Time Extend: Second Sight
Warning: if you’ve never played Second Sight before, and would like to enjoy it to the full one day, don’t read on. Plot spoilers come with the territory in Time Extend, but most videogame plots, even the well-crafted and interesting ones, are hard to spoil. They frame the action, maybe spring a surprise halfway through, and thereafter accompany it at a respectful distance on its way to the inevitable furious crescendo of an ending. The game has fully revealed itself long before that, and spoilers are just a kind of coitus interruptus, a mild deflation after which it’s easy enough to get back in the saddle.
Not so here. Story and gameplay are as inseparable as form and function in Second Sight, and you really can’t appreciate the game without an appreciation of how it ends, or rather concludes: with a formidable conceptual twist and in one of the most memorable final levels in recent years. Without its story, it would be just another stealth adventure in a sea of clones, but with it it’s that rarest of beasts: a game that really isn’t over until it’s over. In fact, it hasn’t even begun.
The clue was in the title all along. Second sight is, according to the OED: “the supposed ability to perceive future or distant events.” But it’s quite the opposite in the case of amnesiac parapsychology expert Dr John Vattic, who wakes up with what appear to be psychic powers – telekinesis, self-healing, mind control, projection – in a secret research facility. Not long into his confused stumble out of his room, Vattic perceives information about his past in the form of a flashback to six months ago and, conveniently enough for new players, his training exercises for a top-secret military expedition into Russia.
Also on the expedition – to investigate the work of would-be defector and psychic researcher Professor Victor Grienko – was Jayne Wilde: psychic, professional rival and love interest. She’s the one who experiences second sight, foreseeing Vattic’s crucial role and predicting events before they happen. But Vattic, back in the present, seems to be able to take a second look at his past. In the research facility, he finds records suggesting Jayne died on the expedition. He flashes back to the infiltration of Grienko’s Russian base, but if you succeed in the level, he saves her life. When he returns to the present she’s alive in a mental institution, and after escaping the research facility he rescues her.
This pattern repeats several times in the course of the game – references to fellow members of the expedition squad dying and the failure of the mission, subsequently erased by your actions in flashback. Vattic’s power over time is the most compelling mystery in the game, more so than the entwined twin threads of the conspiracy, uncovered in parallel in the two timelines: Grienko’s experiments on psychic Russian children, and the efforts of the shadowy American National Security Executive to acquire his research and destroy the evidence, bloodily if need be. It’s solid enough X-Files pastiche, a little derivative perhaps, but in Second Sight it’s not the tale that matters but the superlative telling.
That doesn’t mean script, voice acting, cutscene direction or digital performers from the top drawer. These are all pretty functional (economical would perhaps be a nicer way of putting it): understated words balanced by the cartoonishly expressive, stylised characters. Second Sight is a game after all, and cinematic values take a back seat to telling its story in a game’s way, and paying attention to more fundamental aspects of the storyteller’s craft, ones ignored by the vast majority of videogames: structure, pacing and motivation.