Thursday 17 September 2015

Dog Time

‘World’ is, by root, as much a temporal concept as a spatial one. I’ve said before that one of the things that Tales of Vesperia struggles with is conveying the passage of time between its plot developments. The plot moves in fits and starts, tied tightly and transparently to the movements and actions of the player characters.

There is one side-quest in the game, though, which is a little more sophisticated. At roughly the end of Vesperia’s first act, you can run across Little Wolf, the nemesis of Yuri’s canine companion Repede (Repede being a playable character in his own right). Little Wolf challenges Repede to a ‘marking battle’, a contest to say which of them can claim more territory around the world.

The way this works is simple; rest in an area of the world map and Repede will claim it as his own. Meanwhile, over time, Little Wolf slowly builds an empire, taking unclaimed territories and nibbling away at Repede’s. If you, at any point, manage to take 95% of the world map from Little Wolf, you win and he shows up to concede. He will still, even more slowly, claim territory, but his submission is clear.

After starting the side-quest, you can get an item which displays Repede’s and Little Wolf’s territory on the world map – not the live one that tracks your position as you move around, but the more detailed one available from the pause menu. Repede’s territory is marked with blue blobs, Little Wolf’s with red, and the boundaries pulse and blur enough to make them seem dynamic and in constant conflict.

What the slow swelling of Little Wolf’s territory conveys, in a way that little else in this game can, is the passage of time. It’s not perfect – you have to keep opening a pretty deeply-buried menu to see it – but it’s there, and it does suggest that some things happen in the world without Yuri’s direct intervention.

It conveys some broad things about the party’s situation, too. You can only claim territory that you can get to, and if you start the side-quest as soon as it’s available, your travel options are extremely limited. Many areas are inaccessible until you get the airship late in act 2, by which time Little Wolf can claim a lot of land you can’t reach.

The world changes as the plot progresses, as well. A handful of the areas you have to claim are lakes or mountain ranges when you first encounter them, and only become places where the airship can land after the earth-shaking events of the final act. In my early play-throughs of the game I spent a long time searching for concealed landing-spots in act 2 before discovering these transformations.

Perhaps the most important function of the Little Wolf side-quest is its interaction with the sections of the plot that restrict your mobility. In particular, during the section where you’re trying to rescue Estelle, your airship is damaged and you’re forced to ground. On recovering to the nearest town, you find that a civilian exodus has tied up every last boat, and you’re trapped on one particular continent.

Vesperia then sends you on a long, torturous journey to where Estelle’s being held. From having granted you and your characters an exclusive mastery of the skies, the game narrows down to a single convoluted path, fraught with monsters and harsh terrain. It never really manages to convince you you won’t rescue Estelle, but it does its best.

Functionally, of course, the rescue of Estelle will wait for you to reach your destination. Until you hit the right series of triggers, Estelle – and her captors – remain in limbo. There’s time to chase up any of the side-quests that are available to you (not many, but there are a few diversions, at least one of which is only available during this sequence). So it’s hard to feel much urgency.

But through it all, Little Wolf advances. He’s always moved fastest on the far side of the world from where you’re stuck. Now there’s hours of gameplay where you can do nothing to stop him. Whenever you come back to the dog map, Little Wolf’s territorial gains are a diagram of your delay.

You can always recover – tents aren’t expensive by the standards of the late game, and once you have your freedom back you can claim territory pretty quickly (though you must fight at least one battle each time you rest before you can rest again). Nothing is missable, you don’t get locked out of the rewards[1], but time does pass.

It’s this sense of the inexorability of time that I think games often struggle with. In-game time is malleable in a way that real-world time isn’t, and many ways of making in-game time more restrictive also place harsh demands on players that have little respect for differences in ability or circumstance. Vesperia’s dog map offers a way to weave between this limitations.

[1] Though Vesperia is quite happy to lock you out of other sidequests if you miss particular steps. I’m of two minds about this, but it’s a topic for another time.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

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