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The game length sweet spot

Not everyone has enough time.
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Sony, love them or hate them, have found a working formula for some of their story-driven exclusives. Take for example Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, and Spiderman – They range between 30-50 hours, have a fantastic story, and gives enough room for players to explore and even pushes them to invest another 10-20 hours in case they want to take home the platinum. The same can be said for Final Fantasy 7 Remake, even though just a timed exclusive, which resembles the formula that Sony has prescribed.

Numbers don’t lie, as these games are also some of the highest selling Sony exclusives. Sure, pedigree titles and word of mouth propelled them to the top of their game, but they’re also very well reviewed across the board.

It is also not a lie to say that many gamers now value their time more than ever, and if they’re investing 30-50 hours, that’s about a good weekend’s worth of gaming which they could have used for family, friends, or something else.

I’ve caught up with a lot of gaming during this lockdown, and the last time I’ve dumped a lot of time with gaming was exactly last year during my long weekends featuring the three games I’ve enumerated above. I’ve tried other games as well namely Ni No Kuni 2 and more recently Dragon Quest XI and Bravely Default. I’ve quit on Ni No Kuni 2 and Dragon Quest XI, because while there are some nuggets of quality in those titles, the grind started to feel like a chore.

In my adventures during lockdown, I’ve managed to clear Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Judgment for a total combined 220 hours or a Persona 5 run. That’s about 70 hours per game. That’s about 20 hours extra I’ve spent versus that of the games that held the sweet spot mentioned above. While I did spend 70 hours on Horizon Zero Dawn, that included the expansion pack, getting the platinum, and clearing most of the side quests. My run with FF7 Remake should’ve been 20 hours less, but somehow I needed the platinum trophy.

Besides that outlier, Judgment and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey fell into my tried and tested pattern — when do I stop wasting my time and just finish the main questline?

The First 20 Hours: The Honeymoon Stage

This is probably the best memory one has when it comes to gaming. You’re introduced to the world, the battle system, the user interface—everything feels new and you want to try everything. If a game is great, you’d burn through five to eight hours just getting a feel of everything. For FF7 Remake, I actually scoured every alleyway and every square inch just breathing the digital atmosphere. It is Midgar, the way I imagined it when seeing the concept art in gaming magazines in websites but only receiving a prolonged dungeon waiting to get out into the overworld.

If a game follows a tried and tested formula, say Judgment or Assassin’s Creed, you already know the drill: Play mah-jong for a good couple of hours until you get 200-300k yen or scour Kephallonia Island until you clear it before setting sail. Previous games have shown their rules and you play by them as an investment so you don’t trip up on hour 35.

This is the time where you breathe in the world, enjoy the story, really get into it. It’s the reason why we play games in the first place! If you’re feeling this itch of wanting to complete the cut scene so you can save and go back to your Youtube videos, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’ll probably stop by hour five.

Hour 20 to Hour 40: The Tipping Point

So you’ve hit Chapter Five or you’ve probably encountered Hell House in FF7 Remake. You’re starting to look at another game you’re wanting to play. You’re starting to nitpick. You see the plot holes in Judgment, Greece is starting to feel larger than the entire Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4 put together, you’re only at level 40 in Bravely Default but you felt like you’ve gotten to level 70 by now with all that hours you’ve dropped. You’re starting to add up the hours sunk into gaming and asking yourself existential questions, is this worth it? Welcome to your second full time job.

What do you do from here? Do you pack up and quit and just write off those lost hours to a bad plot device or bad design? Do you bite the bullet, reduce the difficulty and just go for the story? Or do you cut your losses and just go for the ending. I think it was around Hour 35 when I stopped trying to beat another batting record for Judgment when I hated that minigame in Yakuza and just went for the story. It was Hour 38 in Assassin’s Creed when I stopped hunting down faceless mercenaries three tiers below me for orichalcum and just go after the main cultists instead. This is when you stop getting distracted by all the Witcher Contracts you didn’t do and just find where Ciri is hiding in Witcher 3. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.

Hour 40 to Hour 70: When Will This Game End?

I nearly stopped playing in the middle of Chapter 7 in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey because for every quest tree you finish, three new quest trees branch off. Should I just be happy that my character found a modicum of happiness or should we get the full extent of our personal justice? In Judgment it was in Hour 50 when Yagami gets roped into another side mission because the main questline calls for you to kill time. Should I follow another cheating housewife or beat down another incorrigible pervert? I was done with this shit ten hours ago!

I guess the reason why I was able to finish the above two games and just skip on Dragon Quest XI and Ni No Kuni 2, was probably the same reason why I give up on many JRPGs, after a while, the story felt like it’s moving in circles and not really driving its point home. Judgment and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey resolved that by Hour 30, while the other two RPGs are introducing plot twists in Hour 50 that I feel will take another 20 hours to resolve. Someone half my age probably has time for that, but I got Disco Elysium and a bunch of Uncharteds to get through and these articles aren’t going to write themselves, so I have to make my choice.

Recently, I’ve been moving back to playing games for the story and hopefully find games where the immersion with the world pretty much wraps up around Hour 30. I found that the games I enjoy do just that. I feel that it’s good game design when the story picks up steam when the honeymoon period ends. Almost as if, it’s okay if the game starts off a little slow like Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War, because once those games started to pick up, there ain’t no stopping that train.

Hour 80 onwards: How Did I Even Get Through Witcher 3?

I’d have to say because of Hearts of Stone. Plus there were moments in the main questline where I was drawn to Ciri’s story as well. The older I get, the more honest I’ve become in playing the games I liked. Come for the world and the addictive battle system and hopefully the story picks up steam and takes it home before it starts to feel like a chore.

I’ve never finished a Souls game. Bloodborne is probably the furthest I’ve gotten because out of all the Souls games, it’s the one with the most engaging world (and also a PS4 exclusive). I’m not discounting the brilliance of this genre, it’s just I lack the skill and the patience. I really loved Witcher 3, that’s how I found it in myself to get through 70 hours of that monster and keeping myself focused enough not to do every single side quest and location.

Will I return to Judgment and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey? Probably not. There are more games to play and more responsibilities to cater to. As I said, these articles and other writing projects will not write themselves.

Author

Vincent Ternida’s book reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy Magazine, The Ormsby Review, and rabble.ca. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in several anthologies including Write To Move Anthology, First Page Literature, and Seagery Zine. His short story "Elevator Lady" was long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize in 2019. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and is spending the lockdown catching up with his Japanese RPGs.

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