The Hands of Time

[UPDATE: when I heard the feedback from players, I decided definitely not to go with the harsher pause strategy below. I’m leaving this post live for historical interest!]


This is a conversation I had this morning with Martin Nerurkar about information management and pause mechanics in Cultist Simulator. It references this blog post (written almost exactly a year ago today!) which, if you’re putting your brain in this, is worth reading first.

Feedback and discussion in the comments is welcome!


I still like the desktop approach, but I do get a lot of feedback that ppl are overwhelmed

democritus [9:32 AM]
Hm. My thinking is that this isn’t the desktop approach, it’s the amount of tokens in play. You’d still be overwhelmed if it was a large list of things.

But we may want to think about adding a search or filter functionality to the game

It is absolutely the quantity of tokens in play

this is a problem with the kind of games I make, and I always struggle with the info overload

but the desktop metaphor exacerbates it; partly because it’s not in a tabulated format, but mostly because there are several choices simultaneously relevant

generally in other stuff I’ve done whenever the player is presented with a choice, they have just that to worry about, unless they want to back out and do something else

here, there are several ongoing potentially relevant things all the time

which is deliberate, and is part of why I like the desktop approach


but it imposes an extra burden of clarity

so dw, I’m not beating up on the desktop idea;

I am only saying that it now predisposes my answer to any design choice to be ‘whatever presents the least new information’

(which hasn’t always been the case)

democritus[10:10 AM]
Makes sense.

I also think the time-limit adds to the overwhelming feeling of the game.

Radical suggestion: Time doesn’t go manually. But you make it go.

Press a button to advance 10 seconds.

this would change all timers to be more segmented bars (5 more presses and then this thing is done)

than fluid things

but take out all the stress and change the way people interact. Not sure if that’s what you want.

Middle ground would be: To have a pause button and a “skip forward” button

ak [10:14 AM]
I think it would make it a different kind of stress

democritus [10:15 AM]
that’d just run 10 seconds in 1 and pause again.

sort of like the >> 30 debug button

ak [10:15 AM]
Civ stress rather than Starcraft stress

‘have I 100% optimised my board for the next turn’ rather than ‘ahhh what’s happening???’

democritus [10:15 AM]
but the pause already takes out the starcraft stress, if you play with it.

so civ stress is already an option for the player.

it’s just not as explicit

and – hot take / radical notion – would it be bad for the player to find the stress they like and play that way? 🙂

ak [10:16 AM]
yes; so by the same token, we already have an optional turn-based system

if someone wants to play that way

democritus [10:16 AM]
including achievements of: never went out of pause and got to the goal X or never paused and got to goal Y

ak [10:17 AM]
I want to push them in the direction of the kind of stress I want as a designer

“and – hot take / radical notion – would it be bad for the player to find the stress they like and play that way?”

yes, it would :slightly_smiling_face:

because that means I have to design for both play styles

democritus [10:17 AM]
fair enough 🙂 But then I could argue that pause is wrong to be there at all?

ak [10:17 AM]
this, on the other hand:

Middle ground would be: To have a pause button and a “skip forward” button

I don’t want a skip forward button, but I do want a ‘fast forward’ button

(probably ‘fast forward until next timer completes’)

“I could argue that pause is wrong to be there at all?”

I would be happier if pause wasn’t there at all, but I just can’t justify taking it out

players have to be able to pause, because they might be old or have babies or have slow reading speeds, there’s no way round that

damn them, with their squishy biological bodies and fallible human eyes

I am however considering making it impossible to slot cards during pause

I think the better way is to tune the speed and the interactions so it feels satisfying to play at moderate speed

you play Crusader Kings or Stellaris at all?

you can pause whenever you like, you can take all actions when paused, the optimal thing is to do that

sometimes when things are stressful you’ll do exactly that

but I, and I think most people, mostly play on fast speed and pause only in crises

cos it’s just more fun

and the rhythm subtly encourages that

democritus [10:22 AM]
Haven’t played it but I remember the same thing from… uh? was that sim city possibly? or sims?

Something along those lines.

but maybe instead of a pause just different speeds?

that way you can adjust to your current intensity level or personal skill / biological fallibility

a very slow one – but still ticking, always ticking, never stopping.

a regular one

and a fast one for when you just want to get that one timer done

ak [10:25 AM]
now that is interesting

we would still need a legit pause, but that could be escape-menu-pause rather than interact-with-the-game pause

I’m adding a note to consider that

democritus [10:26 AM]

ak [10:26 AM]
I do like the idea, and it is very testable; I could drop it in an early build and see if people hate it

thank you!

also I am now considering posting this conversation online; do you mind me doing that?

democritus [10:28 AM]
no sure, go right ahead

17 comments on The Hands of Time
  1. (I’m a guy with a baby and definitely need to be able to pause, and if possible save, at any time)

    Why not replace the timers by a number of interactions with the game? An interaction would be any player action that changes the state, or maybe even clicks that change the game state or the information provided to the player.

  2. I also like the idea of variable timer speeds and a non-interactive escape-to-pause. As much as I liked the ability to pause and interact in the alpha, and I definitely feel like there needs to be a way to play at a reasonable pace to properly enjoy the game, I did find myself often in the less fun position of pausing the game, doing a bunch of interactions, then unpausing and having nothing to do but wait for a bunch of timers (which, as you mention, happens in other games, eg Stellaris)

  3. Not having an active pause is a decision I can respect from the artistic viewpoint but that I hate as a lazy, slow-reading, very-slowly-reacting, much-pondering player. Unless the slow speed would truly be INCREDIBLY slow.

    1. If it happens at all, it’ll be *incredibly* slow. The reaction everywhere has been ‘no?’ so if I do test it, it’ll be a test, not a commitment.

  4. Following through on your final comment…yup! People will hate it. 🙂 Please do not remove actionable pause from the game. Your CKII example is spot on!
    You can remove negative overwhelming to the player by making him engage with the things that overwhelm them.
    First its about the Art!
    Everyone is overwhelmed by the 7th time that he has to insert cards to job while waiting to see the same things over and over again. Consider using either rotating assets or some kind of procedural symbolic art that ties well with the theme of your game.
    Second it is about player feedback.
    In fact this is the first. I played the released build for 4 hours straight the first time i downloaded it. Thing is that ovewhelming came when I despaired about how to proceed in what I had in mind. You have the little symbols and you have the theme that narrative-ly guides players to experiment. However you need some kind of feedback to tell the player: “Hey! Idiot! It is the 8th time you attempt to combine dream with this book. It did not work the last 7! What do you think will happen now!”…well actually there is an argument here that given the supernatural context you COULD make something happen on the 8th time but I digress. If you give a UI palette that makes clear what is the choice spectrum and what has already been dropped from it people are not going to be overwhelmed. People like choices. But only the meaningful ones. That is the engagement overwhelm that makes…well…families break or meals skipped 🙂

  5. At least from the alpha, I really see CS as almost an accelerated idle game. If I were you might add idle games like Cookie Clicker to the list of games you might want to evaluate for how they handle information overload. I could see an idle game style interface working well, though I really do like the desktop!

    1. adarkroom and the Kittens Game were both early influences, and it was originally conceived as an idle game! You can see some of those influences here. I couldn’t find a way to fit everything I wanted to do in that framework. But it’s interesting to see the DNA still visible.

  6. I think you guys are on the right track with slow, medium, and fast speeds. I also like the idea of removing the ability to move and slot cards while paused. Too often in the current Alpha I find myself playing in a way that is reminiscent of very basic cooking – setting various timers and then watching them tick down, which can totally take the tension out of the game while effectively increasing the length. A big part of the game play is managing time and resources. So even a slow speed timer when allocating cards could increase engagement and intensity in this area and thus make the experience feel more rewarding, while at the same time helping the game move faster.

    But another big part of the game is reading the lovely writing and figuring out the story, which is why I’m not all that keen on you guys taking pause *completely* out of the game. I’m a slow reader who likes to reread stuff. I also like to write bits of text down for later analysis and discussion ^_^ Sooo, not being able to pause and read at my own pace would probably lessen my enjoyment of the game. This would especially be the case if something very time sensitive were happening while I was trying to read, so that any extra time spent fully absorbing the text might be detrimental to my character’s goals or overall chances of success. And we all know how hard it can be to concentrate on and fully enjoy reading something substantial when there’s a voice in the back of your head screaming “hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, time is limited!”

    So I would humbly advocate for a “readers pause,” a pause where you can’t do anything with the tokens and cards except read their text.

  7. As someone with a brain disability who knows a lot of disabled gamers — active pause or turn-based mode is really important for accessibility.
    Multiple given relevantly-disabled people might process the text in front of them at different rates, and that’s not counting how long it might take them to respond in-game; reading something is not the same as deciding what to do next. If there’s no way for me to stop time in a setting like this, it’s just going to ramp up my anxiety. That’s one of the things I like about Fallen London’s game design; the lack of time crunch means I can reread text or consider options without undue pressure.
    Feel free to reward people for their accomplishments, of course! I don’t begrudge people their speedrun achievements. I — and other disabled people to whom this would apply — just want to be able to play.

    1. Yes, don’t worry! I’ve committed to adding a customisable delay in the tooltips, even. I want people to *feel* tense, but this isn’t a flashcard game.

  8. Others have made some excellent comments, and I agree with most of them, but I’d like to take one further step back and ask you to consider the fundamental vision you had for the game and how it interacts with these design decisions.

    When you first started talking about this idea, besides the intriguing Noon setting, one of the things you mentioned was the idea of a “narrative crafting game” which I thought was fascinating though I had no idea how you’d do it. I think between the prototypes we’ve got a fair picture of how that might work out now. However, it seems to me there’s an important disconnect between that vision and some of the ideas about play style that have evolved for you as you worked on the game.

    It’s clear to me one of the main things that your fans are here for – and the fans of the Cultist Simulator idea are here for – is the writing. It’s the written bits of Lore, of story fragment, of character thoughts, which create the whole narrative half of the “narrative crafting.” For that narrative to work, somebody’s got to read it. (YOU don’t have to read it, because you’re writing it and you know what it says – but WE the players do.)

    Yet here it sounds like you really want to *strongly* commit to a play style which *strongly* discourages reading, appreciating, and savoring the narrative. Quote: “I want to push them in the direction of the kind of stress I want as a designer” That, it seems to me, tends to undermine one of the major pillars of the core idea. Yes, your choices would still create a narrative, sort of, but the player would never get a chance to see or appreciate them.

    IIRC, one of the first major bits of feedback on the early graphic proto, when you first released it, was that nearly everybody wanted an automatic journal of events like they got in the web prototype (even if it may have been accidental there.) Besides the ability to have a memory-jogger for “recipes”, I think it meant the opportunity to read back through what happened in this play-through and see what kind of story formed for you.

    Going back to FTL, one of your examples of “loose” choice from the earlier post in: I’ve been playing FTL a lot again lately, so one thing I’ve noticed in FTL is that the *only* time you’re under clock pressure is when you’re in the midst of a pitched battle. At every other point – open the Ship or Store screens, or Jump, or arrive at a new star, or have an enemy plead for mercy – the game pauses indefinitely for you to make a choice, and you get to look and think as long as you like.

    My suggestion – and I realize it’s not an easy one – is to really think about the essence and nature of that “stress” you’re trying to get the player to feel. It’s definitely pressure, it’s a game version of that real-life “arrgh, how do I juggle all these things in my life” feeling, but is that necessarily about clock time? And can it be woven into the game in a way that also gives the narrative full play?

    1. >Yet here it sounds like you really want to *strongly* commit to a play style which *strongly* discourages reading, appreciating, and savoring the narrative

      oh good grief no I don’t want to do that. 🙂 Don’t read too much into a one-line interest in experimenting with ‘very slow’ rather than ‘paused’.

  9. Oh, one last thing I forgot to add:

    I saw several comments up-thread (and in earlier discussion on the subreddit) about “I have a reading disability, and need more time…” or “I’m a slow reader but…” so I want to offer a counter-point on those comments.

    It’s very important to accommodate players with disabilities, but:
    This is not a matter of reading speed.

    I’m not a slow reader and never have been – I was reading well over 800 wpm for pleasure reading in junior high, and it got much faster over time. (Believe me, that can be as much a disadvantage as an advantage at times; unless I really try to slow myself down, I may end up breezing through a medium-length novel in the course of an evening.) I’ve got an excellent memory, too.

    I *still* found the CS alpha prototypes to create enough time pressure on me that I missed out on reading and enjoying key parts of the text in the game because I was frantically dragging cards.

  10. Sorry if I was overly critical here! That wasn’t my intent! I feel maybe I phrased things a little too dramatically and jabbed a nerve by accident; blame my tendency to polemic.

    Mostly I was trying to put out some idea-joggers and perhaps trigger other ways to think about the problem, for example the way FTL goes back and forth between paused, untimed activities and heavy time pressure.

    For example I think Guillaume’s idea in the first post is interesting and different, and could create decision pressure in an entirely different way. If all the timers like “Time passing” were in terms of notional mouse-clicks/activities – e.g. card moves and action starts – then knowing you could only choose 6 more things to do before “Time passing” expires would create a different set of pressures. (That doesn’t quite work because what moves it forward when there’s nothing you want to do? Click fast-forward?)

    It’s an interesting notion, but still it’s just one possibility. Probably there are another half-dozen different ways you could do it.

    I have faith though.

  11. “If it happens at all, it’ll be *incredibly* slow. The reaction everywhere has been ‘no?’ so if I do test it, it’ll be a test, not a commitment.”

    I’d be interested in testing it out.

    My initial reaction was skeptical, but that might be because the idea is so avant garde in terms of what we’re used to when it comes to game design. Now, I’m curious as to whether it will work.

  12. For my the ideal solution is to have three or four different levels of difficulty, attached to the speed of the timer.

    Slower, slow, regular (actual time rate) and hellish.

    Also, I think having a pause button (SPACE) a-la CIV, Sims it could be ideal, maybe you can add an option in the difficulty demo for disabling the pause button. Maybe in hellish difficulty the pause button is always deactivated.

    We are talking about an “active pause” a pause a-la Baldur’s Gate, where you can still command, and make actions, and then hit PAUSE and see your plans develop. Of course you can have the typical pause that just blocks the view of the screen, or obscure it, and blocks all interaction with the game. But the things I’m suggesting here are around what we are going to call “active pause”.

    Maybe this kind of “active pause” where you can “command” and “act” is too much for this game, so maybe you can have a “planning pause” that let you pan through the desktop, and look inside and close tabs, etc. But not making actions. With this pause you plan ahead, but not put things into motion.

    And finally, I have another idea that I gave you in private some time ago: you can have “auto pause” (maybe optional too), a pause that goes active automatically when any process in the game is finished. I think that could be awesome.

    In the end there are people who wants to play relaxed and that is ok. And there are people who want to be stressed out, and that’s great too. So having all this optional and choosable is a neat idea.

    But definitively, if you want people have stress, then you must do the difficulty settings, and have different speeds, just the regular speed is too much for a lot of people, and anyway, it doesn’t matter if the game is slow or slower than that, if the time is ticking, people will feel the stress yes or yes.

  13. Perhaps, in this resource narrative, there’s space to treat time as a resource of its own?

    You can pause, yes. At cost.

on The Hands of Time

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