Earlier this week, Techland announced that its new zombie-killing adventure Dying Light will have "50+ hours of gameplay." Some might considering this good news. I don't—at least at face value.
Why? Because 50 hours is a long fucking 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 half that 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 any other issue.
The first few hours of each Dead Island game were fun because they confronted me with the interesting, disturbing challenge of trying to survive in a hostile world full of dangerous monsters. They slowly gave me 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 behavior 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 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 is just one more thing that tells me the mainstream video game industry is confident 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 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 popularized its mass-scale adoption, "content" is now something that gamers expect, even hunger for.
This worries me. 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?
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, shooting at a hole in the earth for hours at a time doesn't sound 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. And that's the whole point. Things like the loot cave add time to Destiny's gameplay. As long one's Destiny time still sits well with them in the aggregate, it's very difficult to pinpoint the moments that don't.
Gamers are more than willing to criticize 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 $60 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 favorite 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 Diablo. But are the countless hours I've spent collecting loot and watching little bars fill up what I love about it? Partly, maybe. Even if it is, the game's grinding succeeds because it's nested inside such a darkly beautiful fantasy world. Diablo'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, armor, 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, and the cave specifically, in turn. It was a system of content production and consumption so tightly wound that it became self-sustaining. The cave 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 the game's creators and promoters 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—sitting there, waiting to be consumed? If we had evaluated Destiny using only the rhetoric deployed in the recent Dying Light 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?
Confusing content in any form with actual gameplay isn't just dangerous when it forces people into uncomfortable, manipulative relationships with the games they're 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 of 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 they thought was essential in previous Sims games was left out for no reason they found convincing.
That's fine, on one level. But as Rachel Franklin, 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. Obviously, one of The Sims 4's producers standing up for her game isn't that surprising. And it's not like she can offer a completely objective critical assessment of her work—at least as it relates to how its players feel about the game.
At the same time, however, Franklin's comments resonated with me because they reminded me of something a player had told me when we were discussing the features that many felt were missing from The Sims 4:
It makes me a little sad, but at the same time, it makes things much more manageable. I've been playing the Sims since the first release, so I was disappointed in how much stuff was not really in the game, but once you get down to it, it comes down to fun, not features. And I am having a ton of fun at the moment.
This player was upset. But once they got down to playing The Sims 4, they were able to enjoy it for what it is—not obsess over what it isn't. That's the core difference between "fun" and "features" for me, and also what distinguishes gameplay from "content."
I'm willing to accept that I might be in the minority because I really enjoy The Sims 4. I also love Tomodachi Life, Nintendo's Sims-like 3DS game that recently came to an American audience for the first time and hasn't seemed to catch on here the same way it did in Japan. But to be a little blunt, I also have to wonder: how many people could be out there who'd take to The Sims 4 with the same enthusiasm I have, if they were just willing to give the game a chance instead of insisting that it's incomplete without toddlers, swimming pools, or whatever else it is they think it's missing? I mean, what does "complete" even mean for a game as big and weird as The Sims, anyway? The entire line of reasoning reeks of an over-reliance on content for its own sake.
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.