Time and Food Limits Considered Harmful

Published: 2021/03/09

Last updated: 2021/03/09

Over the past year and change, I’ve gotten into text adventures and adventure games again. I played a few examples of the genre growing up, and coming back to it, I still see I have a fondness for them. I have yet to play all of the classics of the genre, so I’ve set about doing so lately, at least to some extent, having played a number of post-classical examples already, particularly of text adventures (now called “interactive fiction”).

I’m starting to understand why later IF authors rallied around the Player’s Bill of Rights and similar things. Some of these classics are downright unfun due to certain elements, usually thrown in for the sake of realism. Two that particularly goad me are time limits and food/water requirements, which I’d like to address a bit here, both to complain and to discuss how one non-adventure game in particular improved on both.

Time Limits: Doing It Badly

This tends to be the one that upsets me the most.

When I play a game, I don’t like being rushed the entire time. Specific sequences? I can forgive that. It can even add a lot of fun and tension; that’s not really what I’m talking about here. What I am talking about is the, I feel, at least from a gameplay perspective, flawed logic of taking that perceived upside and thinking that the entire game needs to feel that way. This is especially terrible when the game consists primarily of puzzles and requires mapping and exploration, as in most IF or adventure games.

When dealing with arbitrary time limits, things can get pretty unfun pretty quickly; the game shifts from “trying to figure out the puzzles” to “trying to figure out how to speedrun the game”; these sorts typically take multiple attempts and require past knowledge, which ironically ruins the alleged realism bent that spawned this limitation to begin with. Note that I’m not arguing against making players learn or memorise per se, but rather against requiring them to replay large segments due to relatively unfair limitations, such as having to figure out obtuse puzzles while also racing the clock.

It’s not only old games that do this – one modern game that was absolutely ruined for me because of this was Final Fantasy XIII-3. Now, I know this series is a bit controversial, especially the first entry, but I absolutely loved everything about it; I consider the second entry in particular to be a shining example of the JRPG format. I badly wanted to love this game, but I couldn’t – instead of taking in the otherworldly, fascinating atmosphere, you’re forced instead to micromanage quite nearly every minute of gameplay by using a limited resource that you also need for other abilities, such as healing (in a game with frequent and random combat) in order to “freeze” the clock in a fairly illogical fashion so you have enough game-time to get everything done, running all the way.

The game integrates this as a core mechanic, and fully expects you to fail, requiring multiple re-plays and grinding in the form of a “New Game+” to work out. Who approved this? How is this any fun? It completely ruins the ambiance the rest of the team worked so hard to create, and plays completely differently from the rest of the series! It completely killed my desire to play through and experience the rest of the game, which is absolutely painful, as I love the story and environment and want to experience the rest of it. This one flaw changes the game from a role-playing experience to a grind-filled gauntlet.

Time Limits: Doing It Better

While one might be tempted to point to, say, Super Mario Bros as an example of handling time limits reasonably, by making them generous and using them more as a reward (more points!) than a punishment (with the exception of the maze castles, you have to work hard to run out of time), I think there’s a better way to look at time presented in ADOM, a game I’ll also refer back to later for its treatment of food.

In ADOM, there is effectively a sort of “time limit” in that every 90 in-game days, the Chaos gate’s effect grows stronger. Unlike other games though, this isn’t a game-over, just a difficulty increase. One that is somewhat mitigated (especially in recent editions) with a number of ways to handle the effects of the gate’s background corruption. For example, it’s possible to find staves of purification, which are rechargeable, and there are technically unlimited potions of chaos removal available from a certain druid via repeatable wilderness encounters. This gives back a bit of agency to the player while still keeping things reasonably tense, as it gets harder to recover from the longer it goes on.

The author of ADOM decided to make time integral to the game in other ways as well; what I’d like to point out is that these decisions actually add depth instead of simply static difficulty:

Isn’t that a much more interesting use of time instead of constantly forcing the player to run around like a headless chicken?

Food: Another Artificial Limit

Players familiar with some older interactive fiction will note that there is one other common, limiting factor: the consumption of a limited resource, such as food, water, or even light. While this may sound functionally identical to time limits, the difference is that, at the least, more food/water/light can be found somewhere; a game’s clock, on the other hand, cannot typically be rewound. While I am going to be focusing on food, many of the arguments can be directed at other finite, consumable resources as well.

What it comes down to in a lot of games is that consumption either ends up as just a mindless mechanic in games where it can be trivialised (consider, for instance, D&D blobbers with the “Create Food and Water” clerical spell), or else an often very frustrating limiter, as in IF games where there are only specific, non-repeatable methods for obtaining resources. That sort of thing is just irritating as hell, and again really detracts from the fun for much of the same reasons of arbitrary time limits, all in the interest of a debatable “realism”.

For instance, in some of the worst offenders, sometimes you end up needing to eat every few real-life minutes, which gets very tedious for the player; in others, you have to micromanage known stores and are less able to appreciate other elements of the game because of it.

Food As An Actually Fun Mechanic

It is possible to do food in a way that’s actually fun, though, and I think that, again, ADOM is a perfect example.

Yes, your PC requires food to survive, and yes, he does tend to eat pretty often (especially if he’s a troll!), but it is possible to obtain food from various sources in a repeatable and reliable fashion instead of in specific one-off events, and much more importantly, food is incorporated into the status and statistics meta-game, making it actually interesting for the player. For the record, light is also much more manageable, being able to be obtained in multiple ways (torches, amulets/wands/scrolls of light, magic, prayer) as well, which also has the effect of improving player agency and increasing the fun factor.

That aside, not only can food keep you alive, it can also make you stronger or weaker, smarter or dumber, or even more or less full (both relatively and absolutely). Edible corpses are also your best, sometimes nearly only, way of getting special abilities, called intrinsics. For instance, consumption of a blink dog corpse is the only reasonably-guaranteed way to gain the ability to control where you go when you teleport. In a more complicated interaction, eating the corpse of a kobold shaman has a high chance of improving your ability to channel Mana, but also sickens you, a powerful negative status condition that can easily get you killed (though it can also be cured by eating a certain farmable herb – depth!).

I believe it goes without saying that being able to actually do things with the food, instead of just obsessing over hoarding it to increase an arbitrary counter, is a much more interesting and fun way to handle things.


Overall, I think that arbitrary limitations purely for the sake of an idea of “realism” just end up detracting from games by turning the focus from “fun” to “micromanaging”. Again, Final Fantasy XIII-3 suffers from this by taking the focus away from an incredibly-realised world and putting it on speed-running, and games like Zork are made needlessly tedious by the need for secondary resources.

Conversely, ADOM finds ways to take both of these previously-unfun elements and make them tactically interesting, adding depth while still maintaining challenge. Its example should be strongly considered and appreciated.

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