Like most people reading this, my gaming backlog list is beginning to resemble the printed receipt from a two-week supermarket shop for a family of eight. There are simply too many good games, and realistically, I’m never going to play them all.
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Given there are only so many hours in the day, and the need to do little things like work and sleep, my system has been to prioritise this as best I can. No, I’m not going to cut down on my Hunt: Showdown sessions, because I’m a helpless addict and I need that Springfield Marksman headshot fix — but I can at least pick and choose what to dip into when friends aren’t around to save my overconfident arse.
Naturally the best way of hacking this list down into something more manageable is to take on short games first. Howlongtobeat.com — or HLTB for short — is the best resource for this, listing crowdsourced average playtimes from the community to estimate a title’s length. It has proven invaluable.
One recent queue cutter was 2013’s Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger, which skipped to the top of the list after HLTB advised me it would take less than five hours from start to finish. I regrettably didn’t check the site before downloading The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, and now have a 65-hour monkey on my back. Or, to put it in a way that Phoenix Wright would no doubt appreciate if he wasn’t, y’know, fictional: I’ve sentenced myself to nearly three days of game.
That got me thinking: why don’t we have estimated game length tags on digital store fronts? Netflix tells you how long a movie is before you settle in. Spotify will tell you the length of an album. You can tell at a glance that a copy of War And Peace will take you longer to get through than The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and even the Kindle gives you an estimate of how many hours are left in a book based on your reading speed.
There are a few good and obvious answers to that question, which it would be mad not to concede. For one thing, game length isn’t set in stone as the people finishing Elden Ring in under 15 minutes can attest. Equally, side quests are a thing, and the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Horizon and Fallout can double or even triple in length if you track down every tedious, needy NPC in need of a helping hand.
And, of course, some games simply never end (or seem to, in the case of the terminally dull Beyond: Two Souls). Tetris, Fortnite and Mario Kart only end once you’re bored, which for some people is “never”, and there’s definitely a place for games like that.
None of these are reasons not to include an estimate where possible, though I do appreciate that developers may be wary about putting a figure on the virtual box. Some people conflate quantity with quality — or are at least acutely aware of the value-for-money equation. If your game is just four hours long, you may well worry about putting people off by advertising the fact.
But for me, the opposite is true, and I’d be willing to bet there are plenty of others in the same boat — especially in the days of Game Pass and PlayStation Plus Premium where everything is already paid for. With so much choice under the umbrella of a monthly subscription, the art of brevity and not outstaying your welcome is simply more significant than value for money in my eyes.
Indeed, being forced to put an estimated length on the listing might nudge developers towards realising that less can definitely be more, and adjusting accordingly. Much as I loved The Last of Us Part II, you could easily lop a good five hours off and lose absolutely nothing. Maybe developers could consider ‘Express’ versions of story-driven games, leaving the Director’s Cut to those lucky folks who remain time rich? (Don’t gloat too much: I was you, once.)
For now, I’ll continue to consult HLTB before buying any games and making my list of shame any longer, but it’s an imperfect solution as new releases simply don’t have enough data behind them. And while some upcoming titles will definitely make the cut no matter how long they are (Fallout 5 is getting played even if it’s thousands of hours long), for me those brief, fleeting experiences will be picked first more often than not.
Alan Martin is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to NME.