Here was a fairly standard gaming experience for me, when I was in my late teens/early 20s. Finish college. Go home. Pick up my Amiga 500 and copy of Championship Manager 92/93. Head round to my cousin’s house. Start playing at around 5pm. Open curtains. Realise it’s now 5am and the sun’s coming back up. Shrug. Play Championship Manager 92/93 for another three hours.
Here was a fairly standard gaming experience for me for the first couple of years, after my third child was born. Finish work. Go home. Have dinner. Help my wife to deal with the kids. Watch something bland on terrestrial TV. Help my wife deal with the kids. Play 30 minutes of Halo 3. Help my wife deal with the kids. Collapse into bed.
For some of you, that last paragraph will have been like reading a foreign language you don’t understand. You’re probably in your early 20s now, thinking “alright, grandpa, put your teeth back in”. If you’re one of those people, let it be known that I hate you and – as soon as I figure out how to steal your youth – you’re all fucked. However, for others, this probably sounds incredibly familiar. The reason for that is that, as gaming grows older, so does its demographic. And as the average age of those who play games skews older, commitments such as kids and a full-time job become a huge factor.
This presents something of a conundrum. As the industry has grown, games have matured and now there’s barely a month that goes by where we don’t get some 20 to 30-hour time-sink (and, in cases such as The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 and Skyrim, 100+ hours) for people to sink their teeth into. The issue, for me at least, is that I want the scope without the time commitment. Sure, I can fire on Call of Duty or FIFA or any number of small arcade-style titles that will fill half an hour, but I actually want those open-world experiences. I just don’t have the time to devote 2-3 hours in one sitting to advance a quest-line.
So, what to do?
Well, luckily, in the last couple of years, two games have perhaps shown a future path for open-world games to take that would allow people like me – a father of three with a full-time job – to have the best of both worlds. Games where the scope is present in how you approach their missions, not in how far into the distance you can see. Games full of intricacy, but also full of replay value. Full-world sandbox game experiences in bite-sized pieces, if you will.
The unexpectedly great reboot of Square Enix’s Hitman franchise has arguably been as successful as it has been, because of its episodic nature. By breaking the game down into smaller chunks, the open-ended structure of its missions comes to the fore, offering up numerous ways of approaching completion and, therefore, also encouraging you to carry out a number of playthroughs as you try out those different approaches. Equally, as you weren’t just able to jump straight into the next episode, you actually wanted to carry out more than one playthrough, looking to milk Paris for all it offered, whilst you waited for the release of Sapienza (an episode which appears to offer an even greater wealth of approaches).
Having said that, in speaking of the success of Hitman and its episodic sandbox structure, you have to ask the question – would Square Enix even have gone down that route, but for the trail blazed before it by Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes? The Metal Gear series has always been a series that allowed you to try out different approaches, but there was a very definite focus on stealth and, like those time-sinks I mentioned previously, has always placed great demands on your time (and that’s just the cutscenes).
Ground Zeroes, as arguably the first game of its type to approach the sandbox in this way, was unfairly maligned at the time, due to a combination of it being marketed as nothing more than a playable prologue and the rather steep price tag attached to it (RRP upon release being around £20-25, depending on where you shopped). However, to malign Ground Zeroes for those issues is to ignore just how goddamn good it was at fashioning a full game experience and placing it inside an infinitely replayable diorama. If “vertical slice” is the industry’s current go-to terminology for what are essentially demos, then Ground Zeroes might well represent gaming’s first “horizontal slice” – sacrificing a demonstration of scale (and, believe me, The Phantom Pain has a TON of scale), instead choosing a demonstration of breadth. It was a genuinely exciting moment when I realised that, not only was Ground Zeroes replayable, but it was replayable in a completely different way (more importantly, a series of ways) to your standard demo.
Now, all I can think about are the games that could benefit from such a structure in the future. Imagine if the next Grand Theft Auto was just a series of genuine “Episodes” or “Stories”; each one featuring a different protagonist and a number of core replayable missions in a gorgeous sandbox environment.
How about The Elder Scrolls VI or The Witcher IV? Games that takes place in worlds that I’d desperately love to explore, but just can’t commit the time to do so. Would Just Cause 4 actually benefit from reducing its play area and expanding the destructive options available to you?
Of course, it’s not going to work for every game, and many of those who play games will prefer the grand scale and epic stories of a Witcher or Elder Scrolls to stay just the way they are. And that’s fine. I don’t pretend to speak for everyone, but me and the rest of the…let’s say, mature demographic sure would appreciate a few more dioramas to play around with.