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In Time Flies, life is meaningless, do what you can before death takes you

Michael Frei’s new game is about ‘our limited time in this world’

A fly sits on a vintage record player in a screenshot from Time Flies Image: Michael Frei, Raphaël Munoz/Playables

One of the weirder games revealed during this year’s Summer Game Fest was undoubtedly Time Flies. On its surface, it appears to be a modest time-management game where you explore a house and try to complete as many goals as you can before dying. Each run lasts between one and two minutes.

But the reveal trailer’s whimsical music belied the nihilistic tagline that appears at the end like a mic being dropped: “You are a fly. Your life is short. Make the best of the time you have. Because we are all going to die.”

“I was interested in having a fly as being something meaningless, almost annoying,” Swiss designer and animator Michael Frei, one half of the game’s development team (along with programmer Raphaël Munoz), told me. “And to do to do something meaningful as a fly in the world with a bucket list […] I think that’s something we ask ourselves every day, like, ‘What is meaningful to me? What should I do with my life?’”

In Time Flies, you take control of a fly in a minimalistically drawn world that, in the demo we played, consisted of several rooms in a house or apartment. As you explore each room, opportunities arise to check items off the fly’s bucket list, while trying to avoid an abrupt ending to the critter’s already brief life. The fly dreams of getting drunk before it dies; dive headfirst into the waiting wine glass and you drown, but alight next to the droplet on the table next to it, and your list becomes one item shorter. Exploring the house while finding the correct points of interactivity creates a simplistic but fun gameplay loop that will no doubt inspire players to seek out the fastest routes to complete as many objectives as possible in a single life.

Frei said that’s one way to play, although just as in real life, flitting around and dying without accomplishing a single meaningful goal is just as valid.

“I guess it’s up to the player in the end,” he said.

A housefly flies away from an acoustic guitar in a screenshot from Time Flies Image: Michael Frei, Raphaël Munoz/Playables

There’s another wrinkle: Your allotted play time varies based on your geographical location. The game checks your IP address against a list of life expectancies by country, then assigns you an equivalent number of seconds. Players in countries with better healthcare and less pollution will have several seconds longer to explore before their fly drops dead of old age.

“You know, depending on where you live, you’re more lucky or less luck in life,” Frei, who lives in Switzerland — a country with one of the highest life expectancies in the world — remarked.

Time Flies appears much less abstract than Frei’s previous games, Plug & Play (2015) and Kids (2019), which are more like interactive short films involving pushing, pulling, and prodding figures through austere black-and-white environments. Time Flies is his first project with anything resembling traditional gameplay mechanics or goals. That’s not to say you’ll be leveling up your fly’s skill trees, but it’s an evolution nonetheless.

Visually, Time Flies was inspired by Glider, an old Mac game. “It was the first video game I ever played, on my father’s Mac Classic, the first Mac you could buy in Switzerland,” Frei recalled.

The original idea that morphed into Time Flies was a browser extension that summoned annoying, buzzing flies around website elements that were tracking you. He also considered having the titular character be a single pixel, rather than an actual animated fly. It seems like every somewhat recognizable element of the game was sculpted from the clay of a stranger, less accessible idea, and the result is something that we can’t quite predict. Frei said there are facets of the game he hasn’t shown yet and won’t discuss.

“I’m kind of lucky in a way to be able to do projects on my own terms, which is, I think, kind of a big privilege,” he said. Each project he’s done has just barely funded the next. “I have creative freedom,” he continued. “I don’t have to comply to anyone’s expectations. And that’s interesting to me.

“Also to play with the expectation of the audience. That’s always pretty interesting.”

As part of their research, the developers researched what people usually put on actual bucket lists. “That was a very depressing endeavor, because most people that publish their bucket list online, these bucket lists are more about bragging rights than about meaningfulness,” Frei said. “I don’t have a bucket list. I just hope I won’t have too many regrets when I’m dying.”

Time Flies is scheduled to be released on Mac, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC in 2023.

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