Narramblings #4: Time’s up!

How Disco Elysium and Pentiment use the flow of time as a narrative mechanism?

Wojtek Borowicz
5 min readOct 21, 2023


In the previous post, I wrote about how Dead Rising approached combining two things that seem eternally at odds in narrative: an open world and a sense of urgency. Let’s continue down this path and talk about the passage of time in games — and in the stories they tell. Because these two are rarely the same.

Spoilers ahead! For: Disco Elysium, Pentiment

Disco Elysium cover art with Kim and Harry.
Everyone’s favourite detective duo.

In most games time doesn’t flow. The story might imply otherwise but it doesn’t translate to any systems. In the opening to Metal Gear Solid, we are told we have 18 hours to stop the terrorists from launching a nuke. That opening is also the last you’ll hear about it. There is no countdown and the story quickly forgets it was ever mentioned. Games do this all the time, if not always that blatantly. You can take as long or short as you’d like to beat a level, finish quests in one order or another, go straight for the main objective or complete side missions, and the story will never acknowledge that. Sure, some games have timed segments or a day-and-night cycle to make it seem like the time is flowing. But these are the reverse of the issue from Metal Gear: purely systemic mechanisms, unattached from the passage of time in the story.

This, of course, makes sense for most games. Players accept it because time constraints are stressful. Syncing the plot’s time with the game’s time is hard. But when narrative designers pull it off, it works beautifully for the stories they tell. Enter Disco Elysium and Pentiment.

In Disco Elysium, you play as a deranged suicidal alcoholic cop in a city ruined after a failed revolution, while Pentiment is an ode to medieval art and The Name of the Rose. Aesthetically at odds, but below the surface they have plenty in common. They’re both RPGs where the world is at the same time open and strictly confined — to a single district in one, and a small village in the other. They’re both murder mysteries. And they both make the unrelenting passage of time a gameplay element as well as the cornerstone of the story.

Disco Elysium has a real-time clock and day-and-night system, affecting what you can do and who you can meet in the district of Martinaise. Unlike in most games, however, this isn’t entirely cyclical. There is a day counter and with each passing day, some leads in the murder investigation may grow cold, while others may appear. More importantly though, you are told you only have a couple of days to solve the case and avoid bloodshed between the striking dock workers and corporate mercenaries. When all hell breaks loose, how much progress you’ve made in the investigation will influence the outcome.

Now, you might never notice this, but you can delay the crucial confrontation indefinitely. Mechanically, it is triggered by you completing certain tasks and not by a timer. One could argue this is not that different from what Metal Gear Solid does when it tells you about the make-believe 18 hour deadline. Except, the goal of narrative design is immersion and immersion isn’t about what can actually happen in the game. It’s about what the players think can happen. Metal Gear quickly forgets it ever mentioned a deadline so you don’t care about it either. Disco Elysium does the opposite. Its day counter and the rising tension in Martinaise keep you aware of the clock’s merciless ticking. The time limit feels so real, that years after the game’s release people were still arguing on Reddit over whether it existed (it didn’t).

Google search results for ‘Disco Elysium time limit’
Topic of much debate.

Pentiment also has a day counter and it’s even bolder in how it breaks convention. In RPGs, the player usually controls the game’s pace regardless of what’s happening in the story. Doesn’t matter if you choose to talk to each NPC and look into every nook and cranny or jump straight into a quest. In Pentiment, it does.

This time you’re in a Bavarian village in the early years of Reformation and again, you have a murder mystery (or two [or three — serial killers in Tassing are prolific]) to solve. Here as well social unrest is threatening to boil over if you don’t come up with answers quickly. Unlike in Disco Elysium, the clock doesn’t work in real-time. The passage of time, however, is very real and equally consequential.

There are several suspects in Tassing and many leads to look into but the investigation is under a tight deadline. Each time you make progress with any of the clues, the game moves to the next part of the day. Additionally, some actions and conversations can only take place at a specific time, so if you choose to follow one lead, another will be gone forever.

If The Name of the Rose was a video game.

It’s a difficult storytelling technique. There are many moving pieces, some of which the player will never see, so how do you make sure they always fit together? Pentimet thrives on the tension between the player’s agency and the game’s world. It’s up to you to find the clues and solve the murder. You have the power to point your finger at a suspect in the hopes of stopping the escalation of violence. But that power is limited because no matter how hard you try and how diligent you are, it is simply impossible to collect all the evidence on time. The closer the deadline, the more you realise how many threads there are that you don’t have time to unravel. It might seem like an odd choice to force the player to miss parts of the plot, but the payoff is more than worth it. It makes you feel responsible for each decision. Now, that’s immersion.

Disco Elysium and Pentiment are both gems of narrative design for many reasons worth studying. What stands out the most is how they approach the relationship between time in the game and in the story. In most games, that relationship doesn’t exist at all. With these two, the convention goes out the window and passage of time becomes a crucial mechanic. And when a player makes a life-or-death decision in the game, they feel the weight of the responsibility.

If you liked this post, read my other Narramblings.