in defense of short games, single-sitting games Sayonara Wild Hearts

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat — I love long video games. Some of the best memories I have of this past generation include putting dozens, if not hundreds of hours into games like Persona 5, Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Death Stranding. 2020 looks to be no different, with lengthy adventures like Cyberpunk 2077, Final Fantasy VII Remake, The Last of Us: Part II, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons all primed to devour our free time.

Immersing yourself in the systems, mechanics, and rules of a game as you slowly chip away at it, letting the story and atmosphere unfold around you for hours upon end is something that’s intrinsic to video games. It’s the closest thing we have to dog-earing your way through a thousand-page book or experiencing the full arc of a television series like The Wire, Twin Peaks, or Lost. But the wonderful thing about our medium is that it’s so much more than any one thing, which is why I hold “single-sitting games” in the same high regard as the aforementioned odysseys.

2019 was a fantastic year for games you could pick up, learn, and complete all in a single sitting. Not necessarily master or earn every single trophy or achievement, but finish to the point of feeling a pure sense of accomplishment. The recently launched Apple Arcade featured wonderful experiences like Sayonara Wild Hearts and Assemble with Care that only strengthened Shakespeare’s claim that brevity is the soul of wit. A Short Hike is a beautiful PC walkabout that I truly hope finds a home and a larger audience on consoles. And then there was Untitled Goose Game, which became the sort of thing you felt the urge to immediately sit down and show folks around you, regardless of their experience with video games.

in defense of short games, single-sitting games Untitled Goose Game

In the past decade, these short, oftentimes-independent games have managed to start finding a much larger audience. Countless recent Best of the Decade/Generation lists included games like Gone Home, Thirty Flights of Loving, Firewatch, Inside, Flower, Abzu, Donut County, and What Remains of Edith Finch, all of which can easily be completed in a single evening. The aforementioned games all hold a common thread of being immensely shareable. Due to their digestible nature, I find myself showing them to others and often using them as a paradigm for what video games as a medium are capable of.

In an age of “endless” games like Destiny, Fortnite, Minecraft, and pretty much any MMO, being able to sit down and experience an entire game in one fell swoop feels wonderfully satisfying. There’s something inherently gratifying about being able to confidently check something off of a “to-do” list. I’ll often take a look at my Sisyphean backlog and elect to hop into a game that I know can be completed in a single sitting, as opposed to a massive RPG that might feel like taking on a part-time job.

It goes without saying that these short games are nothing new. A majority of NES games can be completed in a few hours, often much less. But games like Mega Man and Castlevania extend their length by providing ample friction between the player and the finish line, whereas so many of the games I’ve mentioned so far remove most, if not all barriers in your way. Neither method of design is right or wrong, but rather both broaden the definition for what a video game can be.

in defense of short games, single-sitting games Ico

It’s worth noting that I completely sympathize with the argument that these brief games simply aren’t financially viable within many players’ budgets. I understand that the amount of hours of entertainment people get for each dollar is a crucial part of deciding which games to spend their hard-earned money on. If you can only afford a single game, it makes fiscal sense to choose one that will last you much longer than a single sitting.

But while these games might be a luxury to some, I also find that they lend themselves well to annualized playthroughs. Much in the same way I’ll rewatch my favorite horror movies every October, or a handful of Christmas classics every December, I can’t count the number of times I’ve run through Rez, Ico, and Journey solely out of comfort. Because of their brevity, these single-sitting games don’t require you to learn and relearn complex mechanics each time you play, so jumping back in feels like second nature.

My enjoyment of these short experiences has recently evolved into the world of speedruns, specifically while watching the most recent Awesome Games Done Quick marathon. I’ve always been interested in and held a great deal of respect for the incredible expert play during these runs, as well as the charitable nature of the entire event, but it wasn’t until AGDQ 2020 that I realized that watching speedruns is a brand new way to transform games I love into single-sitting experiences. Watching these incredible runs of some of my favorites like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater completed in just over an hour or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice obliterated in just over 90 minutes felt like watching these games I thought I knew so well played on another plane of existence.

So what does the future hold for these single-sitting games? Well, as we continue to march towards the start of a new console generation with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, I would love to see bigger studios start to dabble in these kinds of experiences alongside their proven successful formulas. This idea isn’t entirely unheard of — Naughty Dog’s Left Behind DLC for The Last of Us, Irrational’s Burial at Sea epilogues for BioShock Infinite, and From Software’s Déraciné all act as brief counterparts to their much-lengthier companions. That last one also veers off into another possible space for smaller games: VR. If the PS5 has even further integration with the next-generation PSVR, it would be great to see some of Sony’s incredible first-party studios take a stab at single-sitting games.

But of course, single-sitting games will continue to thrive from independent studios. These smaller games don’t have the luxury of a several-year runway into our collective consciousness the way games like Ghost of Tsushima or Halo Infinite do. They often arrive on our digital marketplace of choice as suddenly as squalls. They’re the kinds of games you learn about from your friends and subsequently want to continue passing the knowledge on. So while it’s difficult to make a list of the most-anticipated single-sitting games of 2020 and beyond, rest assured that they’re there, just waiting to occupy an evening of your time in exchange for years of memories.

Marty Sliva
Marty Sliva has been writing about video games, popular culture, and the 1995 film Babe professionally for the past decade. You can follow him on Twitter @McBiggitty.

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