(Warning: This post contains boring video game nerd content, which some of you out there who aren’t boring video game nerds (and some of those who are, for that matter) might want to just pass on. If any of the stuff in this post begins to sound like technobabble, I would recommend just scrolling down for the usual content.)
This post expands on some thoughts that I originally posted as a comment on a thread over at Kotaku, but ended up being a bit longer than I planned on, so I decided to move it here. The topic of the original thread was a statement made by Warren Spector (a game developer who has made a number of popular games that I haven’t ever bothered to play) which stated that lengthy games were on the way out, being replaced by shorter ones. As someone who probably plays way too many video games for his own good and doesn’t bother finishing up 80% of them, I realize that the big 100-hour epics have their place in the market, but I’m pretty sure that I don’t fit into the target audience for such things.
For years now, I’ve referred to something that I like to call the “Shelf of Oblivion” (note: Actual shelf does not exist, nor does the Shelf of Oblivion currently contain a copy of Oblivion, although that’s probably because I haven’t ever bought it) which is the nominal place where the games in my collection that I have completely lost interest in seem to end up. I’m pretty sure that an attempt to catalog the contents of this “shelf” would result in a 15,000 word post that would take me three weeks to write, so I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that a significant number of the games that I do purchase seem to end up here after some period. There are some big name titles that I’ve put down after 45 minutes, never to touch them again (Morrowind comes to mind, as does Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy III for the DS.) On the other side of the coin, there are games that I have spent hundreds of hours playing, and enjoyed them the whole time.
The vast majority of games out there fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Here are some games that I’ve enjoyed playing, but they were just way too long to bother finishing off. Some examples:
-Twilight Princess (Wii): Fun while I played it, but there just came a point when it seemed that I had been playing forever and still had a long way to go in order to finish it. I made it to the fourth dungeon last time I played it, and haven’t touched it since then.
-Half Life 2: Same as TP, just felt like I had played it forever and had way too long to go. I’ll probably finish this off at some point though when I’m in the right mood… On the other hand, I thought Portal was quite enjoyable in spite of its shortness. Haven’t played either HL2 episode because I want to finish the main game first.
-Earth Defense Force 2017(360): Fun for a while, but there comes a point when you realize that things aren’t getting any harder, they’re just getting more cheaty and/or broken as you go along, and you’ve got 25 more levels of the stuff to slog through to get a single achievement point out of the thing (all the achievements are “complete the game on easy/medium/hard/really hard/you’re pretty much doomed” type things.)
-Most modern racing games (Project Gotham Racing 3 and Forza 2 being the most recent examples I’ve played): There’s a certain type of person who loves all the races and events you’re going to find in a typical career mode. I don’t quite have the patience for this, but I’ll enjoy playing for a while nonetheless. At least the majority of these games nowdays provide ways to just race around using all of the cars and/or tracks without needing to unlock a ton of stuff.
-Most modern RPGs. I actually used to play a lot of these back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, but at some point, they just became too much hassle to deal with, either by reason of excessive complexity (every Final Tantasy after 6) or just turned into way too much wading through repetitive stuff to get into the story. How many times do I need to see the heroes celebrating their victory over the 73rd pack of wolves they’ve vanquished in the past hour anyway? There are exceptions to this, but in general, a game will have to be incredibly compelling in order to gain enough momentum to get past the tedium barrier. The fact that many of these games seem to come with big heavy overwrought epic stories that make you feel like you’re playing through someone’s weekly visit with the psychiatrist don’t help much here either.
This said, If a game is engaging, I have no problem dumping a bunch of time into it (which is probably how I ended up dumping a far greater quantity of time into Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness on the PSP than I’d care to admit on a Blog that my mother might be reading.) Since I tend to be, well, less than stellar when it comes to action games (another post for another time) my preferences these days tend heavily toward turn-based and puzzle style gameplay, which gives be a bit more time to think things over and react. The tactical RPG genre is one that I haven’t explored much, but I found Disgaea to be something of a “perfect storm” combining elements that I enjoy. If you just want to play through the main storyline, you should be able to do so by playing for roughly 30-40 hours with characters up around level 100-120 or so. On the other hand, the game allows levelling characters up to level 9,999, then transmigrating (restarting them at level 1 with higher stats) and doing the whole thing over again. There are bosses in the game with a base level of 3,000 or higher (you can increase the level of enemies by going through the Dark Assembly, a sort of “Parliament” in the game that can approve or reject various proposals put forth by the player) and plenty in between.
Probably the greatest source of replay value in Disgaea comes in the form of the Item world, which allows you to go inside items to raise their stats by fighting through the hordes of demons that live inside. This provides a virtually limitless number of procedurally generated levels to fight through, even though you’ll eventually reach a point where you begin to outlevel these (at least for lower level items) this provides a lot of replay value for the game, which accounts for the sheer quantity of time I’ve spent on it (although on the minus side, this means if you get enough into the game, you’re probably going to seriously outlevel the final boss by the time you get there, completely trivializing the encounter.) Combine this with a relatively light story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you have a game that is compelling enough to keep me playing it (although I’m sure the exploding penguins don’t hurt either.)
All things considered, do we even really need big 100+ hour games? If people can figure out how to make the entire experience enjoyable for a significant majority of the people who are going to play the game, then go for it. The problem is that I’m pretty sure that my definition of “enjoyable” on that type of game is going to expire long before it does for most of the mainstream audience. Then again, I’m pretty sure I’m a bit of a game snob anyway (more on that subject will be coming up here eventually.)