From Dragon Age’s darkspawn to Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head, video games have no shortage of terrifying foes. But there is a single enemy that is scarier than any of them. A formless, invisible beast that can never be stopped: Time.
I still remember the first time I drowned in a Sonic game, specifically Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Near the end of Chemical Plant Zone 2 there’s a segment where boxes twist and turn to slowly bring Sonic out of the water. All you have to do is jump at the right time and ride them up. But I was young and still not all that great at games. Try as I might, I kept mistiming the jumps.
And then I heard it—the music. That frantic pulsing tune, percussive and increasing in pace. I was going to drown, and I couldn’t stop it. I saw the numbers appear above Sonic’s head, counting down to his doom. I tried jumping up, failing each time as I panicked. The clock hit zero, and I died. To this day, that music strikes a chord with me.
What scared me, more than the water or the drowning, was something far more abstract than simply dying in a video game. I was afraid of the inevitable. Dying meant very little; I just started over at a checkpoint. The horrible thing was seeing time tick down and being unable to stop it.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is my favorite title in the series. I think it has a lot of heart. It’s a game about taking time to help people, and it even gives you a notebook that makes it easy for you to keep track of all the people you meet. But it is also about just how little time you actually have. The moon hangs above the sky. It is a personified mass of impending annihilation, with bulging eyes and gritted teeth. Link has three days to prevent it from crashing into the land of Termina.
You are given a variety of tools to fight back against the tides of time in Majora’s Mask. At any point, you can play your ocarina and travel back to the start of the three-day cycle, and you also learn songs to slow time or skip forward. With these options, time can occasionally seem manageable. But those are mere stopgaps; you are never truly in control.
Even with your magical abilities to weave time, Majora’s Mask is not particularly empowering. That moon is going to fall. There’s a timer right on the screen telling you much longer before the inevitable. All you can really do is get ready.
Another game that is deeply concerned with time and annihilation is the shockingly good Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. In it, Lightning acts as a chosen instrument of god, traveling a wasted world to help lost souls prepare for the end of the universe. You start with seven in-game days to complete this task. This timer can be extended by helping others, with the maximum amount of days possible stopping at thirteen. Yet, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do in the game, the end comes.
Time is a terrifying enemy explicitly because it cannot be fought. Link can run into the past over and over, but the future will always come. Lightning can search high and wide for more souls to save and more energy to spend staving off the end, but nothing lasts forever. You can delay but you cannot stop.
There is something uniquely horrible about a countdown clock. In microcosm, games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Alpha Protocol use a short timer to represent the tension of having to make hard decisions. The more abstract clocks of Majora’s Mask and Lightning Returns broaden this into something existential and chilling. They are reminders that playtime cannot last forever. That your life is only a passing moment in eternity.
Sometimes, at night, I have panic attacks. Terrible bouts where I can barely breathe. I am safe in my room, but my mind reminds me that I am going to die. Not right now, but one day. There is an invisible countdown clock running the background of each day, edging closer towards the moment I fade into an unending blackness. I enjoy playing games where heroes slay monsters explicitly because the threat ends.
The moon draws closer to Termina. Annihilation comes for Lighting and the people of Nova Chrysalia. Even Sonic, standing outside of the water, still has a clock running. Take too long and you’ll lose a life. Zombies and necromorphs don’t faze me at all. All you need to do to scare me is show me the clock.