A video game for time travelers.

The art of play.
April 11 2005 4:35 PM

Playing With Myself

Finally, a video game for time travelers. Plus, mashing buttons in Tekken 5.

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About halfway through TimeSplitters Future Perfect, I hit a challenge so brutal I almost threw the controller away. How was I supposed to hack two computer terminals simultaneously and fight off spiderlike guard robots at the same time? Then the cavalry arrived: A wormhole opened, and out popped three versions of my character, each of whom had teleported back in time to help me out. Each of us picked one task, and we quickly finished the challenge. But, thanks to the logic of time travel, I had to relive that same scene four times over, each time playing as one of my alternate, future selves. If I screwed up, we'd all die. Or rather, I'd die—four times.

The paradoxes of time travel have long provided fodder for sci-fi movies and stoner conversations. Now, everyone's favorite "Whoa, dude!" late-night epiphany has come to video games. In terms of game play, TimeSplitters is unremarkable; it's just a standard, first-person shooter with some mildly challenging puzzles. It's redeemed, though, by the bits of intellectual weirdness and comedy that stem from its kooky premise. The game's villain, Jacob Crow, is the inventor of a time-travel device that he takes from the future and, in a classic bit of chronological autoeroticism, gives to his younger self in the past—to ensure that he invents it.

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The story is witty, but disappointingly, the brains behind this game didn't follow through with the truly loopy implications. In each level, you have to zip through a wormhole to help your future self (or past self) out of a jam. But where are the time paradoxes we'd all love to see? If you mess up something when you go into the past, you don't change your future like Marty McFly did in Back to the Futureby mucking up his parents' back story. If you screw up in TimeSplittersand get your past or future self killed, it's just like any other in-game death: You start the level over. You also can't control when the wormholes appear or where they lead; they're noninteractive elements written into the game's script.

It'd be great if designers gave us real time travel. They certainly could: Video games are the only "places" where the laws of physics are up for grabs, where designers can bend and warp time however they wish. It's not so hard to imagine a game where, if you accidentally kill someone crucial to your success in the future, the game could recalibrate itself on the fly and plunk you into a completely new situation based on the new premises you just generated. What would happen if a butterfly flapped its wings in Thailand—or what if you went back in time and killed your grandfather? Dude.

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Tekken, on the other hand, is a much more traditional game. I first encountered the classic fighting title in arcades in 1995, when it was justly praised for offering genuinely subtle hand-to-hand combat. Whereas many fighting games rely on a few sci-fi "superpower" moves—the fireballs in Street Fighter, Subzero's ice blasts in Mortal KombatTekken, now up to its fifth installment, has remained realistic. After a decade, the game has stuck to its original formula: straight-ahead martial-arts and barroom-brawling moves.

It does, though, have something in common with every other fighting game: the Byzantine complexity of the combos. Each character has dozens of moves that are listed in the game guide and scores more that are "hidden" and only discovered by careful experimentation (or by cheating and reading an online fan guide). For example, executing Nina Williams' "leg stretch arm lock" attack requires the following button sequence: left-punch, right-punch, right-kick, left-kick, left-punch, right-punch, left-kick. Got that?

Rather than try to memorize 10-step combinations, most players resort to a simpler maneuver: "button mashing." Hard-core gamers look at button mashers with contempt—they're the weak-willed novices who hammer away at the game pad at random and pray for the best. Few of my gamer friends will admit to mashing, and none are proud of resorting to arbitrary thumb gymnastics. But I think button mashing is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it's the best way to learn how to play a fighting game.

When you're a masher, you approach the game humbly, accepting your absolute inability to control your character. By flailing away with no pretensions that you know what you're doing, you'll eventually pull off a few killer combos by accident. Then you'll forget them and figure out a couple of new ones. By the time you've played for 12 hours in a row, a few will have stuck. Soon, you can reliably pull them off again and again without being entirely sure how the hell you're doing it.

That's precisely what happened to me. After being flummoxed by Tekken 5 initially, I swallowed my pride and surrendered to the flow of mashing. Once I accidentally mastered some marvelous attacks, I learned to calm down and become dispassionate in battle—to step outside of myself, observe what I was doing, and learn and execute even bigger and better combos. It's a terrific lesson for life: Begin with fake Zen, and you'll wind up with real Zen.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

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