I can probably sum up Time Bandit's whole deal by telling you I have a meeting with it at 2 pm tomorrow. That's not a joke, or a wry, sideways glance at some otherwise very normal and boilerplate game mechanic. I literally have to meet someone in this game at 2 o'clock on the dot on the 3rd of August, 2023. Look, here it is in my calendar:
By that time, a tree I planted will have finished growing, a bridge I'm building will have finished construction, and some boxes I'm trying to move around at work will have finished moving themselves one space forwards or backwards. It's going to be a big day. Until then, though, all there is to do is wait.
This is Time Bandit, a deliberately laborious work sim where all your tasks take real time. You play as… well, who knows? Another faceless and recently enlisted cadet straight out of the reserve army of labour, put to work shuffling boxes around in a cavernous warehouse in the pursuit of "time crystals": literal ossified chunks of time that your capitalist overlords are taking from you in addition to all that alienated labour.
It's agonising. Even the simplest tasks take at least an hour, and others take a full day. Almost all of them chip away at your rapidly dissipating reserves of energy, and what you're paid barely covers the cost of purchasing the tools you need to keep doing the work in future. It's part Cart Life, part Metal Gear Solid, part idle game, and playing it is literally a chore. I love it? I think I love it
A matter of time
Time Bandit is a political satire, dedicated to teasing out the darkly comic absurdities of our—my, your—day-to-day existence under an increasingly tumbledown form of international capitalism. To capital and its human avatars—your bosses—you're just a resource: An agglutination of labour hours to be drained and tossed aside when spent. The streets are cold and bare, the beach is beneath the paving stones, and one of the first tasks it gives you is to chop down the literal last tree in the nearby forest in order to build a bridge (you can plant a new one, it takes 24 hours).
So it takes a while to play. Truth be told, I'm not so far into it yet. I would be further, but I think to unlock the aspect of the game in which I start embezzling time crystals from work I have to make that meeting I was talking about earlier. I was originally meant to have it at 10 am today, but I was double-booked. A real-life meeting superseded my virtual one in importance. My contact—a suspicious and non-copyright-infringing scuba-equipped spy named Longtail Duck—contacted me angrily on the radio when I clocked back into the game at around 11 this morning.
We had to reschedule, which means I have to wait another, ah, 22 hours to see what it is he wants from me.
In the meantime, I have to tend to my chores and manage my dwindling energy, remembering to check in as my tasks complete to progress them to the next stage. It's a kind of banal idle game, but it's still strangely engaging.
Most of the weirdos on my radio chafe under this or that facet of capital too, and checking in with them whenever I return to the game (time passes while it's closed) feels like I'm fostering a strange kind of dispirited solidarity. None of us are revolutionaries—though presumably someone around town is daubing the walls with those anarchy symbols and hammer and sickles—but we're all unfulfilled, doomed, alienated. We all feel helpless, at least right now, but at least we're all helpless together.
But the game promises more than what I've seen so far. Once I actually manage to make my meeting with Longtail Duck, I hope it won't be another 24-hour wait before I unlock the stealth portion of the game. So far, most of the gameplay I've experienced has been block-pushing: clearing the way (one hour at a time) to time crystals that I then return to my bosses for a pittance. I suspect Longtail will tell me that I could be stealing them instead, sneaking them out between cameras and guards and selling them for far more than I'd get in my paycheque.
In other words: I could be claiming my labour, my time, and my stolen surplus value back from my bosses. All I have to do is risk violent retribution and deprivation to do it. I will. Someone has to teach the bastards a lesson after all, and it's much easier to do that in a game than it is to do it in real life.
Once upon a time, a worker going by the name Elastico Gomez wrote one of the best essays I've ever read: An angry and brilliant reflection on their time working at an Amazon warehouse. "I want all the workers to spend more time with each other, conspiring against the company, breaking the web of surveillance, of ideology, and looting and smashing everything they can get their hands on," the piece concluded. Time Bandit feels like someone read that essay and made a game out of it. I can't wait for part two.