I want to share something with you guys. I’ve spent a lot of my life with video games, from Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt on the NES up to Diablo 3 this weekend, and gaming the whole time in between. A lot of my younger years were spent playing whatever my parents bought me. Mario, of course, and I remember a track running game that even came with a mat. Gunstar Heroes on the Sega Genesis was another fond memorywhile I sadly missed the SNES almost entirely (Oh what folly in your console purchases, dear parents!). As I grew older I began to focus on games with heavier narrative structures. At the time, this meant JRPGs. I would get caught up in the story and I preferred the more tactical gameplay of something like a Final Fantasy 7 to the side scrolling action beat-em-up of something like Final Fight.
As anyone who played JRPGs through the mid 90s, you’ll know that these games took hours to complete. We’re talking about Skyrim length games being the norm and that’s only if you include the side content in Skyrim;The main quest line is comparatively brief. And I would play the hell out of these games. I think I went through Final Fantasy Tactics at least three times before the PS2 released, and by “went through” I mean 150+ hours on each save maxing out every character and getting every item. This was the rule, not the exception. Lunar: Silver Star Story? Star Ocean 2? Xenogears? These are all games with well over 100 hours of possible content.Though maybe not Lunar, but still. Tell me you can play that game just once and then walk away!
My point is that during my childhood, I seemed to have an endless attention span. I could plug a game in and be good for the entire summer. not that I spent all summer inside gaming. But what now? Am I still content to sit there for hours on end and play the same game night after night? Not… not really. Most games I play, I do so for maybe an hour or two at a time. I look forward to having them be done, simply because I’m done with them. Skyrim became a chore pretty quickly, Spiral Knights saw about 3 hours of play, even Mass Effect 3, which is awesome, only about 20 hours awesome, and I’ve stagnated on a second play through on Insanity.
I always assumed that as I got older, I ran out of free time. I work three jobs now and I’m just not as captivated by narrative fantasies as I was when I was younger. Back then, games were games; some were good, some were bad, but now I see that it was me who had changed into a different type of gamer. I now play browser tower defense games like Kingdom Rush, or the odd Mass Effect 3 multiplayer match with my brother. I’m certainly not one that spends double digit hours in a single sitting playing one game, only to do the very same thing the next night.
Well, about two weeks ago I flew out to cover PAX East in Boston, a 7 hour plane trip for me. As we all know, planes are terrible (We fly coach up in this bitch, because first class is laughably expensive). With whiny teenagers, crying children, and creepy older men, you’ve got to bring something else to focus on. For me, I had the complete works of HP Lovecraft and my PSP with a copy of The Lion Wars. After boarding, I began with reading The Rats in the Walls, as I couldn’t use my electronics in till quite a bit after takeoff. Once I could however, I decided to switch it up for a bit and start a fresh game.
I played that game for all six and a half hours of the remaining flight. 390 straight minutes of Final Fantasy Tactics awesomeness. And you know what? I did the exact same thing on the flight back. Another seven hours of tactical combat, gripping narrative, and party organization. Half way through the game and just under 15 hours felt like nothing at all.
But that’s understandable right? I’ve played that game almost a dozen times. It’s one of the best ever made, so certainly its ability to suck me is unique. Modern games can only hope to ever approach what that game specifically had; that any game could hope to be so enjoyable.
Then, this weekend, I popped in Legend of Dragoon.
I still have my old PS1 and had gotten Legend of Dragoon as a gift this last Christmas, because I know the coolest people ever. What makes this important is that it’s a game that I’ve never played before. I don’t have any nostalgia glasses on my face when I look at it. Heck, I don’t even know anything about the story. The only thing I know is that some friends of mine really liked it. In fact, its graphics are pretty dated and the dialog consists of some of the most hysterically bad translations from Japanese to English that I’ve seen in a game ever. (“That….is none of your concern?!”)
I put another 15 hours into this game over the last two days and its fantastic. Shana whines, but Lavitz is awesome, and Rose is a mother fucking boss. I’m not terribly far into the story just yet, however, at least I don’t feel like it. Shana has been poisoned by a dragon and I need to find some medicine for her. But the point here is that I’m engrossed. I’m totally and wholly invested in this game, playing it for hours on end, and walking away wanting to play hours more.
So what the hell? I thought I’d grown out of this. That short games were by and large my primary focus. Sure I get wrapped up in the rare gem every now and then (::cough:: Dark Souls ::cough:: best game made in the last 5 years ::cough::), but we’re talking about two stints of serious gaming, two weeks apart, both games made pre-2000. And what does that mean? If it’s not me, then what exactly is it? The only other thing I can think of is modern game design trends.
I don’t even know really what to point a finger at. I’m not masochistic enough (or bland enough) to subject myself to Generic First Person Shooter 7, but I also find myself disinterested in any of the 3rd person brawlers, like the latest Prince of Persia or Bayonetta. They just have no staying power.
Even games like Uncharted that only last a few hours, while awesome when I play them, are not something I’ve ever had the inclination to go back and play again. Why is this? I don’t have a clear answer. In fact, I’m almost just rambling at this point.
I could say: These new games place too much focus on action and combat and don’t spend enough time creating interesting characters. Such character personalities can be something that you can only achieve with extremely long play times. Investment and emotional attachment are directly related to proximity, and I just can’t care as much about a character I see for 8 hours, compared to characters I see for 100+ hours.
This isn’t totally true though. I loved Gunstar Heroes and don’t really care for God of War. They have the same kind of gameplay, run around and kill all the things, but God of War certainly has a more in depth narrative than Gunstar. I mean, Gunstar named people after colors for Christ’s sake! But maybe that’s because that’s the wrong venue for a narratively heavy game. Maybe if you’re going for cathartic action, you should make the narrative as brief as possible so you can just get in, and stay in, “the zone”.
But what about the Elder Scroll series? They have tons of hours of gameplay there and yet still unfulfilling in comparison to old classic RPGs. Well, this comes down to the Western vs. Eastern RPG style, and in Western RPGs, there really aren’t any characters. Players control faceless supermen that don’t need a supporting cast; there really is no one to grow attached to.
It almost has to be picked apart on a per game basis. All that I can say is that games that I buy these days, on my PS3, Xbox, Wii or PC, fail to hold my attention more often than not. On the flip side, most titles I play on the PS1, PS2, N64 or SNES grip me, even without any nostalgia to credit for the attachment. As a scientist, I would say I see a trend, and wish I had more time to understand the root of this phenomenon…