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.

384 replies on “1190: Time”

  1. Just wanted to leave a note thanking you for this wonderful journey. I watched every bit if it in awe from beginning to end.


  2. Randall, thank YOU so much for Time! It was a wonderful experience, especially combined with the community that sprang up around it in the XKCD forums. I have a question, though: Why did it end so abruptly? It feels like there was no closure at the end. I was really hoping we’d see the castle people again (known as Beanies in the forums) and more material to work with to decode their language. This future world you created was so fascinating, a lot of us were very sad to see it end.


  3. I suspect that comments on this post may be about to explode (as a link here just made it into the thread about Time) so I’ll try and get in early as say a heartfelt Thank You. Time was a truly wonderful experience in many ways; it’s hourly updates have become part of the daily routine. It is missed.

    I’m sure many others will say more better than I but I couldn’t pass by without saying something.

    And when you’ve recovered (and the rest sounds deserved), please, please, Time 2. We want to know what happens.

    Thanks again for such a Neat comic


  4. Thank you. It was amazing. But please, after you’ve slept, can we have some Time shirts? Is there a way we could do some using the art and language from the forum thread through your store? Thank you again.


  5. I just wanted to say, thank you so much for creating this, it was an amazing experience to be able to watch it unfold and participate in such a weird, crazy, awesome community! It was a real pleasure to see how the genre of webcomics was being subverted and I eagerly anticipated seeing what would come each newpix…er…frame (bit of thread lingo there, ha). It was a lot of fun, and even though all of us on the thread want another one, it’s probably quite a big undertaking and if we’re missing it that much we can make our own.

    It was an honor.


  6. Thank you, Randall, for everything you do, including this explanation. I have always admired your work, but Time also brought me into a community of wonderful like-minded folks and created a strong meaningful bond between all of us. I am deeply inspired and awestruck by your dedication to detail and commitment to seeing something like this to its end.


  7. Thank YOU so much. It has been one of the most wonderful internet experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure to be part of. Watching your lovely story unfold in the medium you chose (hourly) and enveloping myself in the community around it is something that will never leave me.

    It was great during the Long Night finally determining that we were 11,000 years or so in the future. And though we haven’t decoded Beanish, yet… we will!


  8. I’ll just pile a thank you with all of the others. What a neat story! Thanks for the fun of following along with it in real Time! Looking forward to your future seaish projects! …


  9. I was amazed since the first day at how this comic pushed the boundaries of what comics are. It consumed a big part of the last four months. On the hour, every hour, I would check to see what changed, or, if I wasn’t near a computer, wonder what I was missing.

    Thanks for the ride, Randall. It was a pleasure.


  10. Thank you! It was a fascinating story, and I loved reading it. I especially loved the future star field scenes, and wonder if you may care to do that as a print. Cheers!


  11. I’d like to add another thank you. In following Time I’ve learned about so many things I never would have discovered otherwise. The Zanclean flood, wildlife of Madagascar, the Tour De France and Les Miserables (Both part of the thread) All will discovering a way of telling a story I would have never otherwise considered.
    Thank you.
    (Now to the store!)


  12. This was a fantastic piece of art, and you are to be congratulated on it. A really great achievement, and it was fantastic to watch it evolve over Time.


  13. Just wanted to say that Time was Awesome! A great think-outside-the-box extension of… no… creation of a new art form! I greatly admire brains that can think like that, and the people behind them. Kudos!

    Quick question – did you actually invent enough Beanish to figure out? Or did you just have enough to give the sense of it? Either way, great job, and also with Rosetta’s attempts to speak Cuegan.



  14. This was an amazing experience. Thank you so much for it. Perhaps if you do any epilogues or sequels in the future, you could increase the outside time between newpix to every 4 or 8 hours or even 24 to make it more sustainable. I promise you we will wait for it.

    There’s something very profound about life that I feel like i discovered while waiting for it. I can’t quite formulate it in words yet. But it’s important and real. Maybe I can figure out how to say it and post it someday on the OTT, which doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. But I want to thank you for that in particular, and for the amazing and wowterful community that sprang up around the comic and the thread. I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon, which makes me very happy.


  15. Thank you so much for this amazing experience, Randall! Thanks for the laughs, the sadness, the suspense, the mystery, the excitement… thanks for sparking the most wonderful internet community I’ve ever been a part of… and thanks for the inspiration this has given to so many in the community, with artwork and songs and everything else. It’s been a wonderful ride. Or as our two main characters would say, “neat” and “wow!” 😀


  16. Many, many thanks for bringing me into a world I never knew existed – the world you created in your comic, but also the world you brought to life in the community that watched and waited, learned and taught, laughed and cried (and then laughed again!). Sometimes it seems it’s easier for us to be pushed apart than brought together; here, though, we came together, thanks to you, to share, peacefully (mostly), creatively, crazily, this incredible journey. *applauds*


  17. The comic (seems too small a word for this), and probably even more so the “subculture” of the One True Thread, has been a bigger part of my life for the last four months than I could ever have expected. We laughed, we obsessed, we rhymed, we analyzed, we wrote, we painted, we calculated , we chronicled, we theorized, we molpyhunted, we ottified, we cried (a lot the last few days). But we did it together, and that was amazing.
    Thank you so much for this wowterful journey. You say you wanted to do something neat. You did. But at the same time this restored my faith in humanity. Thank you Randall.


  18. Everyone’s already said what I wanted to say. But I’ll say it anyway: I have watched many movies. I have read many books. I have seen many pictures. I have heard many songs. But none of them made as much of an impact on my life as Time.


  19. This was an amazing experience and I can’t thank you enough, especially for the enormous amount of energy that you poured into it. With the way this unfolded and with the community that sprung up around it this was truly more than just a webcomic to many of us.

    Also to echo the sentiment of a few others, Time 2 (maybe on the anniversary of the original?) would be amazing even if a little on the nose. Or even if you just sprinkled some of the characters from time in your normal comic as a nod to the folks who have followed obsessively since the beginning, would be awesome. Also as mentioned by some, “Time” merchandise would be awesome and I have no doubt that they would be strong sellers. I’d certainly pick something up.


  20. I’d spend 3.099 hours thanking you if I could, Randall (or GLR, “Great Lord Randall”, as we’re used to say)!

    The comic and the community that grew around it were amazing. You can be proud for having indirectly created a 1250-page thread full of wowterful (oops, wonderful), ingenious and creative people (“OTTer”), without any flame.

    As for the shirt, if you can sell just one, I think most of us would buy this one: http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130329032913/xkcd-time/images/1/18/One_darkening_pixel.png

    Thanks again, and sleep well! Or coma. Or molpy down. 🙂


  21. In Time, I hope Time will receive heaps of awards – as an artwork, it deserves wide recognition, as it is truly unique. Of the many philosophical (and other) lessons I think I learned (or had reinforced) – both by Time itself, and by the wonderful thread (dare I say needle-pulled thing?) it caused- I particularly like these:
    Some things are worth waiting a long Time for.
    Sometimes you have to run.
    No matter what, you can’t outrun Time, and you will run out of Time eventually.

    I had hoped for a blog like this, thank you, and thank you for lots of Time that I consider very well spent. I will wait for whatever you think of next…



  22. Thank you Randall! You’ve given us a wonderful 4 months! I look forward to every xkcd comic, but Time was something truly special. I hope that it will be long remembered in the annals of WebComic History as one of the greats. You’ve given us a wonderful and inspiring gift. I hope that we can repay you by continuing with our own works of inspiration, and by inspiring others, on the OTT. Again, thank you! Molpy up!


  23. I’m kinda late to the party here, but I just thought I’d pile on with my thanks. Most of what I wanted to say has already been mentioned, so just thank you. You created one of the only places on the internet without flame wars. I could go on, but it would be much easier to say that if i worshiped a god, it would be you.


  24. Randall, I’ve not only been ninja’d on saying what I want to say, I’ve been ninja’d on saying that I’ve been ninja’d on what I want to say. But that’s fine, because I don’t know that I have the words to thank you enough–for the amazing story you created and for the amazing community you brought me too. The effect that this has had on my life for the last four months has been amazing. And thank you for this post as well!


  25. Thank you. I was one of the people on the thread, following it in real time, amazed at both the lengths people went to to figure things out and the lengths you obviously went to so that even the analyses of thousands of very smart people wouldn’t find a lot of mustard^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hinconsistencies (although we thought we’d found plenty, until the setting was finally revealed.) And you’ve just answered every question we had about the creation process and your awareness of our crazy thread.

    The wiki isn’t fully updated yet, but there must be over 200 song filks, more prose fanfics than a maths major can remember how to count, lots of double dactyls, and billions and billions of haiku.

    Would it be possible to buy signed prints of some of the frames? I’m partial to the ‘thousand lifetimes’ one, but that could be because I’m preparing to leave my metaphorical sandcastles.


  26. Yet another “Thank You” for an awesome experience. The forced delay in frames added to the anticipation, and the incredible community that sprung up in the forum was amazing — it created a unique web interaction that was wonderful which both amplified and yet transcended the comic itself..

    Your dedication in creating this work was impressive and deserves recognition — you took something that others might dismiss as simply a “webcomic” and turned it into an incredible artistic and cultural event that connected a world of diverse fans and made for a lasting and meaningful experience.

    Plus — of course — the story and artwork in the comic was fabulous! It is simply amazing how much nuance and emotional subtext you were able to instill into two simple stick figures. The incredible beauty and detail of the night sky, the recursive castle, the joy of the mini-trebuchet, the dedication to detail in the language, the subtle clues as to their location, and then the final thrill of the run and rescue. Absolutely wonderful!

    Thank you again!


  27. I, for one, will be nominating “Time” for a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story of 2013.

    We Waited For It, we Ran, and although it’s now Ended, it lives on in songs and poems and new friendships formed along the way. Thank you, Randall.


  28. Thank you so much for the last months.

    Can Beanish be translated? We just need to know.


    (Your CAPTCHA looks a little bit broken)


  29. Thank you Randall! Time has meant more to me than I could have imagined, it was an incredible journey.

    I do have one question though. In the last couple months when your wife questions you, have you yelled “Heresy, I’m the GLR!” and thrown candy at her?


  30. I’m not as articulate as I wish I could be in expressing my thanks for the journey. Amazing work.


  31. X, A`Lb,. (Hi. (Probably.))

    Thank you very much for this amazing experience. I’d like to repeat what I wrote in the One True Thread to express my feelings:

    Instead of perpetuity, the One True Comic contained end.
    Would wait again.



  32. Thank you for the wonderful story, I would love to see some sort of continuation of the story, even if in a different, not so time consuming format (for you that is, I don’t mind wasting my time).

    But again, thank you, it has been a great journey to watch and participate in. Oh, AND LONG LIVE THE OTT and OTC!


  33. Thank you. An awesome experience that I will not forget. I really hope you do a sequel but I understand the momentous task this was and the fact that even the GLR must rest…


  34. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve given me (us) over the past several months. I think all of the people who commented before me have said pretty much everything I had meant to say here. Let me just add: if you ever have any doubts about whether what you’re doing is meaningful, just spend a few minutes flipping through the pages of the OTT and remind yourself how many lives you’ve touched with this. Molpy up!


  35. Randall, as a long time “lurker” but not poster on the xkcd forum Time thread, (and a non-stop reader of xkcd) I just wanted add a couple of things:

    1) THANK YOU SO MUCH for this Blag post. Many of the questions that consumed the most energy on the thread were answered in your post just now. Endless debates about,

    “Did Randall know the plot from the beginning?”
    “Did he draw all the pictures ahead of time?”
    “Is he drawing things in response to this thread?”
    “Does it have some hidden analogy to his life, or is it a story in its own right?”
    These are questions that the story itself couldn’t answer, and shouldn’t answer, so it was a gift that you answered them afterwards in this Blag.

    Also, I’m amazed at the clues you gave throughout the story. Sand that builds too well. A missing star. Plants and animals that are familiar but don’t seem to coincide in one known place. Fantastic. I LOVE a story where the concept is so well known to the author that it abounds with clues simply because it fits the world he created. Yet few stories are that well thought out.

    Thanks again!


  36. A shirt would be neat, but a day calendar would be even better. Although, it’d take 8+ years to view it all. Maybe cut out some of the walking and just have a single day per scene, except the dialog or action frames.


  37. Wow! Neat!

    Thanks for the ride!

    And it’s all done! well, a little more math for me to do (if you took into account the slowing of the earth due to the dry Mediterranean) and I guess I’ll have to take another stab at translating “Beanish” (for now there isn’t a better name for that language) and the last frames seem deterministically chosen (only ~1 bit of entropy per frame)…


  38. Just another ‘thanks, and thanks again’ to add to the many already voiced. When I saw the first few frames I was initially sceptical. Then I was surprised. Then I was intrigued. Time became a bigger talking point even than ‘Click and Drag’. The sheer scale of the enterprise became apparent once the protagonists headed towards the hills and the complexity of the scenes rocketed.

    The past couple of weeks it’s been like a book you couldn’t put down. The slow build made the sudden end so shocking, but I don’t blame you – a great point to end it, and I can barely imagine how far this magnum opus took over your life!

    It is a truly ground-breaking achievement, and you deserve great credit for pushing the boundaries of web comics as an art form in such ways. The story of Time was beautifully told and illustrated, and has inspired a thriving community. Bravo!


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