Increasingly I feel like the only number that matters in game reviews is not the Metacritic score, but the amount of hours the player can sink into the game. There are as many AAA heavy-hitters in this category as there are indie games. A game can have the most beautiful environments, the most intuitive gameplay, or the most thought-provoking story and a chorus of Dorito-scented wails will decry it as trash if the length is less than 20 hours. Conversely, a game can employ sprawling empty environments or horrible and unskippable dialogue if only it stretches the gameplay out enough to accommodate players who would grind out in the real world if their ass still fit through the door. I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2.
There was a time when the words ‘online’ or ‘open world’ sparked joy in my then-young gaming mind. I’d freak if it was both. But, more and more, this is sliding into strange territory. The industry is offering less experiences and more simulations. Unlimited, recurring play is creating frenetic lifetime customers. In any other game, especially if there’s voice chat, you would regard these people with the same type of wariness and separation from reality as you would the guy screaming at random people in the street. Maybe they were strange to begin with, but the ability to stay inside all day with an endlessly recycled slot machine experience is probably not helping. For instance, just let this sink in: There were players lobbying for Bungie to remove whatever feeble controls they’d put in place for Destiny 2 to prevent people from playing all day, every day. The idea of playing another game just never occurred to them, a fact that is pretty easy to track these days with the deployment of player profiles and playtime counters.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. You can come at this from so many different angles that your head will literally start to vibrate like a tuning fork. I don’t want to delve into the impending societal collapse making people want to stay indoors with fake realities or depriving them of the opportunities to do much else. Walk that road if you must. I encourage it. Neither do I want to get too deep into the idea that this manner of play creates a cycle of disassociation that feeds into itself and creates hostile, if not fatal, levels of community toxicity. I truly believe there is something emotionally wrong with a fair few of online/hardcore gamers, especially those who settle into one game for thousands of hours (yes, they exist); but there’s quite a lot to unpack there.
No, the simple thrust of my argument is this: length and scope, for the sake of themselves, do not a good game make. If you’ve substituted your real life for a digital one, I guess it makes sense to rate a game according to how long you can divorce yourself from life by playing it. I say divorce and not ‘immerse’ or (the always favorite) ‘get lost in’ because that’s not what these games do and not what these gamers are after. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I got immersed or lost in these experiences. Games like RDR2 and Kingdom Come: Deliverance are profoundly boring art projects. This only becomes apparent, of course, if you’re A) not paid to say otherwise or B) don’t have such a wealth of unallocated free time available that you can afford to ride a horse across a mostly empty landscape for thirty minutes. These games don’t provide immersive experiences; they provide expansive simulations that are a mile wide and an inch deep.
Armed with narratives tacked on to make use of the environments and that would put an angsty teen to shame with their quality and emotional resonance, these games certainly don’t offer anything in the way of compelling plots or characters. And don’t get me started on the gameplay. If it isn’t so stilted and clunky that you’ll die from hitting a tree going slightly faster than a snail, they present beautifully designed combat systems that you will literally never use. Outside the tutorial and first hours of the game, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve fought in RDR2 and Kingdom Come that I did not deliberately seek out and pick fights with. “You always have to do this”, you might say. And I’d call you a sad, pedantic fuck.
Skyrim, a game that I very rarely have any cause to praise, is overflowing with enemies to fight and tasks to accomplish that aren’t boring as fuck. Sure, there’s a fair amount of ‘go to cave X and kill bandit Y’. But there’s also more than a few detailed quest lines associated with multiple dungeons at many different progress intervals in the game. The plethora of sidequests I’m currently treated to in Kingdom Come? Some shit about a wedding, courting a miller’s daughter, getting a horse for some dude, etc. I have a quest to go box some people and another to clear out a bandit camp, but I know from prior experience that this will be it for some time. There’s simply nothing to fucking do.
And why? “It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of life in the Middle Ages/Wild West,” is a common refrain. People died all the fucking time in both time periods. The Crusades were started to get all the shithead knights out of Europe because they were killing too many peasants. Banditry was rife. The history of the American West is filled with some of our only “legends”, filled with racism and ethnic cleansing though they may be. Things happened is my point. These reproductions play as though someone designed a giant, avant-garde extrapolation of the play No Exit. And, assuming it’s an accurate portrayal to create a giant extrapolation of No Exit, what the fuck is the point? My answer: to waste as much time as humanly possible in order to distract myself from my miserable kissless virgin existence.