Hello and welcome to another edition of Gaming: For Official Use Only. I was struggling to come up with a good topic for this article, so I did my normal tactic of
wasting a lot of time researching on TV Tropes and I decided to work with something that’s not exactly a conspiracy theory. The internet is full of nutjobs, and for some reason this one in particular gained a strong following which I honestly attribute to the superb writing this hoax entailed. That, and it’s based on time travel, and everyone loves time travel.
Before we get to the internet’s favorite time traveling urban legend, let’s look at time travel in video games. Like in most forms of media, time travel stories feature quite often in games, and it ranges from well researched scientifically possible time travel ideas to “screw logic because video games!” Instead of focusing upon one game/series as is my normal modus operandi, I thought it would be better to show the breadth of the time travel trope by examining the time travel system of various games. While I may have to explain some parts of the storyline, I am more concerned with the system of time travel in the game more than summarizing the plot. Some discussions here will lead to spoilers, so here’s a big SPOILER ALERT. Not only that, but I’m going to get into the actual science behind these theories of time travel, so there’s going to be heavy science content. Let’s get to work.
Besides being one of the finest JRPGs or even games period, Chrono Trigger also happens to be my absolute favorite time travel based game. The entirety of the game is predicated upon the battle across multiple times to stop the eldritch abomination known as Lavos. Originally the time travel is facilitated by means of a wormhole – an actual theory in physics which involved a tunnel through time & space – caused by a malfunction of Lucca’s transporter which sends Marle, followed soon by Chrono, 400 years into the past. This method, along with the time gates offered later by Gaspar, work how wormholes would actually work. They only connect two individual periods in history, not anywhere you want them to go. To understand this concept, imagine spacetime – and yes, space and time are combined into the fabric of reality – as a paper sheet. A bug walking the sheet would take a long time to go from one side to the other, but if you cut a hole in the middle and folded the sheets together the bug would take very little effort to make it across. Now couple that image with the idea that space and time are bound together as a single “sheet” that permeates the universe. A hole that cuts through space would also be able to cut through time as they are the same fabric.
What about going to times and places the gates aren’t attached to? That’s where the Epoch, an archetypal flying time machine, comes into play. The Epoch allows the player to travel all across the timeline, and in multiple areas. While the mechanics of the Epoch’s time travel are never explained in function, it works very similar to the DeLorean from Back to the Future. The party gets into the Epoch, selects a time and activates the machine. The only difference between the DeLorean and the Epoch is that there is a small amount of travel “in time” for the Epoch while the DeLorean travels time instantly once it hits 88 MPH. A very cool example of one game using multiple time travel methods.
As a quick aside, I want to point out how Chrono Trigger throws a neat twist on the classic Grandfather Paradox. In time travel science this paradox describes a scenario in which a time traveler goes to the past and kills their own grandfather before the grandfather conceives the traveler’s parent. This means of course that the time traveler is never born but the paradox comes in by asking that if the traveler is never born, how could they kill their grandfather? Chrono Trigger throws a fresh take on this paradox by having Marle simply replace her ancestor. She resembles the queen of ancient times so much that when she appears; instead of continuing the search for the kidnapped queen, her husband the king simply assumes Marle is the queen. Her ancestors never conceive their descendants so Marle is erased from history, until the player sets the timeline right. I find this a very interesting take on an often overused trope.
The Journeyman Project
This classic series of FMV point and click adventure games is based upon the actions of an agent of the Temporal Security Agency. It takes place in a future where mankind is peacefully united, and on the verge of signing a diplomatic accord with an alien race. Throughout the games the agent works to keep the timeline safe from evil humans who seek to subvert the alliance. The original game features the actual first time machine ever built, “Pegasus,” which is kept under TSA protection and all further time travel research is banned. It has an interesting functionality in that it sends the time traveler to whatever location in space time without the machine following ala Chrono Trigger. The traveler uses a “biochip” to signal the Pegasus to pull them back out when necessary.
In the sequels, the player no longer uses the Pegasus but instead wears a suit of powered armor equipped with time travel technology. While the system is still controlled via biochips the “timesuit” enables the player to time travel without the need for the rest of the TSA being involved, which comes into play when it is shut down in the last game. Not only does the suit allow time travel but it can detect when others are affecting the timeline, cloak and even translate most languages. The third game takes this further by incorporating holographic projectors which allow a timesuit user to completely imitate anyone they scan, allowing them to fully camouflage themselves in other times. Honestly, this is one of the ultimate combos of armor and time travel, but it is certainly not the only one in games.
This series of real time strategy games takes place in an alternate history. In the first game Albert Einstein takes a break from creating relativity to make a time machine, and goes back in time to erase Hitler with a handshake – almost literally a handwave of how this works – thereby stopping World War II. This would be all well and good, except it only prevents that World War II. Here, as in real life, Stalin was just as much of an expansionist dictator and without Germany holding him back he starts trying to assimilate Europe. The sequels use further time travel to stop the madman Yuri from taking over what’s left of the USSR, and even has Russia use time travel to remove Einstein which makes the allies weaker but allows Japan to rise in power. All with time travel handshakes.
The time travel tech in this game is based upon the Chronosphere building, which allows you to teleport groups of units any where on the battlefield. The time travel tech is refined with later levels, allowing SEAL commandos to sport personal chronospheres for teleportation. If Allied units claim Soviet buildings, then they can steal Russian Tesla technology thereby enabling powered armor clad soldiers to teleport with the Chronosphere at will. Yes, this series pretty much runs on Rule of Cool. The Chronosphere outside of gameplay works by opening a portal back through time, and dropping whoever is plot convenient back into the past. To put it simply, this game imagines Albert Einstein inventing the time machine from Terminator just so he can go back and erase Hitler.
Ocarina of Time
I know a lot of you out there were waiting on this one. Often lauded as not just the greatest Legend of Zelda game, but often the greatest game period, Ocarina of Time starts you off with Link as a child. After the customary adventuring and unintelligible screams out of Link, we get to where Link can receive the Master Sword. Unlike most games, this sword envelopes Link in a column of light, and when he awakens it’s been a full seven years. Somehow, Link has not only fully matured but his clothes have also adapted to his new size. Interestingly, unlike nearly every other example of time travel in games, this one can actually get away with handwaving that “a wizard did it” and be correct. Later on Link can actually go back and forth between the two periods simply by removing or inserting the sword in the pedestal it resides in. This is one of the very few games that involves time travel that resembles the classic Rip Van Winkle where a character sleeps/hibernates for years and eventually wakes up in the future.
Personal aside: No matter how many people say OoT is the best Zelda game, they are still wrong. A Link to the Past is by far the better game. Deal with it.
We’ve seen how some of my favorite games handle the topic of time travel. Science today mostly thinks that due to the issues of violating causality among other paradoxes that time travel is impossible, but they could be wrong. What would happen if not only was time travel possible, but a time traveler came back and decided to talk about it? If you believe what some people have claimed, that’s already happened and his name was John Titor.
In late 2000 an anonymous poster on the forums of the Time Travel Institute, in their section just for “time travelers”, calling himself Time_Traveler0 declared that he was in fact a time traveler from the year 2036 who was on a mission for a future military unit of time travel commandos. He was sent back from a future after the United States went through a vicious civil war that ended with a nuclear World War III. He was traveling back to 1976 to get an IBM 5100 computer, one of the earliest portable computers, to use it for debugging legacy UNIX programs in the future. He was making reference to the “2038 problem” which is somewhat similar to old Y2K in that 32 bit systems couldn’t handle integers enough past the year 2038 in their date system. The poster mentioned this was due to the 5100 being able to emulate older mainframes, which was then and still is a obscure bit of technical knowledge. Titor stated he was chosen for the mission due to his paternal grandfather being involved with 5100 development. He stated he had stopped off in 2000 for “personal reasons” to see his family and recover items lost in either Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo or That World War III That Actually Happened. That part of the story isn’t that interesting, but the background of the future, his description of how the multiverse & time travel work and the time machine itself are what make the story of John Titor so interesting.
In Titor’s timeline the US starts fracturing around 2004, with large scale civil unrest coming around the presidential election that year. Humorously, Titor claimed the president elected then was a modern day Abraham Lincoln and we all know who won that year. The crisis worsens in the ensuing years with “a Waco type event every month that steadily gets worse,” in Titor’s words until the US breaks apart into 5 factions setting the stage for the Second American Civil War. Titor himself states he was 13 in 2011, fighting the National Guard as part of a Florida militia called the Fighting Diamondbacks for a few years. I find it interesting that the “bad guy” of this civil war turns out to be the federal government instead of the states that leave the union. In any case the federal government tries to reunite the five factions that formed during the civil war, but the unrest in America fuels the unrest world wide which leads to World War III and a nuclear exchange. Titor described this as “N-Day” and specifically mentioned that Washington, DC and Jacksonville, FL were wiped off the map during this war. Postwar, the reunited US government maintains its capital at Omaha, Nebraska. Titor never mentions the specifics of what led to WWIII worldwide, but mentions that the conflict between Arabs and Jews was a symptom, not a cause.
Postwar America is radically different from our time. Normal life is focused more upon family units and the community than larger state or federal governments. Titor declares that the majority of television, music and movies are delivered through the internet which predated the rise of Netflix. Interestingly, he says that current day US currency is still valid in the future, though centralized banking is dead. I don’t know whether he meant banking period or centralized government agencies such as the Fed; however, he may also be alluding to the rise of private currencies such as Bitcoin or the system that operated in the US in the early 18th century. Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, aka “Mad Cow,” is apparently a threat in the future as Titor warned about it multiple times. Titor himself stated he was very interested in the UFO phenomenon and speculated that all UFOs might actually be humans from the far future with more advanced time machines. As Titor kept posting eventually his predictions began to get disproved, to which he attributed to being from a timeline that was less similar that he thought. He even stated that there would be no 2008 Olympics, though they were held in Beijing, China, in “our” timeline. Titor’s postings started to trickle out, and eventually he disappeared. Since then supporters and debunkers have argued wildly about what he said and how accurate they were, or will be. Personally, I think it was just the work of a very skilled writer who had fun creating a future world that people bought into because it was so well written. The Time Travel Institute’s forums always have someone on there claiming to be a time traveler but only Titor’s story has resonated and I firmly believe it’s because of how interesting the setting was. There is even a feature film in the works that retells the story. There’s far more to the Titor legend than I can recount in one article, so I highly suggest you check out the Wikipedia page and its links to learn more. Now, let’s take a look at how Titor traveled time.
Titor posted numerous pictures of his machine, which he described as a General Electric C204 Time Displacement Unit. It was a large machine, roughly rectangular, that had to be mounted into a vehicle for ease of transport. Originally he kept in a 1967 Corvette convertible – because if you can travel time, why not do it with style?! – but eventually moved it to a 1980’s four wheel drive truck. Titor actually posted the user’s manual for the machine, which is a great touch of realism for the story. The system featured five cesium clocks which use the vibrations of the element cesium to keep incredibly accurate time along with three computers and a suite of gravity sensors to monitor and control the time travel. The machine used an “electron injection manifold” which is a spot of warped spacetime that could affect the gravity and mass of the workhorses of the machine, two gravitational singularities. A singularity is one of the strangest things in the entire multiverse because it’s a place where all laws of physics break. It is the end point of all black holes, and is essentially lots of mass crushed by massive gravity into a tiny point. To illustrate the point, if you wanted the entire Earth turned into a singularity because you’re a comic book supervillian, the end result would be about the size of a mosquito. These singularities have massive gravity and therefore warp spacetime according to Einstein’s theories of relativity. Titor claimed that the singularities created a “standard off-set Tipler sinusoid.” Now, sinusoid simply describes the shape of the warped spacetime, but Tipler is interesting as he was one of the only physicists to make an attempt at describing a time machine. Frank Tipler theorized that a cylinder – which is why you normally hear these described as Tipler cylinders – that was infinitely long or had negative energy – which is not as impossible as it sounds and we may have already created it via the Casimir Effect – could be set to spin along its axis and would warp spacetime so much that a phenomenon called “Frame Dragging ” would occur that would allow a vehicle traveling on the cylinder to go back and forth through time. Essentially, Titor’s machine created a warping of spacetime with two singularities that allowed Tipler’s equations to work in reality. Titor stated that using the machine created a bubble around whatever it was stored in that would travel back in time at the rate of about 10 years per hour. Apparently it was a very interesting show, and I’ll allow Titor himself to describe it:
The unit has a ramp up time after the destination coordinates are fed into the computers. An audible alarm and a small light start a short countdown at which point you should be secured in a seat. The gravity field generated by the unit overtakes you very quickly. You feel a tug toward the unit similar to rising quickly in an elevator and it continues to rise based on the power setting the unit is working under. At 100% power, the constant pull of gravity can be as high as 2 Gs or more depending on how close you are to the unit. There are no serious side effects but I try to avoid eating before a flight.
No bright flash of light is seen. Outside, the vehicle appears to accelerate as the light is bent around it. We have to wear sunglasses or close our eyes as this happens due to a short burst of ultraviolet radiation. Personally I think it looks like your driving under a rainbow. After that, it appears to fade to black and remains totally black until the unit is turned off. We are advised to keep the windows closed as a great deal of heat builds up outside the car.
The gravity field also traps a small air pocket around the car that acts as your only O2 supply unless you bring compressed air with you. This pocket will only last for a short period and a carbon sensor tells us when it’s too dangerous. The C204 unit is accurate from 50 to 60 years a jump and travels at about 10 years an hour at 100% power.
You do hear a slight hum as the unit operates and when the power changes or the unit turns off. There is a great deal of electrical crackling noise from static electricity.
This actually resembles the travel done by the eponymous Time Machine of H.G. Wells’ classic where the machine is stationary and traveling time actually takes more than an instant. Titor actually included a very interesting photo he claimed was from his training which shows his instructor bending the light from a laser pointer with the gravitational field of the machine. It’s likely faked with a fiber optic as no other gravitational anomalies are shown, and they would be if there was a gravitational field strong enough to bend light as such. The description of the machine, and the images provided, show a remarkable amount of work and research into fringe physics for an internet hoax.
Titor also neatly did away with any time travel paradox by declaring that “….The grandfather paradox is impossible.”
In fact, all paradox is impossible. The Everett–Wheeler–Graham or multiple world theory is correct.” Multiple World Theory, or Many Worlds Theory, was developed and refined by the three physicists that Titor named and is a solution for the problems that quantum physics and probability throw to science. At the microscopic level where quantum physics is the law of the land probability is king. Weird things like particles appearing in two places at once, teleporting randomly and other oddities occur. Many Worlds Theory – I’m abbreviating it MWT from now on – accepted this by stating that all outcomes from any event split into separate universes. Aside from the standard alt-history tropes of Hitler winning WWII and so on, many universes would be incredibly close to our own. For example, I’m drinking a glass of water out of a Guinness pint glass as I type this. In another universe it might be soda or milk, and in others it’s still water but out of a different glass. Titor explained that the time machine was more accurately a timeline machine as it allowed him to jump to parallel universe in what he called the “superverse” but is likely more familiarly described as the multiverse. Titor doesn’t need to worry about the Grandfather Paradox because it’s not “his” version of the grandfather. By use of quantum physics he can also neatly explain why the predictions were wrong, as this timeline was less in line with his own then he believed.
The more you look at the story the less real it seems. The idea of having naked singularities without side effects is hard to swallow, as is the idea of a second civil war. Every single prediction Titor made, even small ones like CERN discovering how to make black holes in 2008, have failed to come to pass. The work of private detectives uncovered that no family by the name of Titor existed in the time and area Titor claimed to have grown up, nor was there a Titor who worked at IBM. The Titor story was just that – a story. It’s a very well researched and written story, but it is just ficiton. Titor supporters are simply misguided people who fell for a very well crafted hoax. Time travel is such an ingrained idea in our collective subconscious that we want to see it become reality, but Titor was not when time travel got proven correct. Unfortunately, time travel is still just a theory and John Titor is nothing but one of the best written hoaxes the internet has ever seen. Though I will firmly disagree that Titor even existed that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the story as there are actual time travel movies, games, and books that are nowhere near as interesting as what the man who called himself John Titor crafted. Whether it’s the truth or just a good story we can always enjoy the work of a skilled crafter of fictional worlds. Until next time…travel.
See what I did there? To finish this out, let’s have the greatest heavy metal band of all time with heavy metal’s greatest ode to time travel. Here’s Iron Maiden with “Caught Somewhere In Time”.