While the world holds its breath for Fallout 4, I wonder where my time went.
Rewind to a lazy Wednesday in June almost ten years ago. I’m booting up The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on my Xbox 360. I have just conquered middle school and high school was on the horizon, but that quest was for another day. Tonight, Tamriel was beckoning. It was mine to explore and I would level up with furious abandon. I had nothing but time.
And I still have time. But the problem I have is that the long commitment has lost its luster.
A lot of major games today like The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Fallout 4 sport lengths that tend to clock in between 40 to 60 hours at their core. Side quests, achievement hunting, and multiplayer only add in more. No Man’s Sky isn’t going to have an end, period. Exploring 18 quintillion planets is an unconquerable task, but you can bet there will be people who try. These games are definitely worth a $60 sticker price, but are they worth paying in missed memories or personal enrichment?
That’s entirely debatable. Jamin Warren of PBS’ Game/Show wondered the same thing, reasoning that lengthy video games cost more than just a lot of time.
But is it bad? Long games aren’t a modern problem, nor do they even have to be lengthy. Or, a problem. Pong and Donkey Kong sucked up enough youth from generations that preceded this one, and dungeon crawlers double the size of Oblivion or Skyrim that existed on PCs way before I lied about my age so I could click on the free tours.
I love hearing “You could read War and Peace” or “You could read Tolstoy” instead of playing video games from non-gamers because it’s kind of horseshit. Flipped the other way: In all the time spent watching Hitchcock, you could have felt genuine horror playing The Evil Within. As amazing as Hitchcock was with a camera, he never could replicate the immersion of a good video game.
As Yannick LeJacq wrote on Kotaku, video games being “too long” is a weird problem to have.
Time as a metric to evaluate games is so vague that I think it’s all but useless to consider. Really, what people mean when they suggest that video games are “too long” is that they don’t make proper use of the player’s time. But, once again, that’s difficult to analyse objectively.
Would I be a better person today if I’d not spent the time I did playing Mordor, Far Cry, Destiny, and GTA, and used it instead to finally read Gravity’s Rainbow? Or spent all those hours at the gym transforming myself into a “spornosexual” male ideal? I’d be out of job, that’s for sure.
So no, I don’t begrudge how I spent and continue to spend my time, nor are modern video games bad for trying to use it all up.
But I do begrudge that I can’t get excited anymore.
I sacrificed most of middle school as a virtual superhero among hundreds in City of Heroes. I shot to hell my high school years for Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4’s online skirmishes. And I’ve saved the galaxy across all three massive Mass Effect games like five times. I had a blast along the way.
But reality settled in. The world moved on really quick from Call of Duty 4. No one cares I never ranked to Major in Halo 3. City of Heroes is offline. To paraphrase Adam Sessler in his evaluation of Mass Effect 3’s woeful finale, I never got to collect on my efforts. My efforts were all I collected.
On Facebook I see friends reliving old memories. They share pictures from football games, school dances, concerts, and spring break vacations — all of which clog my feed. I can look at the dates and I’ll remember what game I was playing when they were out playing with the world.
I didn’t learn much from those years because I still play Halo and Call of Duty. But I’ve discovered now that I use them the most to do one thing which they thankfully do well: socialize. I’m in the middle of Halo 5’s Legendary campaign with friends I rarely see because of distance. I’m organizing a few nights this week to play Black Ops III with other pals I don’t see much of. Destiny is a weekly appointment with one of my best friends who lives a state over. When it comes to being on my own I still play, but I check who’s online first.
People who don’t understand games see the hobby as isolating, but, as gamers know, it’s actually quite social. Unfortunately, some of the most immersive games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 remain single-player, and No Man’s Sky will only have multiplayer in some vague form. (It’ll be there, but don’t expect Destiny.) Some gamers want wide spaces to themselves, but I prefer to travel in groups. Sharing in the journey makes it more memorable.
My colleague Ben Guarino recently broke up with video games citing similar reasons. That’s not an option for me — I could never “break up” with video games outright, but I am changing the relationship.
I have little doubt that Fallout 4 and No Man’s Sky will be excellent and when I play them — because let’s face it, I will — they’ll allow me to live out whatever wild fantasies I had about the apocalypse or exploring space I’ve had since who knows how long. That’s what video games do. I just hope I’m not losing much these days. I’ll know in five years when Facebook tells me.