Around five years ago my brother bought Sonic Mega Collection (2002) for the GameCube. This started a Christmas tradition of playing through the Sonic games (actually, due to a series of technical glitches, and foolishness, for a few years it was more accurate to say game – singular). Christmas 2014, we started on a more recent game: Sonic Generations (2011). The basic premise revolves around the clashing of 2D Sonic and 3D Sonic due to some kind of monster creating ‘time holes’. The game couples together classic platforming from the 2D era with the 3D approach favoured (by developers) in more recent years. A few months ago I wrote an essay on queer temporality for the Queer Cinema module I was completing. Due to the nature of the game’s narrative, and the overlap between playing Sonic and writing my essay, I started to think about how time works within video games and how it manifests itself.
Within my essay I argued that Far From Heaven (2002), Sea in the Blood (2000) and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) each queered the dominant notion of time in their own way. This dominant notion was heteronormative, Western, tied up with capitalism, and progressed linearly – one event after another (see Walter Benjamin’s ‘homogenous, empty time’). The two books that helped me get these issues clear in my head were Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds (2010) and Bliss Cua Lim’s Translating Time (2009), the former presented textual moments that had the potential to break apart dominant linear time, and the latter used Henri Bergson and the fantasy genre to argue that multiple temporalities can coexist (and therefore can subvert a normative notion of time). [They both did so much more than this, but I haven’t the scope to explore that here.] I’m aware of the dangers of using an argument set out for a specific medium (in my essay: film) and transplanting it onto a different medium. However, I’m curious as to whether playing through a game’s narrative offers a linear time akin to the one found in mainstream narrative films, novels and plays? If not, what is the equivalent? And what would it look like if it were to be subverted?
I haven’t yet managed to do a thorough lit review on time in games – though I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this at some point! However, a few themes that have come up so far: a mapping of ‘play time’ (the time spent playing the game), on to ‘event time’ (the time in which events unfold within the game) (Juul, 2004), space and movement as time structuring devices (Nitsche, 2007), and an individual’s experience of time while playing games (subjective time experiences). So, it seems that there is a sense that time in games is linear. In fact, Jesper Juul has suggested that chronology in games is pretty standard, with flashbacks and flash-forwards being problematic (either rendering the present impossible or being irrelevant once the player reaches that point in time). I think this is something to start with.
It’s interesting rescanning some of Freeman’s ways of queering time: anachronism, belatedness, pause, repetition, surprise (and more). Are these not categories that would apply to lots of mainstream narrative games? Particularly ‘pause’ and ‘repetition.’ If I die at a certain point in the game, I’ll need to repeat it to learn how to progress. If I fancy a snack or want to chat with someone, I’ll pause the game momentarily, or save it and start again the next day. These are fairly typical experiences relating to time within games, and therefore probably can’t be considered anything but normative. However, perhaps this is too hasty and overlooking the queer potential within these categories. Disrupting the momentum of a game might be an effect of queer moments of pause within games e.g. the phone calls within L.A. Noire (2011) or Metal Gear Solid’s (1998) codec calls. So, after re-evaluating moments of pause, I wonder if all of Freeman’s suggested textual moments can be appropriated for queer uses within video games.
I mentioned Sonic Generations’s narrative earlier as explicitly referencing ruptured time and a clashing of temporalities e.g. 2D Sonic (circa 1991) and 3D Sonic (presumably from the then-present day i.e. 2011) are thrust together. Although seeming to offer a bending of homogeneous time’s rules, with two temporalities existing together, the structure of the game actually forces a separation between them. Each level and challenge can only be played by one of the Sonics e.g. 3D Sonic cannot play a 2D level and vice versa. In fact, the Sonics (and Tails, though less said about them the better) appear together during cutscenes (when ‘play time’ is halted, and ‘event time’ continues), but when playing, we are forced to choose only one.
Sticking with the theme of coexistant temporalities, Bliss Cua Lim has discussed Bergson’s notion of ‘pure contemporaneity’ as the present never being an instant on its own because it always coexists with the memory of other times. In her words: ‘If the past is not dead, but instead paradoxically coexists alongside the present, then the very notion of contemporaneousness-as a single, self-consistent meanwhile-starts to fray.’ When playing as 2D Sonic my memories of the original games exist alongside my present experiences. This is interesting, however, I don’t think this is specific to Sonic Generations or to games in general. Pure contemporaneity could be discussed in relation to any moment in life. This is part of Lim’s point: to think about time differently. However, this lack of specificity means I’m not sure of its use in relation to this game’s queer temporality.
There is something within this game that does strike me as a potential disruptive force against the dominant linear time. Within the game world hub, the player can lead Sonic to walk past a Sega Mega Drive. If you purchase a controller from the shop (within the game) you can play the original Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) on this virtual console. For me, this could be seen as a real queering of temporality. It provides an opportunity to play the original Sonic as a game-within-a-game. Here temporality is queered with the use of an anachronism: I am playing a 16-bit Sonic game on a PS3 within a current generation game. Having said that, with the proliferation of emulators and ROMS both inside and out of mainstream games consoles (e.g. the Wii’s Virtual Console), perhaps this isn’t as anachronistic as it might first appear.
These were just some initial thoughts on a topic that really interests me. I chose Sonic Generations because I thought that its narrative was pertinent to this discussion. Perhaps I should focus on games that play with time formally like Remember Me (2013), Life is Strange (2015) or Braid (2008). Still, Sonic left me with a few interesting questions. How is time configured within video games (i.e. complete the literature review)? What do Freeman’s other textual moments look like when utilised for their queer potential within video games? When is an anachronism anachronistic during an age of easily accessible ‘retro’ games on emulators? Who or what is Charmy Bee and how do I erase it from my memory?