Sunday, January 28, 2024

Timelapse (PC, 1996)

I have a "will they, won't they"-relationship with puzzle games. I love them, I want to be good at them but I just ain't. I have found the perfect place for them in my life however - as something to do with my kids. Turns out, trying to solve puzzles together is just as fun as playing any other old game together. Me and my son (now 10) have played a whole bunch so far, all through The Room 1-4, World of Goo, Trine 2 and now we played through a little gem called Timelapse, released in 1996 by GTE Entertainment (the "content creating" subdivision of GTE Corporation that later became Verizon).

I had never heard of Timelapse before it somehow ended up in my games library on GoG (I really wonder how some games end up there...). It looked a lot like Myst, which I have not played but remember watching my mom play through back in the 90's, and I thought maybe it could be a fun challenge for me and the kid to try out.

Turns out it was, I'll even go on right now and spoil my end conclusion by saying that Timelapse is a bit of a hidden gem as far as Myst-likes go. So if you don't feel like reading farther than this, just know that this is a game worth your time if you like that genre.

Don't worry too much about the story. As far as I remember it barely makes sense in Myst, and it barely makes sense in this game either. I would like to recap it, but honestly I only understood half of it so here is my best try - you're helping some sort of dude, maybe a professor, to look for Atlantis. You can travel to different eras and civilizations in time that seem to somehow be connected to Atlantis through sheer myth-building, like the old Egyptians, the Maya, Easter Island and the Anasazi. In each of these locations you need to solve puzzles to move on.

So let's not dwell more on the story, because the real star of the game has to be the puzzles. For any one not used to puzzle games it is easy to believe that there is just one way of crafting them. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are quite a few different ways you can design puzzle games, here are some off the top of my head (there are more, and there are some that mix them, like Resident Evil);

1. The "fake" puzzle games, like The Room, which actually just require you to find one item to open an item to find an item to open an item and so on. There is little puzzling and mostly searching, in these kind of puzzle games.

2. The environmental puzzling which mainly require you to manipulate the environment to get through the game, like the aforementioned Trine-series and World of Goo.

3. The "real" puzzle games which present you with puzzles that are superficially connected to the game world and/or story, but really are designed to be self-contained puzzle challenges. In this category you'll find games like Myst, Timelapse and Safecracker.

Timelapse is definitely in the latter category. While the puzzles are presented as to fit in the general esthetic of each area, the puzzles themselves don't necessarily logically connect to anything in the world. It's the classic trope of puzzle games, if you think about it too much it doesn't make sense that you would have to play game of Snakes and Ladders to be able to open a certain door. Or a game of Simon Says to be able to open a certain chest. We ignore all that, as long as the puzzles are well designed.

To my amateur eye I find the puzzles in Timelapse very well done and fun to try to puzzle through. Very few of them were so weird that I felt like I never had a chance to get it. They range from the abovementioned examples to finding patterns, assembling objects and traversing courses. At your disposal is a journal full of information and quite vital to your puzzle solving. It also contains a lot of interesting information about the civilizations you are visiting, if you're interested in that. Even if the journal, and a camera that allows you to take pictures of important clues you come across (the camera bugged in my version of the game, so I ended up never using it), I had to take so many notes of everything we saw. Quite a few puzzles require you to take not of a series of symbols in one area to be able to decipher a series of symbols in another area. 

Only once in the game is there a time limit to what you do, and if you fail you get the bad ending. Fortunately this part is right at the end, allowing you to simply try it again to see if you can manage differently.

The controls are fine, just like in Myst you move around the world with arrow keys (or WASD) through different screens. An arrow at the bottom always shows you which directional options you've got and there is a map as well. I still got lost quite a lot however, but my kid didn't so I think that is more indicative of my sense of direction than anything else. You don't have an inventory per se, so no worries that you're going to have to carry around a lot of random objects that you need to figure out where to use. You can only ever carry one item at a time, and it's only usable in the time period it was found. 

The times you have to manipulate objects on the screen you notice the age of the game. Knowing where the game wants you to place something or click on the screen to make something happen can be patience testing and time consuming for some of the puzzles. Fortunately these are rare enough to never ruin the overall experience.

To your further enjoyment, this game is of course full of extremely badly acted FMV's. Think Command & Conquer, or of course Myst itself for that matter. The sound effects and music are what you'd expect from the time, looped stock and completely unobtrusive background jingles. Nothing that you will remember fifteen minutes after you've turned the game off, neither something that will annoy you in the long run.

It took me and the kid around 10 hours to complete the game, scattered across a year roughly. We played it in bouts. Whenever we got too stuck on a puzzle we moved on to something else, but we always came back to this. We definitely had to use a walkthrough for some sections (especially the symbol deciphering), but a lot of it was possible for us to get through with mental team work. There was a fun variety of puzzles and we both really enjoyed it.

GTE Entertainment closed down just a year after Timelapse was released, so even though the end of the game teases a sequel, it sadly never came to be. It is unfortunate, because I definitely would've loved to check that out.

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