One of the stranger games revealed during this year’s Summer Game Fest was hands down time goes by. On the surface it appears to be a humble time management game where you explore a house and try to complete as many goals as you can before dying. Each run takes between one and two minutes.
But the reveal trailer’s whimsical music belied the nihilistic tagline that appears at the end like a microphone being dropped: “You’re a fly. your life is short Make the most of the time you have. Because we’re all going to die.”
“I was interested in having a bow tie as something pointless, almost annoying,” Swiss designer and animator Michael Frei, one half of the game’s development team (along with programmer Raphaël Munoz), told me to me. “And to do something worthwhile like a fly in the world with a bucket list […] I think that’s something we ask ourselves every day, like, ‘What is meaningful to me? What am I supposed to do with my life?’”
in the time goes byyou control a fly in a minimalistic drawn world, which consisted of several rooms of a house or apartment in the demo we played. As you explore each room, opportunities arise to check things off the fly’s bucket list while trying to avoid an abrupt end to the creature’s already short life. The fly dreams of getting drunk before it dies; Dive headfirst into the waiting wine glass and you’ll drown, but get out next to the drop on the table next to it and your list will shorten an item. Exploring the house and finding the right points of interactivity creates a simple but fun gameplay loop that will no doubt inspire players to find the quickest routes to complete as many goals as possible in a single life.
Frei said that’s a way to play, although it’s just as valid as flitting around and dying in real life without accomplishing a single meaningful goal.
“I think it’s up to the player in the end,” he said.
There’s another problem: your allotted game time depends on your geographic location. The game compares your IP address to a list of life expectancies by country and then assigns you a corresponding number of seconds. Players in countries with better healthcare and less pollution have a few more seconds to explore before their fly dies of old age.
“You know, depending on where you live, you’re more or less lucky in life,” noted Frei, who lives in Switzerland — a country with one of the highest life expectancies in the world.
time goes by seems much less abstract than Frei’s previous games, Plug (2015) and children (2019), which are more like interactive short films in which characters are pushed, pulled, and nudged through stark black-and-white environments. time goes by is his first project with anything resembling traditional game mechanics or goals. That’s not to say you’ll improve your fly’s skill trees, but it’s a development nonetheless.
Visually, time goes by was inspired by glider, an old Mac game. “It was the first video game I ever played, on my father’s Mac Classic, the first Mac you could buy in Switzerland,” recalls Frei.
The original idea that has morphed into time goes by was a browser extension that summoned annoying buzzing flies around website elements that tracked you. He also considered making the titular character out of a single pixel rather than an actual animated fly. It seems like every reasonably recognizable element of the game was molded from the clay of an alien, less accessible idea, and the result is something we can’t exactly predict. Frei said there are facets of the game that he hasn’t shown yet and won’t discuss.
“I’m kind of lucky to be able to run projects on my own terms, which I think is a great privilege,” he said. Every project he did just about funded the next. “I have creative freedom,” he continued. “I don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations. And that’s interesting to me.
“Also to play with the expectations of the audience. That’s always pretty interesting.”
As part of their research, the developers researched what people typically put on actual bucket lists. “It was a very depressing exercise because for most people who post their bucket lists online, those bucket lists are more about bragging rights than meaningfulness,” Frei said. “I don’t have a bucket list. I just hope I won’t regret it too much when I die.”
time goes by is scheduled for release in 2023 for Mac, Nintendo Switch and Windows PC.