I didn’t expect to laugh while playing Time Flies, but I did, out loud on the Summer Game Fest show floor. It’s a deceptively simple game with monochromatic, MS Paint-style visuals and a clear premise: You’re a fly and you have a short time to live a full life in a random house.
There are layers to the game’s main goal, as the fly has a bucket list filled with items like “learn an instrument”, “read a book”, “make a friend” and “get drunk.” Each of these tasks is completed in a delightfully surprising way — for instance, getting drunk means landing on the base of a martini glass and sipping from the small droplet of alcohol there. Afterward, the screen becomes distorted, warped lines making it harder to fly through the house. Making a friend involves joining a trail of ants as they walk single-file through cracks in the kitchen walls. The fly lands on the back of an ant and it can hang out, disappearing into one small hole and reappearing from the other in a continuous, friendly loop.
And then the fly dies. Every round ends with the fly’s death, whether that’s caused by the inevitable progression of time or the player’s direct actions, such as getting too close to a strip of fly paper, touching a light bulb or drowning in the full martini glass. A timer ticks down constantly in the upper-left corner, starting with 80-odd seconds at most, and when it hits zero, the fly drops to the ground like a speck of dust.
The timer itself presents a compelling thought experiment at the beginning of every life cycle. The length of each round is determined by choosing a location from a dropdown menu of all the countries in the world, and it’s based on the life expectancy of each region. Selecting “United States,” for example, gives players 77.4 seconds because people there are expected to live 77.4 years, according to the database used by the game. This mechanic, beginning every round with a self-inflicted geographic death sentence, grounds the game in reality. It adds weight to whatever silly, pixelated mechanics may follow, mirroring the quiet way that existential dread constantly grips us all.
Knowing you’ll die doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re alive — as the fly, that is. The house is packed with personal items like books, art, instruments and furniture, and to a buzzy little fly, it feels nearly endless. It’s possible to land on certain environments and the screen will zoom in to allow players to interact with the objects there, showing additional detail. The fly can flip the power switch on a phonograph and collect coins inside a bulbous light fixture, each of these new areas appearing as the fly buzzes past or into them.
The scene that made me laugh out loud involved a headless mannequin sticking out of the ceiling. Yes, you read that correctly, but this isn’t where I laughed yet. Flying into the dummy’s open neck revealed a network of intestines to escape — funny, but I still hadn’t laughed — with an exit precisely where you’d expect it to be. When the screen shifted from a dark intestinal tract to show the fly popping out of the dangling mannequin’s butt cheeks, I couldn’t help myself. I laughed and heard people watching behind me chuckle, too. Together, we all enjoyed the surprising ridiculousness of this fly’s life, and then it dropped dead.
I had a good time with that fly in particular. I played a few rounds of Time Flies and crossed out a few items on the bucket list, but there’s still so much more to explore in that solitary house. I just need some more time.
Time Flies is scheduled to hit PlayStation, Switch and Steam in 2023, developed by Michael Frei and Raphaël Munoz.