Time is of the Essence
*This post contains minor spoilers for Mass Effect 2*
I was helpless. I could only watch as my flirty PA was pulped, fed through a blender and processed into a human paste. Now a fleshy milkshake for the dastardly Collectors, Kelly Chambers was a victim of my tardiness and desire to fully explore the Mass Effect universe.
I had always presumed that Kelly’s fate was sealed the moment that the Collectors boarded the Normandy and whisked away the non-combatant crew, while Shepard and co were out on a mystery team-building exercise (paintballing on Eden Prime, I believe). I had accepted her messy demise as being outside of my control and was able to continue with the mission with a clear conscience, managing my team through a battle they had no business surviving.
That was how it went for my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2, back in 2010. Replaying it the last few weeks, I once again found myself looking on as the lovely Kelly was splattered inside a test-tube, only this time I paid more attention to the words of Dr Chakwas, the lone survivor of the kidnapped crew. She suggested that, had I arrived earlier, I could have saved everyone, including Kelly. Was it possible that the good doctor was onto something?
EDI was ignoring me, so I went straight to Google for an answer and was horrified to learn that the deaths of Kelly and crew could have been averted if only I'd headed for the Omega 4 Relay at the first opportunity, instead of fannying about with side missions of questionable worth. In a game where virtually every decision has a consequence, this was the only mission - to the best of my knowledge - that punishes you for not being on time, which made it such a surprise and even harder to stomach. My fish would go unfed and there would be no ME3 cameos for Kelly; Shepard hasn't been able to even look at a milkshake since.
|While Frank stops to enjoy standing on cars, a young couple get brained in Burger King|
If video games have taught me anything it's that characters and events will wait for the player, no matter how pressing the situation may be. Victims of a kidnapping will wait patiently until Kazuma Kiryu has finished his fortieth round of table tennis. Sephiroth will postpone his evil plans until after you've bred and raced that perfect chocobo, and Alduin will hold-off on destroying the world while you pick wild flowers and sip on mead. But every now and then a time sensitive mission or game will come along that challenge my understanding of the passing of time in a digital world.
With Dead Rising, Capcom have successfully built a series around racing against the clock. Missions appear and disappear within very short periods, and the game is kept within a time limit. You are constantly forced to make life or death decisions: should I spend the next ten minutes strapping chainsaws to a motorbike or saving a family from ravenous zombies? It's impossible to save everyone or sample every activity, and this is made clear from the outset with each mission being accompanied by an on-screen timer that ensures you are always on the move. The time sensitive elements of Dead Rising are never a surprise, affording you some control over whose face will be eaten. Within the confines of the story and setting, this ever present countdown works rather well, even if it does make you feel like you are being cheated out of content, through no fault of your own.
Hideo Kojima did a nice job of using the passing of time to add new and interesting ways to approach the showdown with The End, in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The ancient sniper has kept himself alive just so that he may do battle with Snake, but you can cheat him out of this final skirmish by not touching the game for a week or so (or just fiddling with the system clock) which will cause him to die of natural causes/boredom. The key difference here, in comparison to Dead Rising and ME's Kelly, is that no matter the speed of your actions the outcome is the same: The End is dead. It does not withhold content, but merely gives the player yet another option of how to arrive at the same result.
I don't tend to enjoy time sensitive games or missions, as they often seem more punitive than rewarding. I have enough trouble trying to juggle everything in real life without having to worry about time management in video games. I prefer a title that won't punish me for taking my time, especially in a world as rich as Mass Effect where I want to give in to my wanderlust without fear of repercussion. If Kelly were still here, I'm sure that she’d agree.