Earlier this week I saw the credits roll on Fire Emblem: Awakening. I reviewed it in April 2013, having plugged in a solid 17 hours over a few days – more than enough time to know that I loved the game, to come to grips with what it had to offer and to recommend it wholeheartedly – but by the time I finished, I’d played for 52 hours. I’d set the difficulty to hard and kept permanent death on (to turn it off would have been to neuter and ruin the entire experience), and in the final battle, I lost five units, more than I had lost in the rest of the game combined. An entire family – Fredrik, Cherche and Gerome – all died, as did two of the ‘past’ characters I’d picked up through the game’s odd little online system thing. I felt those deaths and decided that it was right and beautiful that my game end in their heart-breaking sacrifice.
After a year and two months of play, Fire Emblem: Awakening had become a background detail in my life. Each time I jumped back in it took all of a minute to re-familiarise myself with the mechanics, the characters and their relationships. I lost track of some of the broad strokes of the narrative, but returning to a game I loved so much was always a pleasure.
I had a similar experience, over 2012 and 2013, playing and finishing Deus Ex. There was a reason this took so long – I was commissioned by local gaming mag PC PowerPlay to write a monthly column about the experience, which ended up spanning over fifteen issues and being moderately popular with the readers – but I came to really appreciate the process of playing through a game so slowly.
Coming back to Deus Ex each month was a real treat, and playing it over a long time both gave me a greater appreciation for everything the game was achieving and a broad range of topics to write about. The same thing didn’t happen when I tried to cover the sequel – jumping into Invisible War every month felt like a real chore – but I feel like my knowledge of the world of Deus Ex would rival that of anyone who played it through two or three times.
It is extremely rare that I finish a game if I don’t finish it within the first two or three months of starting. There are exceptions, of course, but I wish I could spread more of my experiences out. I am still playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf, a game that doesn’t actually end at any point, and am feeling immensely satisfied at my routine of returning, picking fruit, collecting fossils, and slowly seeing my house and town expanding and improving. I’ve taken months to finish Zelda games in the past, and when I’ve reached the ending it’s all the sweeter for having waited so long.
I think that episodic games are replicating this experience somewhat. The Walking Dead’s first season may have only lasted for eight hours, but because everyone played it over the course of eight months it became the game equivalent of a big event television show – everyone was up to the same place at the same time (except for those who vowed to binge the full season), each little chunk made us hungry for the next, and the game settled into our lives as a thing that occupied a few hours every month or two.
I like being able to play games this way, and perhaps a lot of my backlog would get cleared if I just set out to play big games over long periods of time. If Skyrim was something I happily played for an hour a week for two years, I could enjoy the world without needing to obsess over it. Perhaps if I jump back into Assassin’s Creed IV and allow myself to just dip in and out I will eventually reach the ending (and I’d love to know how that game ends). I’ve been saying for a while that I love shorter games that I can wrap up fast…so perhaps it’s time I started treating the longer games I never finish the same way I treat the short ones, playing through in little incremental chunks, letting them become a small part of my ongoing life.