An easy way to solve EVERY time travel paradox

Time travel paradoxes. They can trip up any sci-fi fan who spends even a few seconds thinking critically about such acclaimed classics as Back to the Future, The Terminator, and even Harry Potter.

Time travel paradoxes come in many forms, but usually revolve around characters doing something in the past that necessarily influences their future self who decided to mess with the past in the first place.

Or they do something that changes the past, which would change the course of their life, thereby making it impossible for them to have ever traveled in the past in the first place to fix it.

Or crazier still, characters often just don’t think of time as fluidly as they could, so even if they could avoid paradoxes, through a lack of imagination, they fail to solve their own problems. Skynet needs to kill John Connor, as he’s part of the Resistance. So they send a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor. Simple enough.

But when they fail, they send a second Terminator, not to kill Sarah Connor, but to kill 12-year-old John Connor.

And then in T3, they send a Terminator to kill adult John Connor. Why not kill baby Sarah Connor instead of dealing with a John Connor who is increasingly becoming more like the John Connor that is leading the Resistance?

You know all about time travel paradoxes: let’s solve them once and for all! In this article, I’ll share with you my own strategy for resolving any time travel paradox in fiction.

Reliance on headcanon

As a ground rule, this strategy relies on headcanon. Canon, of course, is the “official” facts and laws that make up any fictional universe. Canon typically consists of the published movies, books, comics, video games, etc., in a given fictional series. Fan-made material and unlicensed spin-off products (or just poorly conceived spin-off products) and typically NOT canon.

Headcanon, though, is the canon you carry around in your head. It’s not official, nor endorsed by the authors or creators of said fictional work. It’s your own determination about what is “true” and what is “not true” about a fictional world.

So if you’re courageous enough to fill your head with your own canon surrounding fictional works, let’s dive in!

The Dark Tower’s approach to time travel

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is one of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi stories, and it has a unique approach to time travel that I haven’t seen replicated in other fictional works involving time travel. I’ll start by sharing King’s view of time travel, then use that as the basis for my own theory of time travel.

In the Dark Tower, our heroes travel between worlds, most notably the Western-fantasy world of Mid-World and our modern, present world—the world you and I live in right now! In the modern world, our heroes travel to several different versions of the world in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. This opens up all kinds of time travel paradoxes, right?

King flips the time travel formula on its head by establishing one important fact: one world, our world, is the keystone world. This is the real world, the true world. All other worlds, including Mid-World, are pale imitations of the real world.

What makes the keystone world different than all other worlds? One thing: time travels in only one direction in the keystone world.

Our heroes travel back and forth through time, but only to a limit. The keystone world ever marches forward, and once a time period has passed, there’s no recalling it. If you want to save the world, and permanently alter it, you have to do it in the keystone world, not the other worlds.

The keystone world eliminates most time paradoxes. Because time only goes in one direction, the time travel doesn’t have to worry about changes in the future affecting changes in the past: there is no past.

All possible worlds exist on the normal curve

King’s view of time travel is close to solving time paradoxes, but it raises other questions. If the keystone world is the only one that matters, then does it make any difference what one does in the other worlds? Can a time traveler’s actions in other worlds even affect the keystone world?

If they can’t, then time traveling is a fruitless endeavor. It should instead by seen as traveling to parallel universes, not traveling in time.

The many-worlds interpretation posits that all possible universes are real. While I don’t give this theory much credence in the real world, I do think it’s acceptable for sci-fi to explore the many-worlds interpretation.

While traveling to alternative universes makes for some great storytelling, it eliminates the intrigue of time travel. The attraction of time travel is that the time traveler can actually change history, in their own world. To explain away time travel as simply travel to an alternative dimension, a dimension that “appears” to be the past but really isn’t, is a cheat.

Is there a way of reconciling time travel with the many-worlds interpretation? I think there is, and this is where my faith is restored in time travel fiction.

This headcanon strategy starts with the keystone world. Assume that in the fictional universe there is one true world, a world were time travels forward, not backward.

For the Terminator series, then, this explains why Skynet couldn’t send a robot backward farther in time after it failed to kill Sarah Connor: the moment had already passed.

Second, this headcanon strategy assumes that the many-worlds interpretation is true. However, not all worlds are equally likely. Some are more likely than others. All possible worlds can be fit to a normal curve as follows:

Image courtesy of the Oxford Math Center.

Image courtesy of the Oxford Math Center.

This is a probability curve. It’s pretty easy to read. Points close to the center are more likely, or probable, then points farther from the center. The normal curve appears all over the place in nature.

Height is a great example. Most adults fall within a standard range for height: let’s say 5-6 feet. Of course, other heights are also possible for adults, like 3 feet or even 9 feet. But those heights are very improbable and those data points exist at the outliers of the curve.

This same idea, then, can be applied to alternative fictional worlds. Most alternative universes will be very similar to the keystone world. It’s possible that there’s an alternative Terminator universe were Terminators are dinosaurs, rather than machines. But this is very unlikely.

Influencing the keystone world

So far, I’ve posited that there’s a keystone world, a la Stephen King, where time only goes forward. Second, every possible universe exists, but they exist along the normal curve, meaning most alternative worlds will be very similar to the keystone world.

The final part of the strategy involves the element of agency. If alternative worlds exist, then how does time travel make any difference? If characters travel to an alternative world and effect change, what consequence does that have on the keystone world?

Simply: the closer an alternative world is to the keystone world, the greater effect each world has on the other.

Skynet’s self-awareness exists in an alternative world, one very close to the keystone world. In the Terminator franchise, the primary world where we meet Sarah Connor and John Connor is the keystone world: time only goes forward. The world of Skynet is very close to the Connor’s keystone world, so it has a great effect on it. But the effect is not absolute.

When the Terminator leaves the Skynet apocalypse world, they enter the keystone world. When Sarah Connor kills the Terminator, her actions have a strong ripple in the alternative worlds closest to the keystone world, including the original Skynet self-awareness alternative world.

Thinking of alternative worlds as having consequence in the keystone world, then, gives the time traveler some agency. If the time traveler makes major changes in an alternative world, then it’s likely that some of those changes will carry over into the keystone world.

But all those changes might not hold, especially if time has already moved on in the keystone world.

To summarize, you can solve all time travel and dimension hopping paradoxes—and make your fictional works that much more enjoyable!—by following a simple strategy:

  1. Create your own headcanon for that fictional universe.
  2. Designate one of the timelines in that fictional universe as the keystone world, the one true real world where time only moves forward.
  3. Accept that in the fictional universe, all alternative universes are possible, but these alternative universes fall along the normal curve.
  4. The time traveler/dimension hopper can most affect the keystone world when s/he makes changes to worlds most similar to the keystone world, and changes in the keystone world most affect alternative worlds that are already similar to it.

With this strategy, I can now enjoy any time traveling fiction without worrying about pesky paradoxes. No need to let a little rationality ruin otherwise compelling stories about heroes traveling through time to make a real difference in their world!

Feel free to share your time traveling thoughts on this Back to the Future Day!

See you in the future,
~Dennis

Storytelling thru Gameplay: World 1 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

Among gamers is a persistent debate about storytelling: to use cutscenes or not? For some games, cutscenes can be an effective way of telling a story. Video games, though, are an interactive medium, and some believe that storytelling is better accomplished through gameplay: as few cutscenes and lengthy text screens as possible.

Cutscenes are seen by some as a crutch, an easy way to tell a story. But they break the immersion of the game, and they force the player to sit and watch.

Telling story through gameplay, effectively, is more challenging.

A couple weeks ago I reviewed my favorite levels in Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and made a striking observation: in World 6, the game tells a very dramatic story, all without a single cutscene. It got me thinking: does the rest of the game feature the same quality of storytelling?

Let’s find out! In this 7-part series, we’ll examine all seven worlds of DKCTF to see how the story is told through gameplay. Does the game have a coherent story? Is it effective? And most importantly, is this a better way of telling stories than through cutscenes?

The game’s opening

The game begins with a cutscene, which immediately casts doubt on my theory. This principle of storytelling through gameplay doesn’t necessary mean that games can never use cutscenes, but they have to be used sparingly. Let’s see what this scene accomplishes.

It opens with DK and friends having a party.

DK and friends eating banana cake.

The party is cut short by the arrival of the Snowmads, arctic Vikings looking for new lands to conquer.

Snowmad ships arrive across the ocean.

The Snowmad leader, Lord Fredrik—a giant walrus—wants to turn Donkey Kong Island into a frozen paradise more suitable for his people. He blows a frost horn that freezes the island solid.

Lord Fredrik blows the ice horn.

The monkeys come outside to investigate, but are immediately blown off the island.

Donkey Kong, Dixie Kong, Cranky Kong, and Diddy Kong investigate the Snowmads.

The monkeys are blown off the island!

Lord Fredrik parks his ship on top of the volcanic island, and ice coats the land.

Donkey Kong Island is frozen.

Donkey Kong Island is frozen.

The cutscene ends when DK is thrown into an abandoned airplane, the start of the first level. The cutscene last 2:33, fairly short. And as far as DKC games go, this story has the highest stakes compared to the previous four games. DK isn’t called into battle to save his banana horde or a handful of friends: now he’s saving his entire homeland, something he just accomplished in the previous game, Donkey Kong Country Returns.

In DKC Returns, however, the enemies were slow in conquering DK Island. They had a presence, but it wasn’t absolute. This time, the Snowmads completely subdued the island in a matter of seconds.

The game begins on a Game Over, in a sense, and now the sequel begins: how does DK take back his post-apocalyptic island from these foreign invaders?

Who inhabits the Lost Mangroves?

DK flies miles and miles through the air, roughly to the southwest of DK Island, to land in the Lost Mangroves. Each world is a separate island chain that DK must traverse to get back to his home.

When he arrives in the first level, Mangrove Cove, immediately there’s a dissonance. DK lands in a broken, metal airplane.

DK lands in broken airplane.

The mangroves are littered with discarded wreckage of a previous era. The planes sit in the trees, on the ground, even underwater.

DK finds plane parts underwater.

Where did these planes come from? The game never explains, but I have a theory.

The technology behind the airplanes is clearly more advanced than the technology that the Snowmads possess. They arrived via wooden boats and ships: the littered technology of the Lost Mangroves is several generations ahead of where the Snowmads are at.

Additionally, giant metal ships can be seen from time to time. These ships are clearly more advanced than the Snowmad’s ships, yet for all their advancement, they weren’t able to survive the harsh environment of the mangroves.

Sunked ship in Mangrove Cove.

Which must mean that somebody previously tried to conquer the Lost Mangroves. Who? We don’t know. Clearly there was a fierce battle, as the wreckage of this failed quest is abundant. And considering the disrepair of this machinery, the battle for the Lost Mangroves didn’t happen yesterday, but likely years and years before.

As DK travels this world, the player gets the sense that the animals are protectors of their homes. Somebody tried exploiting these lands long ago, and failed. The junkyards foreshadow the ending of the game: the animals beat back invaders before, and hopefully they can do it again.

The Snowmads have a presence in this world, but it’s minimal. In the background, their ships quietly patrol the cove.

Snowmad ships explore the cove.

So why are the Snowmads in the mangroves when they were able to settle DK Island so quickly? My working theory is that the Snowmads sent scouting parties to each of the six main island chains, and Lord Fredrik went to DK Island. The scouting parties are investigating these other islands to see if they are suitable homes; maybe the Lord plans on freezing these islands at a later date.

Snowmad crates dot the first level, providing evidence that the Snowmads only just arrived and are unloading their cargo.

Snowmad crates

At the end of Mangrove Cove, DK destroys three Snowmad ships, letting them know that they aren’t welcome here.

DK destroys Snowmad ship.

In the second level, Shipwreck Shore, we find that the Snowmads are better settled. They are setting up tents and lodging. Even their barrel of fish is starting to attract flies.

Snowmad camp and fish barrel.

The Snowmads have docked a ship and are once again unloading their property.

Snowmad ship.

However, this level also features a sunken ship, so the Snowmad’s prospects for survival are in question.

Sunken ship in Shipwreck Shore.

After completing the second level, players can now visit Funky Kong, who sells extra lives, monkey barrels, and power-ups.

Funky Kong in DKC Tropical Freeze

The presence of Funky Kong—or rather, his mode of transportation—is the first stumble for the game, storytelling-wise. Funky Kong is flying one of these advanced airplanes, similar to the planes we’ve just seen strewn across two levels. Does that mean the monkeys made this technology? More likely, Funky Kong repurposed a plane left behind by the last invaders.

Funky Kong appears in every world; thus, his shop needs to be mobile so that it makes sense why he’s in each world. However, since he has such a well-maintained plane, this raises the question: why doesn’t he just fly DK back to DK Island and be done with it?

Ancient inhabitants

After level 2, players have the option of playing level 1A, Zip Line Shrine. This level deepens the culture of these islands.

The player begins by entering a temple guarded by three banana statues.

Banana shrine.

This temple is ancient. We don’t know who created it, but given its banana motif, it’s safe to say the monkeys had something to do with it.

Banana shrine.

The monkeys were here first, and these temples prove it. Additionally, each level contains secret bonus rooms, all with similar architecture.

Bonus level.

In Zip Line Shrine, the Snowmads are almost nonexistent. There are a few hootz here and there; they seem more like scouts, investigating whether these temples (with their numerous traps and safeguards) are worth fighting for.

DK flies past Blue Hootz.

When players reach the third level, Canopy Chaos, they once again find evidence of an extinct culture. Whoever inhabited the Lost Mangroves before set up massive machines, machines so durable they are still running in some cases.

Cannons in the background of Canopy Chaos.

Grinding machines in Canopy Chaos.

The Snowmads have some slight interest in these machines, as we see evidence of their cargo crates once again.

Snowmad crate in Canopy Chaos.

The new invading culture mixes with the old

In Trunk Twister, we find more evidence of a previous invasion force. Trunk Twister is the first mine cart level. Why are there mine tracks here? The previous invaders must have thought something was worth mining, and built miles of track to support their enterprise. The invaders are no longer here, but their equipment survives in disrepair.

Mine cart in Trunk Twister.

Sunken ship in Trunk Twister.

We find more cargo crates, only this time, they aren’t tagged with the Snowmad snowflake; the Snowmads are not responsible for the advanced technology seen in this world.

Mine track in Trunk Twister.

In level 1B, Busted Bayou, we have perhaps the most evidence yet that the previous invaders couldn’t survive this landscape. Why did so many planes crash? Was there a storm, or some magic, that brought them down? The planes are most degraded in Busted Bayou compared to the other levels, suggesting that the previous invasion force came in waves over a span of time.

Planes in Busted Bayou.

Planes in Busted Bayou.

Planes in Busted Bayou.

Snowmad enemies are nonexistent in this level. However, if you look closely, you can see a Snowmad ship in the background, sailing slowly through the twisted mangroves. It’s almost as if they realize that this landscape is not for them. Maybe they can make a life in the open areas near the island shore, but the interior of the Lost Mangroves is closed to them: it’s not worth the effort.

Thus, Lord Fredrik decided to keep moving his fleet forward, searching for better lands.

Snowmad ship in the background of Busted Bayou.

The first six worlds in DKCTF feature a bonus temple level that’s unlocked if players collect all the KONG letters in each level. These temple levels are challenging, and feature fewer assists than other levels.

These temples are akin to the temple we saw previously in Zip Line Shrine. Despite the peril that comes with navigating these temples, the Snowmads find them to be a suitable home.

When entering the first temple, Swinger Flinger, players see a fallen Snowmad banner, along with a “No DK” sign.

Entrance of Swinger Flinger temple.

This temple, though, was built by the monkeys, and DK fights to eliminate every Snowmad from the temple. This is a sacred place, and the Snowmads have desecrated it.

Monkey statue at the end of Swinger Flinger.

The first world closes with a battle against Pompy the Presumptuous. The Snowmads have established an arena, made from the discarded technology of the previous invaders. Even if the Lost Mangroves aren’t the perfect home for them, some of them will make a life here. After all, a scouting party doesn’t make an entertainment arena unless it plans on staying put.

Battle against Pompy the Presumptuous

Hopefully you found this analysis of World 1: Lost Mangroves insightful! If you have any thoughts on the storytelling in this world, please let me know! I’m curious if others agree with me that Lost Mangroves features three different cultures; the ancient monkey culture, the technologically advanced but since-deceased invading culture, and the more primitive Viking Snowmad culture.

If you pay attention to what’s happening in a game, you might realize that the storytelling is deeper than initial appearances.

Game on,
~Dennis