Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stop and Smell the Pixels: Are Some Games Better in Smaller Doses?

I don't know how many New Yorkers would recognize this man, but nearly all of them would be familiar with one of his greatest works- Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted might well have been the 19th century's greatest landscape architect. Aside from Central Park, he designed countless other parks, the grounds around the US Capital and the landscape of the World's Columbian Exposition. Without Olmsted, there's no doubt the American public park system would be fundamentally different.

Olmsted is featured prominently in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which I've been reading lately1. About half of the book focuses on the creation of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, from a largely architectural perspective. The other half focuses on a far darker subject, which I'm sure I'll write about before long. What does this have to do with games? Thanks to Iroquois Pliskin, I've been thinking about architecture and games a lot. And there's no reason that can't include landscape architecture.

I'm planning a broader post about Olmsted's efforts to advance recognition of landscape architecture as an art form. But as an introduction, I wanted to comment on something I've observed recently, but was made clear when reading about an essential feature of Olmsted's design philosophy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Olmsted's works were not meant to be immediately colourful or impressive. Rather, the true design was meant to emerge naturally over a period of years, even decades. Given the reaction I've heard from others about some of the games I've been playing lately, I can't help but wonder if those games are more enjoyable for me because of how I'm playing them.

I don't mean JRPGs that are 80+ hours long, I mean playing the average ~10-20 hour game in shorter bursts over longer periods of time. Mirror's Edge was a rather ... polarizing title. I pre-ordered2 and have been playing it off and on since. Usually no more than 30-45 minutes at a time and I've been enjoying it quite a bit. Of course, the sound of meat hitting pavement and a grumbled, "Dammit Faith ..." are not uncommon. Yet I've never been frustrated to the point of wanting to stop, not even close. And I'm not usually one for unforgiving games either (e.g. Mega Man 9). But I can't help but wonder, if I had run (no pun intended) up against those issues for the course of a couple of hours, would I have enjoyed the game less overall? Do those mild annoyances aggregate over a play session?

Chris Remo noted FarCry 2 has a "slow burn" rather than being immediately impressive. I picked it up on Steam when it launched, playing it pretty intensely until Fallout 3 launched and devoured all my gaming time. After finishing one go through Fallout, I've been taking small nibbles out of FC2 much like Mirror's Edge. It compartmentalizes quite well, taking 20-30 minutes to find a mission and finish it, maybe grabbing a diamond or two along the way. Playing it in small bursts I've found to be more enjoyable than the long stretches before Fallout 3. The respawning guard posts are a non-issue and the diamond hunts are challenging instead of repetitive.

Is it just excusing flaws by saying they're less annoying if you face them for shorter periods of time? Perhaps. But it seems like there is some media that is genuinely more enjoyable if it's broken up into smaller pieces. I've noticed people having this reaction when reading Lovecraft. A few stories are fantastic, but reading a whole collection cover to cover without interleaving anything else can be exhausting.

When Olmsted designed Central Park, he did not design a space that would immediately awe and impress. He designed a park that would become increasingly breathtaking as it was visited year after year. If one were to visit the park frequently, it would seem similar. But visiting less often over a longer period of time, growth and change in the park would be striking (that was Olmsted's intent, at least). He intended a space that, even over a hundred years later, would still be a place of serenity and natural beauty in the heart of one of the world's largest cities.

Have you ever played a game slowly, in smaller bits, and ended up enjoying it more than those that powered through it? If so, what kind of game was it? Do you think it was deliberately designed this way, or just a happy accident? I'd like to hear if other people have had similar experiences and if so, what kind of games it was with.

[1] - Technically I've been using my iPhone to listen to the unabridged audio book from Audible at the suggestion of Pseudopod, both of which I highly recommend.
[2] - For the awesome Timbuk2 messenger bag. Timbuk2 bag at a discount + game? Hell yes.

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Blogger Matthew Gallant said...

Of course, this is helped by the fact that it's easy to play a game like Far Cry 2 or Fallout 3 in 30-45 minute increments due to their forgiving save systems. This isn't usually a problem with modern games, but as recently as the last console generation it was often difficult to find a save point when in need.

December 14, 2008 at 8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have rarely played a game for longer than 45 minutes at a stretch (as an adult) - in fact, the only one I can think of offhand is Mass Effect, which I beat in 34 hours, of which there were at least two 5+ hour sessions. However, the other ~22 hours of gameplay were in short bursts, and I never found the game to be overly repetitive

Mass Effect is also the only game I've beaten on my 360 - most of my gaming happens on my DS on my various bus rides. My commute to work is 4-5 turns in Warhammer 40K: Squad Command.

Interesting theory you've hit here, and I think I can see this reflected in my gameplay style.

-Enforcer Nightrunner

December 14, 2008 at 10:03 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Matthew Oh, absolutely. One of my biggest annoyances is when the game assumes you'll be able to play it for hours and hours at a time. I like the Metroid series quite a bit, but I didn't play MP: Echoes for at least a year after it was out and I still haven't played Corruption because of its save system. More than almost any other game series I enjoy, Metroid basically requires that I have 45-60 minutes of completely uninterrupted time to make any real progress. Given that my only reliable stretches of uninterrupted gaming time are in the morning before my fiancée wakes up (and that's PC gaming since our TV doesn't have headphones), games like that are basically vacation-only.

@Nightrunner Handheld games (obviously) understand that the player may have to stop at any time. But nearly 80% of people use their handheld at home more than anywhere else. So either being able to stop playing at any time is an overestimated concern (I don't think so) or it's an issue regardless of platform. Even if a game's design is somehow antithetical to being able to save at any point (which might be the case in some games), there should still be a one-time quick save/load that a lot of handheld games have. It's honestly not that difficult to implement, especially if it's intended from the beginning. As the audience for games grows wider in age, supporting the ability to cease play without significantly losing progress is nearly essential for some players to be able to enjoy a game.

December 15, 2008 at 8:56 AM  

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