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Why are turn-based games so good at creating stories?

Slow, slow, quick.

It was Superhot that first made me think about the old writer's adage, that you do the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow. This is the thinking that powers Jack Reacher novels, for example - Lee Child talks about this trick often and with great clarity. If Reacher's doing a bunch of research, you whip through it in a couple of lines. Literary montage! If Reacher's outside a bar, though, and a horseshoe of bad'uns is forming around him, time slows until it forms a thick mineral goop that traps everyone within it. The next few seconds are going to involve the shattering of kneecaps and the bruising of aortas (if aortas are a thing that can be bruised - having typed it, I am unconvinced). The next few seconds are going to be violent and memorable. Crucially, the next few seconds are going to take eight or nine pages to play out, because every move will be examined in great forensic detail. We will count the separate sparks in the air, and be deafened by the clatter of a spent cartridge case rattling on the tarmac. We will be fully present and fully conscious in these terrible, glorious moments.

Is Superhot turn-based? Not really, but it's a unique kind of meter, certainly - the work of a ludic Dave Brubeck. It is strange, given the unprecedented control over the variables that make up the universe they afford, that many games are so uninterested in time. Sure, they shatter it into loops with the death and save systems. They may also slow it, Reacher-like, when the guns come out. But genuine inventions, such as Superhot's world in which time only moves when you do? These genuine inventions are quite rare.

I've been thinking of all this these past few weeks as I've been playing, by sheer coincidence, through a range of rather brilliant turn-based tactic games, some of which have come out and some of which are yet to be released. Turn-based tactic games are hardly inventive by this point, but they definitely force you to think about time, about how it is broken up, and about what happens when you can pause it and step outside of it and really ponder your actions. Specifically, the games I've been playing have made me think about the way that time affects storytelling, and I think I'm ready to present my findings. Turn-based games, I suspect, are uniquely suited to generating incredible stories. They are more cinematic in the narrative sense than the games that we lazily refer to as being cinematic. And I think this is because of time.

Cover image for YouTube videoSuperhot played super fast

To write a story is to be in total control of time, even if you aren't really thinking about it very much. Even before you start to loop backwards, creating little oxbows or hiving off discrete flashbacks, every time you simply elect not to mention something you could mention you are chopping up the timeline a little, editing the normal flow of events. Writing is choosing: this is another old saw - much like the phrase "old saw", and now I am ashamed. But you are choosing how to spend time, what to dwell upon, what to explore outside of the normal flow of events and how and when to return to the moment you have just left. (I've been re-reading Angelmaker recently, and Nick Harkaway is absolutely fascinating about time. Because his omniscient narrator sits so snugly inside his various characters' heads, you get this needle-scratch, lights-dimming moment every few sentences of spoken dialogue: a digression will unfold for an unfathomably long period inside a single person's consciousness, and then with a start they will speak again and you will realise that, really, no actual time has truly passed between one spoken line and the next.)

I think this intense consciousness regarding time - this absolute control over when to start it and stop it, if not to entirely be in charge of what you can do while it's paused - is what makes turn-based games so good at churning out memorable stories. I have hundreds of stories regarding Invisible Inc, say, a turn-based game about spies who travel the world and infiltrate sinister corporations (another old saw; is there any other kind of corporation really?) and while I originally thought this was down to the systemic rigour of the game - if I can hack into a robot in order to control it as a weapon, can't I also choose to park it in front of a door, blocking it while I make my escape? - I now suspect it's also, perhaps crucially because when you can stop things and weigh up various options, you become so much more conscious of your own agency, and so much more inventive in how you deploy that agency. You notice a wealth of options that might be present in other games but which are lost in the constant unfolding nowness of 24 fps or however fast it is. Time slows, and it means that you can think slowly too, you can explore the garden of forking paths and discard choices that are, on prolonged reflection, somewhat suboptimal. And you can remember not just what you eventually chose to do but what you were thinking, what you were hoping, and how you then felt when all your hopes fell to pieces. And that sounds like a story, frankly.

Cover image for YouTube videoChris' game of the year 2015 - Invisible Inc.

One of the games I've been playing over the last few weeks makes this gloriously explicit. In All Walls Must Fall, you switch from a chuntering form of real-time play to turn-based play whenever a firefight begins, and for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days if you're really indecisive, you can pause things after each action and plan out a precision dance from one tile of safety to the next while you pop noggins, blast people in the centre mass and do all the other things that generally make Jack Reacher's readers very happy.

And then, in an act of complete brilliance, you complete the gunfight and click the button to "drop it". The game whisks you back to the start of the shoot-out and, as with Superhot, you get to see your own clockwork passage of choices play out in uninterrupted real-time. You have told a story through the game, and now the game is reading that story back to you. Voila.