It seems to me like, at some moment when it became clear that we had the computational capacity to make infinite games, we became obsessed with the idea that infinite was the ideal: ever bigger maps, more open world, a gazillion skill tree branches and perks and such. Collectibles. Useless, endless collectibles scattered around the enormous map that takes you 45 minutes to traverse. And, caught in this collective delusion that games should be like this, many of us get angry when a game turns out to not be infinitely replayable. So even smaller games become infinite: roguelikes with interminable difficulty spikes and pregenerated runs-of-the-day. But infinite games are such a chore! Sometimes, I want to start a game knowing I’m committing only 5 or 10 or 20 or even 30 hours to something that is going to leave me feeling like I just had a cohesive experience, instead of 80+ to a perennial “you could do more” tease. Where did the ps2-size* games go?
What is a ps2-size game, you ask? Quite simply, it is one that is more or less a length that would have fit into a single dvd in the playstation2 era. A ps2-size game is finite. It is fulfilling the first time around, and when you replay it the enjoyment you get is more akin to rewatching a great movie than it is to discovering a whole new world in the same game. It is self-contained, beatable, and not teasing you with the endless (unfulfilling) possibilities of having chosen another branch of the skill tree. You play it and you’re done and you trade it to your friend for another game that you haven’t played yet (don’t even get me started with the whole “you can’t trade games anymore” thing). Better yet, you keep it because its split-screen multiplayer is so much fun when your cousins are around (also don’t even get me started with the whole death of splitscreen thing). Most importantly, you’re not angry that it turned out that the game couldn’t provide you with 1500+ hours of fresh, original, never before seen content. Instead, you feel a monumental achievement when you finally beat it, and you put it back into your collection just like you proudly display your copy of The Brothers Karamazov on your bookshelf when you finally finish reading it. For reference, here are some ps2-size games from that era (in no specific order and in my own very limited and particular opinion): Final Fantasy X, Rumble Racing, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Castlevania Curse of Darkness, Red Faction. Some more modern ones: Jedi: Fallen Order, Control, Hades (to some extent), Cuphead, Art of Rally, Tunic.
We should be making more ps2-size games because we should be playing more ps2-size games. And I don’t mean get all conservative and adhere to the canonical structures and only make remakes from now on (somehow the games landscape is also in that mode?). Instead, think of your audience’s time and make your game as short as possible such that it is awesome, rather than as long as the Steam hours played counter will allow. Keep the collectibles, but make them like Blasphemous instead of like Hogwarts. Keep the open world, but make it detailed instead of endless. Keep the branching narratives and skill tree, but don’t make me feel punished because I dared to choose a way to play it once instead of doing the whole thing five times in a row. As a player, demand some respect for your time, and don’t get furious when a game ~only~ gives you 30+ hours of content. Remember that you never ask for your money back at the movie theater because the movie you saw was only 2 hours long and didn’t have a branching storyline; that sometimes it is better for your favorite show to end in season 3 than it is for it to make it all the way to the painful-to-watch seasons 9, 10, 11, and 12. Endings are difficult to make and to experience, but they are oh-so-worth-it so you can go play, read, watch, make, do something else.
*: For all xbox stans, allow me to remind you that the ps2 is THE definitive console of that era, that it has like twice as many games as the xbox, that all the ps2 slims that remain still work and all xboxs died years ago, and that the ps2 controller is the best ever. For gamecube stans, sure, whatever, the startup animation was cool too. Disagree? no problem, come fight me 🙂