Achron: Real-Time Just Got Complicated

June 23, 2010

I’ve been meaning to talk about Achron for a while, and kept putting it off because I didn’t feel like I’d gotten to the bottom of exactly what it means.

Well I’m still not completely sure, but I’ve run out of levels to play with (and playing against the AI doesn’t seem to give me a huge amount of insight into how the game will eventually play as it’s still being worked on), so until i get a decent chance to play some multiplayer I can only go so far.

And that may just be enough, as what I want to talk about isn’t just the gameplay ramifications, but the narrative ones as well. Having just done a mechanical breakdown on the RTS, this should be an interesting case study.

So what does it mean to screw with time in a genre where time is the key? See how this changes the timeline after the jump…

First, a bit of a primer for the uninitiated: Achron is an RTS which allows for the player and units to travel in time, whether it be in single or multi-player. Achron uses a propagation model of time: that is, you can change something in the past, but those changes will take time to affect more recent events. The propagation occurs in specific waves which move at a speed of 2 Yues (where a Yue is the unit of the speed time, at 1 second per second). If you want to see how this all works in action (and if you haven’t seen any Achron, you really should), you can watch Hazardous Software’s explanatory video below.

While your mouth is hanging open, I’ll also mention that this is all available now for pre-order, and that Hazzardous games are releasing alpha builds to those who pre-order as they make them.

You can close your mouth now.

In terms of gameplay, Achron is an interesting beast. From the gameplay I’ve seen so far, I’d say that Achron is high on strategy, medium-to-low on tactics and almost a non-entity in terms of optimisation play. Achron seems to actively discourage micro-management, rewarding the creation of a chain of command in numerous ways. So far, there isn’t any real resource collection or building production to optimise, and if there was, the timeline mechanic reduces the need to get it right right now.

And this, in my opinion, is a very good thing. Achron has enough complexity to its time-travel mechanic without the need for huge tech trees or click-fests to distract from this complexity.

What I found interesting about the game is that the obvious things that time travel brings (being able to copy people, going grandfather paradox on someone’s arse – you know, the simple things) don’t actually do the player all that much good.

Instead, Achron seems to be about Resources and Logistics (where the italics in seems represents my inability to be sure with my limited gameplay). You’ve got a 4-dimensional playing board and the goal is to find the right places and times for units (or resources) to be in the timeline’s final state, to clear the paths to those space-time points and to make sure the units get there without incident. Meanwhile, you’re trying to disrupt your opponent’s plans.

The result is an experience that feels a little like chess, where you set your pieces in motion towards victory, always keeping an eye on the signs of the other players moving their own.

In narrative terms, this logistical idea could be capitalised on a larger scale. As far as I can tell, the story of Achron will be that of an alien attack on humanity that is perfect due to their grasp of time-travel, and of humanity’s response thereafter. I can see the theme of logistics and resource allocation being incredibly important: going back and freeing up troops in the heat of the initial attack would be pivotal to the larger combat.

The value of a human life is also interesting here: we find we have a means to ensure that human life isn’t wasted, but we find that we save these lives as they are a resource that is important for other combats. This view of the sanctity of life for possibly the wrong reasons would be fascinating to see put into practice.

Finally, Our control over events takes an interesting turn: the idea of time travel allows us to fight for control over the outcome of particular pivotal events, and I hope the team at Hazardous is able to create scenarios where the mission is to ensure a specific event occurs without requiring the complete destruction of the enemy. Imagine if further to this that some of these events were not essential and personal to the player’s character, and you have a recipe for some powerful storytelling.

I’ll be playing Achron more over the coming months (and possibly years?) as the game is developed, and I’m sure there’s more insights to be had on what this game means for the RTS. If anyone has a copy and is up for a game, please let me know. For now I’ll leave you with this little scenario: what if the aliens went back in time and killed you just before the invasion, leaving you scrambling to save yourself before the time waves caught up? And what if this wasn’t a strategic priority in the battle for Earth?