The Long (Game) Goodbye

Seth, Chris, and N’Gai,

Have you heard that line about video games being the new rock and roll or the new comic books? You hear that line—you may have even said it yourself—when people talk about video game violence. They say that video games are seen by politicians and concerned parents as an insidious public menace just the way Elvis’ hips and EC Comics used to be. And they say that just as those hysterias ended, just as the old guard literally died off, then so too will the gamer generation someday take public office, raise children, and feel less like they’re buying tobacco or porn when they buy Grand Theft Auto.

I disagree with that line, and I disagree because N’Gai Croal, who really likes video games, can’t find time to finish them. He’s not alone. Many games are too large to fit comfortably into people’s lives. Even the dedicated find time to fit a great number of them in.

And yet I’m supposed to imagine a future in which people feel comfortable about games?

I believe that huge swaths of a large number of games will forever be little-traveled frontier territory, alien to the average consumer of popular culture—even to those who consider themselves gamers.

Small games will be, and for the most part are, welcomed into culture. It hasn’t been hard for people to get comfortable with games that can be played in short sessions: games like Pac-Man, Tetris, Minesweeper, Guitar Hero, and even the arcade aspect of Grand Theft Auto. I’m talking about the drive-anywhere-and-smash-things-up part of GTA, not the follow-the-story-and-finish-it-over-the-course-of-42-hours part. At least, that’s how long it took me to finish Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas a few years back.

I don’t see how society is getting much more comfortable in the next 10 or 20 years with games that last 42 hours, or even more than 10 hours—the BioShocks, the God of Wars, the Metroid Primes, the Mass Effects. Where will people find the time to experience them in full? Between sending e-mails and watching YouTube clips? Between text messaging and raising kids?

Very few people know what’s really in these epic single-player games: not the gamers, the game makers, the game sellers, the game legislators. How many of them have played half of even the biggest games of the year? We did an MTV News roundtable last year with four top game developers. They all praised Shadow of the Colossus as one of their favorite games of the preceding year. None of them had even gotten halfway through it. And yet what movie buff, as N’Gai observes, would dare not watch each best picture nominee in full?

Think even serious gamers play these things through? Last year, the company Valve released Half-Life 2: Episode One. According to the company’s official stats page, the single-player game was played almost 7 million times in the last 18 months. The average completion time was four hours and one minute—a minuscule amount for a computer game. So, how many people gave the game that minuscule time commitment?

The stats page states:

Our data indicates that while 50.63% of the players have reached the final map (as noted in the Highest Map Played graph below), only roughly half of those players have completed the game. This leads us to believe that either players are quitting before they see the credits, or there is a bug in how we collect this data.

The Valve statistics suggest that even four hours is too much time to ask a player to spend playing through a game. Not surprisingly, I have yet to run into anyone else who finished Suikoden V, a role-playing title that took me 64 hours, 51 minutes, and 29 seconds to complete. (Key point: My wife was in Africa at the time.) None of the publicists I spoke to who represented the game, and who had pitched the game to me, had played it all the way through. When I mentioned that playing through revealed the game’s strength—the Suikoden team may be some of the medium’s best writers of epic adventure—they conceded that they had no idea.

Last year, I found a gamer in Venezuela who keeps visual archives of game endings. In reporting out that story, I wound up talking to game developer Michael John, who told me that one “of the biggest reasons developers make poor-quality endings is that we always end up doing the ending deep into crunch time and just don’t put the effort into it we should.” Right. I haven’t even mentioned that idea yet—that the infrequency with which people finish playing games has given game creators little incentive to make their games end well.

What we’ve got, then, is this strange subset of video games, these epic-length games, that are infrequently consumed in full. Gamers don’t stick around because they get distracted with life or other leisure. Even critics like us don’t expect them to stand up as whole works with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So, how odd am I for spending 18 hours playing through BioShock this year? For going through Metroid Prime 3 in 15? For spending far more than four hours each finishing Ratchet & Clank Future, God of War II, Heavenly Sword, Call of Duty 4, Lair, Super Paper Mario? How far into the frontier am I? And are the people who got turned on to games this year by quick-play champs such as Wii Sports, Guitar Hero, and, yes, Desktop Tower Defense ever going to get to these hinterlands with me?

Back in February, I mentioned to British game developer Alex Ward—in what I hoped would be a flattering way—that I “beat” his game Black. Alex is a character and let me have it—tongue clearly in cheek—for my oh-so-American use of aggressive language to describe the practice of finishing a game. Do you say that you beat War and Peace?, he asked me. But all I was trying to do was tell him that I had consumed his game whole, given it and his development team the respect to assume it was made to be experienced in full. How strange that I felt compelled to even make that point, but such is the nature of video games. And, I wonder, do people who don’t play games realize this? Do they understand how alien video games are even to most gamers?

Maybe the long game doesn’t have a long future. Maybe the short game, ruler of the ‘80s arcade heyday, is the future (and present?) king. I saw nothing in the consumption habits of gamers in 2007 to convince me otherwise. Games that could be consumed in bites either alone or with friends seemed to be the most common successes—I’m looking at you, Halo 3 paintball-style multiplayer, not you Halo 3 single-player campaign. That’s why sports games and racing games often do so well.

But who wants to talk about sports and racing games? It’s more fun to talk about the epics, the ones that try to tell big stories, convey moving experiences, and express some philosophy.

Which reminds me, Chris, you said you didn’t like Portal as much as you did BioShock because the former “didn’t make me think about it very much while I wasn’t playing it.” You haven’t written about the experience of playing BioShock in this exchange yet. You’ve focused on its ideas. Is gameplay of lesser importance than the ideas that a talented design team can graft onto a game? Is gameplay overrated?

That’s it from me. Thanks, guys, for the chance to chat about the year in games. Let’s do this again in a year.