Quick! What do The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, Life is Strange, Undertale, Prince of Persia, Braid, Jak 2: Renegade, Quantum Break Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 all have in common?
…ok, I guess the title of this post is a bit of a giveaway: Each of these games involve time travel either in their gameplay, storyline or both! Sometimes it’s our character traveling through different eras, sometimes we have the ability to reset the timeline. Either way, time-travel shows up surprisingly often in video games and I have a few theories as to why that is.
But first, we need to talk about Final Fantasy I. I’m sure everyone by now is familiar with the story of the original Final Fantasy: how it was intended to be Square’s swan song, how it was designed with no sequel in mind (thus paving the way for each Final Fantasy having a unique world/cast) and how it would define not just the series but the JRPG genre as a whole1. Whilst the gameplay of Final Fantasy was similar (albeit more complex) than other games at the time, the sheer size and scope of it’s storyline was unprecedented. This is one of the first video games that actually cared about narrative and, what a surprise, it also happens to involve time-travel!
At first, Final Fantasy’s story seems painfully generic: You play as four warriors of light who must rescue the princess from the evil knight. The most hackneyed storyline in gaming. But wait, that’s just the introduction!. By the end, you’re left with a perplexing tale about a knight who created a timeloop and attained pseudo-immortality. Many common Final Fantasy tropes, such as the ‘technologically advanced society who was destroyed X number of years ago’, started right here. But what stands out the most is that Final Fantasy I is a story where the villain is the time-traveler rather than the hero. Whilst the Warriors of Light do get to time-travel at the very end of the game, for the most part their job is to clean up the mess of the actual time-traveling antagonist.
Time Travel allows games to explore prior events and show characters change over time
Flashback sequences are a staple of literature for a reason: They allow us to take a look at prior events and see how the characters were shaped the way they are. While video games certainly can make use of flashback sequences in a cutscene, these lack the interactive component that make video game stories so unique. Instead, what a lot of video games will do is have a character tell a story of events that transpired before and allow you, the player, to experience this as a ‘playable flashback’. For example, as Cloud tells the rest of the party the dark history of Nibelheim, you get to play through his experience alongside Sephiroth. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Captain Price recounts his experiences as a sniper on an assassination mission in ‘All Gillied Up’, in what is easily the game’s best level (at least in terms of narrative).
While this approach of creating interactive flashback sequences is one I highly encourage, there’s another way to achieve the same effect: Give the player-character(s) the ability to time-travel. Even though Final Fantasy I barely even has characters, the biggest plot-twist in Final Fantasy shows one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon. As the Warriors of Light, we travel 2000 years into the past to confront Chaos, the evil mastermind responsible for sending fiends into the future. Shockingly, Chaos is revealed to be Garland, the knight who planned to Knock Us Down way back at the beginning of the game. With merely two dialog sequences and a bit of time traveling, Sakaguchi created a villain who actually developed over the course of the story, at a time when most video games stories consisted of “Go kill robo-Hitler”.
What’s more, this time-traveling does a good job of justifying the “prophecy” that foretold the Warriors of Light’s arrival. “You play as four warriors of light who were foretold by some prophecy to save the world” sounds contrived… until you meet the prophecy-teller himself and he reveals the existence of the timeloop. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched; the sage simply has awareness of the timeloop.
Time travel allows video games to depict change in the environment
Although it would be years before we coined the term “environmental storytelling”, plenty of video games in the 90s discovered the value of using setting to tell a story. Two, in particular, are still considered among the best video games ever conceived: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Chrono Trigger.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time features a 7 year timeskip where our character turns from child to adult and Ganondorf has wrecked the entire world, drastically altering the landscape. Bustling villages with cheery music are replaced with ransacked houses and howling wind. While some video game villains long for the day they rule the world, here we witness the impact of Ganondorf’s rule firsthand through the eyes of our time-traveling protagonist. Whilst Ocarina of Time’s plot is extremely basic, the way the storyline is experienced by the player is what makes it so renowned.
Of course, you would be hard pressed to find a better example of “time travel in a video game” than Chrono Trigger. This cousin of the Final Fantasy series uses time travel as a central game mechanic and major plot device, effectively allowing us to experience the world in five separate epochs from prehistory to post-apocalypse. Each ‘era’ is a unique environment with a unique conflict but each influence the other and by the end of the game, we have learned the entire history of the world by personally experiencing it ourselves.
Whist it was nowhere near as sophisticated, this technique is present in Final Fantasy I. When we begin our adventure, most of the story’s main events have already happened: Garland has already seized the princess, Tiamat has already destroyed the Lufenians and the Elven Prince has already been sleeping for years. Guided by a prophecy, we set out on a series of fetch quests taking us to a variety of environments where we can witness the aftermath and clean up the mess. It isn’t until much later on that we learn that these fiends were sent from the past by Chaos.
When the plot twist is finally revealed, our warriors of light head back 2000 years in time to the origin point and here we get to see the Chaos Shrine before it was decayed and became the first dungeon we explored, thus bookending the story.
It’s a perfect justification for player agency
Playable video game characters can be extremely difficult to justify in a storyline. They are typically drastically more powerful, drastically more tough and anytime they die they can just open up a save file and go back in time to try again. This puts a constant strain on our suspension of disbelief, especially if we’re playing as someone who’s not a god or superhero2.
Saving the game and resetting the game is especially difficult to justify in the narrative unless you decide that your character has the ability to control time. One of the best examples of this in a modern video game would be Undertale. In the story of Undertale, the creature with the highest level of Determination has the power to ‘save’ and ‘reset’ the timeline. When you begin the game, your player-character gains control of this power. Thus, the ability to save your progress is part of the storyline. This turns the simple act of “I’m going to reset the game to try out the bad ending” into an intense moral dilemma where one of the key characters literally begs you not to reset (warning: this link contains undertale spoilers).
Now, Final Fantasy I is a very old video game and I can’t say for sure that this was the developer’s intention, but I do have a theory that could justify our ability to reset the game after the game over screen: Every time the Warriors of Light are defeated, they are dead in that specific timeline. Each new attempt at beating the game represents a separate iteration through the timeloop.
Remember, Garland is the ‘main’ time-traveler in this story. If we look at the events from Garland’s perspective, anything that the warriors of light accomplish after defeating him (aside from defeating Chaos) doesn’t actually matter anymore because Garland has already gone back 2000 years, become Chaos and initiated a new timeline. Therefore, for example, on one of the timeloops’ iterations, the warriors died to the Lich. In another, they all died in the unforgiving ice cavern. In each iteration through the timeloop, the warriors of light die and the world is destroyed. However, Garland has already initiated the next timeloop thus rendering the current one (that the Warriors of Light are currently in) irrelevant. The timeline we play in doesn’t actually matter until the Warriors of Light successfully travel back 2000 years and defeat Chaos, thus breaking the timeloop once and for all.
Could it be that each attempted playthrough of Final Fantasy represents separate iteration of the timeloop? I guess you’d have to ask Sakaguchi himself if that’s what he was going for. Of course, this theory is contradicted if you lose the game before even getting to Garland in the first place and it only explains our ability to reset a new game, not reload a save file.
In the thirty years since it’s release, we’ve now seen tons of video games use time-travel to enhance their world, show character development and even go so far as to provide narrative justification for the player’s own behavior. Overall, I find it very fitting that Final Fantasy, one of the very first games that gave a damn about storytelling, featured a plot involving a time-traveling knight and was experienced from the perspective of 4 prophetic warriors would would eventually defeat him.
1: Ever wonder why JRPGs became known for text-heavy video games featuring long epic storylines with tons of dialog? (and why that distinction has disappeared in modern video games?) It’s because the Japanese language is character based. Writing with Japanese characters takes up far less space (per word) than writing using the arabic alphabet. This means you can fit way more text on a game cartridge and made a world of difference during the 80s and 90s. It also made the act of translating Japanese video an absolute nightmare.
2: Okami is a great example of a video game where you play as a goddess, thereby justifying your extraordinary powerful abilities.