Ah, the good old time paradox, bane of every temporal traveller and source of many a narrative twist. But what if time travel was so ordinary and so commodified that paradoxes were just a risk to be mitigated while making bank off people wanting to go back in time to alter the past? It’s an intriguing, unusual premise, to say the least—but “unusual” and “intriguing” is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Wadjet Eye games. And judging from a couple of hours with the Steam Next demo for the upcoming Old Skies, this follow up (of sorts) to Unavowed is going to be another captivating romp through the streets of New York.
The basic idea behind Old Skies is deceptively simple: at some point in the future, time travel has been cracked and commercialised, meaning anyone with the dough can buy a visit to the past, whether just for sightseeing or even to make small changes. So long as you don’t drastically alter the course of history in the process, intervening in the past is fair game. As time agent Fia Quinn, your job is to accompany such travellers and make sure they play by the rules. Straightforward enough, right?
But when temporality is involved, things always get messy. The demo covers the first of a handful of different cases in Old Skies, this one being a trip to New York, 2024. The client is a famed scientist whose medical breakthoughs mean the average lifespan of people in the future is over 100 years, but in a cruel twist of irony, a terminal condition means he has six months left to live. So, he decides to use his riches to revisit his university days and reminiscence… at least, that’s what he says, before he makes a break for it. When things inevitably go awry, the cracks in this whole notion of time-tourism start to show.
Even within the space of a relatively brief demo confined to a single period of time, the glimpses of Old Skies’ concept of time travel are fascinating. Playing cat and mouse with a runaway traveller means solving various adventure game puzzles, for which a database of historical (from the perspective of Fia’s time) records is crucial. And on every record there’s a label: timeline importance. In other words, what’s the risk of meddling here? Someone like the client himself, who made such an influence on the world, is extremely important, and therefore extremely risky to meddle with—anything that might alter the trajectory of his life is off-limits. Low importance, low risk, do as you please, really.
It’s an actuarial approach to time, legacy, and the history of the world—an extremely capitalist, extremely dehumanising one. But then, that’s exactly the point that Old Skies seems to be setting up to explore: what happens when you reduce the importance of something, even someone’s life, to their contribution to history, especially when done in such a cold, mathematical way? It’s going to be fascinating to see how the rest of the game builds on what this early slice sets up.
It’s also going to be fascinating to go a-travelling through New York’s history in the process. The case in the demo is set, effectively, in the present day—a couple of years from now, but not so far removed as to be a different epoch—and it still manages to craft a vivid picture of the streets of New York and what life there is like. Old Skies will span seven different time periods, from the gilded age, to the prohibition era, to the eve of 9/11, and maybe even whatever mysterious future Fia Quinn comes from. According to Wadjet Eye founder Dave Gilbert, “legacy” is one of the core themes of the game; that obviously feeds into the whole time travel thing, but it’s also setting up to trace the legacy of the city itself.
The other noteworthy takeaway from the demo is perhaps more superficial: the art style. Wadjet Eye’s games have historically been pixel art (albeit very detailed) with a low native resolution, for both stylistic and technical reasons, but Old Skies is the studio’s first 1080p game. With that comes more detail in backgrounds, more opportunities to really bring each scene to life, and a gorgeous, comic-esque art style for character sprites that animate with a rotoscoped feel. Coupled with full voice acting from an especially talented cast, and with Wadjet Eye’s usual sense of humanity and humour, the world of Old Skies is one to get lost in.
You can always count on a Wadjet Eye game to be full of curious ideas, excellent writing, and gorgeous art—so that much was to be expected of Old Skies. But this demo is the first chance to really get a taste of what this particular slice of the studio’s creativity is going to look like, and it’s more than a little intriguing. The legacy of a city as storied as New York, with one of the most inventive and though-provoking concepts of time travel I’ve seen in a while make for a game that’s going to be watching closely.