These days, the game industry at large seems to be focused on games that can keep players playing, and paying, indefinitely. This overarching genre of “forever” games encompasses esports like Hearthstone and Overwatch, social hangouts like World of Warcraft and Fortnite, and endlessly repetitive grinds like Destiny 2 and even Candy Crush Saga. The idea in each case is to create an experience that can engage a critical mass of players for hundreds or even thousands of hours over a span of years.
There’s something to be said for these kinds of endless experiences. These days, though, I’m frequently more fascinated by games at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. This class of “lunch break” games—single-serving, single-player narrative experiences designed to be played once, in about an hour or less—will never be as big or as popular as games that can demand thousands of hours of player attention. But there’s also something to be said for a game that makes its impact quickly and lingers with the player for much, much longer.
The latest fine example of the form is Kids, a “game of crowds” that “allows you to move with and against crowds until everyone is gone,” as its Steam page puts it. I don’t really want to spoil the entirely unique experience by saying any more than that, but this 30-second trailer gives a good feeling for how the game’s smooth animation and striking, minimalist, black-and-white characters create a creepy, claustrophobic aesthetic that’s hard to shake.
I started Kids at about 1:30pm yesterday after grabbing a quick lunch. I finished the game by 2 pm. But I ended up thinking about that half hour for the rest of the day and into the morning.
If an experience like Kids came out as a diskette for early '90s PCs and Macs, I think it would be a minor cultural touchstone on the order of Flying Toasters. Instead, today the game seems more likely to be buried in Steam’s absolute flood of indie copycats and those “forever” games taking up more and more of our gaming attention.
There are important economic, technical, and social reasons that games historically weren’t designed to be finished in a single sitting. In gaming’s early arcade days, encouraging players to keep dropping quarters was an economic necessity to pay for expensive cabinets and computer chips. Thus, “quarter munchers” that kept players paying through addictive loops and/or punishing difficulty tended to be the cabinets that survived.
As gaming transitioned to cartridge-based home consoles, there was still market pressure for developers to justify the relatively high price (historically speaking) of all that shipped plastic and silicon. So games of the era got padded with extreme difficulty spikes or gameplay tweaks that extended the “value proposition” of the limited ROM storage space. (Think you beat Ghosts and Goblins just because you got through the last level? Think again.)
While costs came down in the CD-ROM era, the ability and compulsion to pad out games with more (often repetitive) content only got worse. And today’s high-end games increasingly have to justify their ballooning development costs by stretching out the amount of time those beautiful, expensive art assets appear on players’ screens.
The gaming equivalent of literature’s short story only really became feasible with the rise of the Internet, which reduced distribution costs down to practically zero. Early flash collection sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate were (and still are) loaded with short, free-to-play games often centered on proto-meme culture or meta-commentary on the gaming medium itself. Achievement Unlocked remains a hilarious and fun example of the latter, and a seeming inspiration for Super Mario Odyssey’s goal-dense setting.
But the era also saw more serious takes on the short game concept, like the enduringly controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which put players in the boots of the notorious school shooters. Aside from the content, the game was also notable for being created in RPG Maker, an early example of desktop software that drastically reduced the time, effort, and cost required to make a “professional” looking game. Access to those kinds of tools is key for developers who want to make shorter games, and such tools have only become more common.
In the years since, single-serving “lunch break” games have become more prevalent, especially on PC platforms like Steam and the indie-focused itch.io. Those games haven’t come close to the majority of my gaming time in recent years, but they have still left me with some of the most enduring and poignant gaming images of the last few years.
I constantly find myself thinking back on the lonely criminals of Thirty Flights of Loving, the hilariously flailing limbs of Octodad, the meta-gaming ridiculousness of Frog Fractions, the lovingly rendered internal struggle of Depression Quest, and the quiet mourning of a relationship in Florence. Extend the “time to beat” requirement just a little past an hour and you could include recent favorites like Superhot, What Remains of Edith Finch, Firewatch, Abzu, and many more in the same general bucket.
These quick-hit games contain more raw, memorable emotional moments than half of the 80-hour open-world epics out there. And there’s something for games that focus with such intensity on getting to the point quickly and then getting out without hours and hours of repetitive padding put on just for the sake of “value.” That’s especially true as the overall gaming audience continues to age and face more adult demands on their time and attention.
Here’s hoping that more developers will follow Kids’ example and make memorable, intimate games that don’t require a massive time investment to make a lasting impact.
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.
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