This article was voted on and supported by my Patreon page.
Timesplitters 2 was the most significant game of my teenage gameplaying years. It is comprised of several micronarratives taking place throughout human history, and the core of the game involves the player hopping into heroic bodies in those time periods in order to defeat arch villains as well as their Timesplitter allies.
Timesplitters are evil aliens. Or something.
In any case, TS2 really imprinted itself on me. I’ve maintained a fascination with games that try to blend weird genre work and different time periods into a single game, and Timesplitters 2 has become a weird high-water mark for me in how it managed to handle all of that complexity while giving a super-playable arcadey shooter.
I say all of that to note that when I recently got way into grabbing Playstation 2 games, the original Timesplitters was at the top of things that I wanted to play. I had never had a chance to grab it, had never even seen it, when I was a teen, and so being a big grown up adult with big grown up money to buy games with, I decided that I definitely wanted to give it a shot. I put it in a list of different games I wanted to play and write about and made a poll on my Patreon page.
Then, to my surprise, it was chosen.
Playing Timesplitters fourteen years after its release is a strange experience. While my memories of the sequel are almost completely concerned with story, Timesplitters itself it completely absent any effort in that department. Each level allows you to select a character, after which you are dropped into a map. If you pause the game, you can see that there are objectives, and all of them are some form of “get an object in the heart of the level and bring it to the beginning of the level.” It is, by all accounts, a barebones product.
It is also hard as hell.
I have not shouted, screamed, and cursed at any piece of media in my entire life as I have Timesplitters (and I’ve recently been playing New Super Mario Bros. WiiU). Enemies can barely hit you, but when they do, they take out a chunk of health. There’s no cover. The movement is strange and jerky, and the first level introduces the dreaded Timesplitters zombie enemy, which will always get up after being shot unless you skill shot its head off. I spent three hours trying to clear the first level on medium before I shifted down to easy and blazed through it with super speed.
Why the severe change in difficulty through the two modes? There’s a version of this essay where I trot out some videogame ideology truisms and talk about how important it is that this game’s standard difficulty is incredibly difficult, placing it in videogame firmament with Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda and all of those other fetish objects that make up the breadcrumb trail behind Dark Souls and Spelunky.
That isn’t this piece though. Instead, what sticks out to me about Timesplitters, which is a fairly bog standard shooter overall, is that it is one of the last games that acknowledged that it was wasting your time.
That’s what the steep increases in difficulty between difficulty levels is. It is a mode of wasting time in the most beautiful way. In my weird semi-research project Reading Electronic Gaming Monthly, where I have been reading as much of that magazine as I can get my hands on, I’ve come across a way of thinking that permeated the 1990s: games should make you spend a lot of time on them. They should be incredibly difficult to complete, let alone master, and if they aren’t then they are not good games. That kind of thinking has extended into the contemporary period, with a lot of vitriol about time return on investment thrown at quickly-completed (but not quickly experienced) games like Gone Home.
The best time wasting games have always worn it on their sleeves. When an RPG boasted on the back cover that it had 80 hours of content, that is a claim to time wasting supremacy. You could get lost inside of that object, spend entire summer days cramming it into your brain boss-by-boss.
Short of those RPGs, though, time wasting fell out of vogue. You wanted a narrative, and narratives that featured fetch quests without the appropriate trappings of self-justification were pilloried. Without gimmicks, superpowers, and the ability to be immersed in the world, time wasting became a gross thing.
Now our time-wasters, the games that really take an inordinate amount of time to even get into, let alone master, spin themselves as developing skills in the player. By dumping 100 hours into Spelunky, you become better at understanding the system that governs that game.
Timesplitters doesn’t even allow this amount of comfort with how you waste your time. You cannot dodge bullets or use special skills or tricks to better play the game. The best you can do is memorize the specific timings of when enemies teleport in or pop out of their scripted hiding places. You cannot get better at the system, but merely at recognizing that systems symptoms. God help you if you change difficulties, though, because then both the enemies and the shape of the level changes.
Timesplitters requires you to dump hours into it, like piling sand onto a beach, only to see yourself barely passing through the levels. Your time gives you nothing more than a minor ability to navigate the space. And it does not care. It does not have any sympathy for you. It does not try to addict you, to get you to say “HEY I CAN DO THIS, JUST ONE MORE TIME.” It is entirely apathetic to you and what you want to do in the game, and you can take it or leave it.