1190: Time

On Friday, xkcd #1190—Timecame to an end.

It was a huge project, but since it was all concealed within a single comic panel, I thought I’d end with this short post to explain what was going on. If you want to see the story yourself before I spoil anything, you can use one of the many excellent third-party Time explorers, like the Geekwagon viewer, or one of the others listed here.

When the comic first went up, it just showed two people sitting on a beach. Every half hour (and later every hour), a new version of the comic appeared, showing the figures in different positions. Eventually, the pair started building a sand castle.

There was a flurry of attention early on, as people caught on to the gimmick. Readers watched for a while, and then, when nothing seemed to be happening, many wandered away—perhaps confused, or perhaps satisfied that they’d found a nice easter-egg story about castles.

But Time kept going, and hints started appearing that there was more to the story than just sand castles. A few dedicated readers obsessively cataloged every detail, watching every frame for clues and every changing pixel for new information. The xkcd forum thread on Time grew terrifyingly fast, developing a subculture with its own vocabulary, songs, inside jokes, and even a religion or two.

And as Time unfolded, readers gradually figured out that it was a story, set far in the future, about one of the strangest phenomena in our world: The Mediterranean Sea sometimes evaporates, leaving dry land miles below the old sea level … and then fills back up in a single massive flood.


(A special thank you to Phil Plait for his advice on the far-future night sky sequence, and to Dan, Emad, and everyone else for your help on various details of the Time world.)

Time was a bigger project than I planned. All told, I drew 3,099 panels. I animated a starfield, pored over maps and research papers, talked with biologists and botanists, and created a plausible future language for readers to try to decode.

I wrote the whole story before I drew the first frame, and had almost a thousand panels already drawn before I posted the first one. But as the story progressed, the later panels took longer to draw than I expected, and Time began—ironically—eating more and more of my time. Frames that went up every hour were sometimes taking more than an hour to make, and I spent the final months doing practically nothing but drawing.

To the intrepid, clever, sometimes crazy readers who followed it the whole way through, watching every pixel change and catching every detail: Thank you. This was for you. It’s been quite a journey; I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did!

P.S. A lot of people have asked if I can sell some kind of Time print collection (or a series of 3,099 t-shirts, where you run to the bathroom and change into a new one every hour). I’m afraid I don’t have anything like that in the works right now. I just made this because I thought it would be neat, and now that it’s done, my only plan is to spend the next eleven thousand years catching up on sleep. If you liked the project, you’re always welcome to donate via PayPal (xkcd@xkcd.com) or buy something from the xkcd store. Thank you.

360 thoughts on “1190: Time

  1. Who da’ man? … Randall the man.

    I didn’t follow along with Time after the first few days – but having gone back now and read it start to finish, it was honestly amazing. The ending had me in (a few) tears.

    Please keep creating wondrous things like this for us to pore over.

  2. Outstanding. I came back to a 3rd party view every few days to catch-up, and was never disappointed. Except for now when it’s ended. You and your work represent the best of what the internet has to offer: shared originality that not only brightens the audience’s current situation, but also provides hope and a connection to each other and the future. Whether or not you intend this (I suspect you do…you’re a bright cat), that’s how I view it. Thank you for sharing.

  3. The first time i checked i didn’t understood what happened, fortunately i have by chance passed through the comic #1190 again, and saw it was different, and have been checking as often as possible since the castle begun to be built! Much latter i found the 3rd party sites where i could see all the frames, and then the story made a lot more sense, and became more and more fascinating! Superb work, mister, that was one hell of a story in so many ways! Thank you very much for giving us this amazing experience, and now go get some sleep, because you deserve it! :)

  4. I only saw this after it was completed. Aside from being a quiet meditation on what we know and don’t know, how we find our way to new knowledge, and what we then do with that knowledge, this struck me as an autobiographical reflection as well, at least based on what Randall has shared on his blag in the past. The Mediterranean Sea aspect is interesting, but not nearly so interesting as tracing the growth, maturing, trials, tribulations, and triumphs of a couple out there in the world. Very nice piece; thank you for creating it.

  5. i was intrigued from the very beginning. Looked at the frames every time i went to a computer. I very much loved how the story progressed, without giving too much away about being a story at all at the beginning.

    Thus it was very much like exploring rather than following a story.

  6. the only thing i’ve been checking more obsessively than time is your blag; waiting for you to say something about it. thanks.

  7. Sir, you are a true genius. I have enjoyed your webcomic for quite some time, and have dipped into and out of the what-if series. This Time series only further cements your reputation in my mind.

    Unfortunately I, like many others, did not realise what was going on here until it was over, and you posted that it had finished. Nevertheless, I am currently approaching the end at Geekwagon, and have been shocked and astounded by the level of detail and your ability to tell such a story in such a manner. Then I have scrolled further, to encounter some new and pleasurable surprise.

    Your dedication to your art is incredible, and I think there would be few indeed to question your talents. Just the time you spent in creating a motion picture, frame by frame, is phenomenal. That you did that and made a captivating story filled with people and science together shows your mastery.

    I wanted to ask about the language, but then re-read your post. I am not a cryptographer or linguist, so will leave that task to others. All I can say is, I am not surprised that the mind behind XKCD would go to the effort of creating a language for the purpose of the entertainment and enlightenment of himself and others.

    Again, thank you. I look forward to the t-shirts.

  8. Thank you! I won’t repeat what has already been told. I followed each newpix from the almost-beginning, having a script that brings me firefox back to view ten seconds before to watch the change (and also if there was another newpix not scheduled, so I got the ones you posted late :-P =D ). I was just glad it did not end while I was on honeymoon (had to ketchup 2 weeks afterwards, hopefully geekwagon was there).

    Really, Thank You! I’m proud to have been part of all this!

  9. I was wondering from the beginning if you drew this in real time or had it all planned out and ready beforehand, thanks for the clarification!

    Also: You and your work make the world a brighter place, thank you and keep it up!

  10. …and I would totally buy the 3000 T-shirts :)
    You could out one more in the store every week…

  11. The figure of 3099 frames appears to be wrong. Geekwagon lists 3099, but three are missing from its archive which are present in others, and seven appear to be duplicates of immediately previous frames.

  12. In response to W’s comment above:
    There are 3094 “canonical” frames, which appeared on the hour (or half hour in the first five days).
    Beside that, there are 5 meteor frames that appeared in short succession between two canonical frames. These are included in the 3099 frames on Geekwagon.
    There are also 3 “apocryphal” frames, which were served by mistake when there was a timezone problem on one of the servers. Originally these showed distinct content, but when the mistake was corrected, the content of these frames was overwritten with that of the frames that should have been shown. These frames are not included on Geekwagon, but are on Aubron’s viewer.
    Not all of the 3094 canonical frames are unique. There are some degenerate cases (all black or all white frames) that are obviously the same each time they appear, but there are also times that the same frame was shown 2 or even 3 hours in a row.
    For all the gory details about canonical, apocryphal and meteor frames, click my name above.

  13. 1190: Time was incredible. Watched it completely from day one, heading back to a 3rd party app every few days for a catch up. The best was just following the forum thread, watching everyone gasp at every new frame. I loved it. Thank you for it all. Looking forward to everything else that comes out of XKCD in future.

  14. Pingback: Time, time, time, see what’s become of me… « Whipped Cream Difficulties

  15. And a heartfelt thanks from Australia. Was lucky enough to see this at about frame 3, and thus found the OTT in the early days (where I mainly lurked). It has been a fascinating experience to watch the strip unfold, never quite knowing where it was going, just like real life.

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Thank you Randall.

    The only question remaining is when I will stop checking out xkcd.com/1190 to see if anything has changed!

  16. Pingback: Killed in a Smiling Accident. » Blog Archive » Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way

  17. I love to create things, but I rarely make the time to do it. Following the progress of Time was totally inspiring. It made doing something great feel so much more attainable. Thanks.

  18. Another participant in the discussion thread here, just to echo a scant few of my myriad comments there. My first post after the end of Time began with “thunderous applause,” which is what the work deserves.

    There is very little to compare Time to, in terms of lyrical future SF. John Crowley’s novel “Engine Summer” and Vance’s Dying Earth stories come to mind, but only by virtue of being unique and evocative to a similar degree.

    Most distant-future SF is really about us — how we outgrew war and strife and went to the stars, or allowed war and strife to produce Morlocks and Eloi, or screwed up so badly the apes had to take over, or just left behind marvelous machines for the benighted future people to poignantly rediscover. We’re long gone, but we still get to be the heroes, or at least the villains.

    Time, though, is about its own characters in their own time. Whether or not we in the present contributed to their current circumstances doesn’t matter to them.

    Time is about what time does. It moves on. For good or ill, we don’t loom over the distant future the way we like to think we do. The continents grind together or spin apart, seas rise and fall, the earth wobbles on its axis, the stars drift out of their constellations and eventually die. And after all that, it’s still now. There’s a boy and girl on a beach and the time is now, only now, right now, to build a castle.

  19. Can’t believe I’m closing this tab for the first time since March. Thank you for this!

  20. What amazed me the most was the detail put into the drawings. I’m sure this one will go down in the history books in some way or another.

    Congrats on making it!

  21. Thank you so much for Time and for your Blag post. My life will not be the same without the OTC, but at least there’s still the OTT and all of the creative projects still in the works!

    PS – Just say Yes to T-shirts!
    -buffygirl

  22. I thought this comic was beautiful, even when it was just one panel. It was simple, unpretentious, contemplative & meditative – styled almost like ‘A Softer World’. We all need periods of quiet & relaxation in our lives. If we feel pressured into talking when we’re with certain people, then that’s not a friendship worth having.

    I loved it so much I came back to it a few days later. I’m so glad I did. The castle-building narrative was a charming story in its own right, and the intricacy & detail in each frame was astonishing.

    As the sea began to rise, I at first presumed it was global warming-themed. I later switched to speculations about existentialism, which turned out to be more accurate.

    The response to this comic has been astonishing. But it’s the depth and detail that’s so consistent in your work that provoked that response. Nobody would have tried analyzing the night sky to find out the month in any other comic.

    This is a vast work of art, but it also muses on themes of companionship, discovery, communication & meaning. It also has a great sci-fi twist. Thank you so, so much – your work never fails in brightening my day.

    Will this blog post stop me from checking xckd.com/1190, in a forlorn hope that there may be some addition? Probably not…

  23. Amazing. I saw the original comic but I didn’t check back on it and forgot about it. So I had no idea this storyline was happening. The level of dedication it must have took to bring this to fruition is staggering. I kind of wish you would have put the spoilers as hidden text or something though.

  24. Another thank you! Watched it every day, sometimes every hour at work, and enjoyed every minute.

  25. When I first saw 1190, I didn’t understand it. But I managed to be checking the comic right when it updated to a new frame. That sent me to the forums looking for answers and there I’ve stayed since March, lurking in the background of the OTT but performing a daily ketchup on every newpix using the third party viewers. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

    Bravo, sir. You have created a true masterpiece.

  26. Thank you so very much for the time spent on this wonderful story. I religiously check xkcd, and I saw the original comic back when it was first posted. At that time, I was working for my university’s newspaper. I went to class, came back, and the comic had changed. I checked on it for a few hours that day and then left it along for a while.

    Fast forward a couple months, and I graduated and moved. I was perusing past comics and came upon Time again, and looked into it some more, finding the amazing work you’d done and were still doing. From May 6 onward, I checked the comic multiple times a day, and I lurked among the awesome people on the xkcd wiki. It’s been one hell of a ride. Thank you again.

  27. Hello Randall and OTTers alike!

    I first saw Time at a point roughly when “Megan” was working alone on the sandcastle, possibly after the trebuchet bit. I don’t recall exactly. Naturally, I failed to understand it, so, off to the forum!

    I didn’t know from third-party viewers at the time, nor did I feel a need. The thread contained not just all the panels (initially, the first post said something about two people on a beach and showed the same thing I saw with just Megan, which was bizarre; pretty sure that remains unfixed), but plenty of entertainment to occupy my isolated, terminally unemployed mind in the American flatlands. People gathered in harmony, making poetry, religion, strange language, and all kinds of cheerful madness. (Come to think of it, it was around “Mod Madness” time on the fora when I first came in.)

    I’ve never made an account on the fora. I couldn’t bear to spoil a great thread with my dark, twisted sense of humor. (Nor could I abide by the forum rules.) I’ll admit I was tempted to say “(Edit: ninja’d)” and never be heard from again.

    But perhaps this is better.

    While the thread is still alive and full of cake, ice cream and majestic non-human creatures, I’d like to thank everybody for the amusement and the semblance of serenity.

    It’s just about the top of the hour — I mean, newpix — and I’m movin’ alONG…..

    ~C.A.~

  28. Just wanted to add to the rousing chorus of thanks. I’ve had the tab open since March, didn’t know about the archives like geekwagon until almost the very end, and also didn’t follow the forum thread. So I waited. If I missed something, I missed it (and, once I found out about geekwagon, I found that I had missed a lot). But the story captivated me like very few things have. The subtle details were amazing. The fact that the stars are accurate enough to date the comic blows my mind. I’m glad I waited. Thanks again!

  29. Thanks for posting this debriefing, Randall! I missed it when it went up.

    I didn’t get it at first. Actually, I did stumble on the temporal aspect simply because I loaded it twice in the same hour. But the world-building aspect of it flew by me. I assumed that the trees were Baobabs, and the setting was somewhere in eastern Africa. The talk about the sea filling up seemed like the kind of nonsense xkcd characters usually bandy about. And, of course, I completely missed the future sky. I’m going to have to go back for the clues.

    I hope you’ll continue to innovate in the future. Congratulations on your hard work!

  30. …XKCD Volume 1 all written out…. it would make an amazing flipbook!

    thank you for the time you spent on it – I loved it!

  31. The language you made is pretty cool-looking, but there isn’t really a large enough sample to decode much of it. It would be really cool if you released a bit more text, so that we could learn more about it – maybe even enough to learn to write basic sentences.

  32. Thank you for your work and for providing a playground for speculation. Of course I am sad that it has ended, but like they say, “better to leave them wanting more!”

    The dessication and filling of the Mediterranean has always fascinated me.

  33. Quite apart from everything else, I was awestruck by the ingenious usage of scribbles and other madness to obstruct the not-quite-understandable speech of the go-inbetween/translator. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before, and it really went a long way to connecting the reader to the plight of our two protagonists as they struggled to comprehend the language of this foreign tribe and slowly came to better understand (or were slowly better understood by) the translator.

    This is, put simply, a work of genius. Thank you.

  34. It was the greatest XKCD comic of all time. You can, and should call it your Magnum Opus. I don’t think any of us doubted the amount of work you put into this comic, and we thank you for your work.

    I know you said you had no plans, but oh for the love of all that is XKCD you need some merch in the store related to it. ;)

  35. Took me a while to catch on (being an old fogey) but thoroughly enjoyed it from then on. All things must come to an end, but I was quite sad when this did. Sort of, “Well! What do I do now?”

  36. I didn’t follow Time latterly :) and like Zenon also can’t say that your comic changed my life or smth.. But I need to say it, and this wave of gratitude is good occasion for, thank you for the whole. Your comics helped me (and probably many others) to feel better many times. I don’t know is it good to identify with comic characters. But at least it’s positive aspect of internet that I drifted here few years ago..

  37. Fan-freaking-tastic!! Thank you very much for every day of the last few months. There were times I missed whole days but thanks to other, more vigilant, readers I was able to get caught up again.

    Randall, you are a grand master of trolling us all, and thank you for it!

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