The passage of time in IF

How do you feel about timed puzzles?
  • Hate them in all cases
  • Generally dislike with rare exceptions
  • Indifferent
  • Usually enjoyable, though some are bad
  • A great time, every time

0 voters

At the current end of this thread, I veered significantly off topic into a discussion about the ways time can be implemented in computer games. From an IF perspective, there seem to be three common approaches (with exceptions, I am sure):

  • Flat (Zork/Advent time): events occur sequentially (permitting cause and effect), but there is no global clock dictating events in the world. There may be timers (filling and draining Zork I’s reservoir, the lamp), but there is no global passage of time. I.E., no day/night sequence, no special events in specific locations at specific times. A turn counter increments, but the world does not seem subject to the passage of time.
  • Event-driven (Ballyhoo or Anchorhead time): The passage of time occurs in response to player action. The protagonist can stand in place typing “wait” indefinitely. These games are still sequential, of course. Applies to Bloodborne and a wide range of non-parser games. Example: sunset and sunrise in Anchorhead are a consequence of completing specific actions, and have nothing to do with a clock incrementing from turn to turn (IIRC!).
  • Simulation (Deadline. Don’t games like Civilization work this way, too?): A global clock advances, either in real-time or else incrementing per player “turn.” Events occur independently of player action. The game world may be in an indeterminate state as a result, making it possible to miss important events.


  1. How do you feel about time in IF?
  2. How do you feel about these three models? The simulated model has fallen out of fashion, I think. Even though Deadline is one of my favorite games of all time, I can understand why.
  3. What do you think of timed puzzles (a puzzle in which the player has a set number of moves to solve a problem)? I really dislike them (despite enjoying Suspended). As a result, I don’t like the endgame of Trinity as much as many do. Can you think of examples of ones that do and don’t work for you?

Feel free to expand on your poll answer or otherwise say whatever you wish about time in IF

Edit: However, the Unseen Horror puzzle in Enchanter is one of the all-time greats.


I think timed puzzles can make for great optimization problems. The whole heart of Suspended is getting your robots into the right places at the right moments, for example, and All Things Devours is one single elaborate timing puzzle; I had a lot of fun plotting those out on paper and figuring out where I had to be when.

But the key, I think, is making it as painless to try over and over as possible. I don’t think I’d now have the patience to retry Suspended from the start as many times as I did back when I first found it.


I’m glad you mentioned Suspended! For my Gold Machine writeup I decided to go for the best score (on default/normal). I never would have tried if I hadn’t beaten it years before. The game is an interesting case that seems to blur the lines between timers and events. In-game performance seems to drive the technicians’ actions, but they also seem timer-driven. The technicians always come, but they come sooner if planet conditions are poor. You can buy more time, but the amount of time also seems to be dictated by player performance. So, the length of the timer is based on world state, which in turn the player influences. Some ZIL person please educate me if I’m wrong!

Speaking of then and now: I never played Border Zone in the old days. I tried it last year for the first time, and absolutely hated it (its Infocom’s only “real time” text game). I’m dreading writing about it. That might have seemed better at the time, too. I respect Marc Blank for the innovator that he was, but some of his later experiments just didn’t click for me.

It isn’t the puzzles themselves that bother me; it’s the tendency of old-school parser games to force you to reload a saved game or get kicked back to the beginning after a fail that really rubs me raw. There are a couple of timed puzzles (it’s been many years since I played, but one was on the street and one was near the end) in Counterfeit Monkey that both gave me fits, because at that time I normally quit games with timed puzzles, but no way in hell was I going to quit CM.

Afterwards, because the game as a whole was so deeply satisfying, I remember thinking that perhaps my hatred of timed puzzles wasn’t entirely justified, so I got softer on the issue. I can deal with them now as long as failure doesn’t make me reload a saved game. I am very, very bad at saving and keeping track of saves. A really good game that rewinds me to the start of a timed puzzle after failure – that I can and will do.


That would make an interesting poll, too: “How frequently do you save your game?” I save often, even when I’m playing a newer, forgiving game. I think I had ten saves for Fairest. For the Infocom stuff, I often have more. Part of it is habit from the old days, but sometimes I just want to go back and revisit a scene or location.

I have the impression most people don’t care to do this, but I often revert (temporarily) to check something or get a reminder.


Very carefully and only while wearing an asbestos glove.

Whatever is happening mechanically with time in a game (could be a lot, could be nothing) I feel like imagined time is inevitable for me and a big part of the experience. If I was in place A and then went and did lots of things, I don’t feel the same about place A when I come back to it. I might get some frisson from the game saying something about the sky or weather or a clock at this point, but if it doesn’t, I just imagine that some time has passed and what that might look or feel like, and that’s done the job.

I guess my summary is, even if the game doesn’t implement time, I’m inflicting some kind of time on it in my imagination because I’m stirred by the passage of time, whether grand or tiny.

As a player, I’m open to anything. I note that the most time-stringent of the recent treasure hunt + optimisation games The Curse of the Scarab - Details is what you’d call flat, but with tons of timers. The result is excitement on a stick.

As an author, I’m mostly mixing flat and event-driven to move the story forward in a way that is satisfying and Realistic Enough. Some movements of time are only described in response to player action. And sometimes that action kicks off loops or periods of events that will end eventually, but they probably won’t end until the player has done another particular thing.

Here’s what I can’t do: I can’t have a clock on the wall that the player can look at. I’m mildly annoyed about this where I’m at in my WIP, as the player’s in a hospital and there would logically be clocks everywhere. But if I let them get the actual time in the game world, they’ll want a specific number. And I can’t give that because then I’d have to increment it every turn, and then they could stand there WAITing until the sun came up, and the sun is never going to come up in this chapter of the game. And I can’t let them think they’ve been in some place for an hour or hours when I’m broadly suggesting to them: Whatever you’re doing or have done here, probably took between 2-10 minutes. I’m not saying that to them, I’m just trying to create that impression.

I grew up with plenty of them. Games like Scott Adams’s The Count create a feeling of peril that I love (you’re racing to do things before each night falls). I also put timed puzzles in games I wrote. Hey, I was young! I needed the money! (*I received no money)

Actually I would say there are timed puzzles in Leadlight (which is at least half deliberately old-school) it’s just that the time limit to solve the puzzle is only one turn. This could simultaneously maximise/minimise frustration with them. There is one in that game about which I’ve received the most emails saying, “I can’t get past this and you didn’t put a clue for it on the hint sheet”. And I suppose it’s a one-move timed puzzle.



Time can be tricky in games. My own game, Entangled (2020), uses a real-time clock that triggers different events at certain times. So, if the player takes a long time exploring the beginning, the bar can end up closed by the time they get there. Bars close at 2 am. Not ideal. That ends up closing off a puzzle, though all puzzles have two solutions. It doesn’t break the game. But real-time can be a nightmare in a game. Jim Aikin even changed Lydia’s Heart, making the clock event-driven, if I remember right. Last Resort was real-time.

But as for timed puzzles in games, I don’t know. You could come up with something original that people like. As Jobs said, customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.:slight_smile:


very wise

This is a good point! The player’s subjective experience of time is a consideration, too.

Does the player have everything they need to pass these one-turn checks? Sometimes things just need to happen, i.e., someone screams in an adjacent room and if the player doesn’t go there something bad happens. It can be a matter of maintaining a sense of causality in the game world. Excepting the one players complained about, which might be something else.

Appreciate your reply!

It’s true! I wouldn’t say anything’s off the table for a skilled author. There are definitely a few I’ve enjoyed over the years.

Edit: I like the last puzzle of Spellbreaker more than a lot of people, even though it’s kind of mean.


The one off the “time” room or the one off the “magic” room?

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The final showdown. I love the time puzzle, too, though. Is the time puzzle timed? Well that sounds funny but I think you know what I mean.

The showdown really pushes you to think about the nature of timed puzzles, it’s clever. I think I walked away for two weeks before I had an “ah-ha” moment about it.

Two of Dave Lebling’s best, I’d say


Technically, anything that changes the world state is in effect time passed: before the player has repaired the oil-fouled engine, after they’ve picked up the cursed Aztek gold.

If I’m not mistaken, the destinction between a “timed puzzle” (of one or more turns) and letting the player horse around tardily lies in the irreversibilty of the former and the consequences that arise from it. You can always sabotage the above mentioned engine again if you have the oil can, but you won’t be able to raise the boatswains mate from the dead after having had him walk the plank.

It might not be of any consequence whether you can reverse something you did. You could lock doors behind you after finding the key to unlock them in the first place, but it’s seldom neccessary.

Changes in world state outside the control of the player can be categorised accordingly. I believe it’s open to argument whether some types of cosmetic changes are worth the trouble, but i do notice most NPCs will stay in the same room in many games, even though they might realistically be expected not to. Just one less thing for author and player to keep track of as long as it makes no actual mechanical difference.

As for the invisible timers that the player has to meet or else: it would be best to at least make these visible if you can’t resist the urge to put them into a game.


I think you need to be more specific. There are different interpretations of “time”. I’m listing them in order of preference:

  1. Plot based. This is fine. The game advances according to how successfully you solve puzzles. Example: Sierra OnLine Colonel’s Bequest
  2. Turn based. You need to solve a particular puzzles in certain number of turns. This is the most common. In Adventure: Bees and Lamp.
  3. Real time. You have certain number of seconds to type in the puzzle. I think this is misguided. Either go for totally turn based, or go for totally action adventure. Either or, not both.
  4. Actual time. Very bad. I shouldn’t have to change system’s time to win the game, just because I’m nocturnal.

In puzzles where time management is the entire point of the puzzle (All things Devours, Spider and Web) the use of turn based clocks make sense. The two examples given were well designed and enjoyable challenges.

Some of the early infocom games, though, time limitations (or resource limitations like light and food) seemed arbitrary and often too short. They were, I imagine, put there to remind the player “this game is cruel. You probably already put yourself in an unwinnable situation and don’t even know it. You’d best start over”

Time in detective games is another matter. I sort of enjoy some of the old style gumeshoe games, where the pc has to be in the right place at the right time to get the clues. But the simulation has to be complex enough to make replay enjoyable so you don’t mind searching for “the right place and time”


In coding, I prefer event-driven models, but in gaming, I deeply hate timed puzzles, esp. those so evil that are handled by hungry daemons :wink:

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


I feel that event-driven is the most enjoyable way to go as both an author and player. I originally made Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge a clock-based simulation and it just didn’t work out - testers were missing events and wondering what was going on. I think it’s a really hard thing to get right.

I don’t mind timed puzzles as long as (a) it’s turn-based time rather than real time as I find the latter stressful and unfun, and (b) you can try again if you fail, even if it requires an undo.


I think an important distinction for me—this ties back to my overwhelming preference for “organic” (something that feels a natural part of the game world) vs “inorganic” puzzles—is the purpose and context of the puzzle’s timer.

If the timer feels dramatically significant, if it is a source of tension in the fictional world, I might like it very much. I mentioned the Enchanter puzzle with the unseen horror. In that situation:

  • There is a clear, in-game rationale for the nature of the danger.
  • The timer creates dramatic tension, as the protagonist feels as if he is being hunted.
  • It would make no logical sense for the player to have unlimited time to complete the task.

For comparison, consider the “cubes in two piles” puzzle in Spellbreaker. There, the player (it feels like the player rather than the protagonist to me) has only a set number of turns to identify a powerful magic cube hidden within two piles of identical-looking magic cubes.

  • The placement of the object makes no sense in the world of the game. Why is it where it is?
  • Who has installed an entire magical infrastructure and workforce to guard these piles of cubes?
  • Why does the puzzle exist? My subjective experience of it is that the puzzle, which is a variant on an already extant, real-world problem, was inserted in into the game, then rationalized post-facto.

For me, a deciding factor is the extent to which the timer makes me feel anticipation, dread or excitement. Does it reinforce what is dramatically at stake. Now, I know many people enjoy recreational mathematics (Zarf was kind enough to introduce the term to me), so this isn’t a dig against that or them.

I just don’t prefer puzzles in IF without enough grounding in the game world. Perhaps that is my problem with many timed puzzles—they can jeopardize my sense of immersion if not implemented carefully.


I think this is how I feel too, albeit for me there’s a shoot-the-moon option for something like Ad Verbum, which is so clearly a puzzle anthology with some thin narrative connections that the presence of arbitrary, very gamy mechanics doesn’t undermine my engagement – the crossword has triumphed so thoroughly in its war with the narrative that it would be churlish to resent its victory.

That’s I think why I usually don’t like mystery-style games where everything’s on a timer, and the assumption is that you have an accretive protagonist who, in the final successful run, appears to have precognitive abilities letting them be in exactly the right places at exactly the right times to see all the important events. It can be a satisfying mechanical experience; like, it’s not far off the gameplay loop of the Verdeterrelikes, which I usually enjoy, but those games are so “gamey” that the out-of-world knowledge doesn’t bother me. Whereas saying a game is a mystery sets up certain narrative expectations for what solving the mystery will look like, and repeatedly trying and failing in order to construct a global timetable doesn’t satisfy those expectations.

(This meandering post is making me think that perhaps my objection isn’t to a puzzle being out-of-world as such, but more about it contravening narrative tropes and expectations? As always, we’re back to narrative mimesis).


Deadline—one of my all-time favorite works of IF—is a hard sell for audiences today. At the time (someone jump in if I’m wrong!) there was no game that offered such a possibility space. Its characters had so much to say. They could be eavesdropped on. A lot of its “puzzles”—in my opinion—were made more difficult by a player tendency to sell the game short. It was hard to imagine that Deadline could be capable of all that it was capable of, because there was no model for it.

Infocom could not reproduce that sense of amazement, of course. For one thing, the novelty wasn’t there. For another, subsequent implementors didn’t seem to “get it.” Stu Galley just didn’t seem to have the writing chops, and Dave Lebling seemed most interested in one-upping Deadline’s technical complexity.

Like a lot of old literature (programs age more rapidly for many relatable reasons), Deadline is hard to enjoy if you can’t meet it where it is. An unreasonable ask for most contemporary players, I think. Not so different from many things you can find in a lit survey course. I think Ulysses (the Joyce one) is more accessible, really. Not deeper, that’s not what I’m saying. Friendlier.

What would a working, contemporary Deadline—one that players embraced—look like? I think of the recent difficulty thread. Perhaps the same simulated world with a) one time-independent critical path and b) many optional encounters to enhance a sense of “detectiveness” might be very enjoyable! The encounters could give a player the satisfying sense of discovery off the beaten path. If a player doesn’t want to look, well, that’s ok. If you miss them, it’s failure of a kind, but you can still continue and win.

(One reason failure was treated the way it was in Infocom games is that there was not room to treat it any other way. Plenty of room to do something different now)

The time windows of those encounters ought to be generous. Why write them if no one can find them? A mixture of fixed and discoverable content might be quite satisfying!

That dog still hunts!


I save my game whenever I finish a session (after a couple of mishaps in the mid-1990s with early quicksaving games, I don’t trust quicksave to do it for me even if I know intellectually that the game has a good quicksave option), as well as just before anything I think will be narratively critical or would simply be a huge hassle to redo.

Of these, in most games I reload on the basis of the save I did manually. The narratively critical ones may get revisited if I want to experiment or simply relive a cool moment of the game. For the latter type of save, I take what I know about the game’s undo feature into account, but the save is purely pragmatic.

As for how time flows, I am more concerned about whether it is a good fit for the game I’m playing, and whether it is a good implementation of the path it chose.

Flat time games need a source of dynamism that works for the game (and in many games, dynamic time wouldn’t work for the game in any case). 4 x 4 Galaxy does this well, as do many kinetic visual novels and linear parser puzzlers.

Event-driven games need to have the event/time mapping make sense. A good example is The Last Night of Alexisgrad.

Real-time games need to be generous enough to account for poor reflexes and realistic limitations. I am struggling to think of examples in IF that I like which do this.

Turn-based simulations need to be generous enough to account for limited foresight and the of information objective preferred by the game. A Little Lily Princess is a good example of this. The Hobbit struggled with this because no amount of foresight will tell you when Gandalf is going to pick up a critical item and say, “What’s this”? (something it would have got away with better on a flat time model).

Budacanta has event-based time with a global clock (where a lot of choices will move the clock onwards an amount deemed appropriate, whether they were associated with success or not), and even the demo has a couple of things that are possible or not possible depending on what time the global clock says it is (this will become more of a factor later on, when the player has more options).


All good points! So far as the flat approach goes, I’ve always wondered if Infocom’s early obsessions with time limits was partially motivated by a desire to add dynamism (I’m sure another part was a carryover from those MIT days of deliberately jerking players around. I think of those earliest games, only Starcross and Infidel had no hard stop (in both cases you had to perform a specific action first). Even “kid-friendly” Seastalker had some rough timers.

Certainly, by Planetfall, Steve Meretzky was trying to do something more interesting with time limits to add dramatic tension to the game.

I’m glad you mentioned The Hobbit! I loved it when I was young, but it’s a pretty rough ride. Still, the characters moving around made the world seem alive in a way that most adventure games did not match.