The lure of linear, bite-sized gaming

Linear games might offer less value for money than open-world games, but what happened to quality over quantity?

When does a game become too long, do you think?It never used to be a problem, of course. Growing up, I averaged around three whole games a year, I reckon – well, there wasn’t anywhere near the choice of today, nor the disposal income to indulge my passion, either – so the longer they were, the better. I didn’t have a job or kids. No responsibilities beyond the usual kid-flavoured chores. It was bliss, let’s face it.

It’s different when you grow up, though isn’t it? Even without all the banal bullshit of having to justify our hobby in a way book lovers or movie buffs never seem to have to, it always falls to the bottom of the to-do list. A book can be picked up anywhere. A film can be watched in an evening. Games, however? They’re a much greater commitment – in terms of money and time.

The older I’ve become, though, the more there was a cloying sense of urgency about my gaming sessions. A gnawing feeling that I had to get stuff done as quickly as possible as I could never be sure when I’d next be able to play. Open-world titles – the games that let you wander and poke about at your leisure without tying you into continuous cut-scenes or story progression – began to terrify me.

Journey To The Savage Planet
Journey To The Savage Planet. Credit: Vikki Blake

It’s not that there isn’t a place for open-world games, of course. I still love creeping past Far Cry’s exotic flora and fauna – the very worst thing about FC5 was its insistence on forcing me into scripted moments – but while, in theory, 40+ hours of gameplay sounds appealing, some of us can only play in two-hour blocks once or twice a week. Are you sure you really want to spend the next 12 weeks trying to complete this bloody thing? What if you get halfway through it – six weeks of stolen moments and intense dedication – only to find out that it’s complete dogshit?

This is why shorter, sweeter games have begun to tempt me, the type that offers leaner adventures and can be squeezed into a handful of sessions (or just one if you’re lucky; atmospheric vehicular puzzler FAR Lone Sails is one of my all-time favourite ever games, and I completed that in a single, glorious sitting). Earlier this year I jumped into the wonderful Journey To The Savage Planet. I loved its warmth and its humour, it’s charm and bright, bold aesthetic.

I also loved the fact that while you can explore the alien planet chiefly untethered, it’s nonetheless a tight, neat experience that can be platinumed within a dozen hours or so.

Assassin’s Creed Origins, on the other hand? The first time I opened its expansive map, I almost passed out. It was overwhelming and off-putting. I moved my cursor across the screen, eyes becoming wider and wider as the map grew and grew and I knew there and then I’d struggle to de-mist every corner of this world. Several hours in, I was still a lowly-rank 5. How the hell was I ever going to be able to take on a region stamped a foreboding 35?

Yes, Origins is arguably one of the series’ finest – I prefer it to Odyssey even though the latter features badass Kassandra – but a 60+ hour game isn’t just a commitment, it’s a fucking marriage. For someone with a full-time job, a partner, maybe kids and other caring responsibilities, it could take three or four months to complete. Are you really ready for that kind of dedication, particularly as so much time can be lost (or invested, depending upon your point of view) in side quests and busywork that do nothing to progress the story?

Assassin's Creed Origins
Assassin’s Creed Origins. Credit: Vikki Blake

That’s the crux for me, I think. I don’t mind a lengthy game if everything I do continues to propel the story onwards. Take the latest AAA release, The Last Of Us Part II, for example. I’ve yet to finish it – although I suspect I’m close to the climax – and I’ve clocked in a little over 27 hours, so it’s no truncated experience.

Despite being a chunky offering, however, the game’s been carefully sculpted to ensure its (admittedly brutal) journey will hold your attention right the way through until the end. Despite its length, TLOU2 is a chiefly direct experience, so developer Naughty Dog has a firmer grip on the pacing and storytelling. Yes, 30+ hours is a long, long time to hold a person’s attention, even if the balance is perfectly executed, but I don’t mind giving that time if I know each moment is moving me towards the end of the campaign.

Is there still room for both linear and sandbox games? Of course! You don’t have to pick one or the other. That’s the greatest thing about being a gamer in 2020. There’s so much more choice, and so much more… well, everything. More consoles. More developers. More genres. More games – so, so many more games. And while there’s no doubt 60-hour sagas offer the best value for money, especially for those able to wring out every last side mission and collectible, there’s a part of me that will always favour the punchier, streamlined adventure of a linear game. At least I’m able to finish those ones.

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