Donnie Darko, released in 2001, is less about time travel than it is about divergent timelines. This makes it useful for TimeWatch games, especially those concentrating on alternative histories. It is also useful as a way of exploring how changes to history can affect ordinary people, even if it is on a subconscious level.
Spoilers from Here On In!
Donnie Darko is a troubled teenager, who frequently sleepwalks. On October 2, 1988 he is led from his home by a phantom rabbit named Frank who warns that the world will end in 28 days. Returning home the next morning he finds a jet engine crashed into his house and would have killed him if he’d been in bed.
Donnie forms a relationship with the new girl at school, Gretchen, while still obeying the instructions of Frank to carry out acts of vandalism. Becoming interested in time travel Donnie discovers that the local crazy old woman Roberta Sparrow wrote a book called ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’ which seems to explain a lot of what is happening to him.
As the deadline for the end of world approaches Donnie opposes motivational speaker Jim Cunningham both in school and later by setting fire to his house, revealing Cunningham’s collection of child pornography. This forces gym teacher Kitty, a devotee of Cunningham, to ask Donnie’s mother Rose to chaperone the dance group Sparkle Motion (whose members include Donnie’s younger sister Samantha) instead of her on a trip to LA.
With their parents away Donnie and his older sister Elizabeth throw a Halloween party. Increasingly seeing elements of the future and with Gretchen in distress over her missing mother the young couple head to Roberta Sparrow’s house where two school bullies are robbing her house.
Soon someone dies and the jet engine that started in events in motion will be pulled from the plane carrying Rose and Samantha beginning the cycle anew. The only way to stop it is for Donnie to make the ultimate sacrifice.
THE TIME TRAVEL
Much of our understanding of how time travel works in Donnie Darko is found within the pages of ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’. As such we can’t be sure how accurate it is and how much is just symbolism.
Briefly the primary universe (the original timeline) is stable. In rare occasions time can be corrupted leading to tangent universes. These tangents are unstable and collapse after few weeks (28 days in this case) and risk dragging the primary universe into a black hole.
Those closest to the vortex (the focal point for the tangent universe) find themselves affected. The Living Receiver (Donnie) is blessed with a variety of supernatural abilities (strength, telekinesis, mind control and the ability to control fire and water).
The Receiver is affected by the Manipulated Living (his friends and family) and the Manipulated Dead (Frank, who is killed by Donnie on Halloween). The Manipulated, along with dreams and visions guide the Receiver in resolving the Tangent Universe.
There are various interpretations of what happens in Donnie Darko but my own take on it is that the tangent universe is created when the jet engine is pulled through a wormhole on October 30th to October 2nd. The timeline is unable to progress past Halloween as each time the jet engine is sent back in time and restarts the loop.
During the loop the FAA investigators are able to identify the crashed jet engine as being a duplicate of one on an existing plane but do nothing about it. The loop is closed when Donnie dies, his death giving the FAA the impetuous to ground the plane and thus prevent it from being sent into the past.
While the entire world is trapped in the loop its effects are strongest closest to the vortex. Donnie is the focal point as his death is key to closing the loop (so in the restored timeline he can’t live) and Frank earns his special role due to dying within the loop (when in the restored timeline he should live).
Donnie’s visions, including his ability to see the ‘time spears’ that show the path that people will take, are all a side effect of living the same 28 days over and over again. Others show similar prescient including Donnie’s younger sister Samantha. This indicates to me that what we see during the film is not the first time these same 28 days have been experienced by the characters.
The acts of sabotage, especially the revelation of Cunningham’s dark secret, are both to manipulate events and to serve as a warning for when the tangent universe is resolved. When this happens we see many of the characters awakening, as if from a bad dream, obviously affected by what happened in those 28 days. Almost certainly their behaviour and actions will change because of this.
There are several key alterations that break the loop. It is Frank that introduces Donnie to the idea of time travel which leads him to Roberta. The flooding makes him cross paths with Gretchen, allowing him to form a closer relationship with her than he otherwise might have. The time spear leads Donnie to the gun that he will use to kill Frank with. Finally Kitty having to drop out from chaperoning the dance group ensures that it is both Donnie’s mother and sister on the plane (which will certainly crash now it has no engine).
This all leads Donnie to be at Roberta’s house when it is robbed, which leads to Gretchen to being run over. In his anger he kills Frank (thus ensuring he has spirit guide) and he witnesses the plane, carrying his family members, in trouble.
It could be that this has enough of an emotional impact for him to recall these events when the loop begins again. He understands what he has to do and sacrifices his life so that those he loves can live (along with the whole universe).
To me ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’ is an attempt to explain these events by establishing a mythology (it was written by a nun). Aside from Donnie embedding an axe within a metal statue I don’t see any evidence of his supposed supernatural abilities (some have suggested he uses telekinesis to pull the jet engine from the plane but there is no indication of this). Nor do the manipulated living appear to display irrational, bizarre or violent behaviour that the book suggests they should.
Of course within your game you can decide how much of this mythology is correct. It still serves as a good example of how ordinary people might try to rationalise the odd nature of time travel. We can presume that Roberta went through a similar experience, which drove her to write her book, or that she was aware of her vital role in the time loop that would occur in 1988.
The tangent universe is created when the jet engine travels back 28 days. This illustrates how changes in history don’t need to be created by the manipulation of living beings but also inanimate objects flung back in time. The change in history is minor but it is the fact that it is a loop prevents the situation from being resolved.
The fact that Donnie is able to save the universe due to the phenomena he experiences could be seen as a way for time to heal itself. In the director’s cut there is also the suggestions of an outside influence nudging things into place (possibly TimeWatch).
Richard Kelly’s next film ‘Southland Tales’ also involves time travel, with some elements that a reminiscent of what is presented here (and could be part of the same universe). ‘The Box’ might also have time travel (it certainly has a fluidic space similar to what Donnie sees in his dreams). These can provide additional guidance on how time travel works in Donnie Darko.
TIME TRAVEL TRICKS
One that might be very handy is the ability to see the time spears. These transparent formations emerge from a person’s chest, showing where they will go. Not only that but if you step within the spear you can see where they are going be and what they’ll do (although this might be distorted).
This could be incorporated into Investigative abilities such as Timecraft or you could create a new ability that allows PCs to see people’s spears or decipher the information contained within. In either case this allows them knowledge about what the future holds for them, even if they are historically important enough for this information to be gathered through History or Research.
If you incorporate the mythos then PCs might be able to make use of those who die within a tangent universe or time loop. They might be able to use these phantoms as avatars, making contact with those within and manipulating them.
The subconscious memories of those within the loop can be brought to the surface with interpersonal skills. They might have only a vague memory or feeling but it could aid PCs in their investigation. If PCs are within the loop it could also justify using History to remember their own future.
DANGERS OF TIME TRAVEL
The biggest danger is the universe ending.
Like ‘Twelve Monkeys’ time travel seems to have an adverse affect on sanity. Donnie hallucinates and is tortured by the images he sees. Roberta Sparrow, if she is a survivors of similar events, is near catatonic. She repeats the same actions over and over again waiting for the right time.
Tangent universes are rare but there is also nothing to suggest that there is any particular cause. It could be that wormholes occasionally form, linking one time period with another. This time it was a jet engine but it could just as well be a mongol horde, a plague victim or alien space craft that is sent where it doesn’t belong.
DONNIE DARKO AS AN ANTAGONIST
In the events depicted Donnie isn’t intentionally creating the time loop. In the original timeline it is very likely he slept walked out of the house without the influence of Frank.
PCs might identify that the only way for a tangent universe to be resolved is for a particular person to die (similar to the Star Trek episode ‘City On The Edge of Forever’). In this case they would have to find a way to persuade someone like Donnie to sacrifice themselves.
Obviously they might just use force, although such an action would test their morality. They might ensure that during their last loop they have good things happen to them (in much the way that Donnie and Gretchen suggest a device that exposes a baby to only pleasant images and sounds). They could help them resolve their issues so they are ready to move on or they could try to convince them that there will be terrible consequences if they don’t.
While Donnie is manipulated for good he could be influenced by evil. In another scenario beings from a divergent universe could use someone like Donnie to ensure that the prime timeline is diverted into theirs. TimeWatch agents could find the instigator difficult to locate, since they are native to the time zone.
DONNIE DARKO AS A TIMEWATCH AGENT
Donnie could be recruited from within the loop or his death could be faked (identifying the body could be difficult after a jet engine falls on it). He would have at least a basic understanding of time travel from reading Roberta Sparrow’s book.
His ability to see time spears and converse with the manipulate dead could be unique talents. This would make him effective as a TimeWatch agent, especially when dealing and resolving other tangent universes.
There is some suggestion that Donnie views himself as a superhero. He wants to protect others, whether it be his family, Gretchen or bullied Cheria Chen. His morality allows him to see thinks in shades of grey, rather than in absolutes.
While intelligent for his age Donnie is still a teenager, prone to challenging authority. This could prove to be problematic within the TimeWatch command structure. His abilities might not all be connected with time travel, they could be symptoms of schizophrenia.
DONNIE DARKO AS A CAMPAIGN MODEL
This film can be used to model any adventure involving alternative timelines or loops. The change doesn’t need to divert world history, it could be a small but unusual incident. While investigating they can get caught up in the lives of locals, as the threads of fate bind them together.
You could decide that TimeWatch agents are unable to enter divergent universes and must either possess the living or the dead. This can give adventures more variety, as the PCs take the roles of various people close to the epicentre. Through these remote agents they attempt to resolve the situation or manipulate others to do it for them.
A campaign modelled closely on Donnie Darko would prevent the PCs from time travelling themselves. They could be ordinary people who experience visions or recall memories that allow them to work out what is happening. In a one off campaign this could be a single incident (after which they might be recruited by TimeWatch) or it could be a regular thing.
In this situation the PCs are living a secret life, receiving missions and direction from unseen forces. They have to carry out their tasks without being caught and they can’t tell anyone what they are doing (just as TimeWatch agents can’t talk about time travel). Their normal lives can make this situation more complicated (such as school life).
PCs could be part of a group who are alerted to unusual incidents, such as mysteriously appearing jet engines that match existing models, to investigate and resolve the situation. They need to find out what the anomalous artefact or person is, figure out what will happen and when. Once they have their answers they can stop it before time runs out.
To capture the feel of the film you can introduce similar themes of insanity. PCs have visions, encounter spirits and enter fugue states. There could be a question of whether they are being influenced by time travel or if they are schizophrenic.
There is an emphasis on the tangle of peoples lives and how this creates a chain of events. PCs need to understand the relationship between people and how the actions of one can affect others. This can allow them to explore life in a particular time period and community.
You may wish to explore the themes of religion and time travel.This is highlighted in the scene with Dr Kenneth Monnitoff as Donnie talks about ‘God’s channel’ vs free will until his teacher is unable to continue the conversation. How much of what happens is chance versus being pre-ordained? How much influence do we have in determining if we follow a plan or create out own future?
Another insight into the film is provided by the movie double bill that Gretchen and Donnie see which includes ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. In that film Christ is shown what his life would be if he doesn’t die on the cross but at the cost of his message of faith. Ultimately he realise his death is necessary for the greater good, as Donnie does here.
This introduces the idea that the tangent universe is a way to experience what might have been. It can also be a form of borrowed time, allowing those fated to die to see how things might have gone (and thus have the experience that would otherwise be denied them). If PCs know that the time they are experiencing will be reset but that their actions will leaving a lasting impression on those involved what do they do?
For example PCs might learn of someone like Jim Cunningham, who has gone unpunished. While they might not be able to do so themselves without disrupting time they could use time being reset to teach him a lesson that he remembers once the original history is restored. Similarly they can do nice things for people to offer them comfort when events are undone.
Presenting time travel and its consequences as almost supernatural can give a campaign a very different feeling. TimeWatch agents could realise the effect they are having when they see events from the perspective of ordinary people. This could influence how they carry out their missions.
PCs might also experience supernatural phenomena. Could there be forces who manipulate time that even they don’t know about? If they act through third parties, such as Frank, there would be no saying what this force actually looks like.