Some of the biggest selling point these days that games advertise themselves with are map-sizes and play times. Every other open-world title boasts a “massive map to explore” and “hundreds of hours of content”. Logically, this would translate to great value for money, bang for buck. If you have a ton of activities, that means you’ll be entertained for a long time. Great, right?
Well, not always. Sometimes, a vast map with more exclamation points than a dialogue between two partially deaf people standing at a polite distance from one another in written form can be daunting instead of exciting. Sometimes, a game boasting a runtime of over 100 hours will elicit a sense of dread instead of anticipation and awe. When will I ever have enough time to experience it all, do all the quests, grab all the collectibles?
When you need to balance video games with other, potentially (hopefully) more important aspects of your life like family, study, work, or all three at once, you’ll grow to appreciate the compact and round experience of a focused, linear title that you can comfortably play through in a good 20 or so hours, maybe less.
Earlier this year, I finished my playthrough of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue – because such a situation also leads to the accumulation of a sizeable backlog, counting over 100 unplayed games on my Steam account alone. Blimey – and as a completionist, I explored and fully completed every location. For those of you who haven’t played, this means ~50 random bits of either forest/cliff wilderness or arctic/cliff wilderness, with the occasional stretch of arctic-forest/cliff wilderness.
Each such location had a handful of collectibles, some meaningful like maps or quest items, and some less meaningful, like “Animus fragments” which just might be the single laziest collectible in all of gaming. In addition to this exploration, there was an actual game in there too which needed finishing. It took a good 5 months to get through. I only rarely wasted a few seconds appreciating the scenery, which admittedly was very nice, and didn’t suck at the game either. I simply couldn’t play every day, and even when I could, rarely did I play for longer than 1-2 hours.
On the flipside, I also recently finished playing Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast (something, something, backlog). The levels were all entirely linear with only the slightest bit of exploration, composed of occasionally destroying the hidden wall to find a secret area. After a tidy 17 hours, which translated into about three weeks, the credits rolled and I was left feeling a lot less exhausted. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Rogue plenty, but by the time I was done with it, I really wanted to be done with it.
Sometimes a game like the various Telltale series, or even something arcadey that you can hop into, enjoy for literally no more than 10 minutes and pop right out of again (the early, non-open world Lego games come to mind) can be more appealing than a vast, epic RPG that you need to dedicate a great amount of time and attention to.
Every other game these days is made to be open-world, even if the respective franchise it belongs to never was before. And with an open map come the myriad meaningless side-activities. Rare is the open-world which fills itself with meaningful quests and such as opposed to, well, filler. I love Just Cause 2, but absolutely dread trudging through all those icons on its famously large map. I really want to finish Darksiders 2, but it’s been sitting unplayed on my PC since November, which was when I ‘finished’ the first world and, instead of getting to the credits, was taken to a second, equally large world.
This is not to say that vast, sprawling games are bad. They can be fantastic. All of the “offenders” listed so far are actually great games with countless merits, but not every great game is made for everyone. I’ll definitely want to get around to finishing Just Cause 2 and Darksiders 2, while also delving into newer open world titles like The Witcher 3, or upcoming games that fit this bill like Middle-Eart: Shadow of War (after I get around to Shadow of Mordor) and Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
The point is that length is not necessarily a universal selling point. The gaming industry is a massive and diverse beast, however the AAA sphere seems to be mostly dominated by the mindset that bigger is better, and the phenomenon I like to refer to as the “sand-pox”, which sees otherwise traditionally non-open world franchises become open-world in new installments was never as apparent as this year’s E3.
A common side-effect of this mentality, though certainly not the case all the time, is that breadth is achieved at the expense of depth; quantity at the expense of quality. A common criticism levied against The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and more recently Fallout 4, usually cited by hardcore RPG fans, is that these games are as wide as an ocean but as deep as a puddle. Both games are packed with potentially hundreds of hours of content, but polish is lacking. The Civil War questline in Skyrim is rather lengthy, but what does it actually achieve beyond changing the color of the copy/paste city guards here and there?
AAA publishers and developers are seemingly afraid of not being the biggest on the block, or that falling behind in scale and size will be unfavorable when it comes to sales. However, I honestly doubt most gamers pick their games on something like map size or play time. Reviews tend to focus on the level of detail and polish, not length. A game will be more remembered for how focused its narrative was or how well the gameplay flowed rather than for how many square kilometres comprised its world.
At the end of the day, some of us just want to get through a game in as many hours as there are in a day and still get a full, rounded experience.