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How Time Flies explores the magic and meaninglessness of existence
You're an irritating fly with seconds to live. What do you do?
August 30, 2023
5 Min Read
This interview has been edited for clarity
Time Flies is a curious and captivating meditation on the brevity of life. We're all going to die, after all, so how do you want to fill your days? Perhaps you'll make some music, seek out fortune, indulge in intoxicants, or tickle an old man's foot.
That's all possible here, but does any of it truly matter? It's perhaps the question that drives our species, and in seeking to offer a glimpse of an answer, Playables co-founder Michael Frei—who previously worked on other experimental titles like KIDS and Plug & Play—chose to thrust perhaps the most insignificant of all creatures into the spotlight.
"I think it's the only animal where, even like, animal rights activists don't care about it," says Frei, chatting to us at Gamescom 2023. Even though the fly is your window into the world Frei has created, most of the time it simply appears as a single dot on-screen. "That choice allows us to highlight the meaninglessness of your own existence," he explains, "and how at the same time you're also just really annoying."
You're a fly, and the clock is ticking
It's a funny quip, but one that encapsulates how we're asked to engage with the game. You see, each playthrough challenges players to complete a whimsical bucket list before a very short timer runs out. The length of that timer is based on the real-world life expectancy for humans in each country (pulled from the World Health Organization), but translated into seconds instead of years. At the start of each run, you need to decide which slab of land your fly is from, and that choice will dictate how long you've got to live.
In most cases, you'll likely have between 60 to 90 seconds to breeze through your bucket list before your fly expires and falls to the ground with a soft thud. As you explore each level across multiple lives, you'll slowly begin to understand more about the black-and-white world around you. Buzzing towards objects of interest will pull players into interactive vignettes that delight and intrigue—a turntable that wants to be played or a weighty tome that could use a little nudge.
Those wonderfully animated instances provide a brief reprieve from your impending doom, pausing the timer so players can take a breath and figure out where this moment fits into the bigger picture. It's a design beat that encourages understanding through exploration and pushes interactivity as its own reward in the face of necessary failure.
Frei explains the bucket lists that prop up each level were concocted during lockdown. "I had a lot of time to do that. We started working on the game during COVID-19, and we were all just sat there thinking about what we wanted to do with our lives once we'd emerged from our rooms again."
Back then, the project was initially pitched as a browser extension that, according to Frei, would've assessed how many trackers were on a webpage before using that data to render flies and annoy visitors. "Achieving that was a bit difficult, though. But the basic idea was to take some information that's available online and implement it into the game as a core mechanic, and that's why we took data from the World Health Organization to create the timer," he says.
With the timer locked in and the bucket lists taking shape, Frei began considering how to build the world itself. He started by highlighting the bucket list items he found most interesting and tried to implement those first. "At first, I thought it was best to design the world around the bucket list," he recalls.
"But in the end we ended up doing it both ways. Sometimes we created the rooms first and then placed the items, and on other occasions we'd flip that process. We had to really think about how players would interact with each space and the objects within, because that's the core of the game. You have to make these tactile interactions really enjoyable."
Intentionality meets absurdity
Despite its simplistic trappings, Time Flies does a tremendous job of selling each interaction. I won't discuss specifics because I'd hate to spoil the surprise, but during my short demo, I often found myself marveling at the ingenuity of each short vignette or laughing out loud at the lunacy of it all.
"For me, selling an animation is a lot about conveying weight and physicality because the images themselves can vary so much," explains Frei when I ask how he devised animations that resonate so effectively in the 2D space. "Sound is also at the heart of what makes it work."
To create the soundscape in Time Flies, Frei pulled on audio libraries from previous projects and captured new snippets himself using Zoom's recording feature. As for the artwork, Frei explains the majority of it was drawn on a laptop trackpad and, on occasion, using a mouse. He tells me he "doesn't like to draw on tablets for some reason." It's an unconventional approach that has yielded unconventional but undeniably impactful results.
There's a painstaking intentionality to the experience that wonderfully contrasts the absurdity on display. I spent a good chunk of my demo fixated on how the fly would gently bumble in mid-air when idle—Frei explains the team took inspiration from the hoverfly because a "house fly never stays that steady when its in the air and would be too hard to control"—or obsessing over the most spectacularly mundane audio effects, such as the reverberating "splosh" of a water droplet shattering on a cellar floor.
For Frei, however, these are all details that come naturally. "Firstly, I have to make something that works for myself, then I think about what people could actually like," he says. "I don't want to make a calculation on what would sell better or whatever. Sure, it's a niche game, but I want to be original and I don't want to make compromises. I want to be proud of it."
Time Flies is slated to launch in 2024 for PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.
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About the Author(s)
News Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.
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