The clock is ticking
Here's a video game scenario you've definitely seen before: a malevolent power is about to end the world as you know it, but no rush, because it'll wait patiently for you to show up. It comes down to design philosophy: they want you to keep playing as long and as often as possible, so missions can't be too restrictive in how they let you use your time. The sense of urgency that's meant to push you to the end becomes little more than a carefully curated illusion that's easily broken if you decide to make a sandwich and don't hit pause.
Sometimes, anyway. Other times, you come back from your meal prep and all the hostages are dead, or the world has ended, or the love of your virtual life has turned into a horrific monster because you took too long, and the game wants you to feel it. It's a delicate balance to strike, making you feel the weight of a time crunch without pushing you so far that you quit. But games that do it well show that players don't need the virtual world to wait on our every move. Sometimes lighting a fire under your ass is the best thing a game can do.
Majora's Mask is a nailbiter
Easily the most famous game that uses time against you, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is also one of the most forgiving. Though you only have three in-game days (with a timer ticking away) before the moon faceplants directly into the planet, you can reverse to the first day as many times as you like. But make no mistake, it's harder than it sounds - failing to finish your current quest means you'll have to start that undertaking over during the next three-day period. Or worse, if you let the moon crash into the planet, expect to lose everything you gained during that cycle.
Kudos to Nintendo, because this is probably the best way to balance a foreboding sense of urgency with dozens of intricate sidequests. Putting a hard deadline on the game as a whole would push you to skip side material, while allowing ample time to complete everything would turn the moon's descent into an empty threat. Meanwhile, the reverse-and-start-over option makes virtually every dungeon-romp nerve-wracking, as you only have one shot to successfully finish if you don't want to start over from the beginning. At the same time, you feel comfortable enough with your schedule that you can set aside time to fight an army of ghosts in return for a bottle of milk. You know, the important things.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution makes good on its threats
As it turns out, Revolution came very close to promoting paradoxical procrastination with its first mission. Specifically, you're told that you only have so long to save a group of hostages before things get ugly, but in the game's original version you could take as long as you wanted and they would never come to harm. Figuring that out immediately deflates any sense of importance the mission had (no need to worry, they're all gonna be fine without you) but also makes it hard to trust the game when it promises dire situations in the future. Chances are those will be falsified too, so why bother?
Thankfully, the version that ultimately hit shelves set a time limit on the hostages' survival, so if you don't get there fast enough, too bad for them. That one choice made Human Revolution significantly more effective at creating suspense and a sense of gravitas, because anyone who tried to call that Mission One bluff learned that this game was not messing around.
Prince of Persia gets real
At face value, Prince of Persia isn't all that different from the standard hero-saves-princess plot: the Vizier of Persia captures the princess, saying he'll kill her if she refuses to marry him, and you have to rescue her. However, while the likes of Mario and Link have ample time to train before they face off against their nemeses, the Vizier gives the princess an hour to decide, and he isn't kidding around - you get one real-world hour to finish the game before you fail and the princess is left to her horrible fate.
Honestly, this is a far more realistic depiction of how a princess' abduction would go, and gives it the weight and urgency it deserves. Where other games assure you that the princess will be just fine with waiting until you show up to get her, Prince of Persia promises the exact opposite, making you feel your pixelated protagonists' desperation as you struggle to navigate a tricky maze of traps. With no on-screen timer to guide you, it feels like failure is always lurking a step behind, and nothing about the experience would've been nearly as effective if you didn't have the dwindling sands of an hourglass lighting a proverbial a fire under your feet.
Time waits for no man in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Snake Eater might seem like a strange addition here, since the only place where time matters is a single boss fight, and even then it feels like you have to wait for-e-ver for the ravages of time to have any kind of effect. Yet, that use of time has a powerful effect, proving that while Big Boss may be the protagonist, he's not the center of the universe.
Here's the mission (in) brief: you face off against The End, a master sniper who's getting too old for this, and is only hanging on so he can hunt down his 'final prey', aka you. You can fight him in a properly grueling battle, or you can simply save in the middle of the fight and wait a week to play again, by which point The End will have died of old age. While it's easy to assume this feature was included in the name of shock value and some laughs you feel guilty about later, it also puts forward the idea that the world and everything in it isn't waiting on Snake's input - the world moves at its own pace, regardless of what he chooses to do. That doesn't necessarily hold true in other parts of the game (none of Snake Eater's other bosses will get bored and leave if you wait too long to fight them), but that one moment is enough to at least make you think.
Pandora's Tower reminds you that your girlfriend exists
Pandora's Tower may not feature of the world's greatest romance - while central to the story, it never gets far past "insert gifts, receive affection" territory - it does remind you that your love Elena has a life of her own outside your adventures and won't just twiddle her thumbs until you get back. Mostly because she's mutating into a horrific demon and needs to eat the flesh of the demons you're slaying in a timely manner if she's going to stay human. And I do mean timely: every mission is on a timer, and if you wait too long before getting back to her with more flesh, she (and your relationship) will start to rapidly deteriorate until her transformation is complete and she destroys the world.
That may seem brutal and at least a little annoying, as you constantly have to return to her room instead of pressing forward, but the timer does serve as a constant reminder of why you're going on this adventure at all. While the game could just teleport you back to her place for a cutscene or two and then let you go about your business, it'd be easy to look right through those interactions without noticing them. Because you have to constantly think about maintaining her health, Elena is at the forefront of your mind, and the game serves the story rather than wearing it like a thin and ineffective overcoat. Elena has one too many of those already.
Dead Rising gives you perspective
Often enough, completing all of the sidequests in a game is just a question of your interest and willingness, because the objectives themselves typically don't require much skill or effort. But Dead Rising - a game where you and a handful of survivors are trapped in a zombie-infested shopping mall that's also housing a few "psychopaths" from the local prison - doesn't want to go that easy on you. Side objectives involve rescuing as many other survivors as you can, but you only have a limited amount of days before the rescue team shows up to collect them. Even trickier, each survivor is only alive and mobile for a short period of time. Miss that window, and they're gone for good.
That sidequest setup is immensely punishing, and you can expect to see plenty of announcements that survivors are dying on your watch as you level up. But it immediately drives home how dangerous your situation is, and proves that this zombie infestation isn't just a good excuse to beat a few shambling bodies down with a weed whacker or a six string. Getting everyone out alive is possible, but incredibly difficult, and you're basically going to have to be superhuman to pull it off.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 really can have it all
Lightning's world is going to end in thirteen days. And unlike most games, there's no chance you'll be able to save the world in that time; all you can hope to do is send the souls of the living to their rest before the apocalypse arrive. There is a bright side, because if you can rescue enough souls before the clock strikes midnight on the final day, everyone will be reincarnated in a new world. But that's only if you rescue enough, and you're on a deadline: there's a timer at the top of the screen constantly reminding you how close you are to imminent doom.
That sense of looming destruction is what keeps you on the move over the course of Lightning Returns, forcing you to constantly think about how much time you're taking and how you'll fail if you don't recover enough souls. But what really sets it apart from any other timed game is that sidequests don't detract from your time - they add to it. You're actually only given six days to work with when the game begins, and have to earn seven more by finishing various quests scattered throughout the world. It's a brilliant way to solve the 'speed versus completion' problem, making them inseparable without losing out on the tension that's meant to keep you on the move.
Make the most of your cannon fodder in Pikmin
Pikmin may look like an adorable game about flower creatures helping a spaceman rebuild his rocket, but pull back that veneer and it's a cold, calculating resource management game. Each task takes a certain amount of time to complete, whether it's getting the tokens to grow new Pikmin, gathering materials, or taking down enemies. You could Pik the surrounding environment clean if you had the time, but you don't, because you only have 30 in-game days to repair the ship.
Pikmin's all about making the best choices about how to manage your time. Sending your Pikmin to harvest parts from a giant monster nets you a lot of materials at once, but you'll lose most of your workforce and halve your productivity in the process. Going after smaller prizes isn't as dangerous, but it also isn't as rewarding, and you simply don't have time to gather everything you need piecemeal. That 30-day timer keeps the pressure on, forcing you to think fast and change your strategy in an instant when the situation calls for it. Yet that demanding nature is what makes the Pikmin series worth playing: these games may be cute, but satisfying victory can only be earned through careful planning and preparation.