Sometimes the greatest experiences come from little things, whether it is a lovely act of kindness amidst the tedious routine or an unexpected gift from someone close to you. It does not necessarily need to be big in order to be great. This motto could be applied to life in general as well as video games, and if you are familiar with this blog, you know that I value this sentence. Quite often, my greatest experiences with the medium come from games which are certainly not big, at least in their external representation and their marketing campaign cost. I am not saying that big, gigantic and overly exposed games cannot bring any great experiences, let’s be clear on that. But I feel like we should pay more attention to the little things in life and in the video game medium, for they bring something refreshing and enjoyable too, as much as they can. 400 Years is one of these little things.
I discovered 400 Years almost by accident, while browsing a catalogue of tiny flash games. As you may be aware now, the title is almost as important as the game itself to me, for it is already the beginning of the experience. 400 Years surely intrigued me with its title. What was this game about? Time, obviously. A lot of time, I would say. Was it an RTS game maybe, where you had to build a civilization in 400 years? Really, I didn’t know, so I decided to play it. You see, one of the good things with flash games is that you don’t even need to think whether you will play it or not. As long as you are intrigued, you must play it. Its very nature defines its length, and usually it is less than an hour. If you are not interesed, I can perfectly understand. But if you are, you must play. Not playing a flash game which interests you is a crime of laziness. Basically you have no valid reasons for not playing it, other than “I’m lazy and don’t want to waste 20 minutes of my life“. What are 20 minutes for a game? Some of them are still in their introduction cinematic after 20 minutes (because no, doing the overly hand-held tutorial is not playing). Meanwhile, you could have begun, played and finished a tiny litle game which could have brought you in 20 minutes more than a 15 hours-long triple-A game. And you’re talking about “waste of time“. How ironical.
Anyway, back to the subject, I decided to play 400 Years, and I greatly enjoyed it. Here’s why.
So much time…or not?
400 Years could be classified as a puzzle game, as you need to solve precise problems in order to continue your journey. You play as a sentient stone, which suddenly awakes. It sensed something. A calamity is coming, as the floating text saying so appears on the screen. It has to do something to stop it, and for that, it has 400 years. That’s it for the introduction. The next 5 minutes consists in giving you the basic controls, that is to say left and right arrows to move the stone and the space bar to manipulate time. Because yes, obviously, the game could possibly not last 400 years, couldn’t it? As a stone, you are quite unaffected by the course of time. Pressing the space bar will make the time accelerate, while you will remain still. Seasons alernate and the environment changes around you. You can accelerate time as long as you want to, everywhere, anywhere. But remember, you have only 400 years to do what you have to do.
Upon discovering the only mechanism in the game, I could not help but draw a parallel between 400 Years and Braid, obviously. Both display an interesting time manipulation feature. While Braid deals with time as something that you can (and must) rewind and abuse, 400 Years takes another approach. Indeed, in this game, you can accelerate time, but you cannot rewind it. It is a one-way journey, just like the real time, actually. In my first playthrough of the game, I tried to see what would happen once the 400 years had passed. So I pressed the space bar and did not release it for a long, long time. Finally, after several minutes, the 400 years were gone by, and the calamity happened, resulting in a game over screen. It was interesting. The game was not only a puzzle game. It was a time-based puzzle game, but quite original. Indeed, time is both your ally and your enemy.
It is an ally because some of the puzzles require you to just sit and accelerate time so that the seasons alternate and the trees grow, for example. But it is also an enemy if you take too much time. With the introduction of the space bar to manipulate time, the game draws you directly into its core. The first pressing makes you realize that the 400 years displayed at the upper-left of the screen are not just here to decorate. As you see the number diminishing the longer you press the space bar, you suddenly become the sentient stone aware of the danger ahead of you. No time to waste, let’s move onward and prevent the calamity from happening.
Patience and Perseverance
After the brilliant introduction, the game explains you what you can do with all this time, in a short tutorial. Upon arriving near an unpassable pond, you can accelerate the seasons so winter will freeze the surface, therefore allowing you to walk on and continue your journey. As a stone, your movements are basic: you cannot jump, and you walk very slowly. At the beginning you are only invited to wait, and I feared for a moment that the game would only revolve around this strategy, which is certainly interesting, but would have been disappointing if it were only a ‘move and wait’ gameplay. But fortunately the game goes further and forces you to act more and more in the world besides accelerating time. You will need to think strategically and find a solution upon arriving in front of an unreachable higher ground, since you cannot jump. In another moment, you will need to interact with the people of the land and help them through the years. After all, you became a sentient stone to protect those people from the upcoming calamity.
I particularly appreciated the fact that the game does not tell you how long your journey will last. You have no choice but to continue progressing, and the further you go, the more you worry about the remaining years in the upper-left corner of the screen, because you don’t know if you managed well your time. Am I far from the ending? Will it be enough with 200 years remaining? The game gives you absolutely no clue, except when you are actually at the end. But until this point, you have to wisely and carefully manage the remaining time, and faithfully walk to an end that cannot be seen yet. I found this feature pretty interesting in the game. Sometimes you will wonder “should I wait more to see if time finally does something or did I miss something earlier?“. Don’t worry though, 400 years are more than enough to complete the game, but it is not that evident during your first playthrough.
Therefore, the game will consist in being patient at the right time, and for the right amount of time. It is voluntarily slow: after all, you play as a stone, a sentient stone yes, but a stone nevertheless. Walking from an obstacle to another is slow, climbing a tree is slow, everything is slow. It contrats particularly well with the time acceleration mechanism: in this state, seasons alternate very quickly, and years go by fast, so fast that you may spend more time than planned if you hold for too long the space bar. Paradoxically (but logically), you cannot move while time is passing around you. During the only fast-paced moments of the game, you cannot do anything. You just have to wait. Hold and wait.
Verdict: Play it twice
Ultimately, the game delivers a strong ending which wraps up the experience into an enjoyable but emotionally-driven epilogue. When dealing with short games, I’ll try not to spoil, so I won’t discuss the ending and its metaphorical meaning. The game is just 20 minutes long, so if you’re interested in this experience, just go ahead and play it here. As for me, I really enjoyed 400 Years for its atmosphere, its slow pace and the unique relation that you have between you, the sentient stone, and time. In complement to Braid, it is an interesting approach to the time manipulating feature, which is quite rare in the medium, I would say. The game is short, and feels more like a preview of something bigger, which I hope it will be done somehow, somewhere.
Created by: Scriptwelder
Music: Kevin MacLeod