I've been noticing lately that I've developed a fairly strong preference for short, linear games over the more open world "sandbox" style ones. Taking a look at some of the games I've played recently (e.g., Call of Duty 4, Gears of War 2, Portal, Mirror's Edge, Grand Theft Auto IV, Far Cry 2, and Fallout 3), I can see a clear pattern emerging in terms of what games I'm more likely to go back to, or in some cases which games I'm simply more likely to continue playing through to completion.
A big factor in all of this is the amount of free time that I have. There's no getting around the fact that the way I experience a short, linear game versus a long, nonlinear one is heavily influenced by time considerations. As awesome as I think Fallout 3 is, I rarely feel the urge to go back and keep playing it because I don't have any guarantee that I'll get very much out of 1 or 2 hours with that game. The same goes for Far Cry 2. I'm sure it has a lot of great payoffs for those who are willing to make the commitment, but after traversing so many miles of simulated African landscape and being ambushed over and over again I finally said to myself, "I don't have time for this."
On another level, I'm also starting to believe that the whole idea of the nonlinear, free roaming game as some sort of holy grail for the medium is a bit bogus. We've already seen some pretty damn amazing open world games, but what I'm discovering is that there doesn't seem to be anything particularly earth shattering about these games that, for me, makes them feel that much more profound than the more scripted stuff. Personally, I would much rather be guided through a tightly choreographed experience like Call of Duty 4 than trudge around the world of Far Cry 2. And after beating Grand Theft Auto IV, I didn't feel any more satisfied than after beating Gears of War 2.
With certain TV shows, like Battlestar Galactica or The Wire, I can say pretty confidently that the added length allows for dramatic payoffs that are more profound than what I can get from most movies. I haven't really experienced that phenomenon with playing long games versus short ones, however. Of course, taking the discussion into the realm of TV and movies removes the whole issue of linearity versus nonlinearity. But I think it's worth making the comparison. If someone could figure out how to translate what these shows do into a super long-ass game, then I'd like to see it. But it doesn't seem to have happened yet.
Do I think that Fallout 3 is a worse game than Gears of War 2 just because I'm less likely to play it on any given evening? Absolutely not. I don't think nonlinear games are ever going away, nor do I think they should. But I'm also feeling pretty done with the idea that there's some mythical open world, infinitely branching interactive game out there just waiting to be made that will render linear games obsolete. There's room for both, and as seems to be the case now, people's tastes and preferences will probably remain contingent on that all important commodity known as time.
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