Most video games are either two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Most… but not all. Today, we’re celebrating the games that dip their toes into the underappreciated and underexplored fourth dimension: Time.
Unfortunately for us 3D peasants, we are forced to experience time in a linear fashion, going from Tuesday to Wednesday like utter plebs, unable to revisit the salad days of the previous Monday and make sure that we didn’t make that terrible joke at the dining table, or spill spaghetti sauce all over our nice new jumper. But hey! At least we play video games, a medium in which nothing is set in stone and everything is save-scummable — and the Time Loop sub-genre exists as a narrative framing device. Hooray!
Now, a bad time loop game — coughTwelveMinutescough — will force the player through tedious repetition and bafflingly specific branches to change the past/present/future, but a good time loop game will always provide forward momentum, constantly twisting and tweaking the loop to intrigue the player and throw unanswered questions at their quizzical face. These are the games we have put in this list — the ones that delight, surprise, shock, and are generally more twisty than headphone cables fresh out of a pocket.
Before we continue any further, please be aware that this article — by its very nature — is going to be a little bit spoilery. Some games aren’t revealed to be time loops until 20 minutes in; others save it for an Act Three twist. So, be warned, because you can’t go back and un-read this article!
Now, let’s get stuck in before we get booted back to the start of this article to try again!
The prototypical time loop game. Of course it’s on here. Majora’s Mask shoves our boy Link in a forever-repeating three-day cycle until he can figure out how to stop the moon from crashing into Earth. You’d think that stopping Ganon was the highest-stakes plot for a Zelda game, but no — this self-contained adventure is one of the darkest, most heartbreaking Zeldas there is.
The title of this one may be a little offputting, but do not be off-put — The Sexy Brutale is not as sexy as it sounds. It’s still gorgeous, unusual, and absolutely chocka with murders, all of which you will have to solve in (you guessed it) a time loop.
Observation and a strong understanding of the time-sensitive patterns at each stage of the game are all beneficial to progression. You have to watch characters through keyholes, slits in wardrobes, and even figure out their patterns from non-obvious clues, in order to save each one from a grisly murder… and unlock the next one. Although it runs a little jankily on Switch, it’s a must-play for time loop fans.
Many time loop games are narrative-based — figure out why you’re in the time loop in the first place, fix things, repeat — but Loop Hero is a mechanical loop, too.
Each time you set out on a new Expedition, your hero will spawn on a short, freshly generated path that takes only a couple minutes to fully traverse. Your hero simply walks forward on the loop and automatically fights anything that gets in his way, so it’s up to you to put things in his way that will make him stronger. You can make it easy on him if you want to, but then he’ll get bodied by the boss at the end of the expedition. If you make it too hard, however, he’ll never even make it that far. It’s repetitive, but there’s a million and one things to juggle at all times.
In Forgotten City, a Skyrim-mod-turned-fully-fledged game, you (a modern-day person) get teleported back to 65AD, to a small Roman town that’s under some kind of curse. And, this being a video game, you gotta fix it.
If any one person breaks “The Golden Rule”, everyone in the town will instantly be turned into a gold statue — a fact backed up by the gold statues scattered throughout the homes and streets, and the warnings they somehow had the time to carve before getting transformed. The inhabitants don’t exactly know what “The Golden Rule” is, though, so they’re living in fear, hedging their bets, and trying not to commit any sins. But it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks it, accidentally or not.
And since it’s a time loop game — it’s your job to figure out A) what the curse is, B) how to stop breaking it, and C) how to fix everything. Off you go, now.
What if Link (from Zelda) was stuck in a time loop? Never mind that that game already exists, because we’re trying to tell you about Minit, a charming black-and-white game that takes place in 60-second chunklets.
Minit plays with the time loop concept in interesting, novel ways — like having a character that can tell you vital information, but talks r e a l l y s l o w l y, taking up the entire 60 seconds — but doesn’t stick around long enough to overstay its welcome. 60 seconds might not sound like enough, but it’s actually one of the strongest suits of Minit; a rapid-fire, trial-and-error approach to progression. It’ll take you several tries to discern what’s needed for each new obstacle you face, but the beauty of it is that death hardly feels like a punishment because you’re only being set back a minute at worst.
The gorgeous, dynamic narrative game 13 Sentinels is about ten different genres all smooshed into one video game. It’s sci-fi, it’s mech-combat, it’s strategy, it’s romantic visual novel… and it’s got some time-loopy business in there too, because why not? Thank goodness for the game’s comprehensive library of archived info and reminders of what the story’s about, because it can get hard to follow — but this incredible ensemble narrative is worth the effort.
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In I Was A Teenage Exocolonist, your entire life is ahead of you. And behind you. Everything you learn on the newly-colonised planet Vertumna will help you navigate events both present and future, helping you make better choices, and a better world, too. We criticised the game for being a little too nice — not enough severe consequences, not enough jeopardy — but its niceness is also precisely why we recommend it. The generosity of spirit in the gameplay and story seeps through every pore of Exocolonist. If this world captures your imagination, you’ll get incredible mileage out of it.