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Eurogames, or German-style board games that emphasise strategy, are growing increasingly popular. Gaming cafés, or extensive game libraries that charge cover for several hours’ play and offer food as a convenience/sideline, now crop up regularly in urban centres. London is scheduled to get its third (The Ludoquist, in Croydon, joining Hackney’s Draughts and Richmond’s The Library Pot) later this autumn. As the Anglophone market expands, so too does the range of offerings. The board gaming community, which shares a big ol’ Venn diagram overlap with the SFF community, loves a recent release, and right now T.I.M.E. Stories is one of the hottest games going. It was nominated for a 2016 Spiel des Jahres (the Oscar of gaming, essentially) in the connoisseur/expert category. It combines the core replayability of a Eurogame with a series of stories in which you and between one and three friends are sent traveling through time to stop a disaster. You could re-experience these missions, but as T.I.M.E. Stories is a “puzzle” game; to an extent each story is single-use, somewhat like a pulp mystery novel. It may take you several “runs,” either consecutive or on different days, to complete a given story-mission. If you stop mid-run or mid-mission, T.I.M.E. Stories’ elegantly designed box, which has a place for everything, will allow you to “record” your stopping-point and all relevant details via a series of labeled recesses. T.I.M.E. Stories is also a legacy game, which means that your accomplishments follow you from session to session (to a degree).

So why are you reading about T.I.M.E. Stories at Strange Horizons rather than in a gaming blog? Because I decided to take at face value numerous claims that T.I.M.E. Stories provides a strong narrative-driven experience.

Most Eurogames have a theme or setting, and thus the “story” of the game is largely the record of actions taken, the interactions between players. T.I.M.E. Stories, many of its fans claim, adds engaging plotting to this mix. The whole mechanism of T.I.M.E. Stories is that you buy a base set for about £40 new, and then extensions (new stories) are about £20 new. I say “new” because Eurogames can be pricey, and a lot of trading and secondhand sales go on between aficionados—my family often doesn’t pay “sticker price” for a game.

You explore the game world via map locations. As the game proceeds you acquire clues and items, and additional locations are revealed to you. Sometimes you have to solve a puzzle to gain access to these locations. Most T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios end in a boss battle as you’re desperately running out of time—you’re on a tight schedule with these missions. There are card decks for characters, locations, and artifacts, a board to track progress and set out locations, dice to roll in the course of overcoming obstacles, tokens to illustrate the difficulty of an obstacle, tokens indicating “prerequisite” plot-points reached or skills gained, and tokens representing elements of characters’ inventory of items or abilities. The scenarios themselves will tell you how to read and use the components each time.

The means by which you travel and pick up information and the “collaborative, real-life video game” gimmick are indeed as neat as people say. Some advocates praise the game’s “information limitations”, i.e. the fact that you can only see what your character can see: the card immediately before you. You are allowed to communicate “telepathically,” i.e. tell people roughly what you see, but you’re not supposed to read out the cards verbatim. (Though in practice, I find playing the game while trying not to do this nigh impossible and incredibly irritating.) The game’s mechanics get more of a workout as you progress through missions. The T.I.M.E. Stories platform is fairly adaptable, and I’m interested in it for its own sake.

As T.I.M.E. Stories can accommodate three or four players,[1] proponents point out that a “mission’s” cost is less than that of a group trip to the movies, entertaining you for longer and in a more interactive fashion. So, how do these SFFnal stories fare as stories?

Ambivalently.

I’m not going to reveal puzzle spoilers or routes, but I am going to discuss the plots, so if that bothers you, I’d skip to the Conclusion.

Asylum

(CW: SEXUAL ASSAULT)

As a Doctor Who person, I was of course drawn like an idiot moth to the warm glow of the game’s overarching premise. You’re a member of the T.I.M.E Agency, which is not Doctor Who’s Celestial Intervention Agency or indeed Doctor Who’s Time Agency, because both are trademarked. The T.I.M.E. Agency just happens to do exactly the same job as the C.I.A. and the non-acronymic Time Agency: namely, fixing irregularities in the space-time continuum. “The story changes, the ending remains the same.” (Except it doesn’t, because that motto is also copyright-protected.)

The mechanism of the game’s time travel is rather novel. You’re dropped into host bodies in the destination-era, picking up their skills, relationships, and ability to look like you belong. You don’t get their knowledge, exactly, which can be annoying, but which also keeps the game light and moving. In general, T.I.M.E. Stories steers away from role-playing games’ reliance on long rule-books, planning, player immersion, and improvisational storytelling skill (though people who RP in World of Warcraft and the like could no doubt effectively do so here). That said, there is something weird and double-distancing about being, via the action of the game, dropped into a character who is then dropped into another character, and something creepy about the way the T.I.M.E. Agency uses (and thus you use) these host bodies, often treating them as disposable.

… but it’s not really time travel, is it? T.I.M.E. Stories is primarily a mechanism to deliver players to a variety of tired gaming, SFFnal stand-by scenarios. Oh look. Zombies. Again. I love zombies. Do YOU love zombies??? Yay. Trend. Treeeeenddd. I’d say this is tired and a waste, but the Boardgame forums love it. I haven’t seen so many bad opinions about time-travel narratives clustered together since I last fucked with Outpost Gallifrey. “Oh Daddy, can we have another reheated Lovecraft plot?” “Only if you’re mglw’nafh, little Nameless One!” Gag me with a squamous spoon.

With its first mission (included with the core set), T.I.M.E. Stories starts as it means to go on: in a spooky old asylum (*eye-roll*) where Lovecraftian weirdness (*my eyes pop out of my head from rolling too hard and roll off under a sofa: move your marker here and turn over the “middle of the lounge” card with a sofa on it to obtain item 23, my eyes*) is afoot. Atentacle. Attenuated, like my patience with this shit.

“Asylum” is set in a New Orleans, because only America and Europe and/or Americans and Europeans are real. (Ancient Egypt is a little real, but only as like, a Europe-oriented set-piece? And it’s ancient Egypt, so that’s okay.) This New Orleans is weirdly white—seriously, even if this place is segregated why aren’t more employees black? Do these developers realise how black New Orleans is and has been since always?

You’re dropped into patients’ bodies (I regret to inform the reader that there is a serious Suicide Squad-in-sepia aesthetic going on with your choices) and you explore the asylum via map locations. As the game proceeds you acquire clues and items, and additional locations are revealed to you. Sometimes you have to solve a puzzle to gain access to these locations.

Essentially, for reasons that are never fully clear (but can be inferred: Typical Lovecraft Bullshit), the staff of this clinic have elected to use the patients, who won’t be missed (yet are somehow also in funded medical care? Who’s paying for this in America? Is this a state hospital? Anyway), as fodder in some “creature from beyond” summoning. In “Asylum” you by and large can’t trust anyone but your own party, which should probably keep you on your toes but which I find as rote and dull as the reality show “I’m not here to make friendsss” trope. Doctors will try to fuck you over, and doctors will try to fuck you—literally, if you are in a female body, a doctor will attempt to rape you in a given room, and you will waste precious time fending him off. Points for realism, nil points for sensitivity. Is that really something I want to deal with as a random, throwaway character interaction in a game? It’s that sort of shit that makes me disregard T.I.M.E. Stories’ pretensions to narrativity, because this incident doesn’t want to be read as significant or signifying. It’s just here to be Edgy. Another, better time-waster (one I genuinely appreciated) is the guy in the courtyard who cheekily claims to have valuable information but in reality just loves to dance. I feel you, buddy.

The puzzles in “Asylum” are some of the best in the series, although one in particular feels almost impossible to answer if the person who looked at X card didn’t realise what they were seeing and didn’t tell you about it.

Overall, the people I was playing with liked the experience enough to seek out expansions. I continued to live with them, so I continued playing when those expansions showed up.

The Marcy Case

All missions begin at the T.I.M.E. Agency HQ. The robot admin system that bosses you around and nags at you has a female name. Weirdly, no one else in the background of the HQ matte paintings is ever a woman or non-human in a world that does seem to include, per “Prophecy,” nonhuman creatures, if not aliens proper (so far) (unless you count Cthulhu) (Who doesn’t? Ah, Cthulhu, me old china—) (do you think anyone ever calls China Miéville that? And, like, lives?). You always have a limited amount of time to complete your missions, and there are few in-game ways to replenish your allotted hour. That may be like life, but it’s also annoying. When your time runs out on a mission, you get sucked back to this base. Then you have to read a card on which Bob the mission controller yells at you. You then restart your run or give up for the time being. If you do well enough on the mission, Bob grudgingly gives you bonuses you can use in later runs.

T.I.M.E. Stories is organised around scarcity. The time pressure prevents you from exploring and, to an extent, enjoying these worlds. You’re focused on getting in, getting the job done and getting out. “Job” being the operative word. In the gleaming, Nu!Star Trek-looking space-future, work is still conditioned by expense and resource scarcity. Supervisors demeaningly shout at you for performing as best you could, despite faulty equipment, limited information, poor instructions, inadequate training (the player certainly doesn’t know what an Agent is supposed to know), and tough conditions. You apparently get wasted at the pub between missions, like you’re a space frat boy. (Where is this agency recruiting from?) The future is a bleak, capitalist, hellscape projection of our own historically contingent moment, but T.I.M.E. Stories doesn’t seem to know it. Again, some of this may be lifelike, but does it make for a good game? Do these elements need to be there? Is it really likely that the material conditions of late capitalism will stretch on to this era of technological development, given that they don’t stretch all that far backwards in time, so it’s not as though they’re a static truism?

“The Marcy Case” really takes the biscuit with its thoughtless neoliberalism. Let’s take a look at the people you can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only John Paulson is acceptable. He’s been wronged by the prison industrial complex—I’m in. Every other character’s a wanker. (Apparently in other, localised versions of the game they’re somewhat different people, and the kickstarter concept art also seems to show a different cast: I wonder if the English version, aimed largely at America, is specially burdened with bastards?) We’re back in America for this story, but this time it’s the ’90s and there are zombies (but not zombies) (but zombies). Play the X-Files theme again, Sam.

In Terminator “The Marcy Case,” one special woman, destined to be important to the fate of the world, is lost in a town beset by a zombie outbreak. The outbreak was probably caused by the military medical testing Marcy was subjected to, which is probably not unrelated to her implied future importance. The town’s been quarantined, the various test subjects are spread out over it, and you discover you need to determine which one of a possible four sickly girls is the genuine Marcy in order to hand her off to an extraction team.

Because the town is rife with “the infected” (not-zombies-zombies), every time you move locations you risk attack. Making too much noise also attracts the not-zombies-zombies. Now, some people like their D&D etc. combat heavy. I—am not really for exchanges that don't add to the plot or enrich my experience of the game world. Let’s go to my game notes!

“It was just an encounter between every other scene change, encounters every scene—pointless fucking encounters.”

I was also het up about dead-end zones in the map. “We literally played out one location, wasted five time units, and then collectively decided we hadn’t done that because it was so annoyingly pointless and restarted the round.”

Of all the T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios I’ve played, “The Marcy Case” has the most desperate need of a few pages of establishing story. Space Cowboys, the publisher, is actually a French company, so T.I.M.E. Stories is translated—with varying degrees of success. I know the designers are trying to avoid translating vast amounts of text, but you’re selling to an Anglophonic market, so—commit to that? Maybe design for it? I know they’re also trying to avoid a big RP-style rule-book that puts off non-RP, more casual gamers. I do see that. But some compromises are necessary. In this case I wanted some backstory to clarify what our Agency’s involvement with these experiments was and why it wasn’t incredibly shady. This would expand the story beyond just A Scenario, embedding the game’s clues in a meaningful way, and lampshading some of the puzzles’ narrative weirdness. Unfortunately T.I.M.E. Stories has repeated issues with puzzles that don’t make sense as something that would happen in this world you’ve entered. These puzzles may (or may not) exploit the game mechanic in clever ways, but they don’t connect up with the story and rely on your detection or “reading” skills in that light. They’re aimed at you the game player, not your characters or the world their host bodies inhabit, if that distinction makes sense.

I really resisted this scenario and the story’s ending. We collected all the girls, figuring the extraction team could take the lot of them and sort it out later. One of them had to be right, and saving them all was both utilitarian and humanitarian. However when we got to the extraction point we met a helicopter with five agents in it who said that they only had room for one of the girls. I'm sorry, but fuck that pre-determined bullshit? There are five of you assholes in the chopper. You’re not sure which girl is which, you don’t have a reliable means of making that determination and you’re certain one of them is incredibly important? Your ass is grounded. They go in. We only need one of you to fly it.

But the plausibility problem goes deeper than that. “No one can identify which girl is the right one, they’re drugged and out of it!” What, they’re so out of it that none of them even shows a flicker of recognition if you say her NAME to her, yet they can walk? Besides, the whole plot is dumb and gross. We’re here to extract the one resource valuable to us, not fix the situation.

Writer Lawrence Miles was right to suggest on Twitter that perhaps T.I.M.E. Stories is a grim “Sapphire and Steel, fix the timeline at all costs” scenario. But we weren’t even given a thin Prime Directive rationale for our actions here. We were asked to leave a town full of people, including our host bodies and the three other girls we just rescued, to die in agony due to US military fuckery when we were already here involving ourselves and seemingly twisting the course of history anyway. We had lots of resources and an antidote, yet we still had to do this with no discussion of any other option, because no mechanism within the game permits us to do anything but follow this under-justified plot.

Again, many of us may live in uncomfortable complicity with the US military industrial complex, but do I want to thoughtlessly game it in the age of neo-fascism as well? Fuck no. Play me out, X-Files theme, I’m done.

As a final insult, “The Marcy Case” has not been written or edited by Americans to a hilarious extent. Hiking! In Wisconsin! “Rural, isolated Wisconsin.”

: did you mean: Alaska?

 

What will you do, hike across someone’s dairy farm? Will there be zombie cows???[2] (There weren’t.)

Prophecy of Dragons

Some of you may have begun screaming when I said we collectively “undid” a false start. Some of you may not yet have stopped. Please, breathe!

The more arbitrary or unfair a rule seems and the less invested you are in a game experience, the more likely you are to cheat. I think it says something that with some T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios I’ve been drawn to look at cards I shouldn’t: I’m not often thus compelled. My sister has been guilty of several illegal dice re-rolls. Mostly we’ve gotten through scenarios in good time, “legitimately,” but there was certainly a puzzle in “Under the Mask” we flat looked up the answer to on the BoardGameGeek forum, because the puzzle was indefensibly stupid. I make no apologies for not getting it: it was dumb.

My girlfriend loves a co-op game, and theoretically so do I. However it’s worth pointing out that the time pressure, resource scarcity, and high stakes of T.I.M.E. Stories turn me into “Blake circa ‘Star One’”: I am angry with the game, angry with myself, angry with the in-game problem, and ready to kill people for logistical fuck-ups and poor decisions, forcing an awkward smile at the end of a barked order. I am trying not to be like this. My partner assures me that there’s nothing I can do for Cally. Even shouting at everybody else is not going to help her. AND YET.

T.I.M.E. Stories has caused a lot of arguments at chez us. It’s not that we don’t like playing—my sister really enjoys it, and my partner less so, but she’s still a big fan. I’m perhaps the least keen, in large part because the missions’ “foundational tropes” are unrelentingly bullshit. But as with cheating, a given game system gives rise to certain play behaviours, and T.I.M.E. Stories aggravates us in a way that other co-op, scarcity-predicated games, such as Shadows over Camelot, or even the more tense Dead of Winter (FUCKING ZOMBIES), don’t.

This scenario is no exception. In “Prophecy of Dragons,” the thinnest possible technobabble excuse brings you to ye olde D&D tavern, in the Kingdom of One-Off Campaign. Again, it’s not really a time travel game: anywhere in time and space, but right back to the same old shit. I’ve a bit more sympathy for this trope than the previous ones though, because it’s less grating than zombie Lovecraft re-re-redux, and because “Prophecy” shows what is almost T.I.M.E. Stories’ first evidence of a sense of humour. (It could have done with more!) A barmaid offers you a relic, which turns out to be the signed pants of a famous bard—if you meet the right person on the road you can trade these pants for gold; if you don’t meet that person, you’ll be left wondering “why pants?” forever. It’s a light joke, and yes, we’ve had better mocking of the conventions of D&D World from Pratchett, but it does make you realise how dead serious T.I.M.E. Stories can be. This gravitas only adds to the stress and feeling of being constrained in your exploration of these worlds.

Some playable characters in “Prophecy” get a magic mechanic, and partway through there’s a chance to get a solid chunk of additional time to complete the mission. You also travel to a whole new set of locations in “Prophecy” rather than just exploring and expanding your start map. I do like that every story seems to have the brief to do something fresh with the game system, and the additional time was much appreciated.

Essentially, in this mission you’re dropped into the bodies of citizens of a cosmopolitan, multicultural kingdom, the monarch of which hasn’t been seen for a while. He’s secreted himself away, the Agency knows something is up, and it’s your job to discover what’s going on and fix it.

In a larger sense, the Agency is aware that the Syaan, a hostile temporal power, are meddling in this time zone somehow. In the final scene the King claims that the Syaan promised him, via temporal interference, help resisting a coming invasion of dragons that will otherwise destroy his world. The Syaan also claim to have been the original inventors of the time-travel technology you’re using.

At this point you begin to wonder whether the actual plot arc you should be paying attention to is intra-game. Are you working for an imperial corporatised force that appropriated technology and now enforces a conservative understanding of temporal normalcy that costs lives? The time-space East India Company? “Are we the baddies?”

If terrible things must be done to preserve the time stream overall, as with “The Marcy Case,” that argument hasn’t really been made by the text. It’s not as though we’re avoiding paternalistic interference: we’re already intervening in time. The possible corruption of the Agency isn’t a bad narrative turn (there are whole parts of “Trial of a Time Lord” I quite like—), but it also puts you in the position of continuing to complete missions that you’re not sure are helping anything at the behest of people you’re not sure you trust.

It’s just a game, so everything you’re doing is an abstraction you don’t necessarily have to agree with, but it does make immersive participation in the story an uncomfortable affair.

Under the Mask

 “Under the Mask” is the only mission thus far without an SFF element—the Battle of Life of T.I.M.E. Stories, if you will (I wouldn’t). This story takes place in ancient Egypt, and like many stories with historical set-dressing, it sits in a weird spot where too much of an interest in the subject will throw you off. The clothes

and gibberish hieroglyphs

text: James P. Allen’s “Middle Egyptian, an Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs”, Cambridge University Press

piqued me a bit. But sitting around pissing about details is pedantic masturbation for the most part—what matters is what people got out of the changes. In “Under the Mask,” however, I feel like the deviations were more sloppy than purposive, and didn’t yield much.

“Under the Mask”’s twist on the T.I.M.E. Stories format is that you can jump host bodies a few times during the game. This allows you to acquire different skills and new information—in fact you’d struggle to complete this mission without taking advantage of this ability. T.I.M.E. Stories always has something of a mystery format, so I appreciated that this time we were literally solving a crime: piecing together events that led to the botched theft of a dead pharaoh’s mask.

But how does this theft concern our Agency?

A commenter on a BoardGameGeek review of this game notes that “[t]he Mask was recovered from the tomb in 1922 by Lord Carnarvon, who died because the Mask was poisoned (Agency version of the story). Syaans went back in time and stole the Mask so this wouldn’t happen at all. The Agency on the other hand sent people back in time to put the poisoned Mask back in the Tomb. Now the question is—are Syaans the good guys who tries [sic] to save Carnarvon, but that caused a temporal fault and Agency had to step in; are the Syaans just bad guys and we're the good ones; or are they the good guys and we are the bad ones who want the Lord dead for some reason.”

All in all, a thin pretext for to get us to this location, and the mystery that unfolded there wasn’t exactly the Golden Age “tec story” fun of my beach-read dreams. On the positive side, the other players and I were forced to sit down together between runs and plot out our turn sequence exactly. This was a tightened version of our normal collaborative decision-making process. I don’t really mind that work. It feels like a meaningful engagement with the game and narrative.

Unlike “The Marcy Case,” “Under the Mask” gives you a reasonably appealing range of characters to inhabit, several of whom are women. Yet it’s worth observing that even when this isn’t historically “necessary,” the female characters generally tend to have traditionally femme roles. Speaking of limited thought being given to “embodying” these characters, I got very bored with this scenario telling you ten times that Egypt is like, hot. It’s such an outsider POV, and we’re supposed to be in the bodies of Egyptian characters, most of whom have probably never lived anywhere very different. It’s also not terribly interesting? Now, Egyptians did indeed bitch about heat: records of their mining operations in what’s now southern Israel, near Grofit and Eilat, are clear on this point. Lots of whinging letters home and crying about how they missed the cooling Nile. But the city in “Under the Mask” is on the river—it shouldn't be that bad, for people used to the climate?

Expedition: Endurance

By the time we bought this expansion, I’d developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome/archive fever desire to collect and play T.I.M.E. Stories. Gameplay across the stories is highly variable, with some real Pointless Puzzle low ebbs. But again, the core engine does work, and is somewhat unlike anything else on the market. The “architecture” is there. They’ve bothered to put in an arc plot as well as contained stories. The problem is these contained stories just all kind of suck, thus far. But then things can take a while to get off the ground. (I love a lot of Big Finish, but almost never go back to their earliest plays, when they were still finding themselves as a company—this might be like that.) I want to give it a chance.

As the title of this mission might imply, this time you’re on the Endurance for Ernest Shackleton's 1914–1917 Imperial Trans Antarctica Expedition. Except Shackleton and other historical crew members aren’t there. Instead you get some added women (yay!) and some added Lovecraftian monsters (boooooo).

You don’t exactly re-establish history as we know it, and I’m not sure whether that’s a bug or a significant feature that’s going to come back later? I’m guessing bug, to be honest. T.I.M.E. Stories has repeatedly shown itself to be more interested in history as a source of sets than as established real places or chains of causality that make sense. This abstraction would be fine if they staged something great with those sets, but so far, not really. (When are we going to visit the relative future, too?!)

So here you are in Antarctica, with your Cthulhu and your R’lyeh. If I had a nickel—

Anyway, I like that, due to a malfunction, on your first run you’re sent a few days too late. You have to gather clues before inevitably (and quickly) dying. There’s also an insanity mechanic this time. Actions you take in this story can have effects that will actually have ramifications for your “character” in further expansions. Before, you were awarded little tokens for especially successful missions. Now you might touch some eldritch goo and go mad and/or die in a way that affects you forever—provided you remember that it does. This mechanic will rely on both player honesty and player memory.

That’s neat, though it also slightly speaks to T.I.M.E. Stories’ usual Doctor Who problem, which was most glaring in “The Marcy Case.” You, an uninvolved individual, port into an area, get what you need out of it, and leave never to be affected by the situation again. Your intervention may not be aimed at helping that situation, either. In fact, it often relies on fucking people over, and the power differential between you and the locals is, to paraphrase Blackadder Goes Forth, “guns versus pelting with fruit” enormous. You’re primarily wherever you are to extract whatever you want, with no consequences but the potential disapproval of your superior if you don’t extract it quickly enough. It’s possibly not an accident that the game’s French and marketed to the British and Americans, given that its central mechanism is time colonialism.

I guess, though it’s not clear enough, that the game implies Shackleton’s expedition had a secret agenda to discover more about Lovecraft Shit. In this story an evil professor’s assistant has already gone over to the side of Lovecraft Shit. He sabotages things, everyone else has already gone mad from the proximity of Lovecraft Shit—you know the drill. Listen, I have one salient piece of advice for you: in a world where man is weak and fallible and prone to madness, do as I did. Play the large, stupid-looking dog.

Oh yes. He can’t read. He can’t use objects. But he also can’t suffer from existential dread and comprehend his meaninglessness in a vast, cruel universe. Because he is a dog. And when you play the dog, comrade, you get the best card in creation:

Pack of Dogs. PACK OF DOGS!  My sister laughed at their faces for ten solid minutes. They literally kept us from going mad and dying. I had to hide the card from her so the game could continue. The pack’s stalwart, touching loyalty brings a promptly frozen tear to the eye. Given the Antarctic setting and the Playable Dog, my editor was also reminded of Don A. Stuart’s “Who Goes There?”. (And, inexorably, of the brilliant “Thingu.”)

We ripped through this mission in one go—my partner considers it the weakest so far. One entire location was a vast pointless time sink. Fortunately we didn’t go there so we weren’t affected … by the desire to cheat (I look through the deck when the game’s over, which isn’t cheating—it’s research). I’d have been livid if we had gone, though.

We also didn’t go mad, which really might have complicated and enhanced the game? The cosmic weirdness of the possible consequences of dying in this mission (a weirdness which is fairly unique in the series, aside from, fair play to it, the mystical discovery sequence in “Prophecy”) made me realise that in general, there’s not a lot of wonder in T.I.M.E. Stories. Tired tropes yes, genuine weirdness and freshness, less so. Again, what you get instead is tropes and that harassed employee vibe (except the game doesn’t sink its teeth into that Red Dwarf-esque mundanity, because it doesn’t seem to know it’s doing this). It’s perhaps worth thinking about late capitalism, many Western people’s lack of actual rewarding employment and “playbour”  here.

Conclusion

It’s worth thinking about all T.I.M.E. Stories isn’t choosing to deal with. You never go to the future, you don’t travel much outside of popular western destinations (certainly not to anything like the circumstances of actual colonialism, which would make certain uncomfortable parallels obvious), the world is made of tropes, and you don't spend more than a few in-universe hours in any given mission (couldn’t you theoretically do this for years without your “real” body aging?). You’re never really encouraged to enjoy and luxuriate in this world, which is sort of how I feel about T.I.M.E. Stories as a collection of stories. The underlying “plot structure” mechanism is there, and the play-action is sometimes there, but the dialogue is rough and never exceptional, the art is mostly functional rather than beautiful, almost nothing is funny, and the plots are dubiously moral and often quite weak.

I can see why this game has so many fan expansions. I’ve yet to play any (as a rule they don’t seem to be well regarded), but to the extent this is a story, I can see why there would be fanfic set in this universe. I’m even a little tempted to play with the game design myself.

Of this year’s announced upcoming releases, I’m not much looking forward to “Estrella Drive,” which is about Hollywood (America! Again!). I'm slightly more interested in “Frères de la Côte” (sigh, pirates, but okay) and “Lumen Fidei”:

Journey back to 15th century Spain in Lumen Fidei, the fifth expansion (and sixth scenario) for T.I.M.E Stories. In the adventure, you and your friends must infiltrate a secret meeting of the Christian militant orders to steal a precious item for the Agency—but all is not as it seems. A mysterious stone has drawn the attention of Christians and Moors alike, and the presence of something supernatural may be at work in the darkness. It’s your mission to find out the truth, and return to the T.I.M.E Agency with the stone safely in your possession …

This expansion features an additional challenge as the pressure on players is not only about time, but it also involves moral choices, a powerful opponent, and new mechanisms. Discover lots of new information about the T.I.M.E Stories universe, within a historical scenario and an intriguing setting …

Fifteenth-century Spain is somewhat off the beaten track, and I’m looking forward to more arc plot action. Yes. Looking forward, if in a mechanical way, thick with compulsion and devoid of joy.

My partner observed last night that for playable plot, in her opinion T.I.M.E Stories didn’t hold a candle to Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (a multi-media deduction game with newspapers, maps, directories, and chunks of story corresponding to various followed leads) or the shared universe of Above and Below and Near and Far (both combination Euro/story-quest games). Above and Below feels like a Eurogame with a story component, while Near and Far feels like a story-quest game, a little like a text-based rpg, with a Eurogame component. I believe T.I.M.E Stories has the potential to rival these titles, because its basic framework is compelling, but that thus far the makers have downplayed the narrative that’s supposedly a major selling point and innovation in favour of, via the extensive use of tropes, essentially recreating the theme/setting approach favoured by “trad” Eurogames. The publisher, Space Cowboys, could hire established SFF fiction or video game writers, or seek out new talent along these lines. T.I.M.E Stories could have even one memorable line or great plot twist. Puzzles could arise organically from the in-world situation. By not centering the story and letting it drive development as much as gameplay, however, T.I.M.E Stories abandons this promising game system and arc concept’s potential to do something innovative, which could be a real watershed in the field.

The resultant game is startlingly conservative in some ways, despite all the buzz around it. The game’s very popularity thus makes me wonder whether Eurogamers, for all our interest in novelty and engagement with demanding game systems, actually want something challenging and fresh as much as we want to derive a complacent satisfaction from repackaged but essentially familiar systems that don’t ask too much of us, which we can easily understand and definitively master: a sort of faux-ordering of and placebo-power in a turbulent world that denies many a sense of agency and control. I haven’t given up on T.I.M.E Stories entirely, but I must admit I don’t think it’s likely that Space Cowboys will turn my current impression of their oeuvre around by expanding their priorities and, if they’re going to ask players to engage with their stories intellectually and morally, building a game world that sustains and rewards that kind of engagement.

Endnotes

  1. You could theoretically play with two by controlling multiple people, but this seems messy. I feel at times that the game is really designed for four, and that the slight time bonus you’re afforded for playing with three doesn’t really make up for the wasted time unit it’ll take to investigate that niggling fourth card. Locations don’t always have four cards, but it seems more common than other “room sizes.”[return]
  2. Some cheesehead is coming at me right now with Knowledges of Rural Wisconsin and how you can hike for a whole afternoon if you take this specific winding path along the lake and ignore the Hardee’s visible to your—friend, I have been to Wisconsin. I have seen your most rural lakes, I have eaten of your most secret cheeses. My point is, the writers seem to think Wisconsin’s Colorado???[return]


Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
One comment on “T.I.M.E. Stories”
Katy

I'm glad we could make Erin's words a reality.

 

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