By request of Olli Tietavainen
The advent of something akin to actual timekeeping in video games has been both a blessing and a curse. It can greatly enrich a game experience, create a true sense of world that makes the player feel like they’re part of something much larger than a digital construct that revolves around their actions (even though of course that’s exactly what it is). On the other hand, it can also drag out or needlessly pad a game… or worse, it can render it nearly unplayable.
Nighttime is a tricky thing to handle in video games. In a life sim game such as The Sims or Tomodachi Life, night time tends to be something of a bore because the little imaginary people who comprise the entirety of the experience doze off and leave you nothing to do. In a role-playing type game, it can be even worse; evil monsters grow more powerful under cover of darkness, and said darkness can completely degrade your ability to play.
I can think of no purer example of nighttime causing mechanical degradation than Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma. I don’t know what they were thinking with that game, but when night spread across the land, the action more or less ground to a halt. You could barely see 10 meters ahead of your character, making traversal even more of a chore than it was to begin with. I mean, sure, points for turning even minor enemies into legitimate threats, I suppose, but that escalated danger level came entirely from the fact that you couldn’t see the monsters you were about to wander into. Hardly fun.
Irritating as it may have been, the night effect of Dragon’s Dogma was simply a modern-day attempt to crack the puzzle of how to use nocturnal darkness for a more harrowing video game experience, something stretching all the way back to the concept’s origins.
I actually can’t find concrete information on the first-ever day/night cycle in games. I mean, yes, it existed as a cosmetic effect a long time before it bore mechanical weight. But which game was the first to present nightfall as a significant change to the game experience? I figured for certain it would have been some PC RPG from the early ’80s, like Ultima or The Bard’s Tale, but to the best of my knowledge I can find nothing of the sort. In fact, after doing some reading, it looks like the first game to incorporate a real-time game clock with day and night transitions may well have been… Castlevania II.
Nightfall changed the Castlevania II experience rather dramatically. Enemies became much more difficult to destroy, and towns shut down, denying Simon Belmont the prospect of safe haven as he traveled the Transylvanian countryside. Because the game operated on a clock to determine its endings, the flow of time actually had a measurable impact on how you needed to approach the adventure. You needed to plan your journey to hit towns during daylight hours in order to trade for or purchase the merchandise within and gather clues, because being forced to dawdle about as the night ticked along was a huge waste of time. Night mattered in Castlevania II.
You saw a similar spirit a decade later in Sega’s Shenmue, which used the flow of time to help heighten the sense of simulation. Different people would appear in town at different times of day, and your landlady didn’t have much patience for night owls; at a certain hour of the night, she’d lock down your apartment building, turning poor Ryo into a hobo for the evening.
Unsurprisingly, night factors heavily into more overt simulation games — maybe not so much The Sims, really, but its kindred, like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing and Tomodachi Life. The towns operate on diurnal schedules, and townsfolk themselves are more like to sleep or otherwise become unavailable after dark. I find it interesting that the latest Animal Crossing, New Leaf, offers a tacit admission that the day-night thing is cute and all but also sometimes terribly inconvenient. Many gamers only have time to play at night, and trying to skulk about your animal village while the shops are closed and most of the villagers are asleep really sucks the fun out of the game. To compensate, New Leaf allows you to drop a chunk of change to keep the town open late at night — an attempt to allow players to both possess and consume their cake all at once.
After giving it some thought, though, I have to say no single game made more dramatic use of night and day than Konami’s Boktai. Ah, but that’s a post for another day…
P.S. I mostly talked about night here. That’s because day is boring.