i went to china / it was dumb / people are fake / we’re all going to die

In TIMEframe, players catalogue a civilization’s culture before imminent meteor destruction. The last ten seconds unfold over ten real-life minutes. Landmarks stand as monuments to their influences, established ideas, and important pieces of history. After ten minutes pass, the meteor strikes and the player starts again searching for relics they haven’t found yet. Each discovery will provide a note about its importance. Here is the bare, slightly underground monument to nihilism, and its explanation. Here is a triumphant statue, and the short manifesto abandoning fear and proclaiming truth.

What makes this so effective is a mystical vocabulary which builds the people’s voice, lending them a culture deeper than their props. It makes the civilization feel materially different than our own history. As I found more messages, I was able to decrypt their ways of speech, and understand references to other notes. Just as literature doesn’t conveniently define each term as it’s used, neither does TIMEframe. Slowly, a narrative forms: the story of a civilization hyper-aware of its possible extinction from its beginning. How people fear, reflect, and build on thisand their reaction when it comes again as a meteor in the end of times. The text is dense, but the format lends understanding. Altogether, there is probably only a page or two of text throughout the game. The spaces you find these notes do much of the expression. Long stretches of sand fill up the world, leaving time for reflection, and adding a sense of anticipation to each figure you see in the distance.

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I got back from a nine day tour of China less than a week ago. Beijing is a city of 21.5 million people. I live just outside of Seattle, a city of 650,000. A dozen pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars at every side of every intersection. Skyscrapers and skyscrapers beyond skyscrapers and skyscrapers. Even after living with Seattle, the sheer size is staggering. Though I’ve wandered the streets of Seattle with others at the dead of night, it surprises me to see Beijing’s streets full of people at night.

I don’t especially enjoy traveling. Using immense privilege to inject myself into people’s lives; turning it into some kind of weird show. It just feels inherently in bad taste, treating livelihoods like gimmicks. Passing through tourist attractions, I feel weight behind every laugh and loaded comparison. Many locals were excited to exchange with foreigners, so I can’t say it’s all bad, but it’s hard to establish good faith.

After 9 days, I still don’t know much. I’ve seen a lotold and new, I’ve heard a lot of stories about historically significant places, but it’s a blur. There’s too much to take away. There’s too much to know. Everyday 21.5 million people in Beijing, 1.3+ billion in China, wake up and live their life. It’s incomprehensible. People can hardly begin to grasp the extent of their own culture, ranging from philosophical values, family dynamics, religion, history, and art, let alone another’s, let alone the world. The simplest conclusion is that there is no ultimate difference, we’re all just living our life, under our own conditions. There’s some truth to that, but it’s an awful simplification.

Regardless, the result of every tourist excursion is a quiet return to normal life. Thinking about what humanity has accomplished, our culture, what we have left behind in aggregate is… maybe a pointless endeavor. There is almost nothing we all truly share. Judging the state of the world, we can declare humans as fundamentally good (but maybe misguided) with love deep in their hearts. Or, instead, fundamentally self-centered, evil beings that destroy all they touch. There’s so much to being human, so many ways.

Perhaps this is why TIMEframe is stripped of references to people. There are no shelves of thick history books to flip through. This desert is barren, there are no homes, or means to live an actual life. And so, TIMEframe exists as a tasty fantasy. A fantasy where people don’t messily live to exist. Where society is united, where an idea is brought forth every 500 years, where progress is built linearly. Fourteen mementos can’t stand for the millions that had presumably lived and died to build and progress over four thousand years. Let me clarify, that is not a fault of the game, only a reflection on what can be catalogued. A meaningful narrative is derived from its brevity, but every human is erased from the process. We can see the progression of people, but no person.

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At the end of the gameafter collecting all 14 mementosthe information is uploaded and launched into space. The meteor strikes and civilization is destroyed. Their culture lives on with the stars and such. Reducing humanity to 14 bullet points would be rather underwhelming. A few points on religion, a few on our biggest wars, a few on Greek philosophers, and a few on our art. No particularly meaningful understanding of how these topics interplay or the processes that led up to and followed these things.

I guess that’s all we can afford. If we ever launched a deep and detailed full log of our history no alien would want to read it. It’d be boring, overly long, contradicting. Just a terrible story really. So this is the culture of TIMEframe, there is the culture of the world, that was the culture of China. Don’t ask about the persons. I really couldn’t draw meaning out of it if I tried.

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