There is a special kind of halo around the things games do that they don’t really have to. The radio stations in GTA, or the fact that the GPS disappears when you go through a tunnel. The tinkle of shell-casings hitting the floor in a shooter that you would assume is too brisk and frowny for such distractions. The plaque you sometimes find by monuments on the battle royale island of Fortnite. These things don’t define a game, but they quietly help to make things feel richer. They are signs that someone cares, and maybe, even, that somebody was having fun thinking of the fun that you would one day have in the worlds they were making.
There are two of these throwaway-but-not-throwaway elements that I always get a bit funny about. I love them far more than I should. The first, which I’m not going to talk about today, is games that have imaginary front-ends, fake desktops, operating systems, DOS prompt lines. I cannot get enough of that mobilis in mobili approach to fiction, in the same way that I can’t go to an art gallery without swooning a little over the frames the paintings are set within. The second, which I am going to talk about today, goes by the name of day/night cycles. What a rubbish name for something so beautiful.
Day/night cycles set the goodly firmament above your head into motion. They are a feature of open-world games, and they all say, in their quiet way, that the world ticks on regardless of the player. You pootle through your missions in GTA, setting the waypoints, thrilling, quietly, to the manner in which the GPS disappears when you go through a tunnel (ever the showoff, GTA also uses rumble to simulate turbulence when you’re in a plane) and wondering just how you’re expected to prosecute an assault on that military base over by the coast, while over your head rosy dawn gives way to another Sega blue noon, or murky SoCal dusk becomes an HD night filled with stars.
Some games put this cycle to use. Maybe security patrols change their paths at night. Maybe an attack is best left until sundown. Even when games don’t bake it in, though, the time of day often still has its uses. When I think of Crackdown, I think of hunting for orbs, of course, and hunting for orbs was best done at night when the sky was dark and the special green orb light was extra visible. Crackdown’s secret ingredient wasn’t trigger-targeting lifted from Zelda or even its rugged no-fuss platforming. It was that incredible draw distance, for which it often seemed that the game sacrificed asset richness. What a perfect trade-off, though: the joy of Crackdown was that you could look across the entire city and make a plan, and I suspect it was the green lights, shining at night, that first made people realise this. RIP Renderware.
More than anything, though, a day/night cycle makes a place feel real. The cycle in Gran Turismo 6 is an astonishing thing of beauty, and it is beauty of a very specific kind. Polyphony is all about details – the individual lines and curves of a particular car, the accurate buck and grip of a particular road. So Gran Turismo’s day/night cycle maps the real stars to the sky overhead and sets them turning in the proper way. Of course this is an orrery – of course! It was already a museum.
God tier stuff, frankly, and yet even when a place isn’t real, the day/night cycle can still make you feel that it might be. My favourite day/night cycle in all games is probably that of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind-Waker. Partly, this is because of the jaunty trilling that greets each rising sun, but it’s also that the light conditions would change while you were at sea, day giving way to night, and then when you spotted an island and waded up the beach to check it out, you would then be fixed in that specific time. I remember approaching the initial climb over lapping waterfall terraces at Forest Haven in the middle of the night, fighting an octopus thingy that I couldn’t even see, before being ushered into a meeting with the Deku Tree that took place in a wonderfully potent kind of darkness. This was something the game hardly planned – my friend had this whole scene at mid-day – but it made this moment – another clockwork moment in another clockwork Zelda – feel like it was mine and only mine.
The weird flipside of this is that day/night cycles are so brilliant that even when developers step away from them there’s still something wonderful to it. Bungie, which is probably better at skyboxes than anyone in the business, has a glorious kind of authority when it decides that this sky and only this sky will play out over a certain level. Why not? They are poet laureates of clouds. I felt the same kind of thrill of confidence within Spider-Man, recently, which wrests control of the time of day away from the passage of time on our side of the screen. For the course of the campaign, time moves in-game only when Insomniac says it does. Every mission plays out in the optimal time of day and with the optimal mood.
To my shame, I spend far more time looking at virtual skies than I do looking at the real one. But games have slowly prompted me back to the world over the last few years. My daughter was born at the top of a tower at the Royal Sussex Hospital shortly after a perfect August sunset that could have been right out of Crackdown: bloomy gold giving way to pinks and purples, a few ragged clouds tattered at the edges of the light. I have been looking for another sky like that ever since. Five years!
And at night now, in our back garden, I sometimes bust out my phone where I have a funny little app that allows me to project the stars overhead. This is perhaps the best of both worlds: I get the firmament in all its labeled exactitude, laid out in a way that even Polyphony would approve of, and beyond that I get the real sky, so that I can marry them up – Jupiter to virtual Jupiter, Saturn to virtual Saturn. The objective, and this is only ever apparent after the fact, is to feel small – but to simultaneously feel part of something extremely big.