I used to be really into the perfect “five-hour” game. These weren’t necessarily games that took five hours to complete, but it was always somewhere around that length of time that made it feel like the right amount of enjoyment without overstaying its welcome.
I’m talking about games like the original Portal or even experiences like P.T. that feel like they succinctly get across what’s great about them. They’re the leaner, healthier cuts of meat. Between the now-hundreds of indie releases and the big fall schedules and just work and life in general, the five-hour games have become a coveted brand of fun that I felt respected my time. I sought out the short darlings like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and I was drawn to the episodic nature of games like The Walking Dead. I bounced happily through Transistor in a day and felt productive. And even Mark of the Ninja, though a bit longer, was the perfect length game for that one time I was too sick to go into work but just sick enough to lay in bed with my controller for roughly eight hours. Five-hour games became my bread and butter.
Five-hour games let me stay in touch with what people were talking about without occupying too much of my time all at once. I loved five-hour games, and I was happy to consume nothing but them for some time.
I’ve never quite forgotten my love for games with side quests and special weapon incentives that would take you ten times as long to finish. But there’s a certain level of commitment they demand that sometimes makes me apprehensive to start them. I ended up loving Dark Souls II, but I knew I’d never have the time to finish it between travel and life obligations. I craved the short and sweet that would leave me time to read the next novel on my list or the new comic series I’d just gotten into.
Last night, I finally started playing Diablo III on my PS4 and remembered something critical about my taste in games: I remembered that I love RPGs. I might spend a few rounds in a shooter blowing off some steam after a particularly long day, but there’s nothing quite like getting invested in one character who lives in one world. As I walked over bridges connecting areas and warped through one world to the next, killing the undead, I thought about what it was I loved about RPGs all this time.
I love talking to villagers and quest-givers to run through as many dialogue options as the game will give me. I love walking to the very edge of a level just to make sure I reveal its boundaries on the map and to open every chest or destroy every box and bench. I love meeting new people and discovering new places and new stories. I love dressing up my character in tiny cute boots just to ditch them for the next pair I find on a few enemies and a few paces up ahead.
What I love most about the experience of an RPG — those long and supposedly gruelling rides where you intermittently have to deal with some grinding and some fetching — is the investment. My character has a face. She has an identity and a style. I spent 20 minutes on my town flag, and I would have spent more on the individual details of her face and physique had I had that option. I manoeuvre her over to places of danger as she befriends new characters and grows in her experiences with them. She gets stronger, she learns new abilities, she perfects them.
Inevitably, I develop a real relationship with these kind of games. They become a constant in my life that I can turn to, secure in the knowledge that my time spent with them will be familiar and almost assuredly fun. While the five-hour games were fun flings I can tell my friends about, the long RPGs with depth are the ones I turn to night after night, after a rough day or a bad argument. They’re the games I trust to bring me back to normalcy when I’m not quite feeling it anymore. They’re the games I can relax back into, knowing that I’m journeying ahead and exploring the relationship even further. As the days and my mood change, the long games change subtly with me.
There’s a certain point in every adult person’s life, I think, where they turn to reflect on their lifestyle. Maybe they’re making a point to work out more, or going for one mediocre online date after another in search of the perfect one, or raising a kid, or starting up a side business, or learning how to cook, or…the lists goes on. In the last few years I’ve become really determined to improve things about myself that I’d otherwise been too busy to worry about. But those kind of internal reflections don’t always suit a gaming lifestyle, no matter what tricks you employ.
Despite all that, and despite my limited time and my growing impatience with finishing games I’m not in love with, there’s still nothing quite like sitting down in the comfort of a familiar face, watching as you grow more together and discovering just how far the relationship can go.
I’m still early on in Diablo III. I created a female monk character and have been scourging the evil threats of Sanctuary sometimes for and sometimes with a few NPCs in the game. But I can already tell we have a long road ahead of us, and I’m already daydreaming about the next time I can sit and play again. The sign of a truly significant relationship.