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Time Traveler

In video games, the concept of the “do-over” is familiar to players – replaying a level or situation over and over, using knowledge from previous tries to finally get it right.

Doctoral student Chris Hazard has taken that idea to the next level with his groundbreaking new video game Achron – generating buzz with gamers and interest from the U.S. Army.

Achron is the world’s first actual time-travel game,” says Hazard, who’s finishing his Ph.D. in computer science. “It’s a game where all players can jump back in time to reverse their past decisions. They can build up an army, take the opponent’s army down before they create their army…but your opponent can do the same thing.

“It’s a real-time strategy game where time itself is a resource.”

Hazard, who came to NC State after graduating from Valparaiso University in 2004, began developing this idea a decade ago. With the final game due to be released in the latter half of this year from his Hazardous Games company, he’s already attracted the attention of online media sources such as Boing Boing and Slashdot.

Time Travel Basics

Achron players are given control of devices called chrono-porters that allow them to send troops, equipment and more back in time.

Hazard says that the U.S. Army is interested in how the game’s time-travel techniques could be used in helping teach strategic thinking.

“If you play this game a lot, you’ll start to think, ‘What are the long-term effects of every decision I make?’” Hazard says.

“Let’s say you’re fighting a battle, and you decide, ‘Well, this is a losing proposition for me.‘ You can go back in time and alter things so you never entered the battle in the first place.”

Time-travel can allow troops to battle alongside counterparts from the past, head off the enemy before an attack or even “chrono-frag” attackers with a devastating time-travel collision.

The further back in time players go, the larger the impact of their changes, Hazard says.  “If you change something that only happened 30 seconds ago, it’s probably not going to affect what’s going on in the world right now very much. If you go back to 10 minutes ago, it might have a large-scale effect.”

However, even time travel has its limits. Players have to manage their chronal energy, and there are restrictions on how many things they can send back in time and how far back they can go.

And though a player can pause in Achron, time keeps moving for opponents. In the same game, one player can be in fast-forward mode in the past while another is paused in the future and a third is at normal speed in the present.

“The player sees a timeline on the bottom of the screen that indicates when everything happened. This way, they can see when another player is changing history and can easily jump to a particular point in time, such as the beginning of a battle,” Hazard says.

Because of these factors, players need to think several steps ahead. “The time manipulation in Achron makes strategy even more important. It blurs the boundary between hypothetical and committed.”

Beyond Alien Worlds

Hazard developed Achron’s system of time-travel cause-and-effect by studying such science fiction films as Minority Report, Primer and Back to the Future. His goal was to make the concept of time travel believable.

To see how well Achron‘s game mechanics stood up under scrutiny by someone who researches the possibility of time travel, Hazard showed the time-travel mechanics to Dr. John Carroll, a professor in NC State’s philosophy department, whose work deals with the philosophy of time travel. “His reaction was, ’Wow, you guys really thought through this stuff!’” Hazard says with a laugh.

Manipulating time has become a bigger part of video games in the past few years, with such titles as Braid allowing players to rewind scenes, reverse the flow of time and undo their past mistakes.

“As I and a lot of the other gamers who grew up in the ‘80s have grown up, we don’t have as much time to play games,” Hazard says. “We don’t have four hours to try and make that platform jump. Time travel allows you to play the game in a new way – now, saving the game and replaying the scenes isn’t cheating.”

Hazard says Achron’s time travel gameplay has the potential to carry over to other video games, including traditional sports and driving scenarios. “What if you have a football or soccer game and you can go back in time for three plays and say, ‘What if I had done this play instead?’”

But right now, Hazard is focused on Achron’s release. “We have the gameplay, engine and story mostly complete, and we’re just starting to focus on the graphics and level design.”

As for time travel itself, “I’m skeptical to admit that it exists in the real universe, but I would be happy to be proven wrong,” Hazard says.  “Physics is such a weird and wild and wonderful place.”