Bravely Default’s Temporal Strata

Videogame time is weird. Though all manner of clocks and timers, whether computational or diegetic, drive play, time rarely operates in games as it does in real life. Even games that pride themselves on ‘realistic’ day/night cycles—games as varied as Assassin’s Creed, Minecraft, and Forza Horizon—tend to compress these cycles into tight loops.

A few years back, I gave a presentation on videogame time and narrative called ‘Knots and Loops’ where I compared the temporal structure of many videogames to an Incan tool called a quipu. Though its exact usage is still unknown, scholars believe the quipu was used for record keeping. Fashioned from long strands of hair or cotton, its basic shape resembles a length of knotted rope with numerous knotted strands hanging from that base. I used the structure as a abstract model for narrative time, specifically in Grand Theft Auto IV:

In Grand Theft Auto IV, there is a primary narrative strand that the player may pursue, guiding the immigrant anti-hero, Nico Bellic, toward his skewed version of the American dream. If a player chooses to follow that strand, she will experience a fairly linear progression of events, much like a traditional film or novel. Yet at nearly any time during the game, the player may diverge from the main strand and proceed along an alternate branch. These branches can take at least two forms: either a ‘side-mission’ scripted with its own narrative arc by the game’s designers, or a branch of ‘free play’ that the player ‘scripts’ for herself according to the rules of the game’s simulation…The knots along the strands represent looping conditions where a player’s progression becomes impeded, either by their inability to accomplish a task or a fail state that ejects them from the branch and reinserts them along the main branch.

It’s not a perfect model, but knots and loops reflect, at least metaphorically, the underlying computational structure of videogame design. At an abstract level, a videogame is a series of nested loops, all contained within a larger ‘game loop,’ each checking for state changes that trigger other loops.

I started thinking about game time again while spending a few hours with Square Enix’s 3DS RPG, Bravely Default. Many critics praised the game for both its revival of the much-beloved ‘job system’ from past Final Fantasy titles and its modern streamlining of well-worn RPG mechanics. Random encounters, for example, work on a frequency slider. Care to make every step a monster trap for the purposes of grinding? Care to walk unimpeded across Default‘s overworld? Either option is possible.

Beyond such noteworthy design decisions, what I find most intriguing is Bravely Default’s dense composite of temporal layers operating as a unified ‘geology’—it’s temporal strata. Despite its traditional JRPG trappings, time in Default is not a simple vector. It’s multiple parallel threads dilate, contract, and entwine in complex ways.

Like many RPGs of its ilk, Default uses a turn-based combat system. Player characters act in sequence, one-by-one, based on their given command; simultaneous actions cannot occur. This style traces its roots to Dungeons & Dragons and other initiative-based role-playing systems where players rolled (and added modifiers) to determine action order. What turn-based systems lack in spontaneity and reflex they gain in strategy and calculation. Planning one’s moves carefully can, for instance, result in an enemy party’s defeat without them ever making a move.

Turn-based combat does not have a clear corollary in real world combat. At best it’s a variation on the rules of engagement practiced, for example, by European infantries in prior centuries. Combatants met on the field at appointed times and fought, moved, and died in a prescripted fashion. Deviations, like the colonists’ guerilla tactics in the American Revolutionary War, were considered poor form. In Bravely Default, we might call this temporal stratum contracted time, since there is an ‘agreement’ between parties, enforced by the game’s systems, as to when and how constituent members may act. At its extreme, contracted time can also lead to temporal absurdities. If the player chooses mid-battle to provide no further input, the game locks in an infinite wait cycle. Music and animation will continue to play out, but the battle will remain forever in stasis.

Players may breach contracted time using the three mechanics that, given their importance, provide the game its awkward title. Selecting ‘Brave’ allows a party member to take actions in advance, risking future danger by compressing contracted time. ‘Default’ performs the opposite temporal action; contracted time dilates as a means to ‘bank’ future actions. Finally, the ‘Bravely Second’ mechanic functions as an immediate interrupt, halting contracted time so the player may take an additional attack. Each mechanic has a cost: using Brave expends BP, or brave points, which regenerate once per turn; using ‘Default’ adds BP and raises defense but requires inaction for a turn; using Bravely Second depletes SP, or sleep points.

Though many RPGs stretching back to the 80s have a Charge, Wait, or Defend option, I’ve never seen them used as a temporal modifier, nor have I seen their opposite function used as a play mechanic. Strategically using multiple stacked Braves can end battles after one party member’s turn. Effectively, that member’s battle timeline is operating independent of both their combatants’ and allies’ battle timelines, as if they have a time machine transporting future selves to the present in hopes that they will erase a possible future where the enemies are still alive. It’s conceptually mind-bending, but works smoothly in practice.

The Bravely Second is stranger still. The interrupt is not an innovative mechanic—it has corollaries in all manner of games—but the way Bravely Default fuels its resource pool is. The aforementioned sleep points (SP), as their name indicates, only accumulate while the game is active but the 3DS is closed, i.e., asleep. The idea is that players put their handheld away for the night then start fresh the next day with a new stock of SP for use in battle. Bravely Default rewards players for spending time outside the game, a paratemporal strata that later intervenes in contracted time. But SP and paratemporal time are not equivalent. It takes eight hours of sleep to produce 1 SP, like so much temporal coal pressed into rare diamonds. Square Enix literally capitalizes on this process by allowing players to shortcut sleep time by paying real currency for SP Drinks, entwining players’ labor time into the game’s temporal geology.

Another paratemporal strata operates in Bravely Default’s optional minigame. The main character Tiz’s village, Norende, is razed at the beginning of the game, but soon after the player may start to rebuild the village by assigning in-game workers to clear monsters and lead construction projects. These tasks involve no real input beyond choosing which to perform, but each takes hours to complete. To mitigate the potential hundreds of hours necessary to rebuild Norende completely (granting in-game access to unique items), players may recruit ally workers online or via the 3DS’ StreetPass feature to cut times considerably.

These temporal mechanics should sound familiar to those who play short-burst mobile games. Many build their entire profit structures around player impatience. Money buys time. But it’s peculiar to find these strategies in a genre that traditionally trumpets temporal sprawl. Players are meant to spend ‘80+ hours!’ in these vast fantasy worlds. Grinding, the ultimate time-for-progress tradeoff, is a genre staple. But Bravely Default holds contradictory expectations of its players. On the one hand, the designers seem to value their players’ time by, for instance, making random encounters a variable or making in-game party chatting optional; on the other hand, the waiting mechanics ask players to carry their system like a treasured watch, accumulating real-world sleep and travel to later refine into in-game time.

Alongside these and other temporal strata, Bravely Default acknowledges a nostalgic current. Considering its early pedigree as a Final Fantasy sequel, it’s no surprise that many players praise the game for its affinities to ‘classic’ games, tropes, or mechanics in that series. So Bravely Default is itself outside of time, a modern game referencing a traditional genre using the lessons of contemporary mobile design. Though it fits in a chronology of 90s RPGs, it couldn’t exist without Farmville and Candy Crush Saga. It braves and defaults in turn, slipping in and out of time.