Video Games Are Better The Second Time You Play Them

Everyone remembers the first time they played a really good video game. The constant surprises of Half-Life, or the drama of Final Fantasy VI, or the stress and catharsis of Far Cry 2. As good as those games were the first time around, they'd almost certainly be better the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.

Art by Sam Woolley

I love to replay games. It's something my colleagues occasionally give me crap for. They worry I'm sacrificing time I could otherwise spend on new games re-experiencing old ones. I do play games for a living, so I always try to maintain a healthy mix of new ones in my rotation. But I'm almost always replaying something.

In fact, I generally enjoy replying the older games more than breaking in the new ones. At the moment, I'm replaying Wolfenstein: The New Order and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

I'm still regularly going back to a New Game+ playthrough of Persona 4 Golden, and I'm in the middle of my third time through The Witcher 3. I have a perpetual game of Half-Life 2 that doesn't so much end as it does endlessly refresh and repeat.

Almost everyone has books, movies and music that they re-experience over and over. I can't tell you how many times I've read my favourite books or listened to my favourite albums. It's more or less accepted that when you really love a TV show or a movie, you watch it over and over to better understand and appreciate it.

Video games generally take longer to complete than other media, so it's less expected (or accepted) to play games more than once.

Of course, there are some games to which the concept of "replaying" doesn't exactly apply. Multiplayer games like Overwatch and League of Legends, or endless games like Minecraft or Ark: Survival Evolved. Any game with a built-in endgame loop, like Destiny or Diablo 3. I'm talking more about finite games here — the ones with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

I am here today to tell you that it is ok to replay games! Even fairly recent ones! Here are some reasons why I love replaying games.

I'm more likely to take my time.

The first time through a game, I'm usually drawn along by the narrative. That narrative could be the story, or it could be the "narrative" of progression and new abilities. Either way, I want to know what happens. I burn through level after level, unlocking more of the game and becoming more skilled, until I finally reach the conclusion.

When the credits roll, I often feel an odd sort of relief. I can finally go back, relax, and do it all again without needing to find out what happens.

One obvious example here is The Witcher 3. Back when I reviewed it, I finished the game in around 60 hours. Then I played on PC and took closer to 100. I realised that I'd missed so many things. I couldn't have played it that way the first time, mostly because I was so drawn in by the story and wanted to know what would happen. With that drive gone, I was able to soak in all of the game's great sidequests and optional stories.

Both of my most recent Kotaku reviews were of games I played twice. With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I was able to slap some restrictions onto my fully leveled up character and as a result had a much better time toying around with the game's open-ended design and artificial intelligence. With No Man's Sky, I radically shifted my approach to the game and in the process, found something fascinating rather than frustrating.

I appreciated both games more when I slowed down and took my time. That was much easier to do, because I'd already played once. I already know where things were going, and I could enjoy the journey much more. Related to that…

I better appreciate the craft.

When I slow down and take my time, I'm able to better appreciate the amount of care and craft that went into the game. When I play through a big-budget game, I occasionally feel mortified by the amount of carefully created stuff I blow past on my way from point A to point B.

I played Uncharted 4 over the course of a weekend, and by the time I finished I felt like I was coming down from a 12-hour sugar rush. So much beautiful stuff! So many unique tricks and one-off contraptions! I've been slowly replaying that game since then and have a much better appreciation for the amount of care that went into creating so much of the game.

I had a similar experience with Inside, a three-hour side-scroller that is one of the best things I played this year. My first time through the game was defined by shock and surprise. I wouldn't trade the experience — simply crying "no WAY" as the game managed to top itself again and again — but my second playthrough was ultimately more satisfying. I was able to slow down and appreciate the absurd amount of detail and polish that the developers at Playdead put into every frame of the game.

I can talk about it without fear of spoilers.

If you're replaying a game, chances are it's been out for a while. Everyone who really cared has already played it, which makes it much more fun to talk about it with your friends and with other people online without tapdancing your way through a spoiler minefield.

I understand and appreciate the need to be careful about spoilers in public conversations, but nothing kills discussion of a game faster than when someone at the table interrupts you and says "no spoilers!" On the flip side, few things are better than when everyone has played a game and you can finally get into the nitty-gritty of who lived, who died, and what it all meant.

It goes beyond story spoilers, too. My first time through a Souls game, I like to figure everything out for myself. Where are the hidden items, how do you beat that boss, what do I do with that weird guy in the armour by the well, and so on. My second time through, I'm happy to read guides and find things I've lost.

The first run is exciting and engrossing; the second is revealing and satisfying. I love both ways of playing, and neither would be possible without the other. But it's easy to only play it the first time and miss the second time through entirely.

I can achieve mastery.

In order to really appreciate most games, I have to get good at playing them. Many narrative games are structured so that they're teaching new things right until the end, meaning that you don't actually have long to revel in your mastery of the various tools and systems before the credits roll. Many narrative games are also structured so that you can muddle your way through them even if you don't really know what you're doing.

On subsequent playthroughs of a given game, I often have a much better time simply because I've gotten better at playing. I begin to play with style, and what was at first a brute battle for survival becomes more of a performance.

Souls games build this into their structure by forcing you to play and replay the same levels until you've mastered ever inch of them. It's also something the new Hitman does by design. Because the game's release structure strongly encourages me to play and replay levels, I'm able to become the unstoppable killing machine that Agent 47 was supposed to be from the start. (I talked about this kind of thing in a recent article about how fantastic Hitman has become, and it's also discussed in a good video from Mark Brown of Game Maker's Toolkit.)

I can replay it with better PC hardware.

This one's a little less abstract and a bit more practical, but hey: one of the reasons I love replaying games on PC is that I can see how much better they run on newer, faster hardware. I've said many times over the years that one of the best things about building a new PC is loading up games that used to give your rig a hard time and watching them run without a hitch. It's still fun, and it's one of the best things about PC gaming.

I'm more likely to meet the game on its own terms.

Any time I come to a new piece of media, I almost always arrive with some expectations and preconceptions. It's almost impossible not to, given our age of trailers and pre-release hype. When I replay a game, I feel much more removed from the weight of those expectations, and consequently find it easier to meet the game on its own terms.

I can't tell you how many times I've only come to appreciate a game after replaying it. Part of that is unique to me as a person who writes game reviews. Do this long enough and you learn how to make qualitative judgments of a game after a single time through. But over that same amount of time, you also learn just how commonly you'll come to better understand and appreciate a game once the noise has died down and you've had time to play it again.


Video game culture has a pronounced bias toward the new. We talk about "piles of shame" and backlogs as if the new games we've yet to play are something to feel guilty about. If someone hasn't played a game we love, we shame them for it. "Oh, you haven't played that? You have to!"

This state of affairs is partly the result of gaming's hype-addled preorder culture. It's also because games are at the cutting edge of art and entertainment, and we never know when the next brilliant new idea will emerge. Lots of us only have so many hours in the week to spend playing games, and it's only natural to want to use that time in the "best" way.

To be a gamer is often to be an innovation junkie, and we've gotten so many good fixes over the years that we've structured ourselves and our communities around it. So I am here to say: Nuts to that! Long live the replay! Your favourite games only get better over time.


Comments

    There is one fine exception, pretty much anything made by Telltale. Replaying those games destroys all illusion of choice. Nothing you say or do matters which is really disheartening.

    I can't imagine any subsequent playthroughs of Ghost Trick being anywhere near as good as the first.

    Agree 100%. My partner gives me crap about this regularly (I personally don't see anything wrong with playing the entire Mass Effect trilogy through for the fifth time, he disagrees). Especially in the games where the characters play such a huge part - it's as much about spending time with Garrus, or Alistair, or Carth, as it is about actually playing the game.

    I just finished a replay of Dragon Age: Origins, and I'm itching to go through KOTOR again.

      The first thing I did when I finished KotOR was straight away start a new game. Mass Effect also, so many different ways to play. This was one of my biggest disappointments with the original Bioshock - when I finished the game I was master at everything. All plasmids, all weapon mods, could hack everything. There was no reason to go back and play it again like there was with KotOR, Mass Effect or that game its often compared with - System Shock 2. Not denying Bioshock wasn't great, just would have liked a reason to play it through again. Will be playing through the remaster again sometime soon.

      Ive played through plenty of games multiple times now, and they often get better each time, just not those Telltale games. One play is enough.

    I seem to do nothing but replay my old games these days.

    Hell yes! My most recent playthrough if my favourite game, Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn, was my 10th. It's the same thing over again, and I love it.

    Apart from that, I really want to do some of those older RPG's again. Dragon Age Origins for example, I bet there is SO much to that that I missed picking up on the first time.

    I find that I'm the opposite, when I play through the first time I tend to spend hours obsessively trying to find every last secret (usually avoiding the guides and playthrus). The second time around I find it's lots quicker because I know where to go and what I need to do. The learning curve is usually gone or at least less steep than the first time around. And I look at the guides :)

      Yeah im the same as you, i cant stop myself from trying to do everything the first time. The only games that still took longer the second time was the mass effect trilogy, the first time i played it was about 30-ish hours per game and that was even doing the stuff like the "mission" in the first which is 'collect 12 prothean discs, 9 turian war emblem things, 11 matriarch writings and a partridge in a pear tree'. but the second go through each game was at least 40-ish hours, i just kept finding new NPCs and missions even though i could've sworn i went to that spot the first playthrough. Man i love mass effect, any time i see it mentioned i get the urge to do another play through, even if i have just finished a playthrough.

    I love replaying games I enjoy. I played Tomb Raider The Definitive Edition twice in a row. And I keep going back to Rise of The Tomb Raider every now and then. I started a replay of Alien: Isolation just because I missed it so. I also started a replay of Assassins Creed Unity as it was the first game I played aftrr 10 years and it showed me far games have come. I may not finish these replays. But I will at least visit them every now and then.

    Metal Gear Solid V was amazing for repeated playthroughs. The first time you would play as intended, following prompts and checking all the areas, being stealthy or stalking a target (looking at you, Lingua Franca). The subsequent times would be bring the biggest, loudest, most impressive or silliest toys and try to break the missions as much as possible.

    I struggle to replay games; the only ones I've ever been able to do is Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 but that's because they're like the pinnacle of platforming. I don't know why I can't. Have tried so many times and failed each one. But if you're able to do it and enjoy it than more power to you.

    Due to being an adult and thus having a higher game buying budget, coupled with a much larger choice I find I've got a large pile of shame and very rarely replay games, the only exception being the Soulsborne games, each of which I've played through 2+ times.

    I used to play through games I loved every year or so, I've finished HL2 4 or 5 times, Max Payne 3 times, Halo: CE 4 or 5 times, many SNES and PSX era games 2 or 3 times.

    I just can't deal with the guilt of having a massive pile of shame when replaying an old favourite (except Souls)

      I have the same problem. I really should do something about the hundred(ish) boxed games I've bought over the last 20ish years filling a couple bookcases in my study. Used to buy a lot because they looked interesting and were on sale, then only played a few hours.

      I try to avoid steam sales for precisely the same reason. Buying endless games and never having time to play them.

    Sometimes you can't recapture the wonder, mystery and feeling of resolution of that first playthrough though. Firewatch had me absolutely enraptured, and on a second run found it impossible to invest myself as emotionally in the mystery, which was disappointing.

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