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  1. So check this out. It's nothing surprising or amazing if you've paid attention to, for instance, Steam achievements, but it's timely because Ken Levine just committed studio seppuku so he can make video games that you can play three times without getting bored. People barely even play through a game once, and Levine (who is far from alone) wants the game to hold up on repeat playthroughs. But is this a goal that game developers should have? We can divide the issue into two questions. First, should a narrative be something such that you can experience it multiple times? I think the answer here is obviously yes: books and movies can be good no matter how many times you read and watch them, and there's no reason games can't be like this. But... games are so long, most of the time. We're not just talking about Gunpoint, which has a fun little story you can experience again when you replay the game later. We're also talking about BioShock Infinite (which is on the short end of these sorts of things), which takes you hours and hours to get through every time you play it. If 2001: A Space Odyssey were 9 hours long, would anyone want to rewatch it? Or even want to finish it? Because it seems like not everyone wants to finish games like The Walking Dead. The second question is whether the narrative should change when you go through it multiple times. By their very nature, most games have a narrative that varies at least a bit. Even a straightforwardly linear game like Infinite has stuff you won't see if you don't look around, diaries that you might not find, lines that Elizabeth might not say if you don't rodeo her near the specific item, etc. This looks like an even sketchier idea in a world where lots of people don't even beat your game once. Alpha Protocol got slammed in reviews by people who would probably have been blown away if they played it four more times. Are these reviewers just idiots (idiots like the rest of us)? Or is this Alpha Protocol's fault for having a stupid goal in the first place? Who cares if your game is different the third time through if nobody makes it through the first time? I think this tweet by friend of the show JP "The Breton" LeBreton sums up one view pretty well: What we want are choices that matter, right? So when someone say "you can replay my game three times," this means our choices matter in one of three ways, because they had one of three results on the story. So is this the value of things like branching narratives? They imbue choices with meaning? That tweet is just a tweet, so it can't be very detailed, but I think saying "non-canned" is not the best way of putting it. Sometimes choices with "canned" results can be really interesting. The Walking Dead understands this, I think - people give it shit about how if you replay the game, it turns out a lot of the choices you make just bring you back to the same location, but that's beside the point. What matters is what set of choices you make, not whether someone making different choices sees something different. In the context of The Walking Dead, those choices matter a lot to the narrative, and although if you look at them from outside the context of the narrative, it seems less impressive, that's not really important. On the other hand, though, Alpha Protocol is such an amazing game because choice is everything in that game. You can play it five times and get a completely different narrative all five times. This isn't just a choose your own adventure game, it's a fundamentally different way of making a game. But this brings us back to the elephant in the room, which is that a lot of people never see this stuff. One thing you might say is "fuck those people." Books aren't written for people who stop reading halfway through, movies aren't shot for people who turn them off or leave the theater, and games aren't made for people who play halfway through Portal and say to themselves "welp, I guess it's just test chambers forever, might as well peace out." Game narratives should be about what they can be, not what people tend to experience when they play them. On the other hand, I think there are good reasons people don't beat games. Games take a long fucking time. Portal, a short game, is longer than every movie except, say, Sátántangó. Alpha Protocol, a fairly short game, is still five to eight hours per playthrough. BioShock Infinite takes longer, Deus Ex takes longer, and holy fuck can you imagine playing through Dragon Age enough times to see all the differences between the various origins? Don't game developers need to get over themselves and realize that getting someone to play a game once through is a coup, let alone getting them to play it multiple times, and the effort should be put into something like what The Walking Dead does, which is making the main narrative compelling even if the branching is limited, rather than adding a lot of branches that people are never going to see? My personal opinion is that it's a mistake to divorce the narrative from the systems. (Levine fucked up Infinite by doing this, I think, so I'll be interested in seeing if he fucks up his next game.) When I think of games I want to replay, I don't think of Dragon Age or The Walking Dead. Dragon Age is a slog and The Walking Dead is a story that happens, once, and I'm not interested in seeing it again, especially because I'd have to sit through the game again. Games I want to replay are Deus Ex and Pac-Man. Why these games? Because they're fun! And in replaying Deus Ex because it's fun, you discover all sorts of interesting narrative branching that you don't find in Pac-Man. That's okay for Pac-Man, of course, but it's also great for Deus Ex. What we need are games that are fun to play through multiple times, because these are the games that can support the weight of divergent narratives being bolted on to them. But in some sense this is a very unsatisfying solution. Games with the complexity of Deus Ex can handle branching narratives, but only to a degree. It takes a more locked down game like Alpha Protocol to branch for real. Maybe the solution is to make something as fun as Deus Ex with the narrative of Alpha Protocol. That would be hard. But perhaps it's the holy grail of replayable game narratives. Maybe The Breton is right. Maybe replayability has nothing to do with it. I've admitted as much when it comes to The Walking Dead - can I admit as much when it comes to a game that branches much more? Can I leave those branches unexplored and be happy with the choices presented to me in the narrative because I could have done otherwise? I don't know. That to me sounds like playing through Alpha Protocol once. The more a narrative varies based on what you do, the less impressive it is on a single playthrough. Another solution is just to make games shorter. I mean, Jesus Christ. Does every game have to be 8+ hours? This is why I love Twine games. You can branch the fuck out of your Twine game and I don't mind, I can play it again to see the other branch. I wish that were the future of games. If I want to play a game for 80+ hours I'll play Titanfall or BF4. If you're trying to tell me a story there's no excuse to take 8+ hours to do that shit. Figure out what's good about your game and pack it into a few hours. Will this work? I can picture AAA studio heads vomiting explosively at the thought of sinking millions of dollars into a two and a half hour game. BioShock Infinite would've benefited from being one quarter the length, but that wouldn't have cut its budget by one quarter. Can games with production values far in excess of Twine games ever cut their play time down to something reasonable? I think so. Gaming culture right now thinks short games are the worst thing in the world, and there's not enough of a market to make them sustainable, but I think this can change. You can dump millions of dollars into an effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster and nobody complains when it's only an hour and a half. (People get antsy if it's too long!) Games can be like this. It'll take a change in gaming culture - games will have to stop being made for teenage boys with too much time on their hands - but we're already fucking there! Remember? This post started with an examination of how lots of people don't finish these fucking games already. Game developers need to catch up to this. Once they stop making 8+ hour games for people who stop playing after 4+ hours, that's when we're going to see some seriously good stuff. And that's also when gaming is going to get even more popular. Because right now, one of the biggest barriers to entry for gaming is how if I want to show someone a masterpiece like, say, Deus Ex, they need 20 to 40 hours to sink into that. And that's fucking nuts. Nobody who isn't already a gamer wants to do that. So I show them Twine games instead. There's nothing wrong with that, but I yearn for a future where I can show people narrative games with all the shiny graphics of BioShock Infinite without knowing they're never going to slog through the couple of hours it takes to even meet Elizabeth, let alone the 8+ it takes to make it to the end. Ain't nobody got time for that.