TimeWatch Preview

In my review of Looper, I opined that the core problem with Time Travel narratives was “that there is a kind of fundamental loss of human agency inherent in the premise unless you allow paradoxes”. The ability for events to work out differently than they did the last time around is a key concept, and justified in a number of different ways in different fictions that allow it. Some, like Doctor Who, and To Say Nothing of the Dog try to have their cake and eat it by allowing some changes, but forbidding others as “fixed points”. As I’ve commented before, the slickest evasion of paradox that I’ve seen is in Deja Vu, Tony Scott’s best film. The clumsiest is the likes of Timescape [1992], where mysterious semi-magical “time engineers” clean up the paradoxical problems after the film has finished. A lot of Time Travel stories simply travel far enough forward or back that any changes can be absorbed by corrections over a long period.

All of which has been brought back to the front of my mind by the current kick-starter for TimeWatch. I decided it was worth a few shekels to kick in and get the “Jurassic Edition” and see how they’d decided to deal with the issues surrounding protagonism and paradox. Obviously, my comments here relate to a product that is in-production, so we need to talk in the very broadest of strokes. The analogy that Kevin Kulp has chosen to explain his version of Time Travel is the old reliable River Of Time ™. I’ve most recently encountered this metaphor in The Anubis Gate, which despite its promises, was a fixed-history version of time travel. The metaphor of a river is a quite handy one, because it allows a fairly overt level of interference without allowing any real problems. It takes a really major event to substantially alter the course of history, because diverting a river is pretty hard. In effect, this is similar to the fixed-point approach mentioned above. There are certain large events which cannot be allowed to change because history hinged on them. We can also think of some of these as a “reset” – such as the extinction event for the Dinosaurs. Hardly any amount of activity before then can affect the future in a substantial way.

So, the big picture is pretty forgiving, but TimeWatch also encourages lots of mini-jumps. The idea is that if you have a personal time machine, why wouldn’t you pop back 5 minutes to make sure you caught your train? Or whatever. The touchstone called out in the text is the battle concluding Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure [1989] where both sides conclude that they will eventually win, and so describe an amazing sequence of tricks to prove it. More recently, the same kind of future-tense activity was show-cased in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows [2011], where both Holmes and Moriarty can predict the future. Each plays out the fight in their head, and when Holmes concurs with Moriarty’s version, he cheats to win. This places the possibility of paradox front-and-centre, because it is all-too-easy to imagine a situation where short-duration travel can obviate the need for the travel in the first place. The text handles this by placing the burden on the mind of the time traveller. This is akin to the old buddhist philosophical question: if a tree falls in the wood, and there’s nobody to hear it, does it make a sound? In this case, the question is reframed as: if a paradox occurs in space/time and nobody knows, is it a paradox? This encourages a certain free-wheeling ignorance of detailed events, leaving room for explanations that don’t trigger paradox.

Since both the big picture metaphor and the small-scale operations of Time Travel are fairly forgiving, it seems likely that a game can operate in a high-functioning pulp mode quite easily. To assist this, TimeWatch also has “stitches”, which reward fun play with easier time travel. The whole design is thus oriented around cool actiony fun, rather than plodding clue collection. That was one of the objectives of GUMSHOE, I seem to recall.

Which brings me around to the question of what you do in this game. In general Time Travel narratives, there are three main preoccupations. Stories like Quantum Leap, Source Code and Timescape are focused around correcting the mistakes of the past. Dr Samuel Beckett travels through time improving the lives of the people he finds. Second is time travel tourism. My favourite story in this mould is probably The Technicolour Time Machine [1967] by Harry Harrison, where a film studio decides that it’s cheaper to travel back in time to film their historical epics than to build the sets and hire real actors; the Shadow Out of Time is also a strong contender. But, I’d hazard that the largest subset of Time Travel narratives effectively revolve around undoing the disturbances caused by Time Travel in the first place, and that’s the basic pitch for TimeWatch.

I can see why this kind of time travel story is appealing for a roleplaying game derived from procedural storytelling. The problem with all such procedural storytelling is that it’s a kind of null story. I post all the time about the conservative ideology inherent in Golden Age detection, where the point of the story is a kind of restoration. We could equally talk about how almost all Quest Fantasy is anti-progress, seeking a restoration or at least exaltation of the past. The procedural story is one where your best hope for an outcome is that nothing has really changed, and that’s why it’s such an excellent template for episodic TV. It’s much easier to imagine some problem with the current status quo that can be fixed than it is to imagine extrapolation of change into a better future. Even Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has this basic null story in its DNA. It’s genius comes from relocating the perspective on the story from the established present where Wyld Stallyns has reformed society into the past at the point where the disruption occurs. Of course, recognising this limitation in procedural storytelling hasn’t stopped me from running more of them than I care to contemplate, because there is a great deal of enjoyment available from exploring the possibilities of a well-formed story structure.

Where TimeWatch will exceed expectations on this basic procedural level is in the breadth of its imagination. If I had written this game, you can bet my agency would be in the same vein as offerings like Time Trax or TimeCop – people from a single point in time or space arbitrating reality. TimeWatch instead moves the locus of its operations outside of time itself, allowing characters from every era of history, possibly including some that may never actually have existed. This automatically gives them access to the kind of relocation of perspective that means any story is set in the present day. This is, broadly, the way that mid-era Doctor Who? operates. In some ways, it brings to mind the “Temporal Cold War” from Star Trek: Enterprise.

Like most games, I’ll need a couple of Actual Play experiences to see whether it really holds together. At first read-through of an unfinished manuscript draft of the game, I think there are some really interesting options presented and the basic framework looks usable. I think I’m more excited by some of the campaign expansion options than the basic premise, but I think that the basic game is one I’d quite enjoy playing too. So far, I feel like this was a very worthwhile investment of a couple of pounds and some time.

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