Today we talk about what could be the perfect time loop film, 2004's Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt (and, of course, the late Bill Paxton). We're accompanied by returning guest and Psyduck Enthusiast Scott Thomas, along with DJ and Twitch streamer Justin Turner joining us for the first time. We break down the story of the film, how it exemplifies (and often subverts) common time loop tropes, we discuss its brand mismanagement, and the difficulty adapting manga to film. Enjoy!
We've decided we should put our money where our mouths are, so Jesse has written a short time-travel story. We hope you enjoy it!
RECORDED TOMORROW PRESENTS
by Jesse Ferguson
Alex notes the time and takes a champagne flute from the tray, giving the server a wink as she does. 7:46PM. The server smiles in return and Alex doesn’t mind that she's patronizing her, she's in entirely too good a mood.
Because it’s going to work.
“Hey, Alex!” Martin, the host, waves at her as he makes his way across the room. Alex has spent six years, two months and nine days working her way up the ladder in Martin's company, getting close enough to him to earn an invitation to this party. This is where she'll make it all happen.
Right now, somewhere in Seattle, there’s another version of Alex - a younger version, still using her real name - hard at work boosting cars, breaking into houses and shitty office parks in the industrial district. In four months and twelve days, that version of her will be arrested on felony burglary charges, just nine days after she turns eighteen. Her court-appointed lawyer will be too busy with a hundred other cases to put much effort into helping a poor kid everybody knows is guilty. She'll be convicted after just three days, and sentenced to ten years in prison. She’ll never be able to vote.
“Enjoying the party?” Martin's made it over to her now. He's wearing a tan suit and a slightly worried expression. “The band just got here, they’re setting up now,” he sighs, “I should have hired a DJ...”
“Relax. I’m sure they'll be worth the wait,” Alex says. Why not give him something to be happy about? It won't last. Alex almost feels bad about that. “And it doesn’t matter. We’re not here for the band. We’re here for you. Well, you and your new trinket."
“I can't wait for you to see it, Ms. Wells,” he says as he puts a hand on her shoulder, friendly and casual, but without coming off as creepy, like a lot of men in their fifties would. Damn it, now she does feel bad. She likes Martin, and he doesn’t really deserve what’s going to happen.
Seven months, fifteen days from now, that younger Alex-with-her-real-name will find a hidden cache in her cell. Inside, there will be a stack of newspapers and a locked box. The top newspaper will be dated a day after she finds the cache, the next one a week after that. She'll compare it to the papers delivered to the prison on those days, and they'll line up perfectly.
On the far end of this room, there’s a locked door. Beyond that, some number of other security measures unknown to Alex--for now-- then vault with a three-thousand-year-old clay statue sealed inside it. The statue was recently excavated from Nigeria and it’s worth around sixteen million dollars. Martin acquired it through what he likes to call "back channels," which Alex assumes is richspeak for "he exploited his wealth and influence to plunder it from the culture to which it belongs." On second thought, maybe he does deserve it.
“I’m impressed you’ve been able to keep the statue secure,” she says, with just a little bit of awe in her voice. Martin may be a kind man, but also a rich man, and a little ego-stroking goes a long way. “How did you manage it? A piece this old, this rare, thieves must be lining up to take a crack at it.”
Seven months, twenty-two days from now, after the second newspaper from her cache matches the one delivered that day, her younger self will start looking through the rest of the papers. The third one will be dated a week from today, and it’ll be folded open to a story with the headline RARE NIGERIAN STATUE STOLEN OUT OF THIN AIR. The article will be circled in felt marker, along with the words THIS WAS YOU, written in her own handwriting.
“Well, that’s the secret,” Martin’s eyes twinkle with mischief. “One of the advantages of using ‘back channels’ is that there aren’t a lot of records. So nobody knows exactly what I have, except the lovely people at this party. Most of the real security is at the gallery.”
Alex has to fight to maintain her composure. “Wait, you’re saying there’s no security on the statue right now?” She’s a little shocked that she managed to get the question out without her voice faltering.
Martin laughs, “Oh, my dear, of course there’s security on the statue! It’s in a vault with three-foot thick walls, and I’m the only person who knows the combination. It’s being monitored continuously via closed-circuit camera, and I opened the vault and checked on it personally, just before you arrived.”
Seven months, twenty-three days from now, younger Alex will reach the bottom of her hidden stack of newspapers. There will be a dozen of them, each folded open to an article describing an unbelievable theft. Each will be circled, with something to the effect of THIS WAS YOU scrawled on the paper. In every case, the handwriting will be hers. At the bottom of the stack of papers, there will be a key to the lockbox, and inside that will be a device that allows her to travel through time.
Alex has to sit down. Martin moves on and starts mingling with other guests. The band has just started, they’re playing an old Leonard Cohen number. Alex hasn’t heard this song since ten years from now. She didn’t really like it then, but the irony of the situation is too much, so she laughs, leans back on the couch, and enjoys the music.
Starting in seven months and twenty-four days, young Alex will spend several months figuring out how to use her time-travel device. Over those months, she’ll learn that the portals it generates are rooted in place geographically, but that she has fine control over them temporally. She’ll be startled by slightly older versions of herself, and then a few days later, she’ll travel back and startle slightly younger versions of herself in turn. She’ll even use it to escape, first travelling sixty years into the past - before the prison was built - then back to the present after she’s moved outside where the walls would be. But then she’ll remember that some of these thefts will take place during her incarceration, and decide that the best alibi is already being in prison, so she’ll go back to a moment after she left. Prison will be a lot easier to bear once she knows she can literally leave any time she wants.
Alex mingles with other people. She’s not really listening, but she’s paying just enough attention that she’ll be able to recall a key detail or two from each conversation later. It’s important to be seen, heard, and recognized by as many people as possible. After all this, there will be interviews and statements, but there can be no question where she was tonight. Every minute must be accounted for.
Eleven months, nineteen days from now, her younger self will start researching Martin’s company, and building an identity for herself. Being able to spend a few weeks outside to make arrangements and payments, then be back in her cell before anyone notices she left will prove immensely useful. She’ll build credentials, skills, fake references and work history, everything. Alex Wells, this Alex, will be born.
She notices Martin starting to make his way up to the stage, and positions herself at the door. She needs to be right next to him when he opens the safe.
“Everyone, everyone!” He says into a microphone, “Thank you so much for coming. I’m really excited to show you all this piece. I don’t know if I’ve told all of you how I came to acquire it…” Alex notes the time as his speech goes on. 9:13PM. Eighty-seven minutes. Her heart is racing, and she’s starting to sweat. Eighty-seven minutes isn’t much time...
Calm DOWN… she thinks as she takes a deep breath. This is going to work. She knows it’s going to work, because it’s already worked. But Alex can’t stop the nerves as Martin makes his way over to the door where she’s standing.
Eight years, nine months, and eleven days from now, younger Alex will be released from prison, earning early parole for good behavior. By this point she’ll have researched all the heists in all the newspapers in her cache, and created identities for each of them. She’ll check in with her parole officer, make a few last-minute arrangements, then open a portal and step into six years, three months and three days ago.
Martin is unlocking the door now. Alex is looking at him, her face as excited as his, though for very different reasons. He opens it, and the whole group head toward the vault: Martin first, Alex right beside him, and a dozen or so other party-goers behind them. She spots the cameras, one in each corner of the hallway. No blind spots. Shit, that’ll be tricky.
Six years, two months and nine days ago, Alex started her first day of employment at Martin’s company. She’d impressed him and his hiring managers in her interviews, and was eager to be a part of the work they were doing. Five years, four months and thirteen days ago, she got promoted. Then again four years and nine days ago. Two years, two months and five days ago, she accepted a position directly under Martin himself. She gracefully inserted herself into his group of “work friends,” and made sure she was always in his social circles. Seven months ago, right after the statue had been discovered and Martin had decided he wanted it, but before he told anyone that, Alex had let it slip that she’d always loved ancient Nigeria, and especially their art. Thirty-six days ago, Martin invited Alex to this party.
Now, at the vault, she squeezes his shoulder, her smile a dark mirror of his own, and watches as he keys in the combination: 7-4-8-2-9-6-1-6-7-9. She memorizes it. He opens the vault door, and everyone gasps.
The vault is empty.
There are no signs of forced entry. No alarms went off. Everyone is rushed back out of the hallway as Martin calls the police, then his security company. Alex has never heard him scream at another person like this.
Two hours and twelve minutes ago, Alex opened a storage locker she’d rented three months earlier. There was part of a couch and several boxes of random stuff in here--mostly to keep up appearances-- but tucked back in the corner was a wooden crate. She pried off the lid and marveled at the perfect, priceless, ancient Nigerian statue. She saw the papers with expert signatures, verifying the statue’s origin, age, and authenticity. She had to hold in a shriek of joy as she resealed the box and locked the storage unit back up. All her hard work, all her research, everything she’d put into this project was going to pay off.
“Thank you, Ms. Wells,” The officer says to her after he’s taken Alex’s statement. He moves onto the next guest, and she finds Martin.
“I’m so sorry, Martin,” she says as she gives him a hug. “I just can’t believe it.”
“I just-” Martin is frothing with anger and embarrassment, but he puts on a calm face for Alex. “I just saw it. I just looked at the damn thing not two hours ago! I don’t understand how this guy even knew it was here, much less how he got past us in the party. Nevermind how he knew the combination! I tell you, it had to be someone on my security team.”
“I hope you find him, whoever he is,” she says, then bids him goodnight and heads to her car.
The whole drive home she can’t help grinning. She’s got almost everything she needs: The window of opportunity, the exact location and combination of the vault, and a perfect alibi. She still needs to figure out how to get past the cameras, but she knows she will.
She’s got all the time in the world.
Jesse & Jonathan sit down with a packed panel of film folks to talk about the platonic ideal of smarter-than-you time travel movies: PRIMER. We discuss how it avoids most of the pitfalls we've discussed on our show, and which one it jumps into head-first. We don't all love it, but we all respect it, and we talk about the whys of both. True to form, we also go off on a number of tangents, and chase after that sweet, sweet, Audible money.
We put our money where our mouths are this month! Writer, streamer, podcaster, and game designer Emma Larkins has come to us with the very beginnings of a time travel story, and we apply the principles we've worked out over the last year to help her figure out where to take it, and how to start it. This might be the best episode we've ever done, and we're really proud of it.
Solid time travel mechanics do not a story make - Time travel is a tool a writer uses to tell a story, not the other way around.
The folks over at The Film Rescue Show invited Jonathan and Jesse to join them to talk about Back to the Future. We had A LOT of fun with this, and they were gracious enough to let us publish their episode on our feed. So sit back & listen to us pitch a couple ways we'd fix the time travel mechanics of the Back to the Future trilogy.
C/W: There's more swearing in this episode than usual, sorry!
Jesse sits down with alternate-timeline co-host Kit Ferguson (no relation) & her husband Brad, to go in-depth on causal loops, using the absolute prime example as a model: Robert Heinlein's All You Zombies, along with its film adaptation Predestination. We do our best to explain the plot to Brad (who's never read or seen it), then go deep on causal loops, talking about how to recognize a causal loop, how to use them, when to use them, and when not to (spoiler: it's most of the time).
This episode, we catch Jonathan in a time loop! Scott Thomas (of The Infinity Podcast) helps us break down what makes time loop stories tick, and why we love them.
Media references will happen a bit later, we're already late getting this one out. Sorry for the wait, and I appreciate your patience!
Hello, travellers, and welcome to Recorded Tomorrow, the show where we break down the rules & pitfalls of using time travel in fiction & games. Jonathan is caught in a temporal rift, so I’ll be navigating the timestream solo today.
Rather than try to tackle a deep dive by myself, I thought I’d take this opportunity to recap the lessons we’ve covered so far, & consolidate them all in one place. I’ll go over the rules we’ve established & define all the terms we’ve used. I’ll jump around a bit, but hopefully I’ll do it in a way that makes sense. Right, let’s get straight to it:
A traveler isn’t necessarily a person, but refers to anything that’s being sent through time. That could mean a person, or their consciousness, a device, even just information. We might sometimes refer to this as the subject.
The origin is the time and place from which the traveler departs, and the destination is the time & place when they arrive.
Now let’s talk theories: Variable Thread is typically a single, mutable timeline of continuity that can be altered using time travel. In fiction that uses variable thread, as soon as someone or something travels to the past, the timeline resets from the point of arrival, and the original timeline ceases to exist. This is the most common style of explicit time travel. Think Back to the Future or The Sound of Thunder. These types of stories are usually a regret metaphor.
Fixed Thread is an immutable timeline, where the continuity can’t be changed, even by traveling back in time. Any actions taken by a traveler happened before they traveled, the only thing that changes is the perspective. This is your Bill & Ted, your 12 Monkeys, your Prisoner of Azkaban. These stories are generally about trying to be in multiple places at once, taking on too much, and learning to prioritize.
Lastly, we have Multiverse time travel. This theory involves multiple, timelines, and can come in a couple of forms: in Michael Creighton’s Timeline, the characters don’t actually travel forward or backward in time, but rather laterally into older or younger universes; In Avengers: Endgame, characters do travel through time, but each time they do, it creates a new branch on an existing timeline.
These are the basics. There are variations, like river theory or using flashbacks, but they pretty much all build on these three.
Regardless of which theory you employ, there are a few guidelines you should always keep in mind.
The single most important rule is to Be Consistent. It doesn’t matter what the time travel rules are in your universe, as long as you know them, and you make sure you always, always follow them. Be consistent. Be consistent. Be consistent.
In order to stay consistent, you’re going to need to take notes. Copious, copious notes. If you're traveling to real historical times & places, do your research and get it right. Even if you're in a fictional universe, remember that everything your characters do could be important. Everything they say, anyone they interact with, could cause rippling changes, and the further back the travel, the larger those changes can be. If you're dealing with interactive fiction - like a role-playing game - it's probably a good idea to record your sessions.
Forgive the pun, but you’ll also want to be sure you take your time with your story. Any time a character or characters travel through time (either forward or backward), stop and check your notes. Make sure you've got everything lined up, extrapolate answers to questions, figure out as many ramifications to changes made as possible.
- If you're writing a novel, end the chapter or section here.
- If you're writing a screenplay for a film, use this as a scene- or act-break.
- If it's a TV show, go to commercial.
- If it's interactive fiction, end the session there.
Now, I said you have know the rules of time travel, but that doesn’t mean your characters have to. 12 Monkeys executes this brilliantly, with Cole traveling back in time to try and change his future, only to find out that he’d seen his older self there as a child. The characters all believed they were in a variable thread universe, when in fact their universe was fixed thread.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far apply equally regardless of how time travel works in your story. Let’s dive into some theory-specific guidelines. We’ll start with VariableThread:
The one thing most Variable Thread stories forget is something we’re calling The Outsider Problem. When a traveler arrives at their destination, every part of their original timeline is erased (usually immediately, but that can vary from story to story), except the traveler themselves. They become an Outsider, and no longer belong in any timeline, because even when they return to their origin point, it will be in an alternate timeline with another version of the traveler. Basically, with Variable Thread, once you travel back in time, there will always be two of you, and you’re the one who doesn’t belong anymore.
This manifests a little differently when traveling to the future: rather than traveling to a destination where there will be another version of you, you’re traveling to a future where you’ve been absent since the moment you left. If you travel to ten years in the future, you’ll arrive to a world where you’ve been missing for ten years.
Bottom line, if you’re using Variable Thread time travel, you’ll need to either embrace the Outsider Problem, or mitigate it somehow. One of the most common methods of mitigation is to only send a consciousness backward or forward in time, rather than a physical human. The arriving consciousness either supplants, suppresses, or merges with the existing one, so there is no Outsider.
Fixed Thread is a bit trickier, in that there are a number of extra pitfalls to watch out for. But first, I have to reiterate rule #1: BE CONSISTENT. Consistency is especially important in a Fixed Thread story, because you’ll likely be describing the same scene more than once, from different perspectives. When that happens, it’s imperative that your events and dialog line up. Because the timeline is immutable, you can’t change the way a conversation plays out, or the order in which events occur. On a related note, be sure to sprinkle bits of foreshadowing into your narrative, so your audience will have a thread to connect events between perspectives (though that’s just generally good fiction advice, so I probably don’t need to mention it).
The Outsider Problem doesn’t exist with Fixed Thread or multiverse time travel, but you do have to remember and account for the fact that your traveler will continue to age when they travel through time. This means that when they return to their origin they’ll be older than they were when they left. Realistically, after a year of time-traveling back to repeat every school day, Hermione would be over two months older than Harry and Ron.
And, finally, we need to tackle Paradoxes. A paradox is an event that alters the timeline in such a way as to create a contradiction of events, and the truth is that if you’re consistent and follow the rest of the guidelines above, paradoxes aren’t actually a problem.
To illustrate that, let’s take a look at the classic example: The Grandfather Paradox. The idea is that if a person were to travel back in time and murder their grandfather before they had any children, then the traveler themselves would never have been born, which means they would never have been able to travel back in time to murder their grandfather.
Except it’s garbage.
Let’s examine the three theories in each scenario: In Variable Thread, the traveler is an Outsider. Murdering their grandfather would succeed in preventing their birth, but it’s not the same version of them as the one who traveled back in time. The traveler will continue to exist in a timeline that they’re not actually a part of, in which no version of them is ever born. No Paradox.
This applies to Multiverse time travel, as well: You could quite easily prevent yourself from being born, but it’d be in an alternate timeline, which would have no effect on the one from which you traveled. No Paradox.
In a Fixed Thread the fact that the traveler exists means they would be physically unable to prevent their birth. They could try to murder their grandfather, but they would fail. End of story. The thread is fixed and can’t be changed. No Paradox.
Fixed Thread does have something that’s pretty close to a paradox, though, and that’s a Causal Loop. We defined a Causal Loop as a self-manifesting concept in which the something (be it information, an object, or even a person) sets in motion the events that result in its own creation.
My go-to example is the directions out of a maze: If a person is stuck in a maze and finds a map leading out, then after they get out, they travel back in time and places the map back where they found it, where did the map originally come from? The answer seems to be “from nowhere.” Causal Loops don’t actually break any time travel rules, but they’ll still pull people out of your story unless they’re handled very carefully. Unless they play a major role in your story, I’d avoid them altogether. There exists a wonderful example of a story that is built entirely on Causal Loops, but I won’t say what it is because I don’t want to spoil it.
Finally, it’s vital to remember that, regardless of the mechanics, a time travel story is a story first. Every time-travel decision should be in service to the story. I’m skipping ahead a little because some of this will be covered in future episodes, but you’ll want to start with figuring out what kind of story you want to tell, then choose a complimentary time travel theory. Conversely, if you want to use a specific theory, make sure your narrative themes compliment that theory. You’ll want to choose a mode of travel - such as a time machine, device, portal, etc.. - based on the types of complications you want to introduce.
And that brings us back to the present! Pretty much everything we’ve covered on the show so far, condensed into half an hour. If you’re new to our show and want to hear Jonathan and me dig deeper into any of these subjects, they’re all in the archives. If you’ve been with us from the beginning and want to introduce the show to your friends, this might not be a bad place to start.
But there’s one more thing I want to talk to you about: We’ve got a few more episodes planned, but we’re approaching a point where we’re going to run out of basic lessons. There are a few subjects we want to dive deeper into, but after that, we’re going to have to pivot, and change the nature of the show somewhat.
And that’s where you come in. Once the basics are covered, what would you like to hear from us? We could do analyses of time travel in specific works of fiction (similar to what we did with Avengers: Endgame). We could turn it into more of a question & answer show, where listeners send us questions or issues they have and we try to answer them. We could even put our money where our mouths are, and try to craft a time travel story together with you listening in. Let us know what you’d like to hear on twitter at @TimeTravelPod, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Kevin MacLoed of Incompetech for our theme music.
Special thanks to Greg Downing, Cal O'Boyle, & Ariel & Connor Ferguson for lending their voices to my desperate need for consistency.
Generally, how time travel works in your story isn't important, because time travel should be a MEANS to tell a good story, rather than BE the story itself. That being said, there are some instances where the how can inform the why, or complicate it. In this episode, Jesse & Jonathan go over the various modes of time travel, how they can impact a story, and the true meaning of time travel.
Your time travel story should never JUST be a time travel story. Use time travel to tell a more interesting story.
See you Yesterday
Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Back to the Future
Back to the Future III
All Our Wrong Todays
The Butterfly Effect
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Future of Us
Jesse brings on guests Bebo (of Be Bold Games) and Rich Malena-Webber (of Atomic Game Theory) to talk about how time travel is used in games. We dig deep into how videogames use time travel, including one secret time travel mechanic that's been a staple of videogames since the beginning.
We also talk about several board games that use time travel in different and interesting ways, and even brainstorm how we could bring time travel into Dungeons & Dragons!
When using time travel in games, keep the mechanics highly constrained: time travel is hard enough to work in when you have complete control of the narrative; adding multiple authors (players) complicates that exponentially. Make the rules very clear, and limit the ability of the travelers to affect the narrative to something you can manage.
Super Mario Bros.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Super Meat Boy
Dark Souls Series
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Dungeons & Dragons
Escape from Monkey Island