is it time? is an indie art game that explores what it’s like to be old, feeble and living out your final days alone. It is an unflinching look at the relationship between ailing parents and their adult children, and it pointedly asks the question “When is life not worth living?” This is subject matter that is extremely uncomfortable for most people, and therefore not something you see in many mainstream games or films. On the other hand, the difficulties of getting old are an almost universal human experience, and one that should be explored. Luckily, game designer Jaime Fraina has found a way to turn this experience into an engaging game that can (and should) be played by everyone.
This game is a bit like a cross between Passage and Every Day the Same Dream. The beginning is extremely similar to Passage, to the point where it could not be an accident (whether it’s tribute, parody or cribbing is up to the viewer). The non-interactive opening of the game shows a young couple fall in love, get married and have a child, and then it shows the husband die. The actual game picks up after that, as you take control over the old woman. The stated goal of the game is for you to “live as long as you want to live.” When you begin, you wake up in your small apartment and notice you have three gauges: fatigue, hunger and boredom. Your only real tasks are to eat and sleep before those gauges reach zero.
You very quickly realize that the game has accomplished a significant feat - it makes you feel something genuine, not just with the story, but with the game mechanics themselves. The game doesn’t just tell you that it is boring living alone with nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one to talk to - it makes you feel that boredom. The old lady walks very slowly, so to get anywhere takes a while. And you basically do the same handful of things day after day. Your fatigue and hunger gauges deplete pretty quickly, so there isn’t time to do much of anything different with your day. If this sounds like a slightly boring game to you, you’re kind of correct, but it’s also a brilliant way of making the story and the theme hit home.
When you start, there is no food in your fridge, but your daughter comes and puts some meatloaf in there for you, enough to feed you for a couple of days. You can then go out into the yard, and strike up a conversation with another old lady on a bench. These comprise the totality of your human interactions, but they speak volumes. The “friend” (this is how the game refers to her) provides a voice for your sadness by lamenting how her son isn’t visiting her or taking her on vacation, but she also deepens your sadness by telling you some of the great things that are happening in her life. There’s another line of emotions that games don’t often portray - petty jealousy, being upset at the happiness of others, and the guilt that follows.
But it is the relationship you have with your daughter that is the most striking for me. She comes by every few days, drops off some more meatloaf (or very occasionally something different), says hello, sometimes condescendingly fixes your television, and then leaves. She doesn’t really ask how you’re doing, doesn’t sit down and chat, doesn’t take you anywhere. She just drops off some food and takes off. In this time after your husband’s death, when you are feeling so alone and could use some companionship, she eschews any sort of relationship with you and instead just keeps you alive. This is often a difficult time for children, and many behave just as your in-game daughter does, but this game shows that relationship from the other perspective.
Every night when you go to sleep, the game asks you if it is “time,” meaning time to die. By making you consider that every time, this powerfully reinforces the theme of the game. And when you feel that it is time, that you can’t take it anymore, or that you’ve done all you want to do, you have to make that call. The game will never do it for you. Sometimes, when the question comes up, your late husband will appear with the words “join me,” and he will physically pull the cursor towards the death option, and you have to pound the key to stay alive. This struggle to stay alive is one of the best instances of mechanics providing meaning I’ve seen in a while. There’s plenty more to say about this game (like the fact that physical impairments and senility begin to creep into the experience, and you have flashbacks of your husband), but I’ve gone on long enough. is it time? is a powerful game and treats a subject we could all stand to confront from time to time. You can play it for free in your browser here and visit the developer here.