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Storyboard: A matter of times

Eliot Lefebvre

How often do you actually think about time in-game? I'm not talking about how long you spend in the game or how much time you have to play or anything like that -- I'm talking about the actual passing hours when you're playing the game. My guess is not frequently, if ever. Most people just use real-world time as a shorthand if they even consider time, and that's all that needs to be said. Time isn't interesting. At best, historical dates are interesting, and even that's only in the event that the game gives you some sort of context. Who cares, right?

But whether or not you find time interesting, it's important. Time has a bigger impact on the game world than you might think, and it's one of those facets that you can't un-see once you look at it. It's as problematic an issue as character death, and in some ways even more so, because there's no comfortable way to skate around how screwy time is in the game. And the proof lies entirely in a simple question: What did you do today?

I come in to work about ten minutes late and I leave about ten minutes early.  I use the flight path so I don't have to run into my boss.Now, odds are pretty good that you've got a solid and easy answer to that question. Depending on the time that you read this, the answer most likely consists of some variation on getting up, going to work, having lunch, going home, and so forth. Not a complicated question. But now answer it for your character.

Yes, your character. The one who has presumably been sitting motionless wherever you logged him or her off. What did that day look like?

In games where the day/night cycle explicitly follows Earth's cycle, this is kind of problematic. Obviously, your Paladin was doing something for the past chunk of time -- he must have slept at some point, eaten, washed, and... what? He had to have been doing something for several hours of the day. Even if you give him some sort of desk job to occupy most of his day, there are times when he's being logged off far from anything remotely resembling a desk. Wouldn't it be odd to explain where he is without addressing that fact?

Other games, of course, use an entirely in-game day/night cycle. But that brings with it different problems. What are the perceptions of time in a world where a day consists of three Earth hours? A single game session for you might last an entire in-game day, with no time spent to sleep or rest or even use the bathroom. So does your character push herself to the limits of endurance with a marathon session of killing things and taking their stuff and then take several days to recuperate?

How long does it take you to get from one place to another in the game? A half-hour run in real time is not that much travel, the sort of thing that basically prohibits any real isolation. On the other hand, a half-hour run in a game world with a three-hour day is a significant portion of the day. How does trade function between two cities if that's the case? And if the former is the case, how could any single point be isolated? If there's some means of rapid transit between two points, shouldn't that really obviate any serious travel difficulties between regions?

For that matter, how is your character keeping track of time in the first place? If you're a student of history, you know that keeping track of time was kind of a big deal when ancient cultures figured out how to do it. These days, we've got about seven different clocks staring us in the face at any minute, but how does your character have any idea? (And it does matter? Keeping track of time effectively was a big part of what led to reliable global navigation, for reasons that are fascinating but require more detail than I can really get away with right here. This is a column about roleplaying in MMOs, not the history of the Age of Exploration.)

Hey, you'd be a little cranky if you woke up in front of a gigantic scintillating maw while surrounded by formless white porcelain every day for ten years.All of this can easily seem like it's nitpicking about areas that don't really matter, places where you really need to just accept certain breaks from reality as a function of playing a video game. But roleplaying means that where there's a break from reality, you need to at least acknowledge it, even if you don't quite have a solution or explanation ready to go. Even if it's just an illusion of verisimilitude, it's important to keep that illusion running.

So what's to be done with the problem of time? I don't think there's a hard and fast rule to use, but in my experience, aligning with the real-world clock within a given roleplaying group is the easiest way of making sure that everyone knows what's going on and when. There are game such as the online Final Fantasy installments that have a detailed in-game clock, but asking your fellow gamers to start thinking in terms of an entirely new calendar isn't exactly fair.

As for the other supplementary issues, the best you can do is be aware of them and come up with explanations as they're necessary or relevant. Eventually you might have to explain why this "remote outpost" is within a two-minute flight from a city and why you can't just provide said remote outpost with everything they need, but if it's not important, leave it to one side. And there are certainly explanations, as indicated by the fact that there are still remote areas in settings with insanely fast travel such as Star Trek Online. Maybe the inhabitants prefer being isolated, maybe your travel options aren't universally shared, maybe there is a complex set of trade pressures that keeps the outpost from getting all the supplies you can carry.

But think about it. You want these answers right before they become relevant, not after. Otherwise, you're going to run out of time.

I say every week that you can leave comments in the comment field or mail them to, and of course this week is no different, as I just did it once again. Next week, I'm going to take a break from more abstract stuff and discuss some problem characters -- specifically, my own problem characters and what wound up happening to each of them.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.

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