“Time4Cat”: Of Time, Perception and Fatality

Reposted from PopMatters Multimedia Reviews.

As inevitable as the pun may be, there’s something about the little flash game, Time4Cat, that is, itself, rather timely. Having just relocated myself for graduate school and spending inordinate amounts of time unpacking, assembling furniture, commuting, attending orientation, attending classes, doing readings, going to a day job, it feels like there’s not enough time for anything this month. For many student-aged gamers, I’m sure it feels much the same way. And therein lies the charm of Time4Cat.

Set at an atmospheric crosswalk, you play as a small white cat collecting food as you dodge pedestrians and bicyclists. There’s a very Braid-like twist involved, though, as the cat effectively controls time. When you move, everyone else moves. Stop, and the entire busy downtown intersection stops on a dime.

While playing you become aware of a two-tiered time sense. One is real time, mostly expressed by sound and the countdown clocks hovering over food drops. These advance whether or not you’re moving, reminding that there is an objective progression here. The other sense of time is player dependent, allowing you to dictate temporal perception in a very interesting way.

A friend I showed the game to put it down after a minute or so, upset at being hit by a pedestrian. “I would rather it being a person getting run over than a cat being stepped on,” she complained. I was puzzled. Sure, the in-game manual uses the term “stepped on” too, but the ramifications of animal cruelty seemed rather overblown. Barely touching a pedestrian means an instant game over. I argued to my friend that it was less about death as it was about the cat’s time-sense converging with the pedestrian’s, a Schroedinger-esque quantum waveform collapsing the moment it meets outside observation. Not death, but demystification of a traditionally supernatural animal.

Then my cat got run over by a bicyclist and I revised that position.

In terms of gameplay, the game uses mouse movement and the left button as the sum of its control mechanics. Working on a laptop as I do, I’ve often found frustration with these kind of games. Another flash title which recently caught my interest, Together, was basically unplayable for me for this very reason. So I was pleased to discover that Time4Cat not only plays perfectly on a laptop but might even excel with the trackpad. Gameplay action is, as mentioned, dictated by movement. It layers in obstacles slowly, to get you well-accustomed to each level of difficulty before ramping it up again.

Because the ability to pause and reflect is available at any moment, you have to work deliberately at getting yourself cornered. For those times, you can use an item to briefly push pedestrians outside the immediate area. The ability is effective and dramatic without being overpowered, something I was quite liked to see. Nothing takes you out of a game faster than elements which seem disjointed or at odds with one another. This one, on the other hand, really seems to compliment the subtle tone it starts with.

Overall, the game manages to be an engrossing little distraction, a deviously unassuming timesuck even though it should, in theory, be easy to pick up and put back down. That a game about time should, itself, become an issue of time management is probably appropriate. While not exactly possessing the addictive replay value of, say, a Robot Unicorn Attack or Canabalt, the more meditative and ghostly nature of Time4Cat definitely gets into your mind and stays there.

I have another theory about it, in fact. Like Chris Williams recently observed over at the Moving Pixels blog (Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game “Endings”, 28 July 2010), the failure-only trajectory of arcade-styled titles like this one creates, maybe inadvertently, a fatalistic proto-narrative. The cat will die. It’s mostly a question of when. By lending it a time dilation element, Time4Cat really does become about delaying as well as causing death.

There are annoyances about the game, of course. The short ambient soundtrack, gets distractingly repetitive before too long, and the precision needed to scooch by some pedestrians can be hard to judge. Push spheres are also dropped far too rarely, it felt like. And, well, at the end of the day it is a game about a cat getting potentially creamed by a bicycle, so your mileage may vary.

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