Time, Space and Pressure

Time, for the most part, is just there. Even before someone has a sense of space and location, they know that time is a thing that goes on, right now. It comes and goes always and everywhere, taking extreme conditions in quantum worlds not into account.

Although we all live on in the same time, some of us feel betrayed by it (boredom) others feel bossed around (pressure). I video games, since the former renders fun dead, I prefer the latter. The Arcades, grandparents of video games, made heavy use of time limits. It was partly the guarantee that with time more and more coins were pushed into their bellies. That concept was kept alive mostly as a level countdown, later even in the shape of day and night cycles. But a few games manage to get more out of it.

An often mentioned criticism towards the experimental Bowser’s Fury is, that the inevitable cyclic surfacing of Metal Bowser disrupts the flow and stresses you out. When rain begins to fall and the music is foreshadowing mischief, the world turns into a kind of dark mirror version shortly after. Here, Bowser is on a rampage, stomps and spits furiously. It does not last long but it is enough to put me under pressure twice: First just before it starts, because time is running out and I want to grab that Insigne while being unbothered—and second during the rampage because the platforming just got harder, priorities are shifting and blessed are those who have saved some emergency items beforehand.

And I love both of it. Because I like the playful pressure. It means something.

Game design with an entertaining concept around time is very much not an easy task. Many games give us control about time: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Max Payne, Super Hot and each next best racer with a rewind gimmick. But actually, time is not an asset here. It is nothing I need to learn to deal with. In fact the time manipulation here is just an effective bending of the room. There is no spoon after all.

The attempt to virtualise the personal processing of time is doomed to fail because we perceive time differently than the room in which we are. Our senses are pretty much okay with being lied when it comes to places. I project my mind without effort and with much joy into an enchanted forest. Of course, that change of space also effects my perception of time. I do have hundreds of hours and sleepless nights as proof. But my past, present and future still belong to me. I do not forget my latest messed up leap just because I reset the figure on the screen. I am not feeling time going more slowly just because I can see bullets moving past me. In fact, the opposite is true: My inner feeling for time becomes the point of reference for everything that is happening on screen. I observe, think and decide in my own time, which is also the premise for me being even aware, that bullet time is currently activated at all. And how could it be any different? Games are heterotopias, worlds within worlds, defined by and in constant interaction with what is outside of it.

I feel deep joy when being thrown into the orchestrated stress loop of Bowser’s Fury, like I did in games before like Majora’s Mask, Pikmin or The Outer Wilds, because that loop uses something that is not even in the game: My own time. It divides my real-time minutes into segments and asks me to manage them cleverly. It is like an additional meta gameplay loop. I begin to plan, to train, become more elegant and more strategic through repetition until I feel like I could tell the future. Me, a true master of time. Not true in my every day life, but at least true in gaming.

Bowser’s Fury is not necessarily the best example when it comes to time as a gameplay element. But I like to have more of it. The more experimental the better. The Longing for example shows that the pressure concept can also be flipped on its head. Here, you can finish the game only after 400 real time days. They fortunately pass without actively playing, similar to my trains in the online version of Transport Tycoon still running and making profit over night. A fool, who would not let time work in their favour here.

Bowser’s Fury seems to be some sort of child of Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario Odyssey and got published 2021, bundled with 3D World, for the Nintendo Switch. A little longer than a demo but not big enough for a full price game it points to a possible direction of future Mario titles with its semi open world and interesting mechanics and for that got received very well by critics.

This post is also available in: German