Earlier this week, Techland announced that its new zombie-killing adventure Dying Light will have "50+ hours of gameplay." Some might consider this good news. I don't—at least not at face value.
Why? Because 50 hours is a long time to spend in any video game, and I don't trust Techland enough as a developer to believe they know how to guide me through such a slog gracefully. I took me roughly that much time to play their last zombie game, Dead Island Riptide. I loved the first few hours, and couldn't stand the rest.
I haven't played Dying Light, so I can't say anything about its quality or how it compares to Techland's two Dead Island games. But I'm disturbed by the simple fact that the studio is promoting the length of this game as a virtue in its own right. It isn't. Nor should it be. I would hope that the developers at Techland know this better than most at this point, seeing as both of their Dead Islands suffered from bloat more than anything issue.
The first few hours of each Dead Island game were fun because they confronted players with the interesting, disturbing challenge of trying to survive in a hostile world full of dangerous monsters. They slowly gave players the means to meet and ultimately master this challenge. But then instead of either letting the game end while it was still fun, or continuing to propose new challenges, they put another 15 hours of mindless zombie-hacking in front of me if I wanted to see the game's story through to the finish. Rather than offer genuine and rewarding gameplay, Dead Island chose to inject itself with "content"—hours and hours of blithe, repetitive behaviour that's ultimately as meaningless but seemingly impressive as the word "content" itself. Doing so fattened it up, size-wise. But much like real fat, it just sort...sat there, clinging to the edges of the real meat, its excess ultimately ruining the proper meal.
The transformation from gameplay to content happened so seamlessly that I'm not sure all of Dead Island's players noticed it. And even if they did, they might not have cared. So many popular video games have encouraged (or forced) their players to participate in extended bouts of monotonous activity, and have done this for so long, that its earned a unique descriptor: "grinding." The fact that Techland is making a new game that looks an awful lot like Dead Island while another studio is simultaneously producing a licensed sequel to Dead Island tells me that the mainstream video game industry is confident that there are a lot of gamers out there who like this kind of stuff.
Maybe there are, maybe there aren't. I don't work in the game industry, so I don't know. In either case, Techland isn't the first game developer to let its work transform over time in such an unpleasant way. Nor will they be the last. Similar to other weighty terms like "IP" or "replay value," "content" has come into its own as a buzzword used by companies to promote their games, and by gamers to complement them in turn. Much like the downloadable content (DLC) that undoubtedly popularised its mass-scale adoption, "content" is now something that gamers expect, even hunger for. This worries me, because as we've begun celebrate the existence of content regardless of its meaning or context, we've also started to let go of our own ability to take a step back and ask ourselves: is more "content" what I actually want? Would I rather feel like I'm playing a video game, or churning through an endless sea of ill-formed content?
Size Doesn't (Always) Matter
Shooting at the infamous "loot cave" in Destiny strikes me as a perfect example of where gameplay and content collide and coexist uncomfortably. Taken on its own terms, just shooting at a hole in the earth for hours at a time doesn't seem like that much fun. If the loot cave existed outside of Destiny, players probably wouldn't waste their time shooting at it. But it didn't—at least when it was still a part of Destiny.
Gamers are more than willing to criticise games they feel are too short. Saying a game is too long, on the other hand, doesn't usually go over well. Brevity is taken as a sign of one game's weakness or lack of ambition, while, erm, lengthiness is invoked as a symbol of another's creative or commercial merit. This makes sense on a basic level. Games are expensive. If you spend upwards of £45 on a game that offers 500 hours (or more) of gameplay, you'll probably feel that you got a lot more bang for you buck than if you'd purchased one that can be beaten in 50. But can you really compare the two with such an opaque metric?
Plenty of games, like Wasteland 2 or The Sims 4, require a serious time investment just to get to their best parts. I understand that. Appreciate it, even. One of my favourite things to play right now, for instance, is Diablo III—a game that's practically synonymous with grinding in many gamers' eyes. There is a lot of repetition in the game. But are the countless hours I've spent collecting loot and watching little bars fill up what I love about Diablo? Partly, maybe. But even if it is, the game's grinding only succeeds because it's nested inside such a darkly beautiful fantasy world. The game's repetitive nature and epic length only work because they're meant to exist in service of something far more grand.
Returning to Destiny, I think that's what made its loot cave tolerable as well—at least, while it was still around. As Kirk explained in our review, players shot at the cave because it was an effective way to get the game to keep producing the stuff they wanted: loot, armour, special items. They needed these goods to play other parts of Destiny—the ones they actually enjoyed. The probability of reward coaxed high-level players to give more and more of their time to the game in turn. It was a system of content production and consumption so tightly wound that it became self-sustaining. It failed because it succeeded so resoundingly as its own sort of content farm, and did so in a surprisingly naked way.
If there hadn't been a negative backlash to the loot cave from players and critics alike, would developer Bungie have decided to revise Destiny's loot system the way they're now trying to? Or would they just have seen all the hours people were spending inside the game add up, never stopping to consider what portion of that time was spent doing things that felt like interesting gameplay versus bland content—just sitting there, waiting to be consumed? If we had evaluated Destiny using only the rhetoric deployed in the new Dying Light recent announcement, we wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two. Time is time. Spending more of it playing a video game must be better than spending less. Right?
We're Not Letting Ourselves Enjoy Good Games For Arbitrary Reasons
Confusing content in any form with actual gameplay isn't just dangerous when it forces people into uncomfortable, manipulative relationships with the games their playing like the loot cave did, though. Trumpeting a game's size or scope as its chief value can also preclude one's ability to appreciate or enjoy a game in the first place. This is a weird problem I've run into since I started writing about The Sims 4.
I'm having a great time with the new Sims. Plenty other gamers continue to deride it, however. As many dissatisfied fans explained to me last month, they're disappointed with the game because they think it comes up short, content-wise. Stuff or features deemed essential in previous Sims games was left out for no good reason. That's fine, on one level. But as one of The Sims 4's producers suggested when I spoke to her this week, there's also a great deal of depth to the new game that's easy to miss if you're not looking for it.
The size, length, or scope of a game doesn't always matter, at least as much as we often think it does. Nor does the sheer amount of...stuff that exists in a given game. If we fixate on the wealth of features that we hope to see in a new game or a sequel, we risk ignoring the potential paucity of their actual value.