Time Zone


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Mr Creosote (2015-12-19) [hide]

Avatar Thinking about Sierra Entertainment, one of the last things which would probably come to one's mind would be that they took risks. They just kept releasing new installments of their endless series, each with a loyal, defined audience. Fairly secure investments, but no surprises to be expected there. Back when they were still called On-Line Systems, there was no established home computer games market yet, however. So basically any new release was a risk by definition, because each broke new ground in some way. The biggest business risk they took must have been Time Zone, for which a (for the time) large team was tasked to create it over the period of more than a year. Ten salaries bet on the success of one game, released only on one single system to a market which was still fairly small. What was it that required this unprecedented amount of workforce?

You don't have to look too far to know, as the company's advertising department was proclaiming it as loudly as possible: Time Zone was to be the largest adventure game ever, a game which you would be able to play without it ever ending (virtually). Well, of course it does have an ending anyway. Though getting there was supposed to take months of active playing.

It's fairly easy to keep players away from reaching the ending in adventure games. The established method is to just make the puzzles insanely hard, impossible to figure out. This makes a game last long, but not entertaining. For it to be entertaining, it has to reward the player and enable progress. So Time Zone went for sheer size. An adventure which would just give you more and more and then even more puzzles to solve and equally many locations to scout.

The background of this limitless adventure being that a time machine has been dropped in your backyard. Just like that. Well, apparently there is some evil alien ruler who will want to destroy earth in the year 4082 and the future people have chosen some random guy from 1982 to save them. Makes sense, right? In any case, you've now got a device on your hands which let you not just travel through time, but also space – wow, so I can go anywhere I want at an arbitrary point in time? Now I see why fun will never end!

Actually, that's not even remotely true, of course. In fact, the game will only let you travel to 400 Million BC, 10000 BC, 50 BC, 1000 AD, 1400 AD, 1700 AD, 1982 AD, 2082 AD and 4082 AD. There is also a major fuzziness factor involved in time travel, as those years can be described as a rough target at best. Travelling to 1400 AD, you can join Columbus' expedition, for example (the calendar on the wall in that period even clearly stating 1492); 1700 AD has Napoleon ruling France; and – here things become totally indefensible – the game seriously claims that Pangea still existed 10000 BC. Location-wise, you can select only a target continent in each era. The same fuzz factor applies, with St. Petersburg being allocated to Asia, for example.

In spite of these restrictions, this still provides us with a nice number of smaller 'worlds' to explore: each continent in each period – minus the Pangea eras and in the far future, only the alien planet being accessible. Mind that I used the verb 'explore' before, however, because this is where the first of Time Zone's dirty secrets begins: it's crammed full of empty locations, even whole 'time zones' don't have any function in the game… other than acting as red herrings, keeping the player busy. Go to South America in 2082 AD and you will probably be intrigued by the empty streets of Buenos Aires. Fascinating, a big mystery to solve there, right? Wrong, all you will ever achieve there is getting shot by terrorists. Not that you have any chance of really finding out. There could be real mysteries, puzzles to solve anywhere any time. Finding out where to even look actually takes most of the play time.

Even in the historical periods, there is little chance to foresee which places should rather be avoided. First of all, you don't know which exact year you'll end up in anyway and even if you could, you wouldn't be sure whether Roberta Williams did her research. Second, the exact places you visit per continent are actually different ones per era. Europe 1000 AD takes you to England, Europe 1400 AD to Spain and Europe 1700 AD to France, for example.

This gives you the opportunity to visit what Williams probably considered the most exciting places per era, where 'things were happening' at the time. It enables you to meet historical figures such as Robin Hood, Cleopatra or Peter the Great (who, sharing the same last name – 'Great' – must be the husband of Catherine the Great, right?).

What this concept misses, on the other hand, is the opportunity to use time travel logic on the locations themselves. If the player revisited the same locations in different time zones, manipulations which happened there at previous times could have affected them. Time Zone has no concept of that.

What it does have in return is a safeguard against carrying objects into unintended locations. Its logic dictates that nothing can be carried into eras in which technology wouldn't have allowed something like that to be built already (which begs the question how the time machine itself could go there, but anyway…). So if you thought you'd just grab an advanced laser gun from the future and become the king of the past, forget about it.

Pretty much all of that serves basically just one purpose: to be able to design each time/place combination in a self-contained mode, keeping interactions between them strictly limited. Basically, the time component doesn't even play a role in the game – each era could just have been another place in the same world in the same era and the game would still have worked without major changes! A sad revelation in a game called Time Zone.

That is because although there is some local colour in the style of children's books (clichés like rice fields in China, tents and buffallo herds in North America etc.), it is hardly of any consequence. The only thing which you effectively take from 400 Million BC is a pointed stick. From 10000 BC, you get a hammer. In Asia, 50 BC, you buy rice and a rope. In Europe, 1700 AD, you steal some perfume and a comb. And so on. All things which you could easily just go and buy in your home town in 1982 – without the danger of being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus or clubbed to death by cavemen. While such adventure game logic of forcing the player to do things in the most roundabout way imaginable is not unheard of even in good games, it is way beyond ridiculous in this one.

So if Time Zone doesn't even use actual time travel mechanics, as established in other media long before, for its solution path, there is little hope for it doing anything with its own concept beyond this main path, right? Exactly right. You meet Benjamin Franklin, but you cannot beat him up, trash his printing press or rip his kite. Not for any ethical reason, as you may expect if you've played Williams' later games (most notably King's Quest), but rather because the text parser is so severely limited that it won't even let you express such commands. Can you use basic materials in a past era and make some advanced invention ahead of its time? Don't be ridiculous!

While all this obviously wasted potential raises the level of abstract frustration, it does not make Time Zone a bad game per se. In fact, it is a rather fair one, relatively speaking, within the standards of its time. The game is completely mappable, without any weird one-way connections preventing you from retracing your steps backwards. Although there are many sudden death scenes, they always occur in the same places in a reproducible manner and can therefore be avoided in subsequent attempts. Puzzles mostly boil down to straightforward exchanges of items, opening locked doors or fighting animals/people blocking your path – apart from a couple which are really completely counterintuitive and at least one which relies on game external player knowledge (something which would become a staple in the King's Quest series later).

In such cases, there is just the timeless brute force method. Looking at the actual, effective size of the game, it could have still been feasible counting only the available objects, because those are not way beyond what the competition offered in their larger games. What makes this so unappealing is the number of totally exchangeable locations where these objects could, in theory, be useful. And matching generic items such as a rope or a pin to any specific use can become very painful work, believe me! Especially when totally logical actions are usually refused by the game, just because the designer didn't think of this possibility. Trying to kill the hare with the pointed stick? No, no, what are you thinking? Of course you have to use the rock for that! It's too cold at the Antarctica? Take some wood, matches and light a fire? Take a torch? Wear the fur coat? All objects which exist in the game, but nevertheless crazy talk!

Of course, the typical pitfalls of all the company's Hi-Res adventures apply. Most notably, whereas the graphical illustrations may have been the selling point at the time, On-Line/Sierra never managed to make sense of their own separation of duties between the textual description and said illustrations. Sometimes, you will see objects found in the location also mentioned (and named!) in the descriptions. Sometimes not. Good luck figuring out what is important in those pictures (with the level of detail in the implementation differing wildly between screens)… and sometimes even figuring out what something is supposed to be turns into a tough task.

So, well, Time Zone is really a game which should be considered unplayable by anyone but the unshakingly patient. If you would like to try it anyway, here is a serious piece of advice: get yourself a walkthrough first and at least do yourself the favour of looking up which times and places are relevant at all. If you just play the honest way, it's not that you will be totally frustrated (at least not more than in most other games from the early 1980s), but it is very likely that you will just quit out of sheer boredom. Put all the things together which I elaborated by now: countless locations, but not more relevant objects than in some other games equals vast empty space where nothing is ever happening. It is sort of softened a bit by making each time/place combination mostly self-contained, but that comes at the price of making the overall game feeling disjointed and random.

Talking about the different zones to visit, in spite of what I said earlier, they mostly lack real flavour, save for the handful of characters and some animals (both of which are basically just additional static objects again). Unless you happen to pass a house, which is then usually drawn in stereotyped style, you will never know when and where this meadow, hill or coastline is other than through your own projections, because you just directed your time machine there.

Perhaps worst of all, the endless exploration lacks any sort of drive. Following the tradition of the genre, the other Hi-Res adventures were all basic treasure hunts. Cranston Manor, for example, directly tasks you to steal sixteen treasures. Beneath their thin disguises, the others also weren't far from this. I.e. you went in and you knew what your immediate goal was. Time Zone only tells you to prevent the evil alien from blowing up the earth. How to stop him? No idea initially (especially if you ask the question what it is you could possibly do which the future earthlings cannot, but again, let's not quibble). Alright, given the usually low level of imagination in these games let's assume it will be either by destroying the giant ray gun or offing the bad guy, so (since the earth locations are not available anymore in that era) the logical step would be to go straight to the alien planet in 4082AD, right? How does going to other historical eras serve that purpose?

I'm not complaining about 'intrinsic player motivation' or anything along those modern-day concepts here. What about simply saying that a mythological artifact needs to be retrieved from each era in order to combine their magical powers to eventually overcome the bad guy? Or maybe you need to gather history's greatest military strategists to deal with the threat? Good enough for me. Time Zone doesn't even manage that. Instead, it has me collecting rocks, because there are apparently none in another place or another time (although they are clearly visible in the illustrations…).

So in the end, it all comes down to the game's size again. Although, as pointed out, the game isn't nearly as massive as promised. Most of it is just a static collection of non-descript, illustrated locations. Certainly, these illustrations (ranging from acceptable to breathtakingly bad) alone are not worth fighting your way all through the game. For all other intents and purposes, the size is just a smoke screen which, if anything, makes things worse rather than better due to the reasons explained in a lot of detail. You know what? I believe this has turned into the largest game review (admittedly containing some repetition) I've ever written. Maybe appropriate, but deserved? Oh well…

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