One of the biggest video games of 2011 is one you can literally get lost in. That’s why I refuse to step foot there.
People are still playing Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — embarking on quests, running households, or chasing dragons for hundreds of hours. When so many are that obsessed with a game and its world, it makes you want to hitch a horse and start your own journey. And Skyrim is no feeble beast to conquer.
I’m equally as wary of CD Projekt RED’s recently announced role-playing game The Witcher 3, whose world is 20 percent bigger than Skyrim and takes 30-40 minutes to travel end to end. Playing its story will consume 50 hours at minimum.
I don’t think that’s for me, and it has nothing to do with length. I’m an advocate for games of varying durations although I personally prefer shorter ones. But that’s only because of my schedule. I miss the days when I had time to sit and play a game for hours at a time, taking as few breaks as possible. Longer games, especially RPGs, require that kind of regular commitment to achieve immersion. It’s not about graphical resolution or even map size.
Massively open open-world games turn me off. I spent a few hours in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion before deciding to sell my copy. After I took 20 minutes to genetically groom every physical trait of my character, getting the details just perfect — before even starting the game — I could tell it wasn’t working out. I wasn’t the only one who quit early on, either.
A common problem with games like Skyrim and Oblivion is that they ask you to trade your real life for a virtual one. That’s a huge sacrifice and barrier to play.
I invested significantly more time in The Witcher, the first entry in CD Projekt’s series. I loved its style and lore, but I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t bring myself to continue. My progress had consisted of more menial tasks than meaningful ones.
Long games seem to invite that kind of “filler,” even if it’s not meant to be that way. In Final Fantasy XII, I did so much sightseeing that I forgot which side of the war I was on and what we were fighting for. All that exploring kept me from enjoying a sense of gain and purpose.
Developers can create as large of worlds as they want, but we shouldn’t confuse scale with framework. With these types of games, it’s easy to mix up quantity (50 hours, 20 percent) with quality. All those impressive landscapes, fully explorable libraries, and endless side quests blind us so that we can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees, and we praise them for their “immersion” alone — for transporting us to a fantasy world that contains so much detail and richness, it could be real.
There’s a reason I grew out of Choose Your Own Adventure books* and started reading ones with actual narrative design.
Here’s an example of what I mean (emphasis mine):
While Skyrim does almost nothing to address the weaknesses of its predecessors, it expands on the strengths to such an extent that even its most substantial flaws seem microscopic. You may not lose yourself in the unimaginative combat and story, but the world Bethesda has created is so huge and so beautifully realized that you won’t care.
A 50-hour RPG comes with a different set of expectations than, say, a mobile game. An audience is more likely to give several hours of their time to test a title on consoles than on the app stores, which are big places that attract consumers with short attention spans. There, mere minutes determine whether a player will keep a game or drop it. Maybe there’s a hint of irony in that. The worlds of Skyrim and The Witcher are huge playgrounds, too, and you can’t navigate them without losing perspective. They actually offer too much choice.
I want games with a hard backbone — not necessarily linear constructs but stories with structure and a steady stream of fulfillment. Give me a little space to roam, but don’t leave me stranded in the wilderness. Wolves are out there. And dragons.
(*This one was my favorite while we’re on the topic.)