The Witcher 3 [official site] is the longest game I’ve played for years, or at least the longest game that I’ve actually come close to completing. There was a time when I’d be thrilled to hear about a new fifty or sixty hour epic adventure, very much subscribing to the policy “the more the better”, but now I’m more likely to flinch away from the screen when a game’s sprawl is revealed.
I’ve realised that my aversion to enormous games has been growing for a while, but the announcement of Red Dead Redemption 2 brought it into sharp focus. Do I really want yet another massive open world game? I’m not sure that I do.
I’d started to think that shying away from long games had a lot to do with working as a games critic, which does tend to make me hungry to get to the heart of a thing, understand it, and then move on. I’m the same way with books though – ten years ago, I didn’t think a fictional world was worth investing any time into if it didn’t exist across the span of at least six brick-sized volumes. These days, if a story takes more than three hundred pages to tell, I expect a lot from it. If an author or designer is going to make demands on my time, I demand quality and (preferably) variety in return.
Take Mafia III. The setting, the lead character, the period – I want all of that. And if I have to deal with graphical glitches, buggy AI, repetitive missions, clumsy vehicles and awkard shoot-outs to get to the good stuff, I’m willing to do that. I won’t necessarily forgive those things but I’ll tolerate them, provided there’s something worthwhile behind and around them.
I’ve read enough about Mafia III to be convinced that I probably would find something of interest in among the repetition, and the broken bits and pieces. But I’ve also read enough to know that it’s a big game and whatever qualities it might have, I reckon they’d be worn down by the length and the breadth of it. Ideally, the scope of the game would allow its ideas to be explored in more detail but the size of a game is often bulk rather than scope, and I fear that’d be the case with Mafia.
Even a fresh idea, interesting play mechanic or fascinating cast of characters can be diluted if they’re dropped into the kind of open world game that drags itself out for forty hours or more. One of the reasons The Witcher 3 keeps me gripped is that it does strong character work even in its sidequests, which might be inserted as inconsequential distractions to eat up time in many games. Geralt and the world around him value my time.
It’s tricky to measure a game’s length in any meaningful way. Some have an obvious start and end-point and everyone is going to spend a similar length of time moving between one and the other. A TellTale game, say, where there aren’t even many places to slow down and smell the roses. Virginia is probably the most explicit recent example of a game that pulls the player through, dictating the pace, and even there it’s possible to slow down from time to time, even though the experience is very much a directed one.
But how to measure the length of a game like Civilization or Crusader Kings, or Football Manager for that matter? Representatives of those three series – and let’s lump all of the Paradox grand strategy games under the CK umbrella for this purpose – will take up most of my gaming time this year. Last year, which wasn’t even a vintage year for Football Manager, I spent 760 hours pretending to manage football teams. Is that too long? Is Football Manager too long?
When I see or hear conversations about games like Civ and Football Manager, people often talk of losing time or social lives to them, or even failing degrees and losing jobs. I hope the latter are jokes, though I know that not all of them are, but even in the jokes there is sometimes a slight resentment for hours, days and weeks lost. I’ve felt that myself, particularly with sports management games, where a career usually can’t be carried across to a new version. It’s one thing to move on from an established ruleset in the likes of Civ, where I might have put a few hundred hours into many playthroughs, and another to move on to a sequel when the majority of the hundreds of hours in the previous game were invested in a single continuous career.
A Football Manager career can last for many in-game years and when a new version releases, you either lose all of that ‘progress’ and the whole alternate future that has evolved, or you ignore the updates that come with the new release and stick with the old. That I find the decision so tricky every time should tell you a lot about how capable I am of committing to ‘long’ games.
How do you measure the length of a game? Are you, like me, contradictory in your approach, complaining about unnecessary filler and yet finding yourself chasing down collectibles and pursuing sidequests rather than following the fastlane to the ending? Do you commit to one game at a time or keep something sizable to feast on while snacking on smaller delights? Have your habits changed over time, due to real world responsibilities taking up more and more of your waking hours?
Tell me everything.