Do you know what’s fantastic about The Outer Worlds? It’s about 20 hours, maybe a little more if you want to take your time with it. All of those 20 hours are a good time, and then the game’s done! There’s no more!
I wish more games would follow in Obsidian’s footsteps here, because I’m realizing that I have no more patience left for the 100-plus-hour RPG. Sometimes, a game catches my attention. Perhaps the combat looks excellent, or the protagonist seems cool. And then the hype train begins: “Hundreds of hours of deep and complex quest content,” the game promises. “An ongoing narrative that requires your constant attention. You’ll collect a party of characters you love like your own family — and choices you make can crop up 40 minutes later to devastate them.”
Every time I hear a game described in this way, I break out into a cold sweat. That’s not exciting! That is a threat.
Those halcyon days of youth
When I was a teenager, I scraped together my part-time job money for an Xbox 360 and a copy of Mass Effect. It was the first system I purchased with my own money, and I was hooked. I played Mass Effect nine times before moving on to Dragon Age: Origins and sinking about 120 hours into that as well. I devoured Fallout: New Vegas the following year. After growing up on Nintendo and Blizzard products, I was blown away by these dense, carefully constructed worlds.
I don’t regret any of the time I spent with those games. To this day, they’re some of my favorites. There’s a certain level of emotional investment that comes from a long enough game. Take Fallout: New Vegas. I still have very fond memories of when I awoke in Goodsprings and traversed across the Mojave Wasteland. I still remember the feeling of dread when I came across the Lottery, and the hate I felt when I realized who was behind it: the brutal ranks of Caesar’s Legion.
A decade later, my buddies and I still swap stories about how our Couriers ruined the Legion’s day. My brother carefully collected Legion currency from around the map, smelted it down into bullets, and used a shotgun to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. I chose to bring my pal Boone into the camp and kill Caesar, then free his crucified enemies in the heart of his Nevada vanguard — a sign of my utter contempt for his rule.
These stories are amazing, and they’re possible because they’re propped up by so much scaffolding of character development, world building, dialogue trees, and so on. Playing a long RPG with tons of choices is fantastic, but it also feels like a luxury of youth. I might knock one out over the Christmas holidays, but who has the time to play each big game as it comes out?
Not me, that’s who
Listen, I’m old and stupid and tired. I have a bunch of MMORPG subscriptions going at varying times to games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft, and every time I log into one of them after a few months off, I am immediately confused and frightened. Why do I have this grain? Where am I at, progression-wise? What are these crystals in my inventory? Wait, how’s my map rotate? What are all of these buttons?
Jumping back into a 100-hour RPG has the same effect, but worse, because at least MMORPGs anticipate that you’ll take time off. Logging back into a massive story-driven RPG after taking a break to deal with real life is a nightmare. I have 50 markers on my map. One of my companions is mad at me because I … did something, somewhere.
At some point, I picked up 30 gems. Why do I have so many gems? Turns out that I bought them en masse to give to another companion every day, and I need to do that because I shattered the God Urn and trashed our relationship. Listen, I have enough trouble tracking my real-life social obligations and long-term grudges, I can’t do it with a bunch of elves or space marines as well.
Now, The Outer Worlds certainly had some complex relationship stuff going on … but everything is tracked and recorded in my quest log, and 20 hours isn’t long enough for me to forget stuff established in the early game. It’s the best of both worlds between a short game and a mega-RPG.
I just have stuff going on in real life that cuts down on my gaming time — and it’s literally my job to be involved in video games! I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if I had an office job, or if my husband and I had kids. As it is, real life occasionally crashes over me and knocks me off my feet. How are people supposed to gobble down a 100-hour game? In today’s economy?
Games like Sea of Thieves and Warframe are much more based on session-to-session gameplay; I don’t remember many of my early adventures, and that’s totally OK. For now, I think I’ll be sticking to those online games, or working on short stories here and there. The Outer Worlds was so deeply satisfying because it stayed in its 20-hour lane. I just wish more developers would follow suit.