The prevalence of the concept of time manipulation in pop culture is undeniable. From classic films like Back to the Future and Groundhog Day to the more modern, video-game-like Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code, and lesser-known darlings like About Time and Safety Not Guaranteed, the construct of time has been explored from various different angles and has fascinated storytellers for decades if not centuries, and will surely continue to do so for all time. Hell, last year’s Avengers: Endgame – literally the biggest blockbuster of all time – dealt with time travel. Not to mention, just in the past 24 hours, I watched the latest Rick & Morty episode, which was about time, and watched the just-released trailer for Nolan’s upcoming film Tenet, which, you guessed it, is about time as well.
What’s that? You prefer books to movies? Don’t worry, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and Blake Crouch’s Recursion (released just last year) have got you covered!
I’m not a music nerd, but I’m sure there are countless songs about time, regrets, and broken promises. Besides, most people use the whole medium of music to relive their formative childhood years, or specific noteworthy moments in their lives, even long-lost relationships that are somehow encapsulated in a 4-minute-long song.
Getting back to games, a few great ones instantly come to mind: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Life is Strange, and one of my favorites, The Messenger. However, none of them have come close to the creativity and innovation of Jonathan Blow’s hugely impactful Braid, which, in 2008, brought a degree of legitimacy and recognition to indie games, heretofore mostly non-existent. That is, until now.
Timelie is Thailand-based Urnique Studio’s debut game and has been in the making for more than 4 years now. Originally intended to be a student project, it was crowned the first place winner in 2016, in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, and has since been molded into its current version, now available on Steam with a 10% discount, for ₹467/ $17.09.
Story & Narrative
The game begins with the protagonist, a blonde girl, waking up in bed. She seems to be in some kind of futuristic prison, and other than the pretty potted plant in the corner, the room is bare. It’s an abstract, minimalist world, with these mysterious rectangular spires all around, whose bottom, if there even is one, is hidden, shrouded in some kind of white fog. You soon discover patrolling robots intent on capturing you, which reinforces the idea that you’re being held against your will, and the objective is to escape.
Barring this, there is zero context. Are you an AI in a simulation? Is this just some strange dream? The girl never speaks or gives any indication that she knows what the heck is going on, or even if this is normal. Neither is there any narration, nor any documents/items to find that provide any clues. Soon, you discover that the girl has the ability to manipulate time, and even then it’s unclear whether she’s always possessed this ability or if it’s a new development. And then you meet a cat, which, while distrustful at first, quickly forms a bond with the girl, and becomes a controllable character.
Ultimately, the context doesn’t matter, because the cat just exudes personality thanks to the charming, detailed animations and expressive meows, and the bond shared between it and the girl is palpable, providing emotional context at least.
Even after the credits roll, the fine points of the story are left up to the player to speculate, no further information is provided. However, the overall theme is made extremely clear, and is reflected very well in the gameplay as well, but we’ll get to that later.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Timelie is a stealth-based puzzle game with an isometric perspective, where the main objective is to sneak past the patrolling robot-guards and reach the glowing white portal-door. The hook, as you might’ve guessed, is the time-manipulation. You can rewind and fast-forward through time as much as you like, observing the enemy movements and planning a course of action accordingly. In fact, you can scrub through it like you would a YouTube video, quickly finding openings and enemy blind spots. Rather than controlling the character directly, it’s similar to Katana Zero, where you control a projection and then click on the Play button to have the actual character follow the commands.
This awesome mechanic allows for two valid play-styles or, more probably, a mixture of the two:
- 1. Scrub through the timeline and plan everything ahead, then execute it flawlessly in one attempt. This is the traditional strategy in most hardcore stealth games, necessary in order to ‘ghost’ a level, where you memorize enemy patterns and play accordingly.
- Try different strategies as you go, don’t think too much, just rewind a few seconds when you fail!
This second way of playing is encouraged by the front-and-center timeline mechanic, and as a result, failure is exponentially less punishing than in similar games: you’re not greeted with a ‘You’re Dead’ screen accompanied by a frustrated sound effect which hits you right in your fragile ego. Instead, you just rewind a couple of seconds and give it another shot. In this manner, Timelie removes that fear of failure and instead prioritizes pure puzzle-solving, by allocating all that brainpower to figure out the solution instead of being drenched in self-doubt. This also makes it that much more accessible to stealth-noobs, who might have otherwise been scared off by the unforgiving difficulty of some of the later puzzles.
Only after the cat is introduced as a controllable character does the true scope of the gameplay truly become apparent, since the cat can do things the girl can’t, like meowing to distract guards before hiding/traversing through vents inaccessible to the girl. In this aspect, I was reminded of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons which pulled off this single-player co-op style of gameplay surprisingly well. Anyway as you can imagine, the addition of the cat deepens the complexity that much more, and makes for some great puzzles.
After playing around with the various possible approaches and finding one that works, you click on Play and can then sit back and watch the results of your labor as the girl and the cat follow your commands beautifully and successfully reach the portal. This, like in Superhot, is extremely satisfying and even rewarding here. Plus, some levels force you to optimize and coordinate their movements in such a way as to do it in the least amount of time possible by making sure that neither is kept idle for even an instant. Having slightly OCD tendencies, I attempted to do this in every level, and found it super gratifying to do so.
The one negative I can think of is the enemy variety: as in, there is none. There’s only a single type of enemy, the robot-guard throughout the whole game. I would’ve appreciated a couple more enemy types – maybe one with a longer line of sight, or one that could enter the vents like your cat – but it’s hard to complain when the puzzles that already exist with just this one type of enemy are already so compelling.
Figuring out the puzzles is always challenging and fun, as the difficulty is excellently paced, with no abrupt spikes but a steady incline. The earlier stages are quick and easy – with switches that toggle the same colored doors – mostly meant to get you used to the mechanics, while the later ones are significantly more challenging, a few of them taking me upwards of 25 minutes to figure out.
There are 4 main chapters in Timelie, with a fifth one revealed after you beat the fourth one, and this is where things get crazy. The true genius of the level designers is fully on display here, and it’s awesome to behold. The fifth chapter impressed me so much that that’s when I knew this was something special. I only wish this chapter was longer. It took me a little more than 5 hours to beat, the fourth chapter taking the most amount of time by a decent margin, even though it had a lesser number of levels than most others. There are 15 relics to acquire, which are basically achievements, but there are no tips on how to acquire them all. The 5 I did get were either from finishing a level in the fastest time possible or beating a level without using the cat’s meow.
The timelessness of time travel
As I noted at the start of this review, time manipulation is ever-prevalent in media and has been for quite some time. The reason for this is the tragically human craving for wish-fulfillment and eliminating regrets. The things you could do if you went back in time… Maybe you could’ve handled that break-up better, or even entirely prevented it from happening. Maybe you’d be more grateful and loving towards your father and have spent more time with him before he died. You’d definitely have approached that girl you had a crush on instead of wimping out. Or even something stupid and petty like a funny joke you could’ve made, a clever retort you could’ve given in that one petty argument, or something more practical like studying more in school, preparing better for that job interview, or investing in Zoom stocks before the pandemic. As Dracula said in Symphony of the Night, “What is a man? A miserable little pile of regrets!”
In all seriousness, perfection is unrealistic. We all make mistakes, we all have embarrassing moments and we all regret them later. Practice makes perfect, but given the one life we have, that hardly counts as practice. So the notion of being able to fix these imperfections, making a moment perfect, is an eternally tantalizing prospect. For this reason, time-travel is such a romantic concept that has fascinated storytellers forever, and Timelie approaches this notion head-on in its gameplay, making for a very rewarding moment-moment gameplay experience, giving you the freedom to defy the constraints of time itself. But it doesn’t stop there, its narrative, and its conclusion, brings you back to the ground, and forces you to confront the reality that time, of course, can not be controlled. Timelie concludes its heat-warming narrative of friendship and the power of a shared bond, of connection between two entities, with the brutal realization that the time we have together is limited.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
The visuals in Timelie is, like I said, minimalist, with blue and white being the primary colors, but stylistically reminiscent of Mike Bithell’s Volume. The later levels bring with them some red and green as well, but there’s not too much variety in the visuals. There’s a cinematic sequence early on with giant chess pieces raining from the sky that created a striking image and definitely stands out, I enjoyed that a lot.
The music is for the most part minimalist as well, with mostly ambient, cerebral tracks which aid you in your concentration and get those gears turning. Which makes the few levels with roaring music distinctly memorable. These levels – some of them literally disintegrating behind you – are tense and stressful, which is funny because you literally control time, there’s nothing to be anxious about. The main theme is a beautifully somber piano melody, and the music in general definitely becomes more prominent in the later levels as well, and those tracks are superb.
The visuals and sound of Timelie nothing mind-blowing, but they definitely help propel the narrative forward, especially in the latter stages and the remarkably emotional ending sequence.
As I said in the Neversong review, it’s when the gameplay is thematically consistent with the narrative, it’s when these two are in sync, bolstered by the visuals and the sound, that’s when a good game becomes great. I’m happy to say, Timelie is definitely one such game. Perfection is unrealistic, but Timelie sure gets close.