When I was a child, I have played The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the N64. I liked Zelda games, but did not really warm up to this installment. Since the game runs on a three day timer, I constantly felt stressed. Recently, I have picked up the 3DS remake and came to appreciate the in-game clock. It is not because of the increased pressure, but because the people in this world are truly living on the clock! How can game developers learn from this example and breathe life into their worlds?

In my post about The Urgency of Fishing, I have lamented that many games first tell us, how we need to hurry, because the world is at stake, but then do not care, if we literally go fishing for days. Majora’s Mask ist not one of those games. In this action-adventure from the year 2000, we are told how the moon is falling and will hit the ground in three days. At the bottom of the screen, we see a clock that constantly reminds us of this. We can even see the moon coming closer! If we do not succeed in preventing this, the moon will indeed fall down and devestate the world in an all engulfing wave of destruction. Game over!

Unless we are ready to finish the main quest, the only way to prevent this catastrophe is to turn back time and restart at the dawn of the first day. Turning back time is a main game mechanic and necessary to experience everything the game has to offer. Every character has a schedule and is living on the clock. Some may do the same every day, but more important people do different things over the days, which may depend on the outcome of earlier events.

One example is the Romani Ranch, which is closed off because of a boulder until the third day. When you go there then, you meet a disoriented looking young girl, Romani, sitting outside, unresponsive. Inside a barn, there is her older sister, Cremia, blaming herself for not listening to her younger sister. Something obviously went wrong here.

Once you have the ability to remove the boulder on the first day, you can listen to Romani’s warning and help her fight off an attack by aliens. Your actions really matter in this game and you can even see the difference you make without restarting the whole game. The game feels more alive thanks to its characters’ schedules! Thanks to the game’s time limit, the developers were able to carefully craft the people’s lives in these three days. (And then you realize that poor Romani and Cremia have to live through a nightmare every time, when you do not come to help in the first night. But I will talk more about such so called Fridge Horror in another post.)

Another game with a living world is Gothic II for PC. The game from 2002 has been the first RPG, that I have played, in which characters have daily routines. You can see the blacksmith waking up in the morning, before he hammers at his anvil all day. And the town if Khorinis feels vastly different, when there is no hammering in the silence of the night. The people may do the same every day, but it still has a huge impact on the gaming experience.

Harvest Moon 64 for the N64 extended the daily routine to a two year scope. In the farm simulation from 1999, people have different routines in different seasons, celebrate birthdays, and there are special events for holidays. They are not only living by the clock, but by the calendar! You get the feeling that the villagefolk are alive and not robots, that do the same thing every day. (In this and other farm live simulators, like Rune Factory and Stardew Valley, you practically do the same thing every day yourself, but I will talk about this kind of games in more detail in a later post.)

If you want to breath live into your game’s world, give lives to the characters inhabiting it! Do not let them be mere cardboard cut-outs that stand around all day and night. Create schedules for them, so they can start living on the clock! You can even add some random variation to their schedules, to make your world feel more organic. If the scope of your game allows it, create a calendar with weekly, monthly, or yearly cycles!

What are your favorite experiences, in which video game characters were living on the clock? Share them in the comments below! I look forward to reading them. In the meantime, I have a moon to catch in the morning.

(Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash)