I said, 'Are you fucking kidding me? I've got seven bugs, let's put the fucking thing out tomorrow. I'm sick and tired of fucking crunching. I can't handle hundred hour weeks for another year.' And Martin Tremblay, who had recently come on from [Ubisoft], said, 'No, Kyle, I really believe we can do something greater than what we're doing now. What would you do?'
"Well I said, 'I'd scrap the physics system, get rid of this Meqon and put in Havok. I'd kill off the first four levels of the game, because we made the classic video game mistake of doing the beginning first and the end last, and the end is great and the beginning is weak. All these FMVs we paid for, I want to get rid of them. I want to get rid of the story, I want to get rid of the style guide, I want to get rid of the weapons, I want to get rid of the menus, I want to get rid of the HUD, I want to get rid of the suit. I want to get rid of the main character; people aren't identifying with him.' I just went down this list. I was kind of going after that list so aggressively that I was kind of hoping people would say to just release the game tomorrow, and then I could be done with it. But he goes, 'Okay. Let's do that.'
"There was a little bit of shell shock for me--a lot of shell shock. And now we're doing it."
Thus began the current--and, as director and producer Kyle Peschel surely hopes, the final--chapter in the saga of Russian developer Saber Interactive's long-delayed chronology-warping shooter TimeShift, as described to me by Peschel outside of the W Hotel in San Francisco. Originally set to release in 2005 and now planned for this fall, the game gives players the ability to stop, slow, or reverse time while attempting to survive in its war-torn future environments. In the game's fiction, a scientist named Krone is contracted by the United States government to perform time travel research. As Krone progresses deeper into his work, he steals a prototype time travel suit, and makes a jump to an unknown place and time. The player, also employed by the government, is given a more advanced military-grade revision of the suit and sent in pursuit. After making the jump, it becomes clear that, in his new era, Krone has used his newfound technology to establish an oppressive fascist regime--and, of course, it is up to the player to not only put things right but to simply survive.
TimeShift has switched publishers (from Atari to Vivendi subsidiary Sierra), switched platforms (from Xbox and PC to Xbox 360, PC, and PS3), switched visual styles (from steampunk to gritty oppressive future), and switched innumerable control- and design-related decisions, but it has not switched its producer. Peschel described to me how he started on the project back at Atari, and how he managed to stick with it when it was dropped as a result of that publisher's well-publicized tumultuous financial situation.
"TimeShift was picked up almost four years ago almost as a value title," he explained. "When it was originally picked up by Atari, I had just come off of some other first person shooters. It was kind of opportunistic--let's take a chance on these guys in Russia. So I sat down and started looking at the game said, 'You know, I think we could really do something with this,' provided we really built the mechanics and made it not gimmicky, focused on an interesting art style like steampunk--set it apart from the myriad of things. So we started rolling with it, and got about done with the Xbox [version], and I sat down with [then Atari CEO] Bruno Bonnell and all the execs at Atari, and they said, 'So, Kyle, can you make this game for 360?' I'm like, 'What, am I a fucking genie now?' They say, 'No, seriously, it's for 360 now.'
"I say, 'Okay, I'm sure we can get that out.'"
That was to be the first time the game would undergo large-scale redevelopment. Soon, however, Atari's funding started to dwindle in the face of falling revenues, and in January 2006 the team was pressured to get a demo released quickly. Internet response illuminated some of the game's major issues, some of which were a result of the game being quickly ported up to target then-current hardware, and some of which went as deep as the game's perhaps poorly planned visual style.
"When you get something in that many hands, you listen to the feedback. I'm making games for guys like me, not for corporate America. I mean, I work for corporate America--I don't want to sell it like I'm the fuckin' hero of gamers everywhere--but I'm cognizant of what people are saying. I was on Shack reading the comments and, reading between the lines, people were saying basically, 'I really like some of what they're doing, but this steampunk shit is ass. Look at this fucking knuckleduster thing, what the fuck is that? It's all confused.'"
Soon after, Atari announced that it would be shedding much of its development to help reduce expenditures. TimeShift was put up on the auction block, and Peschel quit his job to go work for Vivendi's Sierra Entertainment label. "Within a day," he recalls, he was approached by management with the possibility of Vivendi acquiring TimeShift from Atari and reassigning him to the project. At the time, Peschel was working under industry veteran Drew Markham, who founded Gray Matter Studios, designed Xatrix's Kingpin: Life of Crime, and produced Gray Matter's Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Markham saw, as Peschel had when the game was first signed by Atari, that TimeShift had more potential than it was demonstrating, so Peschel went back and started rethinking major aspects of the game.
"I changed the storyline up at the last minute, and that's when we brought in [voice actors] Dennis Quaid and Michael Ironside and all those guys," he recounted. "A funny thing happens when you rewrite the story: you pay attention to everything. I was thinking, 'Fuck, X isn't working, Y isn't working, I wish I could do this.'"
That was when, at seven bugs away from completion, Peschel was called into Sierra's offices and was told that he had another year.
Turn the page for more on TimeShift's evolution, and for impressions of its current build._PAGE_BREAK_ The original steampunk theme was dropped and replaced by a grittier, darker, more desolate future. The main character was redesigned from a muscle-bound action hero to a more faceless protagonist in a full body suit, into which Peschel hopes players will project themselves. I noted the similarities between this approach and that of Valve with its Half-Life series, and Peschel spoke on the reasoning for a "blank slate" protagonist but was hesitant to draw too strong a parallel to the iconic Gordon Freeman.
"You've got Gordon Freeman, and it's not believable that a scientist is out there kicking that much ass," he argued. "You're a fuckin' scientist. Then there's the case of the Master Chief [in Bungie's Halo], it's not believable that I'm him, because he's some type of special ops guy, or maybe he's a cyborg under the suit, or maybe there's nothing there at all and it's just the suit. What I hope to accomplish with the TimeShift main character is that you believe, 'If I put this suit on, I could be this person.' That's always what's been fascinating to me. When I read the Spider-Man and Superman comics as a kid, Superman was awesome but I couldn't be Superman. But I kind of secretly believed I could be Spider-Man, provided I could find the right spider to bite me. That's what I hope to accomplish with TimeShift, is that you believe, 'I could be this guy.'"
In an attempt to bridge the gap between the completely wordless Gordon-type hero and the more personality-infused hero seen in Human Head's Prey ("Tommy would say, 'Whoa, that's some spooky shit,' and I looked around and was like 'Who's talking?'"), the time-manipulating suit the player wears in TimeShift is equipped with an AI system called S.A.M., which helps the player assess given situations. Apparently, earlier in development, the team realized that rather than learning to use all three of the game's time powers--slow, stop, and reverse--players would end up harping on the most obvious one--stop--and use it exclusively. To better equip players to use all three powers in appropriate situations, the interface was stripped down and S.A.M. was added as a halfway point to decide on a contextual basis what power fits the current situation best.
"To better explain the suit, I probably have to better explain the storyline," said Peschel when asked about how this mechanic works. "Krone takes the alpha suit, which is the old game suit--I have no problem poking fun at our older version, it's actually the one from that [development period]. He jumps through time with it, and you jump after him in the beta suit, the military-grade suit. It's much more slick. It comes with two primary features that the alpha suit doesn't have. One is auto-recall. If you end up in the Jurassic period and some dinosaur is about to step on you, it sends you back through time so the suit doesn't end up in the wrong hands. The second thing that it has is a really infantile AI program called S.A.M., which stands for Strategic System for Adaptable Metacognition. As you work through, you have almost a co-character in the suit for you. It doesn't talk to you, it doesn't do goofy shit, but something's got to assess who's a threat and how you can counteract that threat, and that's what S.A.M. brings to the table. As S.A.M. starts that auto-recall, it malfunctions. It tries to self-repair, and those attempts manifest as these time shifting abilities that slow, stop, and reverse time. The game is designed in such a fashion that, almost all the time, any of the powers will work, but what I'm trying to provide the user with is these actual different solutions to understand how you can work with the situations. Otherwise, I've found that users become too reliant on one ability over another."
Peschel gave a few examples of such situations. In a dangerous combat situation, it tends to be obvious which power makes the most sense. If a grenade is about to explode on top of you, time reversal is the most appropriate, as it will remove the threat. If an enemy rocket has just been fired, one may want to stop time and shoot the rocket so it explodes at its source. If that rocket is already on its way, you can simply slow time and evade or destroy it before it reaches its target. Unlike the time-controlling ability in Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PS2, Xbox, GCN, PC), TimeShift's time mechanics keep the player divorced from the temporal manipulations--while the rest of the game is being stopped, reversed, or slowed, you continue to operate in real time. This allows for unusual strategies such as being able to go back in time to ambush would-be ambushers from their own ambush point, and also opens up some interesting possibilities for physics-based puzzles.
It must be stated that TimeShift's visuals have come a long, long way since the game was shown in demo form last year. Since that point, it went through an overhaul to bring it up to speed for Xbox 360, but Peschel noted that even then the game had a great deal of legacy geometry and textures, and did not feel up to par with modern shooters. It was not until development was revamped again and the entire visual style scrapped that the game began to look truly new. Admittedly, it is somewhat astonishing how much TimeShift's graphical fidelity has evolved. To drive the point home, there was even a video flipping back and forth between the older build of the game and the same scenes in the current build, illustrating massive technological leaps. Peschel then showed off a playable level early in the game that demonstrated the extremely impressive procedural rain effect, which lightly distorts the ground as it falls and which streaks down the player's visor.
He then slowed, stopped, and reversed his rain, and it was indeed quite impressive to see it streak up off of the visor and back into the sky in real time.
Along with the new graphics comes a new Havok physics engine, which had to be modified extensively from its stock form to work properly during time manipulations. Interactive objects and rag-doll corpses can be juggled with firepower in an exaggerated slow-motion fashion during stopped or slowed time, leading to the potential of a screen full of floating dead enemies and barrels.
"If we're going to have crates and barrels just like every single other first person game, I told the team we might as well do something fuckin' interesting with them," explained Peschel. "I want you to feel godlike--you will walk on fucking water--but not because it's god mode. Time is the ultimate weapon."
Much like the rain, destruction of in-game environments can be stopped and reversed, but unlike rain this is more than just eye candy. TimeShift has dynamically destructible glass, which allows different areas of a pane of glass to be broken without simply destroying the overall structure; Peschel compared this to Insomniac's lauded glass physics in Resistance ("They said you could only do glass like that on PS3," he laughed). More importantly, it also has destructible walls in many areas. Seeing a brick wall destroyed into its component parts, then seeing that explosion rewound in real time as the wall reassembles itself, is quite a treat. One might destroy a wall only to be confronted with a room full of enemies, then rewind to before the wall was destroyed and seek out an alternate attack route. It is difficult to tell just how much of the game is destructible, but it seems that destructible elements are placed on a case by case basis rather than comprehensively. The game features "completely appropriate destructible environments as needed," Peschel said.
There is undoubtedly a whole bullet list's worth of visual buzzwords that could be cited in describing TimeShift's current form, but the bottom line is that while the game has lost its former more distinctive colorful style, it has gained a significant amount of cohesion as well as a much-needed ground-up visual rebirth. With the darker, grittier look and completely rewritten story, Peschel is hoping to communicate to the player a more engaging and evocative single-player experience.
"As the suit malfunctions, the story malfunctions. As the story malfunctions, the gameplay expands. And as the gameplay expands, immersion increases," he said.
Fortunately for us, and for him, the game seems to have overcome its development malfunctions. Whether it lives up to its impressive promises and potential should become more clear as the game approaches its final release later this year.
Sierra Entertainment plans to ship Saber Interactive's TimeShift for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC this fall.