Super Time Force's iconic gameplay mechanic, which lets characters play alongside their fallen comrades, has been completely rethought for the game's latest build — and it's an incredibly welcome change.
The game's PAX East 2013 demo showcases the new method players have for traveling in time. Previously, players would have to restart each level upon dying, generating a new hero to play along the ghost of their last attempt; a ghost they could potentially save with quick thinking. For example, by respawning and killing the foe who ended your previous run, you could save them; unless, of course, your second hero gets killed too, starting a vicious cycle.
It was a clever mechanic with a counterintuitive twist: Dying still sent you back to the beginning of the level, making it an incredibly punishing (and therefore, less fun) result of failure. It was especially detrimental to the game's best players, who can navigate each level's bullet hell-esque corridors. Death was a thing to be avoided, a logic that has been encoded into gaming enthusiasts by just about every other game ever released; but in Super Time Force, it's actually a way to make it to each level's finish line as efficiently as possible.
"Because we wanted to make death so central, and a gameplay mechanic rather than a punishment for sucking at a gameplay mechanic, we started thinking that it's crazy you spend so much time not in control of time," Capy co-founder Nathan Vella told Polygon. "It's crazy that really, you're not playing the game because you're dying. So we decided to go back and rethink about what we love about it."
"It was fun, and cool, and it demoed great, but like, this is a video game."
Their solution is as elegant as it is difficult to explain. Whenever a hero dies, or whenever a player chooses to end their run as that hero, they can "Time Out," a maneuver which effectively removes them from the flow of time. Players can then scroll through their timestream, watching where (and when) each of their heroes have perished, and drop back in with a new hero at any point.
Instead of starting the level over, players can now just rewind a bit. It doesn't just make death less punishing and less of a time sink, it adds a new strategic element to the game: When do you need to jump back into the stream to save your fallen comrade? Go too far back, and you risk dying in your new run. Don't go far enough, and you might not have enough time to save your dead associate, and recover one of the 30 lives allotted to the player for each level.
"You're always in control," Vella said. "Like, you control time. That's kind of what Super Time Force was about, right from the very beginning. The second part of it is, it makes the game so much more interesting as a longplay. The past way was super fun for 15 minutes. It made a great demo, because it's funny, and you're rewinding back, and you're dying a lot. But once you get good at the game, you're not dying very much, which means you're not even using the core mechanics very often."
It's been a complex change to make, Vella said. From a level design perspective, it was easier to have players to have a definitive starting point every time they died; now, the game's creators have to intricately prepare each stage while considering the infinite possibilities that Timing Out allows. Time travel is already an incredibly difficult concept to program into a game; to give players full control over it while also processing the ramifications of their past efforts is exponentially more difficult. Still, Capy wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's crazy to think about how we thought the game was done core design-wise at PAX East last year," Vella said. "It was fun, and cool, and it demoed great, but like, this is a video game. That was a great demo of what would need to become this game."