Time Extend: Nights
Whether to open a menu or equip an item, to survey surroundings or simply change the way your character is facing, most videogames require you to stop moving at some point or other. Though the choice of stopping and starting can be a hallmark of the freedoms a videogame lends its players, it’s often also the case that momentum is more associated with danger than it is pure, exhilarating carefree movement.
Though Sonic The Hedgehog made speed its signature, it was still a platformer: raised ground still got in the way and traps ensured caution came before racing ahead. Springs might have bounced Sonic freely into the air, but he’d always come back down to Earth’s traction and gravity. In fact, the defining spirit of the Sonic experience burned more strongly on the Saturn than it did on the Mega Drive. On this loved but cowed console, Sonic Team would graduate the principle of unfettered speed to literal interpretation with the closest thing the Saturn ever had to a flagship title: Nights Into Dreams. Because once propelled unobstructed into the sky, Nights simply kept flying.
Nights was launched into a wave of hype, and though it confused those who were all too ready to stick it with the platforming label and disappointed those that wanted it to be Mario 64, it delivered on what it promised. An execution of an idea rather than a direct descendent – or precursor – to a genre, Nights was anomalous at a time when old ideas were being applied to the boundless promises that three-dimensional space appeared to offer. It was also free from the restraints of the established rule-sets that had shackled Sonic since birth.
The game’s 2.5D flightpaths in the place of unlimited freedom were perhaps perceived as backwards when it was first released, even if they actually offered fantastically expressive movement. In flight, its titular character has the full height of each 3D space to enact its range of acrobatic manoeuvres. Speeding and looping from hoop to item to item around each course is an exercise in flow, of unbroken momentum instead of staccato pedestrian wandering.
The seven stages work in loops – if you can perform well enough to find the time for another go around. Beginning and end become one and the same, an elegant enforcement of the thrill of flying forever forwards. The smooth controls and seamlessly responsive animation was a big part of producing this sensation; indeed, the game came packaged with an analogue controller, a forerunner of the Dreamcast pad. The removal of sterile digital precision is indispensable to the experience, allowing you to achieve the simple thrill of pulling off a fancy move without conscious thought, as if writing your name in the air with a sparkler on Bonfire Night.
The tired concepts of lives and health bars are absent in Nights. Instead of mortal threat there’s instead one primary foe: time. Colliding with an enemy reduces your flight time, but Nights is never a race. To treat it as such would be to miss the point entirely, because races are about shortening an experience. In Nights, the challenge doesn’t lie in beating the clock – it lies in teasing it, in squeezing out every last second of flight you can get away with.
Because, with Nights, playtime is its own reward – and though high scores are the ultimate goal, the joy in playing and scoring highly are the same act. Flightpaths are cut with intricate patterns of items that beg to be linked together – collected in quick succession – for bonuses. For those willing to find the optimal paths some stages can be continuously linked in a flow broken only by the clock and an inevitable need to move on.
At this point, the Nights character and its child companion link arms, swing, and boost away with their combined momentum towards a new path while your only impulse is to maintain their perfect, unbroken aerial ballet. With cognitive play eventually giving way to muscular memory, playing Nights becomes almost akin to learning a musical instrument on an instinctive level. That Nights generates such desire is a mark of the success of creators Yuji Naka, Naoto Oshima and Takashi Iizuka, who intended it to express the sensation of flight in dreams. It captures the feel of those joy dreams that are common to every human being – both the exhilaration and the anxiety that you might lose it.