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Sunday 18 October 2015

Back to the Future

The “future” in Back to the Future Part II equates to 21 October 2015 – only 3 days in the future as I write this. People tend to focus on the way things didn’t happen the way they were supposed to (e.g. we have Facebook and touch-screen smartphones instead of flying cars and hoverboards) – but there is another aspect I find just as fascinating. What would it be like to suddenly find yourself 30 years in the future? I suspect most readers of this blog are old enough to remember 1985 pretty well, so you can ponder the question as well as I can.

You don’t even need to invoke time travel. The same thing would apply if you were stuck in a block of ice for several decades, like Captain America. When I first encountered Cap in 1968, the story was that he had been revived in 1964, after just 19 years on ice. I don’t think the culture shock in that case would have been too difficult to deal with. Planes were faster, cars were more streamlined, TVs were bigger and radios were smaller… but those were just continuations of trends that Steve Rogers would already be familiar with: evolution rather than revolution. The sociological changes of the Swinging Sixties would probably have been as confusing as the technological ones, as indicated in the panel above (originally from Captain America #122, dated February 1970, but this scan is from Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium by Reitberger and Fuchs – the first book about comics I ever bought, way back in 1973).

It’s different now, of course. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cap was frozen not for just under 20 years but for almost 70. His “contemporaries” are not people in their 40s, but people in their 90s. He missed the entire duration of the Cold War, the era of 33 rpm records, transistor radios and VHS tapes, the Moon landings and the Space Shuttle. He not only has to get to grips with a new present – everything from cell phones and social media to hypersensitive political correctness – but a whole new past too. Personally I don’t think this would be possible in the timeframe portrayed in the movies, even for someone with the super-soldier resilience of Steve Rogers.

What started me thinking along these lines wasn’t Back to the Future or Captain America, but a first-person video game in which the player hops between four different time periods. I mentioned a year ago that I’d finally got a working version of Dark Fall: Lost Souls by Jonathan Boakes. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went on to play the two earlier Dark Fall games. The second of these, Dark Fall: Lights Out, is the time travel story. It dates from 2004, and it already has something of a retro feel. The graphics are 800x600 resolution, the user interface and gameplay are fairly basic, and it doesn’t have the depth of characterization and atmosphere you get in Jonathan’s later games. But in terms of storyline, it’s one of my favourite games – so much so that I played it through again last week.

The action starts in 1912. The playable character is a young cartographer of that period, who is sent to investigate an inexplicably abandoned lighthouse off the Cornish coast. In the role of this character, you spend a while exploring the small rocky island and the deserted lighthouse. Hidden in one of the rooms, you find a hand-drawn map showing the location of a small cave. You follow the directions to the cave – in the gloomy light of a full moon peering through cloud cover – and go inside. There isn’t much to see, so you go outside again… to find everything changed. It’s daytime, the sun is shining – and it’s 2004, the year the game first appeared.

On both occasions I’ve played the game, I found this genuinely disorientating. You’re so immersed in the world of 1912 that “the future” seems strange and confusing. The lighthouse is now a tourist attraction (albeit one that appears just as mysteriously deserted as its 1912 predecessor). Depending on which way you turn when you first exit the cave, you either come to a Discovery Centre featuring a historical display about WW2 (which is still pretty futuristic from the point of view of view of your character), or a café and public toilets. Then there are the steps up to the lighthouse, which are noticeably more health-and-safety compliant than they were in 1912. At the top, the entrance to the lighthouse has changed completely (see the picture below). What would the young cartographer from 1912 make of all this? Would he realize he had slipped into the future? After a while this becomes obvious, once he gets inside the reception area of the lighthouse and reads some of the books for sale in the gift shop. But how does he get through that glass door? Would he realize the buttons form some kind of combination lock?
If you go back down the steps a short distance, you come to a viewpoint with a touch screen display. The display is blank, though, and there is no indication the screen needs to be touched to activate it. For someone from 1912, there is no precedent for dealing with this. Technology in those days consisted of telephones, phonographs, box cameras and silent movies. Nevertheless, if you do accidentally touch the screen and bring it to life, you would probably grasp its workings pretty quickly. But before long something really unexpected happens – the computer crashes and an error message pops up (in all the 20th century fiction I’ve read about futuristic computers and thinking machines, no-one ever predicted the annoying instability of windows-based operating systems).

The error message is pretty cryptic, including the phrase “Current Entry Code / Last 2 Pin: ##64”. The modern-day player may realize this is the second half of the combination needed to get into the lighthouse, but I don’t think our man from 1912 would – not right away, anyhow. If he goes back down to the bottom of the steps, there’s a landing stage and ticket booth for incoming tourists – much more comfortably familiar to early 20th century eyes. Pinned to the wall of the booth is a handwritten note, which shows a sketch of the door buttons and the first two digits of the code. Our character would probably understand the significance of this – and maybe, if his wits were really sharp, he’d put two and two together over the cryptic error message.

So thinking like someone from 1912, it’s hard enough just to work out how to open the lighthouse door! Once you’re inside things get even more bewildering. In the gift shop and museum, you discover that you’ve gone down in history as a triple murderer. You’re not quite the only person in the lighthouse – there’s also a female paranormal investigator, but she’s gone into hiding because she thinks you’re a murderous ghost. You find portals to two other time periods, one further in the future and one in the prehistoric past. Eventually you do manage to solve the mystery of just what the heck is going on… but you solve it using a 21st century mindset, not one of 1912.

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