Time travel is really hard.
Forget trying to build an actual time machine; even if you’re just pretending to mess with history, the big problem is avoiding messy temporal paradoxes of the mistakenly-killed-your-own-
Super TIME Force is a side-scrolling shoot-’em-up along the lines of Contra, but with a twist: every time you die, the game rewinds to the beginning of the level and gives you another run. But as you play through the level again, you’re joined by all the previous versions of yourself, kicking ass and taking names right alongside you until their inevitable demise.
Or maybe not so inevitable — play your cards right, and you can save your past selves, thus changing the course of history.
You can see where this is going. It’s not too long before the chaotic interactions of you and 20 of your doppelgangers rip the fabric of space-time. Such a violation has brutal consequences. “We’d put something in, and eventually everyone would die, and we wouldn’t know why,” Yeung said.
The messy business of temporal mechanics was just one of the challenges facing Yeung and his collaborators, artists Mike and Vic Nguyen, when they built the prototype that would eventually become Super TIME Force. In a talk he gave at Gamercamp in Toronto earlier this month, Yeung described how the game’s origins at the 2011 Toronto Independent Game Jam informed its evolution into its current guise as an upcoming Xbox Live Arcade title.
Developed in just three days using a homebrew game engine and a whole lot of pixelated sprites, that first version of Super TIME Force was extremely limited. But Yeung argues that without the constraints imposed by the pressure-cooker game jam environment, Super TIME Force wouldn’t be the game it is today. For example, the game’s retro aesthetic was a result of the need to churn out content as quickly as possible — sticking to pixel art was easier. But even after the game left the world of the jam and became a full-fledged project for Yeung at Capy, the aesthetic stuck.
“We could’ve said, ‘we could go to HD, do some crazy high-res 3D graphics,'” Yeung said. “But we decided there was a certain charm that was really important to the feel of the game, so we needed to stick with the constraints of the technology we used during the game jam.”
The effects of those constraints are visible everywhere, if you know where to look — everything from the look of the time-rewinding effect to the way transparency is implemented are a direct consequence of the original game engine.
And that time paradox issue? Yeung and his team found ways around that, too — by having enemies move and shoot in predetermined patterns, rather than reacting to the player, and by building only “good” hazards into the game to keep the incidence of death-by-parallel-self down, it’s possible to keep the timeline intact.
Super TIME Force is one of the fruits of Capy’s forays into game jam culture. In addition to encouraging its staff to take part in events like TOJam, Capy has been holding their own internal game jams for years, in the same vein as Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight events. Yeung is an advocate of the faster, looser process that game jams enforce.
“It’s all about sitting in a room with hundreds of people, with everyone walking around, throwing their ideas around, laughing, joking, and feeling that energy,” he said. “It’s that whole wild-west mentality of developing, not just in game jams, but also in the way we approached Super TIME Force.”
As the game evolved from its embryonic state, Capy began to devote more attention to the shoot-’em-up. “They really liked the idea, but I was already working on a project at the time, so they said, ‘Hey, maybe every Friday, you guys can work on Super TIME Force,'” Yeung said. “It gets you away from a project that you work on all the time, gives you time to think about something new and interesting, and it gets you really excited for Fridays.”
Now Super TIME Force is a full-time concern for Yeung, thanks to the attention the game has received at events like PAX East.
Though the game is billed as an old-school game that tries its best to kill you early and kill you often, Yeung is trying to strike the right balance. “It’s really easy to make something so hard that it puts off everybody, but the interesting thing about the game is that since dying is part of it, it’s not necessarily seen as a bad thing,” Yeung said.
“You have enough lives so as long as you play it enough, you don’t have to be good to beat it. You’ll eventually get through it. We want to keep that sense, so that it’s approachable by everybody.”
Not that the game won’t offer incentives to take the hard way. “You can (also) interpret it like a hardcore game — ‘I don’t want to die, I want to dodge all these bullets, I want to get to the end without dying.’ So it enables you to have this hardcore gameplay without feeling like you’re being punished for dying all the time.”
Super TIME Force is due out next year on Xbox Live Arcade.
[Correction: This story initially mentioned that Super TIME Force convinced Capy to start holding internal game jams, when Capy had been doing them for several years prior. Dork Shelf regrets the error.]