The concept of a game with hundreds of hours of content sounds appealing…but what if I want to play other games, too?
Xenoblade Chronicles X may end up being one of the best games of 2015 that nobody plays, and that’s through no fault of its own. With gorgeous graphics, an in-depth battle system, and a fairly serviceable story, it’s one of the best experiences an RPG player can have on the Wii U… But it is also long. Insanely long. Absurdly long, with an average reported completion time over 65 hours. And that’s just for the main story. At what point is there just… too much game?
Gaming’s current obsession is Fallout 4, a post-apocalyptic romp through a gigantic open-world with hundreds of hours of content. And that’s just one of multiple open-world sandboxes that are all the rage right now: Grand Theft Auto V, Just Cause 3, ARK: Survival Evolved… These are just a few of the newer games that offer virtually no endpoint and unlimited exploration. And let’s not forget about more classic RPGs like The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition…
Perhaps this seems like an odd problem to complain about, or perhaps you don’t think this is a problem at all. Games are $60 after all, so doesn’t it make sense to get as much game time out of each title as possible? Maybe my perspective is just changing as I get older and have less time to game, but as someone who plays games for story, the odds feel slimmer and slimmer that I’ll actually be able to finish many of the great titles I’ve picked up. As more titles come out the pressure grows to either A) blast through as many games as possible, leading to possible Piles of Shame, or B) pigeonhole into a few select titles, missing out on tons of the great games that are out there.
I don’t think it’s random that gaming’s gotten to this point. There’s something about the marketability of “100+ hours of gameplay!” that makes it markedly easier to sell a product. We naturally want “more” for the same amount of money; why buy a game with 20 hours of play when you can buy one with 100? At some point in time as well, game reviews factored playtime in to the score of the game, penalizing “short” games for not offering enough value for the player’s dollar. As a result, developers had to either create a story with the depth of War and Peace, or you throw in side quests and tons of level grinding, fighting monster after monster and fetching item after item to reach the game’s next stage. Xenoblade combines the two, with more cutscenes than you can shake a stick at and an MMO-style site questing system that forces map exploration and item discovery… That’s not to say it’s not fun, but at some point increasing the length of the game detracts from the storytelling; it’s probably for that reason that the episodic narrative genre has really taken off.
Let’s admit that the storytelling isn’t always the point in long games: GTA V offers a main story, but its focus isn’t necessarily to tell a story. Many of the games I’ve mentioned also offer story, but on the side: they’re steeped in lore, but the story isn’t central to the experience (I’m looking at you, Destiny). In contrast, games like Republique and my personal favorite, Life is Strange, provide gameplay while focusing on a narrative experience. They also break the story up into manageable 2-3 hour chunks, which is much more conducive to a busy schedule. Still, they’re usually pretty light on the gameplay, usually relying on “puzzles” to provide semblances of gameplay. Do we have to have this division between story focus and conventional gaming?
One way to address this issue is to use what I’ll call “Continue Game+,” a mode that lets you go back through a game after you’ve “beaten” the main part of it. Create a 15 to 20 hour complete main story, then allow players to use the characters and items they’ve gathered to secure additional objectives or find out more about the main storyline. This is already somewhat done with DLC, but most DLC provides content to play post-completion. Continue Game+ would break the original 60+ hours worth of content into smaller packages all included at release, giving players the ability to choose how deep to dive into a particular game’s story while still feeling a sense of completion. Another option is to break traditional games into episodic pieces; Square Enix is doing this with the remake of Final Fantasy VII, and I hope this will increase their attention to telling a quality story in each portion of the game’s release.
As much as I love RPGs, I have to admit that lately I’ve really taken a shining to eSports, and I think it’s because they require less of my time to feel complete. I can play a match of Vainglory in 20-30 minutes and still feel like I accomplished something, where logging multiple hours in a console RPG might’ve just gained me a couple levels, but no real progress towards the end game. Playing rounds of Vainglory or League of Legends also gives me space to interact with friends as well as play other games; when I’m buried in a complex RPG like Divinity: Original Sin (which I really enjoy), I almost feel guilty spending time playing other games, and I tend to spend that time alone. Maybe that’s a personal problem, but as deeper games make their way to more platforms and genres, I’m guessing the feeling will spread.
Mobile gaming is already learning how to satisfy players in smaller amounts of time, and I hope that console gaming learns some of these tricks as well. Call of Duty: Black Ops III might have tried to do this by opening its campaign and allowing players to complete missions in any order, but this just creates confusion for people who jump too far ahead in the story’s progress. Mobile gaming in particular has to learn how to provide feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction in shorter periods of time because it competes with so many other calls for your attention. Console and PC gaming, on the other hand, asks for dedicated time in large quantities… It’s time I’d love to hand over, but can’t always do.
In the meantime, I’ll keep telling myself that one day I’ll get through The Witcher 3.