Arguing for the Adoption of Persistent Time in Video Games: Part 1 Rally around the Family

I’m a big fan of DayZ YouTube videos.  Although I’ve never played the game (not sure if I have the patience for it), these videos demonstrate the game’s outstanding faculty for emergent narratives:  My chart toppers include vehicle ambushes and hostage taking (with the inevitable cage matches).  Undoubtedly, such videos led to the DayZ standalone going gangbusters on Steam’s Early Access, selling 800,000 copies in a month for a game that is still in alpha.  Impressive sales are not the only testament to consumers’ demand for games that allow for complex, unpredictable human encounters, but also the fact that so many players let themselves be kidnapped, rather than taking the usual “death before dishonor” attitude.  (Chances are, if you are reading this blog then you are already familiar with the post-apocalyptic zombie survival simulator, but if not I strongly recommend taking a stroll over to YouTube—you won’t have any trouble finding videos.)

When I think about it, one of the important ingredients to the DayZ recipe is surely the game’s harsh world coupled with permadeath.  As you probably have heard, it is really easy to die in DayZ, and no one stays at full health for very long.  Players scavenge the 225 square kilometer map (Chernarus, a fictitious former Soviet state) for food, ammunition, and other resources in a more or less Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs simulation.  Healing alone may require splints, defibrillators, and painkillers—the game even has a blood testing kit for players to check the blood from a transfusion to see if the type is compatible with the recipient.  Rust, another game still in alpha, began as a DayZ clone but scaled everything up, to include adding crafting elements and shelter construction (and eventually dropping zombies altogether).  Both these games operate on the principle of permadeath:  When your character dies, you lose all on-character possessions and must start over with a new character.  Unless you can make it back to your previous character’s corpse to reclaim your supplies, all your hard-fought efforts have been for naught.

Games like DayZ and its up-and-coming sister, Rust, point to an audience that yearns for crafting not just materials, but social orders as well.  Chaos is fun, but ultimately not sustainable:  Sooner or later, the player’s attention turns to finding ways to make all those hours of scavenging and crafting payoff.  Players coalesce into tribes and build camps to store supplies.  Dealing with other camps forces players to rethink their defensive and offensive strategies as they fight over scarce resources and pay for costly mistakes.  These games let players ask questions like “How do I survive not just today, but tomorrow?  What supplies and resources can I leave behind for my next character once the current one dies?”

In DayZ many players work toward creating havens so that they do not have to begin games continually empty-handed and vulnerable to the world.  As it stands, we can think of DayZ in a rather simple equation:

Hazardous Environment + Permadeath = Safety in Numbers

I want to start a discussion on reframing permadeath in video games as more than just a test of might, but as a mechanism in a larger apparatus, one that is more reflective of, well, death:  the permanent loss of a character that leaves a noticeable impact on the game world.  I’d like to see a game that offers the ability to construct social orders by letting the player control multiple characters, all of whom are vulnerable to permadeath.  Lucky for me, there are already games exploring this notion (State of Decay is one obvious example), but I think that there is one crucial component missing in the games mentioned so far that is vital to this particular design:  persistent time.

By persistent time, I mean that time in the game world passes with noticeable effects on the environment and all its occupants.  Time in many games has a cyclic nature, usually confined to day/night and weather cycles that repeat themselves with predictable regularity.  I have in mind an alternative concept of time, one of time as a finite resource.  Days, seasons, and years pass with obvious ramifications on the environment:  wood structures degrade after a few decades, whereas stone buildings may last for centuries.  Vegetation grows over neglected buildings and all things eventually turn to dust.  To put in other words, create a world where the landscape is continually marked by a history of player interaction.  This is not just wishful thinking; many developers are already working at creating MMOs that allow for this very thing.  Everquest Next promises that the “craters and battle scars” of previous skirmishes will leave recognizable marks on the environment.

But I believe that persistent time offers the greatest rewards with the eventual death of all characters.  If players control characters who will grow old and die regardless of how impenetrable their base is, or how many helicopters they have commandeered, their attention may turn to the construction of kinship systems and the stockpiling of altruism as a way to further make order of the harsh, unforgiving worlds that we find in DayZ.  There becomes a greater emphasis on progeny and ultimately the colonization of other spaces in the game world:

Permadeath + Hazardous Environment + Persistent Time = Emphasis on Progeny

By incorporating persistent time into games, it gives players motivations into establishing habitats.  Players may only be allowed to play characters who have come of age; children and the elderly are not playable, but must be cared for by the rest of the group.  Children, of course, need time to develop into contributing adults.  Other than keeping them alive, players may have to decide who gets to eat when food is scarce:  Do you feed the playable adult characters who need the calories to maintain camp, or feed the growing children who need calcium to avoid having weak bones as adults?  Genetic traits, good or bad, can be passed to offspring.  The elderly, too, would have vital roles in the community.  These could be “retired” characters whose can be scripted to carry out many of the domestic chores in the community, such as the welfare of children.  The usual environmental hazards apply:  the challenges of maintaining enough food to feed the population, keeping fires to ward off hypothermia, erecting barricades to protect against foes.  Families can be forced to relocate if some calamity, say a drought, makes the land inhospitable—which of course leaves them vulnerable to attack as they search for a new homeland.

My aim here is to start a discussion on how we might design video games where time is a significant component of game play with observable effects.  This is not to say that games like DayZ are not already difficult—truth be told, the game intimidates the hell out of me. However, by adding persistent time we reframe permadeath dramatically, giving it new focus and meaning.

My hunch tells me that persistent time, particularly in how it gives new meaning to death and procreation, will take on greater roles in our video games.  In the follow-up article, “Arguing for the Adoption of Persistent Time in Video Games:  Part 2 Building a House, Making a Home,” I will delve into some of my ideas on how this might play out.  These include ideas on the development of complex kinship systems, the ability for characters to pass skills and perks by way of apprenticeship with other characters, and how we might transform game space into a place, a locale embedded with player values.  I’ll also nod at games that have already broken ground here and what we might be playing in the next few years.

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 1 Rally around the Family

  1. Pingback: DayZ of Indifference: Fighting Against the Injustice Engine | Higher Level Gamer

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