Reading our games correspondent Keith Stuart’s feature about the joy of game compilations, it struck me that playing five games over a weekend has become almost unthinkable. My friends who grew up in the 1980s consumed as many games on tape as they could, but by the 90s we had slowed down. Games were more sophisticated, they had more to offer, and it would take the whole weekend (or sometimes the week) to get the most out of whatever cartridge you had borrowed from Blockbuster or spent months’ worth of pocket money to buy.
Things started to change in the 00s: games didn’t last 10 or 20 hours, but 50 or more. There have always been long games – think of Japanese role-playing games, which stole many hours of my teenage life through random battles and grinding, or PC strategy games that could swallow about as many hours as you gave them, or indeed Championship Manager and Football Manager – but landmark open-world games such as Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls started to make huge games the norm. And of course, World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Guild Wars also appeared, starting a boom in online games that has just … never ended.
For a while these endless games were confined to PCs, and they were niche. Massively multiplayer online role-player games were a trend in the mid-00s, like mobile was in the 00s and VR was until recently: they sucked up all of the investor money in games and rarely produced interesting results. There were many high-profile flops in the endless-game genre: The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa (made by Richard Garriott, the mind behind OG online game Ultima Online), The Sims Online, Age of Conan and even Star Wars Galaxies.
The MMO genre might not have been the future of gaming, but elements of that genre are pervasive. I now earn loot and experience points in blimmin’ Forza Horizon, a game about driving shiny cars around in the sunshine. An Assassin’s Creed game will now be 200 hours long and bolstered by seasons of extra content to keep you playing even longer; Grand Theft Auto Online has turned an already lengthy game into one you can play forever. Shooters became infinite timesinks – Destiny, Fortnite and Call of Duty expect you to play for years, not just blast through a campaign and play deathmatch with friends for a while. MMOs never became the dominant genre, but they have influenced the mainstream.
I don’t feel great about a trajectory that has led from playing many different things from different developers, cultures and genres to playing just one thing for years. It mirrors the entertainment monoculture that we’re seeing everywhere else, too, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to endless Star Wars expansions and episodes of Stranger Things that are longer than most films. Pop culture seems to give people something they like, and then give them endless content related to that thing. Why risk making something new when you can make another iteration of Spider-Man? Why invest millions in a new developer’s fun idea when you could just get people to play Fifa forever? In gaming, as elsewhere, it creates an entertainment culture that is a wide, shallow pool – a successful thing must be extended and expanded until everyone is sick of it.
I’d love to see a modern interpretation of the old compilation cassette-tapes that were a previous generation’s formative gaming diet. Playdate, the boutique games console that releases different seasons of entertaining esoteric games every week, captures that vibe for me. Or imagine a publisher that put together small collections of hour-long long games by different developers, all on a theme: grief, love, the climate crisis. I’d love to knock through several games in a weekend again, rather than looking glumly at an Xbox or PlayStation storefront full of live-service games that require as much commitment as a marriage. Teenagers view this as normal, and to them I am the definition of “old (wo)man yells at cloud” – but I really believe that everyone benefits from a broader gaming diet.
What to play
I am an absolute sucker for an any game, novel or TV series that changes genre, theme or setting every few hours, or presents several interconnected stories. My teenage mind was blown by David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and I’ve sought out this flavour of fiction ever since. So the long-delayed global release of Live a Live, a Japanese RPG that takes you through seven characters’ totally different stories set throughout human history, has made me very happy. First released in 1994, and made by Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV mastermind Takashi Tokita, it is an artefact of a more adventurous and creative time in Japanese game development – unpredictable and weird and a bit rude.
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Approximate playtime: 20-25 hours
What to read
The next Fifa game – which, remember, will officially be EA’s last in the series – will feature women’s club football for the first time, having included (some) women’s international teams since 2015. Along with 2K’s inclusion of WNBA teams in its basketball games, this represents a big step up for the representation of women’s sport in the virtual realm. 11-year-old me would have been delighted.
The superlative Papers, Please, a game about being a border control agent in a fictional eastern bloc country that reveals an uncomfortable amount about whomever plays it, is coming to mobile next month. It is still extremely relevant. I’ll take any opportunity to revisit this Tweet by developer and NYU games lecturer Robert Yang, too:
The cat game Stray has taken off. This is pleasing, because it is an inventive and creative game that deserves success, and because people keep posting videos of their cats reacting to the game, and those videos give me life.
With apologies to anyone who thinks I feature too much Lego in this section: the Atari 2600 Lego set is out on 1 August, complete with a pop-up portrait of an 80s living room and dioramas of Atari’s classic games.
I made a radio documentary about video games called Generation Games: From Pong to Pokémon. It’s about how games have changed our lives over the past 50 years, and it will be on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm BST this Saturday (30 July).
What to click
How to save money when you buy video games and consoles
When life gives you lemons, video games can be the escape we need, writes Dominik Diamond
Minecraft developers won’t allow NFTs on the gaming platform
101 ways the arts can slightly improve your life
This week’s question comes from reader Adam: I have recently been playing Assemble With Care and enjoy giving life back to broken things. Can you recommend other games that are about mending, renovating or repairing?
What a beautiful question. I also love Assemble With Care – a game about taking apart objects and exploring their emotional history, too. There should be more games about restoring rather than destroying, shouldn’t there? I immediately thought of PowerWash Simulator, a game in which you methodically remove grime from filthy things, because it appears to have unexpectedly beguiled a number of my friends. In GNOG, you mess around satisfyingly with stylish machines and robots until they function as intended. There’s Jalopy, a game about trying to get from East Berlin to Turkey in a terrible old car that keeps breaking down, necessitating that you repair it. But none of these quite fit the bill, do they? There are plenty of games about arranging things, but not specifically about repairing them. I’m going to throw this one out to the readers: can you recommend games about repairing things?