The Time Thief: A Game For All Seasons

This year has been unusual for me, gaming-wise, because I haven’t had That One Game. You know the one – the game that keeps you up at night while also managing to occupy your coffee breaks. The one that you can play while you’re listening to the new Flying Lotus album just as easily as you can play while Corrie’s on. It can take up all of your attention or the slightest part, filling whatever part of your mind you commit to it at any one time. I miss That Game.

Multiplayer games fill that spot for a lot of people. Heck, some people have had World of Warcraft as That One Game since it was released. Same goes for Team Fortress 2, same goes for Counterstrike, same goes for DOTA. That One Game is often something that you can play on your phone because it’s handy to take it everywhere with you, but it doesn’t have to be.

For huge swathes of the population, That One Game is something like Candy Crush Saga or Farmville, and for others it’s some iteration of The Sims. It might be Football Manager or it might be Madden. Call of Duty and Halo are all popular choices, as are Peggle, Tetris and Minecraft.

One thing that most (if not all) of the most common choices for That One Game have in common is that they’re endlessly replayable. Whether that’s because they involve interaction with other people, or because they’re designed to go on and on and on like a bunny with a battery up its bum, games without end can fill a life.

As anyone who reads my witterings regularly could probably guess, at various stages in my life That One Game has generally been a strategy game of one sort or another. UFO: Enemy Unknown and Civilization were early examples, but Quake was one of the few action games to worm its way into my life completely.

There’s always been a game to fill the gap. Crusader Kings II has been the one since its release but this year I’ve been too busy with other things to keep the fires burning, even though Paradox have continued to expand the game. I’ve always been a bit of a skimmer and collector of curios, and the combination of working as a games critic and indulging my natural tendencies has led me to play more games this year than ever before. I pick at them and move on. I graze.

It’s the same with films, although the fact that there’s an unchanging running time associated with that particular form makes the habit easier to indulge. I watch things for the sake of having watched them because somewhere along the line I absorbed the belief that to understand a medium, it’s important to drown in it. I gorge myself on films, games and books, not so much for enjoyment as for the sake of attempting to complete some arbitrary goal.

‘If I watch 300 films this year, I will appreciate the 300 films I watch next year all the more.’

I think there’s some truth in that, even though it’s mostly bunkum. I also feel more aware, as I get older and the list of things I haven’t experienced refuses to shrink, that I’m trying to fill a vessel that will eventually be broken. And I’m hoping there’ll be enough space to contain an ocean. It’s a pointless task, unless through some process of commingling, distillation or fermentation, the contents of the vessel become something else entirely.

Without That One Game, I’ve had more time to play lots of games. Input increases, output changes. But there isn’t a game from 2014 that I feel I could write ten or fifteen thousand words about tomorrow, or that I’m likely to be writing about this time next year.

I don’t think that’s a reflection of the year’s releases – Endless Legend comes to mind immediately as a game I hope to have on my hard drive for many years to come – but a reflection of changing habits. Perhaps it’s partly to do with the quantity of games available but it’s more likely related to do with a desire to know a little about a lot rather than a lot about a little.

Whatever the reasons, the current state of affairs is a bit grim. I miss having That One Game to turn to when I’m at a loose end and I miss the satisfaction and comfort that comes with extensive knowledge of a single THING. As I’ve been writing this, I scanned through my list of currently installed Steam games and wondered what the contenders are and which one was most likely to steal time over the holidays.

It came down to three options – Football Manager (ALWAYS), The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Pinball Arcade. Back in the same old ruts I’ve been grinding away at for years. I need something new to occupy That Spot.

What are your contenders?

This article was first published as part of the RPS Supporter Program.


  1. neoncat says:


  2. melnificent says:

    My contenders are my complete backlog. I intend to gorge on a different game every weekday, picked via a spreadsheet list with an RNG attached. Today was “Pajama Sams Sock Works”, tomorrow could be anything.

    My rules are:-
    No skipping a game that comes up,
    At least 3 hours playtime,
    No playing for more than a day in the week.
    Weekends are for continuing/replaying games I liked.

    1 down, 657 to go.
    link to

    • Colonel J says:

      This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. In the absence of backlog shuffle-play button on Steam.

      Is there an easy way to cut and paste the game titles from my Steam library into the left hand column?

      • MartinWisse says:

        What I did was open my installed games start menu directory in dos, did a dir/w > games.txt, cleaned up the file and imported that into excel.


        • Llewyn says:

          For your Steam library you could use MartinWisse’s idea for the contents of your Steam\steamapps\common folder.

    • harley9699 says:

      Wow, I really like this! have almost 600—on backlog. It’s ridiculous. This may be the answer for me as well. Thanks for this.

    • GhettoSmaug says:

      There is always link to it does the same thing my friend :)

  3. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I’ll spend a lot of time with DA:I over the next month (at least), but I don’t think that counts for something like this, because after I’m done with that, I won’t come back for a long time, if I come back to it at all.

    I don’t think there is That Game for me in any game that is still relatively new. Endless Legend, maybe. The last That Game was CK2 and I think it might become That Game again, some day. EUIV might work too. Apart from that, I don’t know.

  4. VCat says:

    For me it has been ETS2.
    It is an ambient game that fills the need for relaxing escapism with no shooting/hiding/sneaking. It brings out the hidden hobbyist (which must demand a level of tedium) lurking within that my ego is too embarrassed to normally allow out.
    Ambient in that Brian Eno sense where he suggested playing his music at a volume low enough that it would only occasionally appear above the sound of the listening environment.

    OK, so I now drive with a 1500HP engine, but its still got sensible cruise control…

  5. bravekarma says:

    RO2 has been that game for me for the majority of the year, just like TF2 has been for a few years before. I am not big into multiplayer gaming and tend to stick to SP story experiences, but some days SP games feel too much of a mental commitment, compared to these “comfort” MP experiences.

  6. Andy_Panthro says:

    I’d be tempted to say Sierra adventure games, but that’s a little broad (I must have played KQ1-6, SQ1-5 & QFG1-4 at least half a dozen times each). I’ve played Civilization II & IV more times than I can recall too. That one game certainly used to be Football Manager (Championship Manager 00/01 and CM4 in particular, not keen on the recent ones).

    Perhaps the best example for me is Mount & Blade: Warband. The sheer volume of mods and incredibly lengthy gameplay mean that I’ve put in serious hours and yet always have a desire to go back. The early game is my particular favourite though, I’ve never actually completed it because I find the endless sieges rather dull and my fellow lords tend to be useless.

  7. mpk says:

    It’s been a long, long time since I quit That One Game*, and since there’s not been too many replacements. Before then, ChampMan was a perennial, old school Counterstrike had it’s day. Doom, obviously. There was always time for an Episode 1 speedrun. Always. Even if it was just after getting up at stupid o’clock to go pee.

    Mass Effect 3 was the last game that made me late for work (because playing til 2am when you’re up for work at 6am is baaaaaad once you’re on the slope down towards 40).

    Last year it was The Walking Dead S1, but only because I picked it up in a Steam sale after all five episodes had been released. It was impossible for the second season or, indeed, Tales of the Borderlands, to equal that**

    This year… Civ V for a while. I thought I’d be up to all hours playing Alien Isolation to completion, but found myself overwhelmingly frustrated by the Hiding In Cupboards minigame. Grid Autosport has been my goto for short, controlled bursts of gaming, but I’m a heavy user, not an addict.

    **As an aside, Tales of the Borderlands will probably be my last Telltale purchase. For all the interaction involved in the games, a playthrough video on Youtube is going to be just as entertaining and about £20 cheaper.

  8. golem09 says:

    This year THAT game is definitely Persona 4 for me. I finished it in February on the PS2(Emulator), then bought a vita just to play the remake, finished that once, and am almost through with the NG+.
    I’m guessing I spent about 250 hours with that game this year all in all.

  9. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Generally it’s FTL. Can’t go wrong with it, and most importantly, there’s only so much sleep I can lose to it.
    At the moment I’m very happily killing my way through FC4, which has already lost me some sleep (“Getting one more rhino skin won’t take long, I’ll keep playing” two hours later “shit, I should have gone to bed two hours ago”).

    Basically now my gaming is limited by having to get up for work. Stupid job, always getting in the way* :(

    (* getting in the way of being homeless with no computer I suppose)

  10. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Once upon a time it was Worms.

    Then Trials HD on the 360 where I had 4 mates who also had the bug and we endleassly competed with each other.

    Now…nothing really. :-(

  11. Coreaxe says:

    Eve. As much as I don’t log in to actually play all that often, I expend a tremendous amount of time and effort keeping up with the happenings in the game.

  12. Dilapinated says:

    For me it’s definitely been Spelunky as of late. Before that, Team Fortress.

  13. Darth Gangrel says:

    I’ve always had the habit of playing only one game at a time and playing it endlessly, letting it permeate my existence even when away from keyboard. I usually only play games that have infinite replayability and thus I still play very old games and have a hard time getting up to speed on the newer games.

    The first Knights of the Old Republic was my That One Game for a long while and the excellent mods for it only increased its One-ness. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines has also been That One Game and there are excellent mods here as well. Deus Ex 1 is one of the only games that I have spent hundreds of hours with without considering using mods. The game itself is so very varied that I simply don’t need mods to enjoy playing it one more time, even though there are excellent mods for it. Recently I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Origins a lot, but I don’t think it qualifies as That One Game since I intend to play some other game after I’ve finished my current second playthrough.

  14. lfwam says:

    Title should clearly be Thief of Time.

  15. schlusenbach says:

    I wish for something like a modern X3 Terran Conflict with a good interface. I played X3TC for quite some time, I really tried to like it, but in the end I was so tired by its bad parts that I never touched it again.

    But the idea of a simulated single player universe where I can travel, trade, fight, build a fleet, build stations that produce goods AND/OR where I can do nothing and the universe still works around me, that is an idea I really like.
    What I really enjoyed about X3 is that it’s a single player space game and also a very slow RTS. You could fly around and do missions or start up the autopilot and check on your trade ships or fleets or just let the universe play itself while watching Star Trek on the second monitor.
    It’s Elite with optional autopilot in a slow Distant Worlds:Universe setting.
    Something like that could be “that one game” for me for years. Sadly there is no game that really does the same.

    • Cockie says:

      Limit Theory.

      • Zetetick says:

        My exact thought !
        Although it keeps retreating its scheduling for release, a game like LIMIT THEORY is exactly the kind that should be kept ‘in the oven’ until perfect – even if it means more bloody waiting……

        I hope it all works out…truly an enticing prospect.

  16. DiamondDog says:

    Minecraft has always been perfect for me to just jump in and out of when I felt the desire, but after a few mods and updates the world I’d potter about in lost it’s appeal and I haven’t had the urge to start again.

    Really the two biggest casualties in this category are FM and Pro Evo. Both were perfect, but recent years have seen me lose almost complete interest in them. I fired up the demo of the new FM and didn’t even get to the first friendly before I realised at a basic level I simply don’t enjoy it anymore. It’s actually a little sad considering how all consuming those games used to be.

    Pro Evo might win me back, but I think this might be it for FM. And I still haven’t found a game that comes close to replacing it.

  17. derbefrier says:

    WoW, TFC, Counter Strike, Diablo 2 are games that filled that role for me for a while. I still always make time to. Get some buddies together and have a D2 LAN party a couple times a year. I don’t really have That One Game right now though. Dark Souls filled that role for a while but There just nothing out there that’s really consumed me like some of those games did in the past. I do think there are a couple games in the works that may end up being That One Game sometime in the future though. Star Citizen…. I think will fill that role is the action department and will most likely be a game I play for years and years. I also recently bought Shroud of the Avatar on a friends reccomendation and I think it could fill that role as well.

  18. Tusque D'Ivoire says:

    BROFORCE has been a very solid entry for the category this year. I played it through the summer, completed the campaign over and over and when they released Expendabros and the new levels respectively in autumn I kept returning to it, occasionally going online to play with random internet people, if the weird netcode let me.

    These days and over the coming holidays it’ll be Kingdoms of Amalur, which has been sitting and waiting on my harddrive and in the back of my mind since John originally raved about it a few years ago, knowing I would eventually get into it. Now it’s happened and I can’t stop. It falls somewhere between torchlight and skyrim with very little immersion, but it’s still sprawling, open and utterly compulsive. I don’t expect to finish it, as I seem to be unable to leave anything unexplored and am nearly 40 hours in according to Origin but have only just finished the first major area (Dalentarth). Guess it’s here to stay.

  19. kalzekdor says:

    Nethack. It has been, and shall always be, Nethack. My passion for it waxes and wanes, but it never perishes. I found a rather good Android port earlier this year, and lost many, many hours to it. Though I did Ascend for the second time ever (been playing almost 15 years now). Was touch and go for a bit, when I broke my +7 Lance jousting the Wizard of Yendor (had to switch to my backup weapon, the +5 Mjolnir) and the Ki-Rin my Knight was riding died in the Plane of Fire (too many damn Fire Elementals). Somehow, though, I managed to fight my way through the Astral Plane on foot, even though Famine nearly got me a couple times (thank Lugh for lembas bread, seriously).

  20. Faldrath says:

    Path of Exile for me. ARPGs are That Game almost by definition for me, especially when I turn their music off and put on my own playlist. There’s always a new build to try, a new item to find, numbers to increase…

  21. Brosecutor says:

    Hearthstone this year. Which was a big surprise to myself.

  22. bad guy says:

    Mechwarrior: Living Legends.
    That’s what I like most, ever since it went public.

  23. Phantasma says:

    There were many games that never seem to leave my hard drive, always ready for having a short go (that quickly turns into a marathon).
    FTL, the Civilizations or the Anno series are strong contenders.

    But if there is one game, that patiently waits for me and i’m always in the mood for if everything else fails, then it would be Sins of a Solar Empire.
    And that since 2008!

    Speaking of which, the new expansion for the wonderful Star Trek Armada 3 mod was released a few days ago, and it effortlessly stole the spotlight from every other game i bought in the last month.

    So i guess my “greatest fallback game award” rightfully belongs to Sins.

  24. mineshaft says:

    I always come back to TF2. It’s been deleted and reinstalled several times over the years. There’s no rush like fooling and backstabbing an intelligent human. And in the game.

    My longest other spells are Football Manager, Spelunky, and platinum god in Binding of Isaac. So we obviously are long lost twins.

    Right now it’s BOI Rebirth, riding at about 75%.

    Portal 2 with all the maps is another great contender.

  25. fantodant says:

    I’m with the OP and a couple of others – strategy games (the grander the better) are the ones that get me. The super-moddable ones are the best. (The exceptions would probably be whatever GTA game is out at the moment. I think San Andreas probably ate the most of my time out of the lot.)

    The all-time consumers of my… time?
    1. CK2 with various mods
    2. FM
    3. Civ with various mods
    4. EUIII/IV with various mods
    5. Total War games with various mods
    6. MB Warband with various mods

    OP, if you’re tired of the vanilla games, check these out:
    – AGOT mod for CK2, which is basically the Mod that Mods were Made For. HIP also changes a lot if you want to keep things on the real-life side.
    – Europe 1257, Gekokujo, and Brytenwalda mods for MB:Warband
    – Caveman 2 Cosmos mod for Civ IV, which is just freaking awesome
    – Third Age: Total war for M2TW. Broken Crescent is also great.

  26. Mitthrawn says:

    Hearthstone for me. In my case it scratches the same itch that magic did for years but without me having to spend hundreds or in some cases thousands of dollars to be able to enjoy the game.

    To be sure, I have spent too much money on hearthstone, but it is in total about what id spend on a good expansion to magic (200-250 bucks).

    To me the best thing about hearthstone is the streamlining and the ease with which it allows you to get into its mechanics. There’s no bullshit, no mana screw, no complicated on the stack interaction. It’s magic, but simplified, but not dumbed down. The old ways and strategies still work, ie card advantage, who’s the beat down? etc, the grand strategy of magic still applies to hearthstone, but the genius of blizzard is that that awesome beating heart is still there in a form that you can explain to anyone in five minutes.

  27. blind_boy_grunt says:

    sorry can’t help you, for me it’s binding of isaac.
    For a time it was spelunky, before that, oh god, gish(there is a fluidity of movement you can achieve which is addictive but can still be improved) and hamsterball. But basically the game can’t require too much thinking power so i can play music while gaming and actually listen to it. I think 3d games don’t work either, too immersive or something.

  28. jrodman says:

    Is it wrong that I read this article with a Tolkeinish bent?

  29. dfuse says:

    I wanted it to be Crusader Kings II, but after spending 30 hours on it I still didn’t understand why some stuff happened or some didn’t. The game system is so opaque.
    Atm I’m playing Dark Souls, I’m guessing that will be my one game until the remastered Dark Souls 2 comes out.

    • P.Funk says:

      For whatever reason the systems and choices always seemed to make sense to me, nearly from the start. I am just lucky I guess. What confounds my enjoyment though can be my inability to read the tea leaves of how titles will pass on. Just when I think I’ve pulled a major coup I learn that an entire duchy is going to pass out of my realm because some pillock’s second son is married to some other pillock’s daughter.

      There’s a reason every court in real life had some old men with big beards and bigger books to advise them. Perhaps CKII could benefit from some agent who looks deep in the tea leaves for you and predicts where things might go for at least the next generation if all the old men died right now.

      • dfuse says:

        That’s actually what I meant, you are able to put it more eloquently :)
        I didn’t find it fun when suddenly stuff happened that I could have prevented if only the game would be more transparent, offer more information about the relations and especially the consequences of those relationships.

  30. cqdemal says:

    The Crew. Gritted my teeth and blew through the story missions (which range from horrid to passable), then turned off all UI features, put on some music and just drove. Thousands of kilometers. Every day. This is my most played game this year even though it’s been out for less than 3 weeks.

  31. Garibaldi says:

    I like these introspective articles. For the longest time for me it was age of empires. Then 2 came out and that dominated many friday night lan parties at my high school. And then there was tribes and unreal tournament. i remember the tech at our school getting super pissed because we were taking up all of the bandwidth trying to 5 on 5 on the map blastside during our lunch (Tribes with renegades mod was THE SHIT).
    However nothing was more fun than sitting down with good friends and playing a UT99 CTF map down to the wire. I think the closest thing to fun that ive ever had since then was Halo reach multiplayer. When i think of comfort game, i think pre-2007 games industry. Even current games that i love such as counterstrike and skyrim are just slightly improved versions of their pre-2007 counterparts. At least the RTS and Rpg genres have been getting some love. And Its heartening to see a resurgance in space games and 4x’s at least, so you cant say that the industry is totally stagnant, but as far as FPS’s go there just hasnt been a competitive game that has replaced Cs and unreal. I think if i would get one pick for the most immersive, most comforting game of all time it would have to be Thief 1/2. It just pulls me in like nothing before or since. No, wait im changing it to homeworld.

  32. teije says:

    I’m a serial obsessive, and can only play one game or focus strongly on one thing at a time. But sometimes it’s not a game, it’s something else that I binge on, like books on a certain topic. So this year’s it’s been EUIV, Distant Worlds, books on maps, Victoria II, Divinity: Original Sin, Civ 5, persian art, SMAC, EUIV again (current obsession). Order might be messed up a little and probably forgot half of them, but you get the picture. I wish I could graze more, but not going to happen.

  33. Mortomes says:

    Longest going THAT game for me has to be OpenTTD. Building crazy chaotic railway networks since 2006.

  34. ToomuchFluffy says:

    There are a quite a few games which I have played a lot, but not that many which require a lot of time for each playthrough. I have played through Half Life 2 and Diablo 2 lots of times, but both of them don’t really allow you to spend a lot of time on each playthrough. Ok, Diablo 2 does, but I never quite understood how people managed to stay motivated through the higher difficulties.

    Games where single playthroughs take a lot of time would be Medieval 1: Total War and Baldur’s Gate 2 for me. I have probably played through BG2 3 or 4 times, even though I finished the expansion only once. I also played at least three longer campaigns in Medieval 1. I have played through Far Cry 2 about 2.5 times and about 1.5 playthroughs kind of force me to commend FC2 for being a great “walking simulator” ;-) (400 out of 450 kilometers the last time). I also got into Shadow of Chernobyl a while back and since I installed the Complete-mod I had access to most of the files. Consequently I started editing game-files and testing the changes/ trying to figure out what caused crashes. Because of that I restarted the playthrough quite often, but I also stayed motivated because if I disliked something, chances were good that I just could change it.

  35. MartinWisse says:

    My mum’s obsessive game was digdug, after we got a pc in 1987, for which one memorable evening she burned the potatoes because she wanted to finish a game.

    Me, I went to uni at the golden age of the FPS, with Duke Nukem 3D our first obsessive late night marathon game, followd by Quake_test and Quake, while playing X-Com and SIm City 2000 at home. Later in the nineties it was the Steel Panthers series of tactical warfare games, then I went for my first proper job where in the first week I won the Quake 2 tournament the computer club organised. We played a lot of FPS classics there: Quake 2, Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Aliens vs Predator, Quake 3 Arena, Half Life…

    There was also Total Annihilation which obsessed me for years.

    Current obsessions are the Football Managers each year, as well as Mass Effect 1 & 2.

  36. InfiniteMonkey says:

    Currently it’s Sunless Sea. Especially now that my ship is tough enough, I can sail around the underzee in peace, snacking on whatever I find.

    It used to be Dawn of Discovery and Anno 2030. I’d love another in that series, so long as it was a bit more differenter (Anno 2030 was a little too much like a reskinned/dumbed down Dawn for me)

    Mass Effect 3 also. Playing with my wife sitting next to me chipping in on deciding conversation options was most excellent fun. I hoped that Divinity: Original Sin would be the same but with her playing along side, but it didn’t work out that way.

    I wish Endless Legend could be on this list. I was really excited about it from the descriptions, but I just bounced off. I think the lore isn’t spelled out enough, and it really irked me that the action taken in the “Story missions” very rarely matched the story reason for the mission

  37. P.Funk says:

    In a time before time it was Infantry Online, Heinrich’s Point CTF map all day for every day for days. Then Sony ruined that.

    Afterwards it was Day of Defeat Classic dod_charlie 23/7 server. Germans or Americans, fighting for Omaha beach in that game was the first time I ever bought a mic and learned to play together with people. Life changing.

    After that game waned DOD Source didn’t do it so luckily we found Project Reality. 2500 hours laters I think I know a thing or two about how that game works. Best maps included Operation Ghost Train and Fool’s Road (former is gone, latter remains). I have a thing for forests and jungles. Newer maps are so good though its hard to not like most of them.

    TF2 showed up around when I started with and was a partner to PR for me. Early days with that title was pretty great. The community was a dream. Just play that all night long. Sometimes there was nothing but server hopping trying to find Badwater Basin. Best spy map.

  38. katinkabot says:

    The old Impressions city building games. Specifically “Pharaoh” and “Emperor”. They have followed me through college and into adult-hood. Anytime there is a lull in my ‘new’ game-play, I just play through campaigns of those two.

  39. OctoStepdad says:

    “That One Game” for me right now is CS GO. I started playing it early 2014 and have +330 steam hours clocked in. It probably helps that I usually play a couple hours a night with friends that I have known in real life for awhile. But the CS GO Comp scene, weapon skins, esports tourney has its nails dug into me.

    While I have beaten 25 games this year, them ranging from 1 hour to 15 hour games, I can always go back to CS GO and keep on playing competitive matches.

    I guess CS GO is my comfort game too.

  40. SimApple says:

    Football manager for me, according to steam I’ve sunk more than 1500 hours into the last 5 versions…imagine what I could have done with that time…nope, nothing useful…I haven’t played it in months though (probably since the world cup / Leeds employed David Hockaday), definitely feeling the loss.

  41. zentropy says:

    I’ve been without That One Game since 2003, dammit Nintendo release a new F-Zero. :(

    Also, Y U NO REPORT on Radial-G? :O

  42. elmeanno says:

    I really love Talisman: Digital Edition; based off the same titled board game, i often find myself starting a game and playing it over a couple of evenings before bed.

  43. slapmasterjack says:

    Currently, my go-tos are Speedrunners, Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, and SolForge… with a touch of Poker Night 2 here and there.

  44. LoganVI says:

    For me that game is easily CK2. It has been CK since it came out, in fact I have 1881 hours of playtime according to Steam, probably a little more that it does not know about, and my computer has been busted for four months this year. AND when I get back from work in a few hours it is the first thing I will be doing.
    The RPG elements mixed with the true strategy, masses of updates, different play options, I can play that game forever. Some day I may even finish getting all the achievements.