The Ticking Timebomb

Words: 2974 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

As I have the luxury to rethink my experience with Cyberpunk 2077 from several months ago, I find myself with a sour taste in my mouth. My general impression, if a gun was put to my head, was that the story was pretty good, but that the overall “game” portion of it was at best mediocre.

But the more I think on the “pretty good” writing, the more I am brought back to a central problem of the game’s story. And I wanted to use that problem as a way of exploring a common trope in video game storytelling that is often a major cause of ludonarrative dissonance.

As a necessary forewarning, this essay will involve some spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077. They won’t be too heavy – I don’t plan on revealing exactly how the game ends, just relaying a basic idea that the game hammers into you throughout the narrative – but nevertheless if you are keen to avoid such spoilers you should stop reading now.

With that out of the way, all stories need to raise the stakes in some form. As there is a buildup of action, you want a protagonist’s final trial to hold some kind of meaning, and that meaning comes from doing something important. Sometimes it might be a personal journey: the hero triumphs against some facet of themself and becomes a stronger person as a result. Sometimes it can be about saving the world. There is no single way to raise the stakes.

But a fairly common trope is to use the concept of the ticking timebomb. There is some danger that is going to occur, and you the hero have a limited amount of time to put a stop to it. If you fail, disaster will ensue. It may mean death, or it may mean the end of the world.

Note that I don’t mean here the ticking timebomb as a component of missions in a game. Sometimes a game might set a time limit on you for a specific sequence, but that isn’t really a core component of the storytelling. Instead, it becomes core when it serves as a major motivation for the main character’s journey. It might propel the character on the journey, or signal the need to defeat a final boss. The exact moment when the timer is set is irrelevant, so long as the timer exists.

But this idea of the ticking timebomb largely creates a major break within the game’s own storytelling. Because more often than not, the ticking timebomb doesn’t actually tick. By that I mean that the existence of a time limit is stated but not real. It is an illusion to suggest that you need to do something immediately, but in reality you can spend as much time as you want not doing it and things will be fine until you stroll back in to solve the problem.

And this setup ends up diminishing the experience. It is a mere illusion that is easily broken, and in fact can almost feel designed to be broken, as though the game is setting the writers up to fail.

So in this essay I’ll begin by exploring Cyberpunk’s particular version of the ticking timebomb, and explain its role in creating ludonarrative dissonance. Then I’ll move to examining the idea of the ticking timebomb and exploring ways in which it can plausibly work as a storytelling device without needing to resort to the fallback strategy of creating an illusion.

Cyberpunk and the “Time Limit”

Alright, so let’s dig into Cyberpunk’s primary motivational device.

Early on in the game, your main character – V – pulls off a major heist to steal a secret neurochip that supposedly will be worth a great deal of money. What is on the chip is not identified initially, and it only revealed later that it contains an imprint of a major character in the game’s lore named Johnny Silverhand. You discover this because you place the chip in your head to prevent it from degrading, but soon afterwards V gets shot in the head. The chip saves V, but in doing so it also starts to take over their brain.

So as V undergoes some surgeries, the major storyline is revealed: the chip can’t be removed, and after an unspecified amount of time the personality on the chip will eventually take over entirely and wipe away V. So V’s quest is to figure out how to remove the chip before that happens.

Now the overall storyline works insofar as there is a motivation for the main character and the player, and the main quests help build up to solving this problem and reiterating the danger being faced.

But the problem is that the game gives you a vague sense of there being a time limit without actually giving you one. V is continually told they have a limited number of days, but since the number of days is unspecified, it’s unclear what the actual time limit is. The purpose of this is to give players the opportunity to explore the rather vast world that has been made and complete the various side content that was put into the game.

And here’s where the game stumbles into ludonarrative dissonance.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ludonarrative dissonance refers to how a game’s narrative is contradicted or combatted by the game’s own systems. Put another way, the game is telling you two stories at once, one through things like dialogue and cutscenes and another through the gameplay, and those two stories conflict with each other. Importantly, the concept of ludonarrative dissonance is about what you are expected or intended to get out of the game’s narrative, and how that intention is undermined by what the game allows or especially encourages you to do.

The problem of ludonarrative dissonance is that it generally undercuts the game’s explicit narrative in ways that can kill any value of the story itself. I say “generally” because it is theoretically possible to use ludonarrative dissonance for a specific purpose. This would entail getting the player to think more critically about the relationship between gameplay and narrative, and would require a meta-theme, meaning that there would need to be layers of intention, rather than just the meta layer.

But games generally run into this problem because they’re trying to juggle a large number of goals at once, and keeping everything in the air without dropping something is tough. And it ultimately leads to a break in the story being told.

The Bomb Failing to Go Off

So let’s dig in a bit more to Cyberpunk to see how the problem plays out.

Cyberpunk is an open-world game, which means its focus in terms of gameplay is exploration. And at that, open-ended exploration. The player is given a gigantic playground with a set of potential objectives, but no specific requirement to do them in a particular order, or even to do any of them. You can easily just drive around the setting of Night City to take in the sights, and the game wouldn’t really say “no no, you’re playing wrong.”

That open-ended exploration is great, but it comes at the cost of making the story feel coherent. After all, if V has something important to take care of, having the player just wander around and not perform that task means that anything that supports or reiterates the importance of that task will feel empty.

And that’s where the “ticking timebomb” comes in. Your quest is to remove the chip, because if you don’t V will end up dead. You’re encouraged to hurry, because you don’t know how long it will take. You’re given a very vague amount of time, but that amount of time is actually meaningless. You could waste away entire years of in-game time and it wouldn’t matter. It’s trying to give the sense of urgency, but that urgency falls flat once you’re released into the world.

Now the cause of the dissonance is not merely that the time limit doesn’t really exist. That on its own could be cause for criticism, but wouldn’t need to cause any serious issues.

The dissonance comes from the fact that the game is set in a large world with a lot of content, and the game wants you to play in that content. In other words, the game wants you to avoid the main questline. To not engage in things that will save your life. Some of those side quests tie in well enough to the main quest, expanding on the character’s mortality. But much of it is just random stuff that the player is doing for additional money and reputation, which from a narrative perspective is odd because V’s primary motivation is to remove the chip.

So what happens as a consequence is that whenever you’re playing a main story mission, the game continually reiterates to you that V is dying and you need to do something. The game even does little things to try to sell this idea of V’s body failing, by having their vision blur for a moment and shouting in pain. Sometimes it happens during story dialogue, sometimes it happens while you’re just wandering around.

But when you’re actually out and about, the game doesn’t really do anything with that claim of “you’re dying.” You can spend your time shooting gang members or completing sidequests or just watching the clouds and the game won’t do anything about it. All you’ll get is that little vision blur/pain effect every now and then, but that’s it. And again, even though you have some vague of idea of how much time you might have, it’s actually not true. The amount of time you spend is irrelevant.

So this leads to a strange situation where the story missions continually raise the stakes by reminding you that you’re going to die if you don’t do something about the chip, but then the game immediately lowers the stakes by giving you a bunch of other stuff to do. You’re meant to both take V’s condition seriously and completely ignore it at the same time.

This could make some sort of sense if the side content was more fully geared towards supplementing the main story. Or if much of it was justified in terms of needing to do preparation for the big story missions by gathering resources. But generally the justifications for completing this content are gameplay-centric: to get money to buy stuff or to get equipment you might not even use or just for the sake of completing it.

Alternatively, the game could have made it work by removing the sense of urgency. V’s motivation for self-preservation works no matter what, but having a potential deadline of a few weeks or months means that the lack of urgency in the actual gameplay ruins the narrative’s premise. But by removing the relative immediacy, V can still have a motivation to drive the plot without needing to make the ludonarrative dissonance so profound.

But we still have a secondary problem with the premise. The problem posed by the chip is that it is debilitating: it is overriding V’s personality, and while V’s brain fights with the chip they are affected by the “malfunction.” I noted how the game occasionally hits you with these brief spells to show the chip affecting you. But those spells only occur while you’re out of danger. And that makes sense: you wouldn’t want the game to rob the player of control at an important moment. But it also means that the “danger” of the chip is essentially imaginary. You don’t actually need to worry about it, because it doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way.

The problem is not unique to Cyberpunk. There are plenty of other games that run into the same problem, in their own ways. It was a common to poke fun at Japanese RPGs, for example, which would often present some sort of final boss preparing to destroy the world, only to then allow you to turn right around and complete side content. In fact, this would often be the best time to do that, because you might have the world opened up to you at this stage that you might not have at earlier points. But it’s the same problem: the game is trying to sell you a sense of importance and urgency that the game isn’t selling, or even actively encouraging you to avoid.

Rearming the Bomb

So is the idea of the ticking timebomb just intrinsically bad and to be avoided entirely? No. There are definitely ways to make it work to avoid this dissonance. But they ultimately require leaning into the premise.

So let’s explore a few different ways to incorporate the ticking timebomb into the game’s plot and systems.

One thing that we could do is make the time limit that is always implied by the premise literal. Put an actual clock up saying how much time you have left. This would mean that players would need to weigh how they spend their time.  How much time do you spend on side content versus the main content? How close do you cut things to the wire? What players decide to prioritize could be interesting to see from this perspective.

Of course, you might also want to give players enough time to do everything. Which means you’ll want to set the clock for enough time that players can explore, mess up, waste time, and yet still be able to complete the main questline. Even without the sense of urgency, the very existence of a hard time limit would reinforce the idea that there is an actual failing point: you can waste too much time.

In both cases, it’s probably not a good idea to set a hard time limit like that unless there is just so much time that the time limit is almost meaningless – which to some extent brings us back to the original problem – or to make the game short enough that it doesn’t punish players. Because of how important time is going to be to a given playthrough, making a mistake that wastes time will lead to the player being potentially unable to complete the game before the time limit hits. Usually one mistake won’t be enough, but if mistakes cascade against one another, or if the player is playing slowly due to lack of skill or something else, then forcing the player to revert to earlier saves – or even start from the beginning – is going to demand making the loss of time small. Playing a game for 50 hours only to realize you don’t have enough time left in the game to complete it is going to turn players off, compared to playing for just a couple of hours and realizing you’ll need to start from scratch.

Alternatively to making the time limit explicit but still real, we could give the player an actual deadline without specifying when that timeline will hit. A few games have done this, but they have generally made it work by making the time limit so far ahead that there effectively wasn’t a time limit: most players would just not run into it. But it’s not clear that this is a good approach. Players may well decide to waste time – especially if wasting time or exploration is encouraged – in a way that makes completing the game impossible.

Of course, all of this relies on the premise that the ticking timebomb is being introduced at or near the beginning of the game. But not every timebomb is introduced that early. Sometimes a timebomb is introduced at the end. A final boss is about to destroy the world, for example. And in that case, removing the dissonance requires removing an element of the player’s choice: once the timer is “set,” the player can’t choose to do anything but fight the boss. At this point, a literal time limit isn’t actually necessary, so much as the implication that the player can’t afford to waste time. As long as the game doesn’t convey the idea that there is something urgent that needs to be done now, while simultaneously allowing the player to play around, then we avoid this dissonance.

The key here is making sure that if you’re going to tell the player that something is important, the player needs to feel like they’re not being lied to. Don’t tell a player that they need to hurry to do something, only to tell them that actually there’s no need to rush. Either make them feel like they really do need to rush, or else remove the statement that they ought to rush.

Concluding Remarks

I use this particular exploration of Cyberpunk and the ticking timebomb as a trope to help illustrate the difficulty of balancing a game’s systems – especially a large game created by a large development team – with a complex narrative. The problem is by no means unique to video games specifically. That is, the techniques on display to help tell a story can always conflict with the actual narrative, even in books and movies. But it appears to be a problem that games run into more frequently.

And the exact causes are unclear. It may be a fault of poor writing. It may be a lack of communication. It may be a fault of poor planning. It may be caused by crunch and the rush to make things work. Some causes may merit blame of different people, some may be entirely blameless. The point of noting the problem of the ticking timebomb here and in other places is not to assign blame, though. Instead, it is to draw attention to the ways in which a particular trope is used in ways that create ludonarrative dissonance, and how to identify and address that dissonance.

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