Killing Time at Lightspeed: Enhanced Edition review
In 2002, Makoto Shinkai wrote, directed and produced Voices of a Distant Star -- an excellent 25-minute anime movie -- on his home computer. The short film, which was all the more impressive for largely being the work of one person, depicted a young couple communicating via text message over an incredibly long distance as one of them travelled through space to combat an alien threat. The further their ship moved out, the longer it took for their messages to transmit. Eventually, the messages take several years to receive.
Killing Time at Lightspeed: Enhanced Edition parallels Voices of a Distant Star in a few ways. A huge portion of the game is the work of one man, John Kane, who wrote, developed, and made most of the game’s simple art (aside from a few gorgeous stills at the beginning and end of the game from artist Marigold Bartlett). Just like Shinkai’s film, it’s about communication over an extremely long distance. You play a character onboard a spaceship heading from Mars to Gliese 667C, leaving in 2042 and arriving in 2059. Thanks to ‘singularity technology’, the journey seems to pass by in about half an hour -- not enough time to enjoy the in-flight movie, but plenty of time to catch up with what’s happening back home through your on-board FriendPage social network and Skimmit news service.
This is a form of visual novel, with few traditional gameplay elements, and a fundamentally very interesting idea (it was originally envisioned and created during a Game Jam before being reworked and enhanced for a full retail release). Each time you reach the bottom of your social feed and press ‘refresh’, about a year passes. The people you follow move in and out of relationships. They react to major world events that you, as you travel, can’t be fully privy to. Their lives change, their views shift, they argue and fall in love, and they message you, sometimes, to say that they miss you.
This is a game about leaving home, in some ways, but it’s also about witnessing a dialog, and a change in the zeitgeist, that you know you’re not properly equipped to contribute to or take part in. It simultaneously tackles the extremely personal and the tremendously impersonal nature of online communication: you can see the full range of emotions your friends experience, but you can’t attend their weddings, meet their children, offer them anything but words on a screen.
Your personal interactions are very limited -- some posts allow you to ‘prompt’, posing a question or a reaction that you’ll see the reaction to a full year later. Ask a friend about their vaguely alluded crush, for instance, and they might tell you that they’ve actually been dating for a while now. The tone of the posts, and the importance of FriendPage to your friends, shifts every year.
Killing Time at Lightspeed is overtly political, using discussions and news articles about synthetics (‘robot’ is a politically incorrect term once they gain sentience) to mirror current discussions around racism and LGBT acceptance.
Some of the discussion here is a tad on the nose, but it’s interesting to see how opinions change, how technology influences the thoughts of your friends, and how the news feed keeps up with it.
Without spoiling anything, there’s an ongoing thread in the newsfeeds about the (still) ever-changing state of news, the proliferation of clickbait and the marginalization of important issues, that works particularly well.
It’s a simple game. Most of your interactions come down to reading what’s on the screen, enjoying the excellent ambient soundtrack by Matt Hamm (who goes by the artist name ‘Brainfed’) and occasionally responding to things. There’s quite a bit of writing in here, most of it interesting and well-written, but some players might find themselves wanting more.
Even by ‘short indie game’ standards, Killing Time at Lightspeed is slim: it took me about 70 minutes to roll credits the first time, reading most of the status updates and news pieces, and on a quick second play I didn’t find much in the way of new content. It’s also worth noting that one of the novelties I enjoyed that second time through -- hunting through hashtags for avatars based on various games industry personalities I know, on Twitter or otherwise -- isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and for many this will be a one-and-done experience.
In other words, Killing Time at Lightspeed is not going to be everyone’s bag, and that ‘yes’ verdict below assumes an enjoyment of text-heavy games and interactive experiences rather than something you actively ‘play’.
But this is a game with plenty to say about how we treat each other, how we see the world now, what it means to leave home, and how the Internet has impacted all of these things. It’s both funny and strangely moving -- I definitely got an unexpected lump in my throat at one point -- and it offers enough subtlety to keep you thinking about the game, asking questions, long after you finish it. If your purchasing decisions are largely based on the economy of time, then yes, you’re only getting a small game here -- but know that it will stick with you in the days to come.
Disclaimer: I have met developer John Kane on at least two occasions, when he was showcasing other games at conventions. I also recognised several names of friends in the ‘special thanks’ section of end credits. I note this simply in the interest of full disclosure, not to warn that my perception may have been altered – the game’s potentially off-putting elements have been outlined in the review above, and my ultimate enjoyment of the game was in no way influenced by any familiarity with the lead developer or anyone else involved, tangentially or otherwise, in the game’s creation.