we have chosen a very simple system: The time powers recharge automatically over time. If the player incurs damage during recharge, the process will reset. The energy meter is indicated on the HUD and informs the player when there is enough power to utilize a specific power. The rate of discharge will vary depending upon the power selected. Furthermore, each power will require differing levels of energy to utilize. As all powers run off of the same energy source, the player will have to carefully select which time power is the proper one for a given situation. Most of the game's challenges have been designed to allow the player ample time to recharge his powers. In those situations where the player has no power available and needs it immediately, there will be alternate solutions that the player can rely upon. There will be plenty of power available for the player to just play around with the time-shift abilities, but the nature of the recharge system prevents it from being used as a dominant strategy.
GS: Tell us about how the single-player game will be structured. Will the game be a linear run through a series of specific levels? Will players have any opportunities to use the game's time-manipulation abilities to revisit and undo the events in previous levels or to skip other areas entirely?
MK: The game is designed in a linear fashion with some key exceptions. The first exception is that within each level there will be different ways to progress, to defeat opponents, and to solve the level challenges. The second exception is that the player will revisit the same locations in the game but in different time periods. In other words, the player will indeed be able to revisit locations from previous levels, but those locations will look entirely different, as they will be set in different eras.
GS: The weapons that were revealed to us included conventional stuff like assault rifles, pistols, and sniper rifles. How are these conventional weapons going to play into players' strategies in using time manipulation? Are there any other weapons (conventional or futuristic sci-fi) that will also make good use of rewinding, slowing, or pausing, like explosive weapons or bombs that deal additional damage in slow motion?
MK: In addition to the weapons that you have already seen, which are pretty straightforward, we have included a host of more fantasy/sci-fi weapons that have pretty unique mechanics. Certain weapons have been created specifically to interact with time manipulation. Opponents in the game hold the same weapons that the player does, so it is often necessary for the player to use a time-shift power to minimize or counter the impact of a given weapon. I can't reveal more right now, but we have done some very cool things with our weapons that work really well with the time-control mechanic.
GS: The last time we saw the game, the multiplayer details were kept under wraps. What can you tell us about multiplayer at this point? How, if at all, will the time manipulation come into play in multiplayer?
MK: We are currently experimenting with ways to employ the time powers in a multiplayer setting. I will only say at this point that we will have some time-shifting mechanics in a multiplayer setting. The powers work totally different online, and we want to make sure that they are as compelling as they can be for multiplayer. We are nailing this down as we speak, so I should have some more info soon. I don't want to say any more until we have made a definitive decision on how we are going to approach this issue.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about TimeShift?
MK: The game is really shaping up to be a lot of fun. The combination of time manipulation and shooting is a pretty unique one, and we are really working hard to create something that is fresh yet familiar to action gamers. I am very excited about our progress and look forward to sharing more info with you over the coming months. Thanks for the insightful questions. I really enjoyed speaking with you.
GS: Thank you, Matthew.