Arguing for the Adoption of Persistent Time in Video Games: Part 2 Building a House, Making a Home

In the first  of this two-part article, I outlined my thoughts on how persistent time can provide a new paradigm for permadeath in video games.  In games like DayZ Standalone (Bohemia Interactive, 2013) and Rust  (Facepunch Studios, 2013), hazardous environments combined with permadeath create conditions in which players construct fortifications to avoid having to respawn with empty-handed characters—and safeguard precious resources like food and ammunition from other players.  Adding persistent time to this design formula can significantly change players’ conceptualization of permanency in these games.  Persistent time gives all things a lifespan:  Buildings ultimately fall to ruin, food has expiration dates, and—most importantly—characters grow old and die.  Under these circumstances, progeny can become a significant resource.

This half of the article illustrates how persistent time can be incorporated into game design, along with permadeath and hazardous environments, to deepen the roleplaying experience through (1.) the creation of apprenticeships to pass skills and perks among characters, (2.) the development of complex kinship systems, and (3.) the establishment of outposts in the game world for future colonies.

Another Word on Persistent Time

Distinct from the game world’s representation of physics (i.e., movement and gravity operate at speeds comparable to those experienced in real life), I am defining persistent time as a representation of accelerated time that highlights the perceptional effects of aging upon the game world.  For example, a single day in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011) last about 72 minutes  unless the timescale is modified.  During this time the sun rises and travels across the sky, redrawing shadows as it does.  A storm may pass over.  Plants can bloom seemingly overnight.  Players even have to wait for a few days in game time for vendors to refill their coffers.  For the impatient, Skyrim even allows players to pass several in-game hours instantly by waiting or sleeping.

But I have something different in mind.  Rather than representing the passing of time as a solar day in Skyrim, I suggest depicting time passing more like a solar year.  In this longer view, weather can be understood as part of a larger climate system.  Trees grow larger over time, and forests may appear where there were once grasslands.  Prison sentences would be more impactful on gameplay.  Lowering a character’s skill levels during imprisonment as in Skyrim would just be the start, as serving jail time effectively shortens a character’s playable life.  Though unlike in Skyrim, players would not be allowed any control over time.  Although I think this works for Skyrim because of the game’s temporal atmosphere, the ability to skip through virtual days and years would undermine the philosophy of persistent time.   Players are always working against the clock.  Hours become a kind of currency.  While one character sleeps—or sits in jail—surely other characters can be preoccupied with maintaining a homestead.

Teaching a Character to Fish

When it comes to permadeath, working toward perks or raising skill levels may sound counter-intuitive.  Why would anyone invest time to unlock a perk or raise a skill if one lucky headshot can reset all stats?  One solution to this dilemma is the adoption of apprenticeships to ensure that valuable skills learned over time are not lost with the death of a single character.

Players may begin a new game with a family of characters, some of whom are playable.  Each character is a composite of many attributes similar to those found in most contemporary RPGs (e.g., constitution, dexterity, etc.).  In order to raise their skills and perks, players “possess” characters as in Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games, 2013).  (The game permits players to possess one character at a time while other characters go about the world living their lives.)  When characters have reached a certain skill level in their skill tree, they can then take an apprentice and train that character to a given skill level over time.  Other factors, such as charisma, may adversely affect these conditions or allow for a greater number of apprentices.  Apprenticeships could be scripted, meaning that these actions can be carried out while the player is not in control of the character.

To take one example, tribe members living on a river probably should know how to fish.  One high-level fisherman might train four for five lower-level fishermen, who in turn may pass on those skills to junior fishermen.  The higher in skill the fisherman, the more likely he or she is to yield a more plentiful catch.  Knowing a variety of skills that take the best advantage of resources is not enough; players would need to build infrastructures to ensure that these skills would remain viable for the tribe after the master fisherman has died.  Instead of focusing on maxing out skill levels for characters who will die anyway, the point here is to improve on the weakest links in the community chain.  The entire tribe is better served if the worse fisherman can still feed himself.

I argue that these skills and perks should be limited to resource management:  fishing, animal husbandry, carpentry, masonry, etc.  Even skills such as midwifery and legerdemain can be taught by way of apprenticeship.  However, a character’s vital attributes, such as health and strength, should not be allowed to increase to god-like abilities.  Persistent time and permadeath do not accommodate characters who can single-handedly take out small armies because they have triple-digit hit points.  Ergo, players foster the tribe’s collective resources and skills rather than betting everything on any single character’s abilities.

All in the Family

Adding persistent time to games in which permadeath and hazardous environments are already core design themes can place a greater importance on the survival of progeny.  In addition to the usual attributes found in RPGs, characters can be programed with “genetic traits” so that progeny pass on both desirable and undesirable “DNA” to descendants.  I don’t mean superficial genetic traits such as hair or eye color, although those should be considered for the sake of verisimilitude.  I’m thinking of resistance to disease, inheritable illnesses, food allergies, and even “mutations” that allow for genetic variation.  To different degrees, this has already been played out.  Will Wright’s Spore (2008) offers a lesson on evolution by allowing players to grow species from microscopic organisms to sentient creatures, and even Grand Theft Auto: Online (Rockstar Games, 2013) lets players customize an avatar’s appearance by way of selecting grandparents.  But to elevate these games from mere eugenic simulators requires the development of kinship systems.

There are two good reasons to adopt a kinship system in such a video game.  The first is to prevent the problems that arise from inbreeding in a shallow gene pool.  Players who mate a small set of characters generation after generation create conditions in which offspring manifest detrimental traits like hemophilia and infertility (think British monarchs).  In this aspect, the kinship system defines incest and encourages players to seek mates outside their characters’ tribes.

Second, crafting kinship systems is a way to delineate priorities among tribe members, especially for scripted actions.  For example, if some tribe members meet an early demise, who is responsible for the day-to-day care of their children?  If the community becomes fracture due to war or famine, kinship systems provide a social blueprint for putting the tribe back together.  Genealogy becomes important as players roleplay not just individuals, but families as well, helping characters survive cruel worlds and give meaning beyond their own lives.  Furthermore, real-life examples like the Hawaiian kinship system or the Sudanese kinship system have different understanding of relations that challenge the typical North American view of family relations, creating a rich space to explore both culturally and from a game design perspective.

Kinship systems typically work along blood and marriage lines.  It defines who can marry whom, outlines inheritance, and establishes economic relations through dowers and dowries.   The Sims has converted parenthood into game play  long ago but doesn’t create the same notion of lineage I’m discussing here.  In games that are designed around permadeath, where proliferation becomes key to surviving a perilous game world, kinship systems provide the social scaffolding necessary to care for each generation of progeny.

Building a House, Making a Home

One of the first tenets in starting a new game in Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) is to build a shelter before sunset.  If you play like me, then the next step is to explore the countryside for places that may make a better home due to terrain or resources.  By day, I improve on my homestead, making sure my wheat is growing and my chickens are laying eggs.  By night, I slowly turn a mountain inside out, using cobblestone to build high walls around my compound.  And then comes the factories, mob grinders the size of apartment buildings that work day and night to pool dropped items saving me the trouble of having to grind for the resources myself.

This is the modus operandi for many games that lean heavily on mining and crafting in one form or another:  Don’t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2014), State of Decay (Undead Labs, 2013), and the previously mentioned DayZ and Rust all have players following similar formulas to survive their respective worlds:  build shelters, stockpile supplies, prepare against foes.

But if the landscape that the shelter is constructed on changes over time, has the potential to become deforested, over-farmed, or suffers some environmental catastrophe, then families may be forced to relocate and find other sources to ensure survival.  Because land can be depleted of resources, players must make decisions on the kind of homesteads they will construct, choose whether to adopt a nomadic lifestyle following a herd or till the land and try to expand the tribe.  Of course, larger tribes face unique problems of logistics in food storage and sanitation.  It would behoove players to explore the larger virtual world and establish multiple colonies far from one another in the event that one bad winter ends many hours of hard work (or a number of characters’ lives spent in vain).  Games like Banished (Shining Rock Software, 2014), a city-building strategy game, are already exploring similar ideas.

Transforming a Space into a Place

I think the biggest impact of persistent time into video games with core design principles like permadeath and hazardous environments is how it may affect our conceptualization of place in the game world.  Yi-Fu Tuan acutely observed that whereas space is freedom, place is space embedded with value.  Shelters would likely become sites where skills trees are passed onto succeeding generations of characters and kinship systems are crafted.  When characters eventually die, their remains could be kept in the home to raise the tribe’s faith, morale, etc., not to mention the unique game experience of maintaining a graveyard for deceased characters.

Persistent time has the capacity to add deeper levels of game play that allow player to think of their characters as part of a larger system of relations in which the survival of the tribe takes precedence over any individual character’s life.  Players may spend generations of characters in a single space, improving upon the shelter and preparing for unexpected calamities, but at the same time, exploring other parts of the world to colonize.  Today, we can travel across persistent worlds inside laptops larger than the spaces we occupy in our daily lives.  Why not explore notions of persistent time, permadeath, and hazardous environments in virtual worlds?

About Jason Coley

Jason Coley is PhD student of Communication and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His dissertation is a transmedia study that measures presence across devices like the Oculus Rift, Google Glass, and the Emergent Reality Lab in order to develop a new framework for designing content on head-mounted displays. This research also analyzes art and media history with regards to the immersion and presence experience on digital and pre-digital devices with particular attention to games.
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2 Responses to Arguing for the Adoption of Persistent Time in Video Games: Part 2 Building a House, Making a Home

  1. Robyrt says:

    I’m reminded of Crusader Kings 2’s intricate breeding system, where producing a suitable heir is just as critical as winning battles, or keeping good foreign relations. This fits with the goal of the game – simulating the Middle Ages, where the personal skill of the monarch was very important at keeping a country together, and marriage for love was rare – but it feels very weird for a game to treat our most basic human interactions in the same ritualistic, formalized way it deals with extraordinary situations like zombie attacks. In this case, the developers actually wanted you to treat marriage, education and love as primarily tools of state, so it makes sense.

    • Jason Coley says:

      Thanks for the comment–I looked up Crusader Kings II and loved that Wikipedia labeled it as a “dynasty simulator.” I wasn’t even aware that there were such games! It does sound like such a lineage system squares with that game’s narrative. But as for applying it to another setting–say a zombie apocalypse–I would argue it is a matter of execution. Zombies wouldn’t even be necessary–a virtual environment can be as hazardous as the developers as imagination, money, and technology allows. (Rust, after all, dropped the zombies entirely.) I personally have had my fill on zombie simulators and am more interested in seeing some of those core design principles in DayZ and Rust (i.e., hazardous environments and permadeath) applied to other genres. But thanks again for the comment (and the game reference).

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